It’s hard being away from home at Christmas, yet Marjorie Brennan finds international students here are far from homesick

As Christmas exams are completed and students pack their rucksacks and begin the annual exodus home from campuses around the country, there are thousands of international students for whom the festive season means a long break without the comforts of home and family. However, that doesn’t mean they miss out on the joy and conviviality of Christmas celebrations.

According to Niamh Lynes of the international office at Cork Institute of Technology, the college has a diverse student body and a conscious effort is made to ensure they have support over the festive season.

“We have in excess of 1,000 international students from over 125 different countries. It’s a multicultural and vibrant campus. In partnership with the International Student Society, we try to make sure our students are looked after and involved in as many activities as possible.” She says many international students don’t place as big an emphasis on Christmas as we do in Ireland.

“They have made a big move overseas to pursue their educational dream and they do tend to be quite independent. They don’t seem to find it a lonely time of the year like an Irish person would if they were abroad.”

When Cork isn't home at Christmas time

Famous Irish hospitality

Prassanna Soundararajan, from Tamil Nadu in India, is studying structural engineering and this is his first Christmas in Ireland. It didn’t take long for him to experience the famous Irish hospitality on his arrival a few months ago.

“When I came to Cork at first, I had no accommodation and the international student office helped me a lot. Geraldine [Mahon], one of the secretaries in CIT, took me into her home for a few weeks while I looked for somewhere to stay. My bank account was blocked and I didn’t have any money. She didn’t ask me for any; she gave me food and dropped me to college and took me home. She took care of me like a mother. It was a great welcome to Ireland.” Prasanna, 22, is now staying with other Indian students and they will all get together on Christmas Day. However, while he will be in touch with his family, Christmas is not a particularly noteworthy time of year for them.

“I will contact my family by video on Facebook but it is not a special day for them. They really missed me at Diwali, as my brother is also away, in Auckland in New Zealand.”

While previously international students would have racked up significant phone bills contacting people at Christmas, technological advances mean that nowadays family and friends are merely a couple of clicks away, keeping homesickness at bay.

So diverse

Wen Ning Ching, from Malaysia is in his second year of chemical and biopharmaceutical engineering.

“I don’t feel lonely or homesick at Christmas,” says the 19-year-old. “I will contact my family but I talk to my Dad every day anyway.” While Wen Ning was in Cork last Christmas, he is looking forward to it more this year because he has made so many friends through the International Student Society.

“I had only been here a few months last Christmas. Now we are a lot more active in the International Students Society so this year will be better. It has helped me a lot, I have met so many people from around the world, it’s so diverse. It makes it easier to talk to people. I lived with six Irish lads last year. They invited me to their homes but I was a bit shy.” Wen Ning is also keen to tell me about how welcome he has felt in Cork. “I have really experienced the Irish hospitality. When I first arrived, I was locked outside my apartment and I didn’t know what to do. Some random strangers invited me into their home, it was really funny.” He is also looking forward to being part of the Christmas traditions.

“We did Secret Santa with our classmates last year and we are doing it again this year.”

Not homesick

Oscar Ting, 20, is studying chemical and biopharmaceutical engineering, and is from Malaysia.

“I have a younger brother and sister still at home in Malaysia. I will Skype them and my parents at Christmas but they are used to me being away and they will be busy. I won’t be too homesick.” Oscar is Christian and while his family celebrates Christmas, he was taken aback when he came to Ireland at how everything came to standstill on Christmas Day. “In Asia, most of the shops and restaurants are open. I was shocked that everything shuts down here, it was quite strange. We have the story of Christmas every year and we go to church. Usually we go to a restaurant for lunch, there are a lot of people on the streets celebrating.”

Oscar was in Cork for Christmas last year and cooked for friends but this year he intends on taking a break from culinary duties.

“My friends will probably cook this year. There are four or five of us and we will probably eat Malaysian food. Because Malaysia is located between China and Australia, we have a fusion of cultures which is reflected in our food.”

Twelve pubs

Livia Polastri is someone who will have no trouble rustling up a festive feast for her first Christmas in Cork. The 36-year-old Brazilian is doing culinary studies and plans on cooking a traditional Irish meal for her boyfriend.

When Cork isn't home at Christmas time

“My boyfriend is Irish, he works in Brazil as a marine officer; we met when I was teaching Portuguese and he was my student. He works on rotation, he spends five or six weeks working in Brazil and then he is back in Ireland for five or six weeks. Two years ago, he was in Brazil for Christmas and I cooked him the traditional Brazilian dinner which he loved. This year I will be cooking him the traditional Irish dinner.” Livia refers to one particular Irish ‘tradition’ which she is very curious about.

“I heard from a colleague that there is an Irish tradition called Twelve Pubs. It looks very funny but I don’t think I could drink 12 pints. It is interesting because in Brazil we don’t have that. Christmas here seems to be very intense. The Christmas spirit is great because everyone is really friendly.” When I ask her if she will be taking part in this tradition, she laughs. “Jesus, no. I don’t have the liver or bladder for that.”

Most public holidays

Tia Zhao Qing, 19, is from northern Malaysia, and is in his second year studying architectural technology. This is his second Christmas in Ireland and he didn’t want for company or sustenance last year.

“I was working in a Chinese restaurant last year and I spent Christmas with them. It was fun, they cooked a huge meal. Then there was a party organised by the international students.” He is working in a different restaurant this Christmas and will probably celebrate with colleagues there. Then he plans on returning to Malaysia for celebrations that leave our Christmas festivities in the shade.

“My culture doesn’t really celebrate Christmas; Chinese New Year is our big celebration and that is why I am going back in January. It goes on for about a month. It’s not really about giving presents, it’s more about visiting family in different parts of the country so we travel a lot. We give wishes to each other and have a feast. There is a huge Chinese population in Malaysia, as well as people from India and Sikh cultures. There are so many celebrations, including Diwali and Christmas. I’ve heard Malaysia has the most public holidays in the world.”

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