KNOXVILLE — The dim fluorescent lights of Bell Hall do not reflect the warmth and hospitality to be found in the room of JU student Wynona Li.
Inside Li’s apartment the shelves are cluttered with worldwide trinkets, each with its own story. The color red stands prominently amongst all of her decorations.
The AC hums as Li and fellow JUTN student Emma Riley begin to unwrap the ingredients to the dish they both are excited to create.
Laurel Church of Christ sends a bus to the JUTN campus every Wednesday night for all students who are interested in helping with the Friendspeak program.
The program provides the opportunity for foreign internationals to meet with partners to improve their English language skills through reading passages of Scripture.
The semiannual International Food Potluck was held April 6 as an opportunity for everyone in the program to bring food that is special to them and their culture.
Riley and Li decided that for this semester’s potluck they were going to bring their own dish.
“Normally Johnson students just kind of all pitch in and we all get pizza, but this time I actually know how to cook some Chinese food now, because my Chinese friends taught me,” Riley said. “I guess I just wanted to be able to contribute.”
Riley and Li worked together to make braised pork belly. Their joy illuminated the room with the happy thoughts of the smiles their delicious food would give people at the potluck the next day.
“I feel like it’s a really interesting way to bring people together, because it seems like no matter what culture you come from people are always excited to sit at the table together,” Li said. “I feel like that is really exciting, especially for the international students, to have a feeling of welcoming and belonging in a new culture.”
The sounds of the children’s screams contrasted with the discussions of the adults as everyone met together for the potluck.
The medley of foods together on one table at the center of the room acted as an axis for conversation and movement.
More than 10 years ago Laurel Church of Christ began celebrating Thanksgiving with the church congregation. When the group became too large they decided to make a new event just for the international members to bring their culture’s dishes.
Doug Woodall has helped run the Friendspeak program for many years and he described his favorite part of the meal.
“Usually, if you have a partner that you are working with, [you] will want to be sure that you eat some of their food,” Woodall said. “It’s just a lot of fun. We get to share culture with other people for a bit.”
People slowly finished their meals and began to shuffle out of the church building into the chilly spring evening. All wore satisfied smiles as if they were quietly acknowledging the good times they had just shared with one another.