Seeing the similarities among the nationalities

The annual Asian-Pacific Heritage Festival celebrates cultures


Elaine Chang, eating a plate of what she called "spaghetti with Chinese sauce" at Howard County's annual Asian-Pacific Heritage Festival, said she hates learning Chinese.

But her mother, who came to the United States from Taiwan in 1974, insists that the 11-year-old attend classes at the Columbia Chinese Language School.

"My parents don't know English, and my husband's parents don't speak English," Sue Wong said. "I would like her just to be able to have a basic conversation."

Wong, who moved to Howard County 16 years ago when her husband got a job at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said she liked the festival because "you can see the similarities" between different Asian nationalities. For Elaine, it definitely was more fun than Chinese classes.

All around them in the cafeteria Saturday afternoon at Reservoir High School in Fulton, festival participants were eating food from Asian countries - deep-fried pakoras from India and curried chickpeas from Pakistan, dumplings from China, and more. Along with the food there were performances and other activities for the estimated 1,000 in attendance.

The school was transformed. Red and gold paper lanterns hung by the front door and behind the stage in the auditorium. People attired in silk dresses or flowing saris milled around the halls, mixing easily with others wearing the more American uniform of jeans and T-shirts. The festival was free and open to the public, and many of the participants were not Asian.

At one table, children could practice picking up slippery dried beans with chopsticks, while at another, a man named T.T. Yang was selling bookmarks for $1, personalizing them by writing the purchaser's name in Chinese.

In the auditorium, politicians, including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and County Executive James N. Robey, gave speeches. Said Cardin: "We come here today to say thank you - for helping to build the greatest country in the world, the United States of America."

Performances, including Chinese yo-yo dances, Korean fan dances and a fashion show, took place in the auditorium and in an atrium near the cafeteria.

The festival, in its fourth year, celebrates Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, a national designation that came about in 1990.

May was chosen for the national designation for several reasons. The first Japanese person immigrated to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the famous final spike of the transcontinental railroad, built largely by Chinese immigrants, was hammered May 10, 1869.

The month holds resonance in Howard County, which has a substantial Asian population. According to the U.S. Census, the county's population was 7.7 percent Asian in 2000, compared with 4 percent in the state.

Koreans make up the largest ethnic group in the county, said Fritzi Newton, cultural connections coordinator for the Howard County Library. She said the library recently received a grant to improve services to Asians, and hired two cultural coordinators, Jin Lan for China and Young-Ju Kim for Korea.,

Everything, from the materials that are offered to the signs outside the library, is being studied, she said. The library also is hosting Asian expos Saturdays this month at the Savage, Miller and east Columbia branches. And the library offers Chinese/English story times and many books and magazines in Chinese, she said.

Zehra Abbasi said living in a community with other Asians is important to her. The native of Pakistan has been living in Howard County for 19 years and has three children in public schools, she said. "For the kids, it makes a big difference, that they can interact with kids with the same culture and background," she said.

But others said they moved to the area for jobs or because of the top-rated school system and did not particularly care if other Asian families were nearby.

George Chen, feeding cookie bits to his son, Daniel, 2, said he was surprised when he moved to Ellicott City to learn that both of his neighbors were Korean, and several Chinese families lived nearby.

Chen recently moved to Howard County from Northern Virginia, he said, to establish a Baltimore warehouse for his Chinese import business. "We wanted a good school area, and that's it," he said. He wasn't thinking about being near other Asian families.

He travels to his native China often for business, but said he prefers the U.S. "I can have my own business, do what I want," he said.

This year, the festival was organized by the Association of Chinese Americans - Howard County and the Korean American Community Association of Howard County, and it was co-sponsored by the Pakistani, Filipino and Indian communities.

Eileen Almario set up a table with items from the Philippines, "stuff I culled from the house," she said, including seashells, boxes and mirrors. She also had a laptop computer with pictures from the Philippines. She offered visitors barquillos, flaky wafer cookies rolled into tubes.

She said people from the Philippines make up a small community in Howard, connected mostly through their church, St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia.

Almario said she has lived in Columbia 11 years, and she and her husband are doctors who do not spend a lot of time thinking about their heritage. But looking around the festival, packed with people of so many nationalities, she said she was glad she had come.

"I think it allows me to consciously think about why I'm here, how I can contribute, where we fit," Almario said. "The rest of the time, I don't feel like I'm any different than anyone else."

Several people said they liked the fact that the festival was for all Asians.

"We get to see how similar we are," said Mehro Akhtar, who was ladling out Pakistani beef kebabs and chickpeas in the cafeteria. "You find good people everywhere, I think. It doesn't have to be a particular community."

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