A Festival of Nations travelogue—Part 2: A tossed salad of humanity


The Festival of Nations 2008 was held at the St. Paul River Center. Organizers of the event say that attendance at the event was up from previous years, and the success of the event was evident in the smiles on the faces of those that had a chance to pay the Festival a visit.

The theme of this year’s Festival was Arts & Architecture. Each year exhibits are judged for excellence and among the five winners this year were the Thai, Nuntana Erickson for her decorative fruit carving, and the Taiwanese for their model home. See: www.creative-carving.com for examples of Nuntana’s work and opportunities to learn her craft. The ornate carving of fruit was once done only for royalty in old Siam. It is done now for weddings, banquets, graduations and other such parties, not for a king but for the likes of you and me.

Another big attraction was the Mongolian yurt or ger as it is known in Mongolia. Yurt is the Russian name for this Mongolian tent or portable home. The yurt’s owner is Chimgee Haltarhuu who uses it as her summer home here in Minnesota. She calls it “her cabin” in the spirit of recognizing that many Minnesotans have a summer cabin on a lake up north. Her parents still live in a ger year round in Mongolia. Chimgee teaches circus performance at Circus Juventas here in St. Paul. She enjoys sharing that the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus brought her to America in 1956 and that she “ran away from home to join the circus.” Learn more at: www.circusjuventas.org.

The dance and drum performances are perhaps the biggest draw to the Festival, if not equal to the popularity of the foods in the Ethnic Cafés. The Japanese Taiko Drummers are always a favorite with everyone, but ever since River Dance, our local Irish dancers have perfected their step near equal to the more famous group. Their act is a hard one to follow and local pride is obviously very high.

The various dance performances were continuous during the entire four day Festival. Each day performers take a dance break to do a flag unfurling where costumed dancers from perhaps two dozen or more different ethnic groups of maybe a half dozen performers in each group carry out a rolled up giant American flag nearly as large as the dance floor. Once unfurled performers give it an undulating wave pattern as America the Beautiful is sung. The wave pattern suggests the fluttering of a flag in the breeze and may remind us of a wind blown Tibetan prayer flag. The belief in prayer flags is that the wind flapping of the flag repeats the prayer over and over as if the owner of the flag were in continuous prayer. Comparing that to the Festival’s flag unfurling we can feel that all these diverse cultures of people are reinforcing, promoting, believing in and making real the American dream and promise of equal opportunity, respect, security and unity in our diversity.

New this year at the Festival was Earth Adventure of Circle Pines, Minnesota, an interactive K-12 education program offered to schools and other events like cultural festivals. Within the Ethnic Cafés area of the Festival Earth Adventure set up their 20 foot diameter Earth Balloon within which 30 students can fit at a time to learn about geography, geology, oceanography and other earth sciences. It’s a unique and stimulating way to grab and hold a student’s interest and attention, if they didn’t already have it. Upon my entering the blower inflated Earth Balloon with other Festival-goers, we found ourselves sitting within a space representing the earth’s interior and being taught about volcanoes and plate tectonics. With that I couldn’t help but suggest we represented “the melting pot of the world.”

The lessons within the Earth Balloon did have more to do with the physical sciences than any of the social sciences or cultural studies, but referring to America as “the melting pot of the world” as we have for generations now, perhaps, deserves some rethinking. Are we not now more like a tossed salad where we keep something of our own ethnic identity rather than letting ourselves become melded into some kind of sameness? A melting pot image allows the dominant culture to have power over newcomers to become like the earlier arrivers. With the increasing greater mix of cultures the majority and minority of cultures is switching, the one becoming the other, all to our advantage, one to another, when we learn to respect across all cultural lines. The differences we used to separate ourselves over we can now learn to let complement each other and make ourselves complete. We are not complete when we separate ourselves from each other. Lettuce alone (let us alone) is a rather boring salad. The more satisfying and nourishing salad is a toss or mix of many different vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats, egg and dressing. Same for humanity, like a beautiful flower garden of many different varieties: different shades of color, size, shape and smell. For more on Earth Adventure visit: www.earthadventure.org

There is much we can all learn from each other and the Festival of Nations is one of the best places to suggest and encourage that in our daily lives year round, not just for one long weekend. Our hearty thanks to all the many Festival volunteers, organizers and committee members. Learn more about the Festival at www.festivalofnations.com and the International Institute of Minnesota at www.iimn.org.