Friday, June 24, 2011

Just how Asian is the Asian Festival?

Utah Asian Festival, June 11, 2011

Utah Scottish Festival Highland Games
On the drive down to the Sandy Expo Center, I saw a freeway sign indicating that one of the annual Scottish Festivals (yes, I'm Scottish) was taking place that same day.

Oh, how repeatedly bored I am by Scottish Festivals! Mind you, I think Scottish dance is charming enough, and men in kilts tossing cabers are undeniably fun to watch; I don't know, maybe it's that hearing the same bagpipe tunes over and over again makes me feel like I'm losing my mind. Ah, I know what it is--it's the booths. Tents full of over-priced junk, and people trying to pass it off as Scottish. The few "authentic experiences" available at a festival like that are drowned out by the volume of phony merchandise. It's so insulting. Like, I come and am immediately demoted from seeker of truth to consumer of goods. Why are they selling shortbread when they could be giving away recipes and conversing about traditional baking tools and methods? Why are they selling the same paperbacks and jewelry (that you can find at any store) when they could be giving presentations on folklore, symbolism, song, and literature? And what about the connection to the contemporary country? I've never seen a booth about current events in Scotland. It's as if we're celebrating a country and a culture so caricature, it's a Scotland that never existed. A pop myth.

All that aside, I started to wonder if I would feel out of place at the Asian Festival. I turned the radio on. It was MPR's Prairie Home Companion (yes, I grew up in Minnesota.) Sigh, I thought to myself, this is my kind of me-culture, Midwestern folklore and parody: a celebration of tradition that doesn't take itself too seriously, and isn't trying to sell me anything.

Then, I arrive.

Expo Center, Sandy, Utah
I walked into an opening area so large I hesitate to call it a lobby. There I caught a glimpse of a couple of Asian teenagers break-dancing on the thin carpet. They must have had a boom-box or set of speakers that I couldn't see.

I had never been to the exposition center before: a huge, industrial-looking space, warehouse-style cement flooring, vaulted ceiling. The kind just waiting for a few helium balloons to nest. I felt (at first glance) that this festival was very much like the Scottish Festival: a lot of cliché
reminders of tradition, rather than anything that felt bona fide.

There was a large audience, more than 250 people sitting before a stage. There had been Polynesian dancers and karate studio performances earlier in the day. I arrived in time to catch the 2-hour fashion show. I wasn't sure of the purpose. Were they trying to show traditional fashions, or were these current Asian trends?

At one point, they presented clothing for wedding ceremonies of different Asian cultures, bride adornment. The emcees read lists of facts and significances surrounding the rituals. One emcee was speaking a language I guessed was Chinese. Another emcee was stuttering. I was distracted. It was a terrible mike system. With the pumped-up music in the background, and the echo, I couldn't understand anything without straining. People in street clothes, or brightly colored costumes (sequins!) were milling around. Cameras were flashing.

10% of the people (or fewer) looked like non-Asians to me. Of these, most were white. A few appeared to be Latino. I noticed a white family walk by, the father in work-out pants, a mom and 2 little ones holding hands in "Got Karate?" T-shirts.

Alas, the costumes I spied in every direction struck me as flashy and cheaply made. Was it too much to ask? All I wanted was something real. Something more than the perpetuation of stereotypes. I wanted that feeling of connection. The one that happens when you listen to a friend share an anecdote; you laugh or nod together, eyebrows full of understanding. I wanted to feel myself gaining a relationship with the various Asian cultures represented there--but I was too distracted by the filmy neon coating that seemed to cover everything. I added to that feeling the disappointment I swallowed when a buffet server confessed that only one food item displayed was truly unmarred by Americanization. And, yes, the merchandising. . . It wasn't the Asian vendors of food and cheap trinkets that bothered me as much as it was the business booths that had absolutely nothing to do with Asian culture: Paparazzi accessories, Washington Federal Bank, Scentsy?!

Finally, something genuine!

I noticed a
very thoughtful-looking white woman with long, frizzy hair. She was middle-aged, and stood out as the kind of person I judged to be far-removed from materialism and pop culture. She was asking questions of the young man at the Indonesian booth, as if he were the docent for his little museum. There were travel books, a fold-out map (from National Geographic) displayed on a poster-board and easel, wooden table-top sculptures. 

The man was tall and handsome, with brown skin and dark features. He wore an outfit that seemed more realistically traditional than what other costumed individuals were wearing that day. Of course, I'm not an expert; my assumption is based on the fact that it came with a hat, had natural tones, and wasn't covered in sequins. It showed detailed embroidery (or weaving), and a variety of textures, really delightful. His booth was comprised of three long tables. I looked again a few minutes later and was surprised to find that the same woman was till standing there, asking more questions, listening intently to his long explanations or stories.

I meet Harvey Dam.

