Global Friendships at Yeshiva University’s First Kosher Lunar New Year Celebration

By: Gabriella Shankman  |  April 19, 2018
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When my friend texted me about a “Kosher Lunar New Year” party in Yagoda Commons, I immediately dropped my studying in the library and sped over to the Sy Syms building–there was no way I was turning down this opportunity!

I was excited to see how this New Year celebration would fare with the Lunar New Year that I experienced when I was younger. Fond childhood memories emerged, as I remembered when my parents took me downtown to watch the New Year festival and parade that made its way through the streets of Little Italy and Chinatown. The streets were littered with confetti. Red and gold streamers were hung from anywhere that could display anything. There were dancing dragons with expressive, flapping mouths, and restaurants would hand out little red envelopes. There was singing and dancing and cheering–a vibrant and exciting celebration for parade participants and onlookers alike.

The Yagoda Commons party room was decked with red and gold streamers adorning the walls, gold table toppers and generous amount of confetti everywhere. I even saw the same little red envelopes! Yeshiva University Chinese graduate students, teachers, administrators and Stern College undergraduate students were all intermingling. It was a jovial scene.

I saw my friend in conversation with one of the Chinese graduate students, and went over to join them. I was excited to interact with him, as I’ve seen many of the graduate students around the buildings before, but I’ve never had the opportunity to really converse. He was telling us about getting a degree in law at Cardozo. We talked about our similarities in curriculum, what each of us were studying, and comparing the amount of languages we spoke.

Plentiful amounts of food trays were brought out, with an abundance of kosher Chinese food for everyone. A great big thanks to the staff from the Office for International Students and Scholars: Tia Younginger, Jen Golden and Betty Kam for organizing this wonderful event! As we all took our share of food, we sat down to enjoy the program. I and my fellow Stern undergraduate students made an effort to sit down at tables with the Chinese graduate students–we really wanted to know more about them and their programs.

I, like many of my Stern friends, came into Yeshiva University completely unaware that our school’s graduate programs host so many international students. My friend is a math major at Stern College, and some of her undergraduate degree classes overlap with these graduate degree programs, so she has had the opportunity to get to know some of her international classmates. She introduced us to a few of her classmates. We told them how to count in Hebrew and they taught us how to count in Chinese. We asked them how the American take on Chinese food compared with the food they ate at home. We talked about the differences between celebrating New Year in America and celebrating New Year in China. As we spoke about holiday celebrations, we also mentioned the upcoming Purim party festivities, and even extended invitations for them to join us. Conversation flowed easily as we gradually got to know each other better and better.

During the meal, a student got up to speak about what the Lunar New Year meant to him. Eric, whose Chinese name is Haogong, recounted what it was like growing up in China and celebrating with his friends and family–receiving money in red envelopes, lighting fireworks, and eating lots of dumplings. He expressed how he was happy to have shared this experience with everyone at Yeshiva University. Eric’s speech was followed by a musical performance.

Ms. Zhuojingwen Tian, a student at Cardozo Law School, took the stage and played an ancient Chinese instrument called the Gu Zheng, otherwise known as the Chinese Zither. She apologized in advance for her performance’s lack of quality, as she hadn’t practiced in a long time. Yet when she began playing, it was the most beautiful and performance any of us had ever heard. The name of the piece was called “Fight Against Typhoon”, and Jingwen described that the piece depicts how human beings are courageous and bravely fight against natural disaster to survive. It was a delightful experience! The music transported us straight to China.

Although the party was concluding, I was curious about what the Chinese international students thought about the event. I tracked down Eric Zhou, the student who gave the speech. I learned that Eric  is getting his Masters in Accounting and is in his first year of graduate school at Yeshiva University. Eric enjoyed listening to the Gu Zheng performance, but he especially liked how the American students were able to be exposed to traditional Chinese musical arts. “There are different cultural backgrounds between you and I…but maybe events like this will allow us to not only celebrate…but also to expand our relationships with other people,” he said. We discussed ways to build intercultural bridges, and in addition to celebrating different holidays together, we came up with an idea to tutor each other in a language exchange program. This program would allow for Stern students to help Chinese students practice their English, and the Chinese students could teach the Stern students Chinese. Eric told me that many of his graduate program peers lived in China for their whole lives. He explained how hard it was for them to integrate into the local community, as the cultural norms are vastly different. Eric also expressed how some of his peers have said that they wished to speak and connect with many of the Stern students, but a major language barrier exists. He believes that having more opportunities to practice English would help eliminate this barrier.

I also spoke with Lance Wu. Lance, whose Chinese name is Qi, is getting his Masters Degree in Quantitative Economics. He told me that his favorite part about the party was interacting with the Stern students and listening to the Gu Zheng performerence. He expressed his wish for the Chinese students and the Stern students to better understand each other’s cultures. “When that happens,” he said, “we can combine ideas together.” Lance has seen the impact of this firsthand in the classroom where there are both Stern women and international students. Like Eric, Lance agreed that there should be more joint events, like participating in one another’s cultural and holiday celebrations.

Sophia Blumenstrauch, a political science student at Stern College, also attended the New Year party. She is the founder of Stern College’s public speaking club and has already made an effort extending the invitation to the international graduate students. She said, “The public speaking club could really help the international students learn English, and I think it could also provide an opportunity for the Stern undergraduate students to learn Chinese. The learning is bidirectional.” Sophia also noted that this could create a great opportunity for both students to learn about each other’s cultures in a friendly environment.

We have just come back from Passover vacation, most of us having spent a meaningful seder with family and friends, going around the table and sharing Divrei Torah and age-old stories. But why keep the fun and meaning to ourselves? Having a pre-Passover seder would be a great opportunity for the Stern College students to share the beauty of Orthodox Judaism and significance of the holiday with others.  The international students would be able to learn and interact with us, just as we did with the Kosher Lunar New Year party.

Another initiative that many Stern College students and international graduate students expressed that they would like to start is a language learning program. This can be in the form of a formal program, or something more fun, like an international cafe, where we meet to discuss and learn Chinese and teach English over tea and other treats.

Are you interested in taking part in a pre-Passover seder next year with the international graduate students and your fellow Yeshiva University and Stern College students? Are you keen on taking a study break to learn Chinese in an international cafe –chit chatting over tea and snacks? Please send all of your thoughts and ideas to Gabriella Shankman at gshankma@mail.yu.edu, Hanna Chicheportiche at hchichep@mail.yu.edu, or Mrs. Tina Lin at tina.lin@yu.edu! We would love to launch this initiative for the coming school year.

As a graduating Stern student, I regret not reaching out to the international community earlier. Speaking with graduate students and realizing that we have many interests in common has only made me realize how much the undergraduate Stern College community is missing out in potential friendships and bonds. I hope that we can work together in building bridges between Stern College undergraduate students and Yeshiva University international students to expand our knowledge and impact our campus and the world in a positive way through friendship and increased cultural understanding. Will you join in this effort?

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