The clouds gave way to periods of sunshine on April 1st, as hundreds of students crowded the UC lawn to participate in the university’s 30th annual International Festival.
The event was a big success as participation was high. This was on the same day that renowned lecturer Le Mun Wah gave a series of open forums on cross cultural communication. Later that evening, many attended the viewing of his most recent documentary, Last Chance for Eden.
Ominous clouds threatened the festival with rain, but the event was spared from any precipitation, and students took advantage of it. Smells of fresh but sometimes unknown foods filled the air as students enjoyed various tastes and sounds not often celebrated in western North Carolina. More than ever before, diversity has become a focus area at our university, state, and country. Effective cross-cultural communication is the ultimate goal.
Many cultural groups were proudly represented at the festival. The Asian Student Association (ASA) showed up in full force to share information and even food from different Asian countries. South Korean food (Bul go gi) was available to hesitant but eager participants. Other ASA members served sweet coconut rice and other foods. Laos, China, and Thailand also represented the continent.
There was a booth for Native Americans (Cherokee) that seemed quite popular among those who came out. The booth included face painting. Beside the booth, Cherokee fry bread was being served to those who were willing to try.
Many other countries and organizations participated. Students displayed posters and handouts about Kenya, and sold t-shirts to raise money. Other countries participating include but are not limited to Italy, Greece, Scotland, and Mexico. Not all displays were strictly for countries. The Sylvan Hearth Pagan Temple shared information and words with those who were interested. A representative from the international Invisible Children tour passionately shared with students the atrocities faced by the children of Uganda.
Le Mun Wah’s lecture could not have come at a better time. In turbulent times such as these, racism seems to be an unfortunate route taken by some. It can be directed at anyone, from the lowliest person to the president. A wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric has flooded web blogs following the Madoff scandal. In times like these, we need to come together more than ever. Mun Wah was the right man to call. He is a community therapist, cross-cultural communications trainer, performing poet, Chinese folk-storyteller, and documentary filmmaker.
Like the International Festival, his lectures received overwhelming participation. The discussion prompted deep and sometimes emotional dialogue between students and staff. Many said they had walked away with a different view of other cultures.
Le Mun Wah stipulated the participation of many students and faculty who attended. It was, indeed, a discussion that excluded no one. Mr. Mun Wah started his second dialogue by asking two Asian students (Adam Le and I) to stand before the audience to discuss misconceptions about Asian-Americans. He did the same with a group of African American students, talking about cultural communication in ways novel to many of us.
He spoke of accepted wisdom that had slowly been instilled within our logical framework of mind by our parents, the media, and society. These thoughts and misconceptions have penetrated our way of thinking, benumbing us to cultural sensitivities that are intrinsic and vital to our coexistence. This is especially true of this melting pot, this great democratic experiment known as America. To call this a workshop on diversity would be a drastic understatement.
I had the opportunity to interview Le Mun Wah following the forum. He immediately hugged me and encouraged me to reclaim and to treasure my heritage as a Vietnamese American. I asked him, “What has been your greatest accomplishment in your work?”
He responded, “It has been to touch so many people with the truth. I could never have expected a Chinese man like myself, with a soft voice, to have such an impact. There have been so many people willing to listen and try to change their way of thinking.”
He was not exaggerating. Even during my interview, people were coming up to him and telling him, “Thank you so much. We have long needed a discussion such as this on our campus.” Many of them had tears running down their faces.
I asked him about his views concerning the major challenges confronting the university in regard to cross-cultural communication.
He said, “The question is will Western [Carolina University] have a willingness to have an open discussion on race. Will the students be willing to examine themselves as to whether they are part of the solution or the problem? For change to be lasting, it must move the heart enough for one to act courageously… as a conscious and purposeful act over a lifetime.”