Home for the Holidays
by Marisa Kay Langlois | published Dec. 1st, 2018
With the end of the semester fast approaching, most students are starting to look forward to relaxing over break and enjoying winter traditions with their families — such as drinking hot cocoa by the fire or snacking on cookies, candy and other delicious treats. How do members of the RIT community typically spend their winter holidays? Because RIT is lucky enough to be home to students from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds and cultures, we answer that question by taking a look at five members of the RIT community from five different countries: Austria, Vietnam, South Korea, Costa Rica and India.
Mirjam Makovec, a fourth year Film and Animation major, comes from Austria and adores Christmas. According to Makovec, Austrian Christmas traditions are very similar to American Christmas traditions.
“I’ve lived here in America for four years now. I think a lot of traditions are actually very similar,” she said. “Like, you know, the whole thing with having a Christmas tree at home and decorating it. And the Christmas lights and all that is very similar.”
One of the few differences is that Austria doesn’t celebrate Santa Claus. Instead, the Christkind — German for “Christ child” — brings children gifts on Dec. 24.
“Our way of scaring children is ... we celebrate Saint Nicholas and Krampus a lot bigger,” Makovec said. “Usually, we celebrate on the sixth of December, Saint Nicholas comes and brings you oranges, nuts, some sweets and treats ... Basically, the idea is that Saint Nicholas is light, Krampus is dark. But they’re both important; you need both of them to celebrate.”
Another difference is that Austrians tend to stick to simple, traditional celebrations, whereas Americans — unsurprisingly — like to amp everything up.
“I think in America, as with most things, it’s just bigger,” Makovec said. “It’s brighter, it’s louder, it’s like the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center ... In Austria especially, Christmas is very traditional. So we have traditions that are hundreds of years old that are still celebrated ... For example, the traditional Christmas Market that we have in every single town.”
In a Christmas Market, shoppers can buy gifts from local artisans — hats, mittens, snow globes and woodworkings — or eat all kinds of seasonal treats, such as mulled wine, coconut macaroons or roasted chestnuts and almonds.
“Roasted almonds is something very, very typical,” said Makovec. “It’s very bad for your teeth and your health, but who cares? It’s Christmas.”
"It's very bad for your teeth and your health, but who cares? It's Christmas."
“I just love everything about [Christmas], pretty much, it’s really hard for me to pick exactly one thing,” Makovec continued. “I’m a kid inside. I’ll always be a kid inside, so Christmas is always like, ‘Yay!’”
Dan Nguyen is a first year Supply Chain Management major whose parents immigrated from Vietnam in the late 1980s.
“When I’m in America, I consider myself Vietnamese,” Nguyen said. “But when I’m in Vietnam, I always consider myself American.”
Nguyen can describe his family gatherings in both America and Vietnam in one word.
Nguyen’s family gatherings tend to always end up the same way: women in the kitchen, gossiping and helping with dinner, and men downstairs, watching sports and playing cards — typically a traditional Vietnamese card game called Thirteen, one of Nguyen’s favorites.
“Kids learn how to play it,” Nguyen said. “They don’t actually use money or anything, but later on, as you get older, you start to do small bets. And later on, as you’re an adult, you do bigger and bigger bets. I’ve seen my uncles throw down twenty dollars and then get really mad ... I suck at the game, I’m still trying to learn.”
Other than Thirteen, Nguyen’s favorite part of family gatherings is the food.
“Since it’s really cold, we always try to do really, really hot dishes,” Nguyen said. “We always make pho — that’s a staple no matter the tradition, no matter what celebration it is. It’s always just pho.”
For dessert, there’s always bánh da lợn, a steamed cake with bright green and yellow layers and a gelatinous consistency.
“I always just call it ‘the green dessert,’” Nguyen said.
Or, there’s chè, a sweet drink filled with tapioca balls or chia seeds that make it kind of like bubble tea — “but crazier,” according to Nguyen.
“It has Jello, red beans, different types of fruits in it ... After eating a lot of fried food, because usually there is, your tongue hurts and the [roof of your mouth] is scraped up, so you have this ... It just calms down your mouth and goes down easier,” he said.
Nguyen asserted that every Vietnamese household has different traditions, but that many households would recognize his family’s traditions.
“So both my parents are from South Vietnam, so I don’t really know if it’s different from Middle or North Vietnamese people ...” Nguyen said. “Every Vietnamese person can probably attest to ... You always get fattened up — and then afterwards they’ll ask you why you’re so fat.”
Michelle Kim is a fourth year Graphic Design major. Before she was born, her parents immigrated from South Korea, where most of her family still resides.
“So I don’t actually know what an actual Christmas is,” Kim said. “[In South Korea], they gather all of their families over into one house and have a giant celebration. Basically, it’s just karaoke, [catered] food [and] a lot of drinking.”
However, Kim and her family have a great deal of winter traditions that they observe each year.
“We follow this for Christmas and New Year’s, actually,” Kim said. “We clean up the house. Sometimes we would go to church as well [and] pray. We’ll visit the cemetery for any of our family members who are deceased.”
