When you live in a place like rural Maine, it can be hard to connect to the vast variety of cultures the rest of the world has to offer. Maine is often regarded as one of the least diverse states in the United States, but in reality there is still a plethora of diversity flourishing here. The culmination of such diversity comes together at Culturefest, an annual event sponsored by the Office of International Programs and various other University of Maine departments. The event is a celebration of culture and diversity that aims to bring local and international people together to celebrate the differences and similarities of people from all walks of life.
The event took place on Saturday, Nov. 4 at the New Balance Recreation Center. Starting at 11 a.m. and continuing until 3:30 p.m., the entire first floor of the Rec Center was crowded with tables and booths, manned by a variety of student clubs, local organizations, non-profits and representatives from a range of foreign countries. The displays were bursting with color and traditional decorations, offering educational information about the backgrounds, histories, traditions and cultures from each country. Attendees were encouraged to ask questions, expand their palate by trying exciting foreign foods, meet and befriend locals and foreigners alike, and learn about all that we have in common with people who appear so different.
Many of the tables offered samples of traditional dishes. The entire Multipurpose Activity Room had been cleared to offer tables upon tables of food for purchase. Hillel, the student Jewish organization, was selling latkes, kugel and bourekas, all traditional Jewish and Israeli dishes. The Latin American table offered a dish of squashed and fried plantains, which were perfectly crisp and cheap (4 plantains for $1). The table from Costa Rica was being manned by three enthusiastic Costa Rican women outfitted in traditional dresses, who proudly promoted their dishes to anyone who passed by (bean tamales and a rice pudding dish called arroz con leche). Japan was represented at the food court as well; offering fried chicken samples and piping hot green tea for $1. One of the most popular tables was a fusion between Mexico and Thailand; boldly selling cheap and tasty tacos that combined traditional Mexican tacos with a twist of Thai cuisine. There was baklava provided by the Muslim Students Association, dhai curry from Sri Lanka, a curious looking dessert called agar from Vietnam, and even the ever-popular bibim bap dish from Korea. The Chinese table offered scrambled eggs with tomato over rice, twice-cooked pork, and roast beef bones. Tucked into a corner was the table selling traditional Iranian dishes, the most popular of which was the exotic saffron cake. The Nigerian table offered a deal of $10 for a heaping mountain of traditional Nigerian food, with generous portions of jellof rice stealing the show.
There was something for everyone here, and people were encouraged to make connections with the food and the people providing it. Mysterious and intoxicating smells wafted throughout the space, while “Hellos” of all different languages could be heard at each booth.
The mood was uplifting and celebratory as laughter and music carried throughout the gym. The event was family friendly with attendees ranging from students to local community members.
“It’s great to see people come together like this, there’s a mosaic of cultures here,” Fazeel Hashmi, a third-year UMaine student, said. It is his seventh year attending Culturefest. “I personally don’t always realize that UMaine has this many cultural influences, so this a good learning experience for the campus. It serves to dissolve ignorance, because people can see and learn first hand about different cultures.”
Those sentiments were echoed by fellow UMaine student and president of the Black Student Union Kirsten Daley, who remarked that people tend to forget about communities of color and international communities in rural pockets like Maine.
“This event is important to remind people that we’re here, and we care about these issues. For example we’re currently fundraising to send the BSU to the Unity March in Washington on Nov. 19 to raise awareness and money for Puerto Rico,” Daley said.
One of the more colorful tables was presented by Amnesty International, a global movement with a student group at UMaine led by political science student Leah Helen Turlo. The table was covered in a giant world map with the prompt “the World I Believe In” written on top, and people passing by were encouraged to write their responses across the map. “Puppies for everyone,” and “aliens are friends,” were some of the more lighthearted responses, but others took aim at specific issues, like “stop sex abuse,” “respect for native agencies,” and “inclusivity and acceptance.” Turlo commented on how their table hopes to bring people with different viewpoints together for the common good, and expressed gratitude at Culturefest for “showing how diverse our community is, even though some people don’t always realize it.”
Simply put, Culturefest is a celebration. People of all walks of life congregate to celebrate diversity at its best, and to learn more about the world we live in. Everyone there has something to teach, as long as you are willing to learn. Events like this give space to expand people’s horizons while still staying in Maine, and walking through the tables feels a little like traveling the world. Diversity is all around us, and events such as Culturefest provide ways to celebrate it and to embrace differences while still finding common ground. Arielle Frank, a fourth-year student and president of Hillel described the sentiment echoed by the majority of the participants when she said, “Culturefest is my favorite day of the year.”