I asked the young man at the University of Utah Chinese Student Association booth if I could ask him a few questions. Harvey was a short fellow with Chinese features wearing a suit and tie.

"In your opintion," I asked, "What is the purpose of the Asian Festival?"

"I guess the purpose is to get people to learn about other cultures." (I could tell from his expression that he was questioning the question.) "Most people start by finding out that a certain culture exists, clearing up misinformation. . . of course, there's misinformation here, too."

I wasn't expecting that. "Really? Like what?"

"Well, members of their own culture aren't always informed, they might be over-confident and give incorrect information." He gave an example. There had been an older Asian man writing Chinese characters with a paint-brush on blank mural space left open for participants to sign or decorate. Harvey explained that when people see an older man writing Chinese characters, they think he looks like he should know. People stand and watch, and expect him to be an expert who can teach them about "the old country." But, Harvey added, that particular man made a lot of mistakes.

I remember thinking, really Harvey? How would you know? If you even have an accent, it isn't strong enough to convince me you're straight from China, yourself. I discovered when I googled him later that Harvey studied Chinese at the university and is an experienced teacher of Mandarin language and culture.

Confucious protrayed in Hanfu
 He cited another example. The fashion show emcee, whose role it was to connect the audience with correct terms and information, kept mistakenly referring to Tang dynasty-styled Hanfu (Left: a robe with long, flowing sleeves) as "Tangzhuang" (Right: a simpler style of man's jacket).

I interview the man with the amazing last name.

This was Bo Koonrajaksriboondee's fifth year representing the Thai Association of Utah at the annual Asian Festival. He was introduced to me by a woman presenting an intricately carved watermelon (a labyrinthine arrangement of rose-petal melon!) He reported that there were fewer people attending the festival as onlookers and learners this year, but a greater variety of people were there to present, perform, and teach. More cultures represented. There were more cultural shows this year, too, he added.

We sat down to talk. He had a very strong accent, and struggled to find the right words as we spoke. I asked him if he'd experienced racism or religious prejudice in Utah. He talked about racism first. No, not much racism here in Utah, he said. Not like in other states. He mentioned a friend in New York who felt racial discrimination when people ignored him on the street (he was asking for directions.) He also said that he felt Utah was one of the states in the country with the most cultural diversity, and that the people here were really nice.

His response regarding religious prejudice was interesting. He first said he believed there probably wasn't much religious discrimination in Utah, then interrupted himself to say that there was probably prejudice from Mormons, but that he only supposed that because they are such a majority here. He felt more comfortable describing a few things that Mormon culture and Thai culture have in common. There are Christians and Muslims in Thailand, he said, but about 70% of Thais are Buddhist. He said that, like Mormons, Thai people have very strict principles about respect, modesty, and sobriety from drugs and alcohol.

[Aside: I spent some time after the festival googling "Buddhism and alcohol." I found an article giving this explanation:
The Buddha was against any form of alcohol consumption, even in moderation, because of the effect it has on the mind. Mindfulness is central to Buddhist philosophy. this concept requires a constant awareness of changes occurring in the mind and body. Mindfulness enables the individual to react wisely to emotions and sensations when they arise. Alcohol distorts the mind and makes it impossible to practice this tenet. . . Buddhists exert an enormous amount of effort through meditation in order to change the mind. By consuming alcohol, the individual is unable to have any control over the mind.
Wow, I was enlightened and pleased by how similar this principle is to the Mormon (Yes, I'm Mormon) doctrine that the use of alcohol causes a person to lose the presence and communication of the Holy Spirit.]

Kids' crafts, Utah Organization of Chinese Americans booth
Bo pointed to a couple of children playing with an Asian toy. I wish more people would come to know us, to come and see, he said. I would love to see more next-generation kids. They only know. . . know nothing about our traditions.

He had high praise for what the festival sought to accomplish. He explained, every country comes and shows the good stuff, brought from the real country, authentic. This comment surprised me, after all, my first impression of the festival had been disillusionment. Perhaps Bo was referring to some great performances or crafts shown earlier in the day that I had missed. Or perhaps he was better than I at looking passed the fabricated, pretentious crust of "cultural display," and seeing the beautiful hope for knowledge and understanding. Children playing with plastic toys, old men writing nearly correct Chinese characters, a frizzy-haired white woman eagerly asking questions; what's apparent here is connection growing the only way it can grow: a little at a time when we try.

Teens at the festival play the Asian game of kicking the shuttlecock (like Hacky Sack), known as Jianzi (China), Jae cha gi (Korea), and Chapteh (Singapore). The game is also similar to the South East Asian games of Sepak Takraw (Malaysia, Thailand) and Sipa (Philippines).

1 comment:

  1. Can you put more tangzhuang pictures please? And make sure they're close up one's please?