Then she was invited a couple of years ago to share her first Thanksgiving feast with a local family.
The host set a beautiful table with candles, delicate dinner plates, and dishes prepared from recipes passed down through generations.
“How can you cook so good?” Li said. “It was really mouthwatering. Her turkey is so tender, so juicy.”
The secret, she learned: Deep frying.
Across Atlanta on Thursday, international students and American hosts will break bread together — or pass the drumstick — thanks to programs that serve some of the estimated 20,000 foreign students studying at area colleges and universities who might otherwise be stranded on empty campuses.
At Georgia Tech, the Home for the Holidays program has surged in popularity. This Thanksgiving, the Student Government Association matched 80 students with 55 host families, a nearly 100 percent increase in student participation since the program started three years ago.
A similar effort to pair up faculty and international students started this year at Emory University after another program lapsed.
And for many of its nearly 40 years, the Atlanta Ministry with International Students — or “AMIS,” the French word for “friends” — has linked international students with an American host to share Thanksgiving.
This year, AMIS has placed 53 students with about 19 volunteer families for the holiday, said executive director Irene Wong. The experience broadens everyone’s perspective, she said.
“I think it is a wonderful opportunity … to spend time with someone from another country,” Wong said. “The students especially enjoy getting to enjoy the American tradition of Thanksgiving.”
Many international students tell organizers they want to experience a Thanksgiving meal like they’ve seen in the movies, said Evie Owens, a fourth-year Georgia Tech student from Illinois who is chief of staff for the student government association.
And since the university only has a three-day break this week, it would be difficult for students to return to their faraway homes.
“It makes them feel less lonely and welcome,” she said.
Wendy Kohn has hosted a Thanksgiving meal for international students at her Atlanta home for about five years. She and her husband, who works at Georgia Tech, have gotten to know many of their guests who return year after year, and not just at Thanksgiving. They come over for other big holidays, summer pool parties, and family dinners.
On Thursday, she’s planning a time-honored menu of turkey, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, stuffing, pecan pie, and pumpkin cheesecake for a dozen students. The guests, who hail from China, India, Germany, and Taiwan, will play a little soccer and badminton. Everyone will get a chance to say what they’re thankful for.
“It’s really taken off and these kids, they become like my kids,” she said. “They call me their American mom.”