When asked which of her family’s traditions is her favorite, Kim responded, “Honestly, it’s just the food. Because I love eating Korean food especially, and it’s so hard to get it here in Rochester. So when I go back home, it’s just perfect.”
"Because I love eating Korean food especially, and it's so hard to get it here in Rochester. So when I go back home, it's just perfect."
Kim’s family always makes the staple dish kimchi. For Christmas and New Year’s they also have tteokguk, a soup made with coin-shaped rice cakes that symbolize good luck. But Korean food is sorely lacking when it comes to dessert options.
“Korea actually doesn’t have specific cakes or cookies or anything like that,” Kim said. “Honestly, what we eat for dessert is actually just fruits.”
When she’s craving sweets, Kim makes hotteok, a street food similar to a pancake filled with a sweet brown sugar syrup.
Daniel Ugalde is a second year 3D Digital Design major. He has family in both America and Costa Rica, so his family gatherings are always colored by both cultures.
“On my mom’s side of the family, her parents have been here for almost 50 years probably,” Ugalde said. “So when they have a get-together, to have dinner or something, it’s very Americanized. Like, say, for Thanksgiving dinner, it’s just a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with some Hispanic food maybe thrown in there.”
Ugalde’s Thanksgiving dinner features all the typical trimmings — such as turkey and cranberry sauce — as well as some Hispanic staples, like rice, beans and fried plantains.
“I didn’t realize how many countries actually eat [fried plantains] until like two days ago,” Ugalde said. “When my Dominican friend was making fried plantains in the kitchen in dorms and from down the hall you hear three Hispanic kids — all from different countries — asking the same thing: ‘Are those plantains?’”
Ugalde’s family Christmas celebrations in his home state of New Jersey tend to be pretty traditional American Christmases. But the Christmases he has spent with extended family in Costa Rica have one major difference: the climate.
“There, it’s pretty warm during Christmas,” Ugalde said. “So we cook outside and we all sit in the backyard, have a big barbecue type of deal.”
All year, Ugalde looks forward to his great-grandfather’s chicharrones, or fried pork skins.
“If you’ve ever seen a bag of pork rinds, it’s kind of like that but with actual meat and skin,” Ugalde said. “It’s really good. We wait for that all year long because he only makes it then.”
In addition to the chicharrones, Ugalde’s favorite Christmas tradition is opening gifts.
“Hopefully I get money this year because I need that,” he said.
Sri Kartik is a residence coordinator from India who has lived in Rochester since 2014. With her family a hemisphere away, Kartik and her fiancé have to forge their own holiday traditions, from casual get-togethers to finding ways to be as generous as possible.
“While I don’t have family here, my fiancé and I, we like to create our own traditions,” Kartik said. “We like hosting friends that don’t really have family nearby or students that aren’t going home for Christmas. We try to do something small at home, even if it means getting our favorite takeout and Thai food, or going and watching a movie. Something simple, but we still try to celebrate stuff over here.”
In addition to Thai takeout, Kartik loves The Red Fern, a vegan restaurant in downtown Rochester, and Voula’s, a Greek cafe and bakery. She reminisced about Chinese takeout in India.
“There is such a thing as Indian Chinese food because we share borders with China,” Kartik said. “There is an entire group of food that is in some way Indian food manipulating Chinese food and vice versa, so that’s a pretty popular form of takeout. It’s very standard during the holidays to get Indian Chinese food ... There’s no surprise that it’s very spicy.”
In general, though, Kartik avoids Indian food during the holidays because it makes her more homesick.
“I think for me, it never really goes away — the homesickness,” Kartik said. “I think anyone that leaves home and comes here — I think on some days it becomes [easier] to bear. And on other days, you get hit with a huge wave of nostalgia when you see something that’s Indian around here.”
Kartik particularly misses being in India for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights which took place this year on Nov. 7, 2018. Her favorite Diwali traditions include getting a brand new outfit from her parents and seeing different family members and receiving blessings from them.
“I guess I just miss that energy sometimes,” Kartik said. “Because, sure, the Indian community exists over here. But it’s one thing celebrating something standalone and another thing when an entire city or state is celebrating with you.”
The bright side of this feeling of homesickness is that Kartik can apply it to her job at the Center for Residence Life.
“I will always go out of my way to help with any student on this campus that needs help, but if there’s ever a community that my heart will always be associated with, it’s the international student community,” Kartik said. “Because I think it’s not easy leaving home ... It’s a huge thing to come here and change everything that you consider normal in your life. So yeah, definitely, I think it translates a lot to my job. I talk to a lot of students about what it feels like to be an outsider sometimes ... So it’s a nice conversation to have, and I’m comfortable having it because of my experience.”
"It's not easy leaving home ... It's a huge thing to come here and change everything that you consider normal in your life."
These five countries make up only a tiny portion of the globe, and yet the winter traditions from each region can be strikingly different — and also strikingly similar. One of the best, most edifying experiences of college is being thrown into a mini melting pot where you can get to know people from all across the world. Maybe we could all get to know each other a little better over a steaming bowl of tteokguk or a refreshing glass of chè.