Food and music fail to encompass cultures

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For the most part, people enjoy learning about other cultures. Unfortunately, they usually do so in a very limiting manner. Take Epcot Center, for example: People can travel ?around the world in a day? as they visit different cultural pavilions. This can be seen as in a positive light since, in the past, many people may have been fearful of rather than inquisitive toward other cultures. The problem begins when, as at Epcot, other cultures are treated as commodities, rather than as subjects worthy of complex analysis.
The rise in popularity of package tours and sightseeing checklists are one manifestation of this ethos. Culture is turned into something that can be experienced in short bursts and then checked off on a list. Just as a visitor to America would get a very narrow perspective on American culture by just visiting the Statue of Liberty and eating a hot dog, so do participants in cultural fair-style events usually come back with limited experiences that they use to represent a culture. Students usually come away having learned about the pleasantries of another culture: how beautiful Chinese calligraphy is or how tasty Belgian chocolate is. What is missing is a deeper understanding of the culture in question.
The fact remains that you cannot learn much about a culture simply by eating their food and listening to their music. While cultural fair-style events are fun, they do not promote a deeper level of cultural understanding. What a culture truly holds dear ? its values and beliefs ? are not conveyed. How many times have you attended a cultural fair and learned about issues such as women?s rights, genocide, or the effects of globalization? Diversity events usually end up playing like National Geographic specials: all style and very little substance.
In light of the frivolous nature of cultural fairs, this year?s International Festival is truly remarkable. The organizers are faced with the difficult task of imparting cultural knowledge, while ensuring that the event is entertaining. The events this year were refreshing in that instead of aiming for something big, they focused on smaller issues, such as banana production in Latin America, allowing people a more nuanced understanding of the issues important to particular cultures.

While the festival was a success in many ways, the format of large-scale cultural festivals poses problems. How do you choose what to present? Groups often end up falling through the cracks.
For this year?s festival, MSA, the Muslim Student Association, was contacted in order to contribute Muslim food. Muslims live in many countries around the world; there is no unified cuisine. Additionally, the festival fell during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day. Serving food while fasting did not seem like a pleasant prospect. After some deliberation, the MSA determined that what they really wanted to share with people was their religion, not their food, so they decided to host an iftar, a fast-breaking, as part of the Festival. The MSA event proved that cultural knowledge can be imparted in such a format, even if communicating significance is a difficult process.
The International Festival is unique in its genre. Most cultural exploration events result in the simplification of a culture. People sometimes foolishly think that experiences or consumption of things such as food will give them cultural expertise. In truth, very little is gained, and such endeavors do little more than provide the illusion of diversity while maintaining the status quo.
An understanding of cultural differences can be imparted by cultural fair events as long as we keep the following points in mind: (1) the culture of the majority is just as exotic as any other culture; (2) cultures are not commodities to consume and be done with; and (3) no one will ever be able to fully understand another culture from the outside.
It ought to be clear that diversity is more than liking the food, music, or clothes of another culture. Diversity relates to seeking an understanding of how individuals lead their lives, the choices they make, and the values they hold dear. The International Festival?s inclusion of such things as the MSA event and talks focusing on cultural analysis are wonderful, in this respect. Trivializing another culture or only experiencing a narrow aspect, pulled out of context, serves only to create a false sense of understanding or to over-exoticize a different people. To gain an understanding of another culture or people, it is imperative that an outsider acknowledge the full spectrum of its complexities.