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Happy Thanksgiving!

Say what?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Little early, isn’t it?

That depends. How about this?

Ganenjie kuaile.

Feliz dia de Accion de Gracias.

Le ta o’n vui ve.

That’s Chinese, Spanish and Vietnamese, respectively, for “Happy Thanksgiving,” a common greeting Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church in Champaign.

That’s where students in the church’s English as a Second Language program gathered for a pre-Thanksgiving feast with members of the church.

It was a festive occasion that featured a sumptuous variety of American and foreign dishes. There was the usual turkey, cranberry salad, squash soup and scalloped potatoes. There also were tamales (Mexico), Arepos from Colombian corn, mantou (steamed Chinese buns), Swedish tuna pie and a variety of Korean dishes (dakgangjeong, kimbap, japchae and bulgogi).

But in the midst of the celebration, there was an opportunity to learn.

“Students, this is a chance to practice your English. So please sit next to someone you don’t know,” said Jeanette Pyne, coordinator of the program.

Learning, however, goes both ways.

“Americans, this is also a chance for you to practice English,” Pyne noted.

The turnout featured a mini-United Nations of sorts, people from all over the world who are now living here. The program, which has students from 20 countries, has held Thanksgiving gatherings before. They were joined Wednesday for the first time by church members.

“We wanted to show our appreciation for the church’s support,” Pyne said.

Some of the students have been here for years, a few for several months, and one couple for multiple decades.

Hector Osorio and his wife, Norma, are natives of Colombia. A longtime resident of the United States, he worked for a Chicago food company and recalls “the first turkey (his employer) gave me.”

“I don’t know how to do with the turkey,” Osorio said, recalling that he “left everything inside” the bird when he cooked it but that it turned out all right.

His wife contributed a rum cake to Wednesday’s desserts that was made with real Colombian rum.

“You won’t be able to drive” after you eat it, Norma warned.

The students range widely in their English-speaking skills, with some fluent and others struggling to speak even a few basic phrases.

One of the better speakers was Gabriel Frechi, an engineer from Brazil who’s been here for three years.

He said he and his wife, Pamela, “always love” to be exposed to American culture. Pamela, a psychologist, said she perceives the holiday as a cultural phenomenon unique to the United States.

“This is my first year with an American (Thanksgiving) experience,” she said. “I think it’s a very important holiday for Americans.”

Another Brazilian, Yara Viana, said her English “is improving,” that she loves Champaign but isn’t crazy about Illinois winters and is celebrating her second Thanksgiving in this country.

“I love Thanksgiving. We don’t have that kind of thing in Brazil,” she said. “In Brazil, we eat turkey at Christmas.”

The study of American holidays is part of the program’s curriculum, where students are exposed to the history of Thanksgiving as a national holiday and the symbolism of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. The main theme, Pyne said, is that “it’s a holiday to give thanks.”

Students were invited to write down what they are grateful for this Thanksgiving. Some of them stood and, with deep emotion, read their thoughts.

They were grateful for many things, including family and friends, the program and its teachers and volunteers, life in this country and a God they said makes all things possible.

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.