By Carol South, Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — Sparkling waves, glistening sand and oh-so-blue water — is it a Thailand beach?
The eyes of a first-time international visitor to the Grand Traverse region, Praphatsorn Wongchaina, found that beaches here strongly resemble those in her homeland.
The flora, however, provided a stark contrast.
"I was surprised at the cherries and apples," said Wongchaina. "We don't have those trees in Thailand."
Russia native Veronica Kostenko, of St. Petersburg, also felt at home during a recent weekend visit to Traverse City — but for a different reason.
"I live in a northern part of Russia and the nature is the same and we have a lot of lakes," she said.
The pair were among a group of students from the University of Michigan's Ecumenical Center and International Residence. Five graduate students, including ones from Argentina/Korea, China and the Philippines, spent two day touring the area as guests of Debbie Rough.
For the past year or so, the Old Mission Peninsula resident has hosted four different groups of students on a weekend retreat. Her goal is to have five groups per year visit the region. Visitors have included medical professionals — including a dentist and nurse — as well as business people, research scholars and professors.
The idea grew out of Rough's tradition of hosting international students and scholars for Thanksgiving dinner, launched about 15 years ago when she lived in Fenton. When she settled in Traverse City three years ago, Rough began planning for additional international outreach.
Her current distance from Ann Arbor upgraded the idea to a full weekend of activities for 6-8 people.
"It is always fun to meet new people and to show them or have them experience new things," Rough said.
Rough's gracious hospitality stems from 14 years living and working overseas, everywhere from Korea to Japan to Australia and many countries in between. In college she worked in Germany and lived with a host family.
"During my time overseas, I met many people who were welcoming," Rough said. "Being invited to a home was very special and provided greater insights into family life in that culture. Experiencing activities together helped build deeper relationships and greater personal and cultural insights."
Rough's most recent guests toured historical sites in downtown Traverse City, enjoyed the Sunnybank garden on Sixth Street, visited the Old Mission Point Lighthouse, lunched at the Old Mission Tavern, toured the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, sampled treats at Cherry Republic and enjoyed a dip of Moomers ice cream.
On Saturday nights, Rough's power-packed touring settles into a different pace as her visitors prepare a feast with her. Rough chooses three or four recipes and everyone works in teams of two to prepare the dishes in about two hours.
"The kitchen is a hive of activity," Rough said. "As English is a second language for many of the students/scholars, there are questions about the recipe terminology. The food is often not familiar either."
The evening's cross-cultural exchange always features additional guests from Traverse City, which means more sharing and fun for everyone.
"The feedback is always very positive with requests to join again, though I tend to try to invite a new group of locals to increase the breadth of exposure," Rough said.
Yunsong Huang, a research scholar from Sichuan University, attended the retreat with his wife and young daughter, who are staying with him while he studies for a year at the University of Michigan.
"I feel so luck to be invited to Debbie's house, she's just so kind," said Huang. "It's like a big family."