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International Students Create Holiday Cheer

By XIAOLI ZHOU Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 23, 2003

Following the start of the winter break, many international students and scholars have chosen to stay and welcome in the New Year in Berkeley. 

“I’ll be here with my cat,” said 23-year-old Yehoshua Shay Sayar as he wiped away the line of wet paw prints on the floor at his Berkeley home one recent rainy afternoon. “Israel these days still has a lot of tension, so it’s easier for me to relax here.” 

Sayar is on a seven-year Ph.D. program in comparative literature. He moved to UC Berkeley two years ago after obtaining his undergraduate degree in Los Angeles. He said the last time he went back to Israel is about three years ago. Though he did think about returning again this winter, his mom has decided to come over to Berkeley for her first time rather than having her youngest son fly back. 

This gives Sayar more time to look after Shooz, a black fluffy cat he adopted a year ago. “That’s a decision very much influenced by what I feel for Berkeley,” said Sayar. “I’m really making Berkeley my home. Going back to Israel will not be necessarily going back home, but going back where I come from.” 

Sayar said he particularly enjoys Berkeley’s intellectual community and the political environment. He’s found it much easier to make friends here. A well-known Israeli poet recently asked Sayar to translate his 80 poems from Hebrew to English. It’ll take Sayar at least this whole winter to complete the project. 

“It’s really hard,” said Sayar. “But it’s satisfactory.” 

As happy as Sayar are some young women who live in UC Berkeley’s International House. 

“I didn’t plan to go back home for this break at all because I want to see how people here decorate and have Christmas,” said 22-year-old Olympia Kyriopoulos who left Germany for Berkeley this August for one-year graduate study in Mechanical Engineering. 

“I’ve never seen snow falling from sky, and never touched it,” said Nidhi Tandon, 24, a law school graduate student from India. “Maybe this winter in Tahoe, I can make a snowman!” 

Both Kyriopoulos and Tandon said they had just gone through a rigid semester that offered few opportunities for fun. Thanks to an I-House friendship program, they’ll be having Christmas dinner with local host families, one in Oakland, the other Benicia. 

“I miss my family and friends at home, but I’m not homesick, not depressed,” said Tandon at the I-house Café. “I’m having my first-time every day here.” And yes, it’s going to be Tandon’s first time to not only observe, but also participate, in celebrating Christmas in the U.S. 

There’ll be a series of events available to students, according to Liliane Koziol, director of programs at I-house. Koziol’s office is organizing coffee hour gatherings, pizza and movie days and an ice skating trip for the break. 

“From 600 down to 100 (in residence at I-House), students will feel lonely, and would like to get together so that they can have a little community,” Koziol said. 

Marija Drezgic, who is on a three-year master’s psychology program, decided to stay because the $800 round-trip airfare for returning Serbia was just too expensive. 

“I miss home very, very much,” said 26-year-old Drezgic. “(But) I can’t afford going back probably until I finish the program.” 

Since she arrived in August, Drezgic has been studying hard, often late into the evening. She said she wanted to win a scholarship, and she plans to keep on working six hours a day during the vacation. 

Drezgic is not alone. Hundreds of Chinese students on Ph.D. programs may be busier. 

“Five-week winter break?” exclaimed Tang Shan, who majors in mechanical engineering. “Wow, I feel so jealous!” 

Except for a few days around Christmas and New Year, Tang said he’ll be doing his research. “My boss keeps me work hard and expects me to show up here,” he said from an underground lab where cell phones never work. 

Li Sha, who studies engineering with Tang, agreed. Li’s outstanding work won her an invitation to present her research paper at an international conference in the Netherlands next month. 

But Li had to cancel the trip because she feared encountering a lengthy security check when applying for a re-entry visa for her return to Berkeley after the conference. 

“My professor worries much about it,” Li said. “It’s such a pity that things like this are becoming particularly difficult for Chinese.” Five of Li’s fellow students are going as planned, simply because none of them comes from mainland China. 

But that still leaves plenty of reasons to party. About 15 Chinese students gathered at Li’s UC Village apartment Sunday afternoon to celebrate the end of the fall semester and Li’s successful passage of her doctoral candidacy exams. They progressed from making hamburgers to splitting cheesecake, then on to champagne, games and wild karaoke. 

None plans to visit China this winter. According to Berkeley’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, at least four-fifths of the university’s 400 or so Chinese students will stick close to Berkeley. As the city becomes immersed in Christmas atmosphere, many have already quietly teamed up to explore other parts of California. 

“We usually celebrate the New Year,” said Tang. “There’ll be lots of parties for me to go after they come back from their Christmas trips.” 

Each of the international students said that getting the most out of the American adventure counts much for having a fulfilling life, and they always seem to be able to find a way in Berkeley to both enjoy a great time and achieve academic success. 

Xiaoli Zhou comes from Shanghai and is a master’s student at the UC Berkeley Journalism School.