May 31st, 2009

I am not a chick

Live and Active Cultures

On Saturday, I attended my cousin's middle school's annual multicultural fair. Kids from various countries of the world (and Hawaii) set up tables with information about their homeland and, of course, samples of their local cuisine. I had gone a year or two ago when each country got its own classroom and you navigated through the school, but my cousin said that people had complained since China and India were the only ones who could fill up a room (presumably because of the food), so this year, all the tables were in one room.

They also had various musical and dance performances. Before the tables opened up, an elementary school orchestra played a few multicultural songs. And then a bunch of Hispanic kids from a San Jose middle school played all sorts of things with traditional Irish tin whistles. Irish folk songs, Mexican folk songs, Native American folk songs, a bit from "Ode to Joy." Objectively, they were this side of terrible, of course, but subjectively, they were totally frickin' awesome.

During the afternoon, a few white girls and a white boy did a bhangra-esque dance in traditional Indian garb.

I took a tour around the world and learned all sorts of things. Germans import more beer from Belgium than Belgium imports from them. Madagascar is 40% larger than California, and their official languages are French and Malagasy (which I had never heard of). Rubik of Rubik's Cube fame was Hungarian. Vegemite tastes like soy sauce.

I talked to a Korean woman in a pink hanbok about the difference between North Korea and South Korea because I wasn't quite sure whether they were different countries since no one ever said they were "North Korean" or "South Korean," just "Korean." She said that if someone said they were from Korea, they meant South Korea; it was difficult to declare yourself to be from North Korea because of the whole Communism thing. I also wanted to know whether the cultures and food were different since north India and south India were rather different.

Manning the India table, I watched girls of all colors try on bangles and put on bindhis and have henna applied to their hands. I served them chaa and samosas and biryani. We had put on Devdas as an example of a Bollywood movie.

As I watched the kids going around from table to table, I thought, is this cultural appropriation? Is this a wholly superficial representation of our cultures? Does eating pasta teach you about the Italian culture? Hispanic children playing Irish folk songs, white kids doing Indian dances, Chinese girls wearing bindhis, this is MADNESS!

But is anyone going to honestly say that it's bad for kids—and, hell, adults too—to get exposure to different cultures in this way? I thought it was awesome, and I was really glad the school was doing it, raising a generation of kids who are more culturally aware of the world around them. Hell, I was reminded that I'm kind of lucky to have a culture. Note to self: BE MORE INDIAN.

On that note, that very night, we watched a Bollywood flick that really highlighted how watching foreign films can give you an idea of another country's culture and values. The movie was Ek Vivaah...Aisa Bhi (which the subtitles translated as A Marriage...So Unique), and it was perhaps the most frustrating love story I've ever seen because I'm a Westerner. Now, there are only, like, three of you who watch Bollywood movies, and I don't think you'd have any interest in this one anyway, but I'll cut since I'm going to describe the entire plot of the movie.

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Family and tradition and duty and sexism. That is how we do it, Indian-style.