Far From Home For The Holidays

For many, the holidays are a time to look forward to, a time where we gather with family and friends in shared celebration. But what is it like to be away from home—and the comfort it promises—during the holidays? We spoke to two international students on being away from home for the holidays.

Komal, 20

Maria Penaranda // Arts & Culture Editor 

When Komal Chaundry’s father heard that his daughter’s student visa had been approved, he rushed home from his electronics shop in Punjab, where he works six days a week, to reveal the good news to her. He held Komal in his arms and cried, overwhelmed with happiness and sorrow, knowing his daughter would be leaving him for at least a year. Komal wanted to cry too, but she held back. It’s a skill she’s mastered by now—holding back tears. 

It was her father’s dream to send Komal to study in Canada. Her parents hoped she could live freely and independently. Now a CapU student in the Business Administration Diploma program, Komal told me that women in India don’t have the freedom they do in Canada. In India, their actions, behaviour, clothing and appearance are scrutinized. “Girls are dominated,” she said. “They can’t work anywhere—they can’t do jobs. Jobs are mostly preferred for boys.”

During her first two days in Vancouver, she cried a lot—until a phone call with her parents. They reminded her of their reason for sending her here, told her they trusted her. They asked her to have faith in God, and to have faith in them too. After that phone call, Komal made a promise to herself: she wouldn’t shed another tear, not even in the privacy of her own bedroom. “From that day, I don’t cry at all,” she said. “I control my emotions.”

Diwali is India’s biggest holiday of the year. The five-day festival of lights celebrates the Hindu spiritual victory of good over evil. This year was the first time Komal had to spend Diwali away from her family in Punjab. As India is one day behind Vancouver, Komal’s family video called her on WhatsApp during their Diwali, to include her in their celebrations. The next day, Komal planned to celebrate Diwali with her friends. They dressed in their traditional garments and went to a local temple in Surrey. But, as they lit the lamps and ate, memories of home clouded their thoughts. 

Komal remembered Diwali at home: how her family would light candles and burn firecrackers together. She recalled making sweets with her family to worship Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of prosperity and good fortune. Among the sweets, Komal mentioned Jalebi, a deep-fried, syrupy pretzel; laddu, a kind of doughnut she compared to Timbits; and Kheer, a milky rice pudding. She spoke of how they used to make colourful handprints on their front door, inviting Lakshmi to come at night and give blessings. 

At the temple in Surrey, Komal and her friends barely spoke to each other.  “Sometimes I feel like I should go blank there,” she said. The memories of past Diwalis weighed heavy on their spirits, with the distance and absence of their families made clearer by their presence there. “We didn’t enjoy it a lot,” she said, pausing. “Like, I think— not a bit. We didn’t enjoy it.”

Komal speaks of her family in a way that I’ve never heard before. They are of the utmost importance to her, occupying a special place of love and reverence within her. In India, she explained to me, you spend most of your time with your family. Sundays were the only day her Dad didn’t work, so the family would spend the rest of the week planning the next Sunday. Among their Sunday excursions in Punjab, she recalled visiting the Golden Temple, going to a rose garden, and watching a Bollywood film in theatres. It’s these Sundays she misses the most. “The place of friends is different, and the place of family is different,” Komal said. “Parents have a special feeling for us, and we also feel a special kind of bond with them. Friends are also important. But still— the feeling, the affection, the love for the family, and their love for us, is different.” 

Laura, 26

Valeria Velazquez // Contributor 

In 2017, Laura and her partner Fernando decided they didn’t want to live in Mexico anymore. They got married in secret, applied for a Canadian visa (she would study, he would work) and came to Vancouver in March 2018.

Laura began her bachelor’s degree in Marketing at Acsenda School of Management while working part-time, and Fernando started working for a woodworking company. During this process of starting their new life, both of them were able to forge connections with people at school and work. Still, they weren’t sure if these connections were meaningful enough to ask these newfound friends if they could invite the couple to their holiday celebrations. However, they knew no matter what they’d end up doing, they’d do it together—all they had was each other. “It was an opportunity to start over, make new our own traditions as a marriage,” Laura said. “It made things exciting rather than scary.”

Fernando’s boss has a tradition: If he knows that any of his workers are new to the city, he’ll invite them over to spend Christmas with him and his family. He invited Fernando and Laura to his home, where they shared an evening of food, drinks and deep conversations. They felt at home that night, even though they were thousands of kilometers away from their families. “We didn’t actually do exactly what we wanted to do,” Laura remembered. “I say it as if it was a bad thing but it’s not, truthfully the Canadians welcomed us with their arms wide open. They made us feel at home, and we were able to experience Christmas the Canadian way.”

In Mexico, Laura would usually spend the holidays with her mom (she’s the only daughter of her single mom). There were years where they’d have Christmas dinner with other relatives, and others where they’d spend it with neighbors and friends. Some years, it was just the two of them. 

In Vancouver, Laura’s holidays went from being Laura and her mom, to Laura and Fernando. On New Years, they signed a lease for a new apartment. It was something they wanted since deciding to come to Canada—the apartment was their “wish come true.” They celebrated together with wine and a cozy dinner in the comfort of their house, contemplating each other’s love and support.


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