Co-Written by: Aissa Boodhoo-Leegsma and Jemma Wolfe
For one day only, students received a McMaster-issued passport to travel the world, all within the confines of the student centre. On Sunday, March 10, Pangaea 2013 transformed the student centre into a global bazaar and performance hall where students could experience 21 different regions of the world.
Pangaea has taken place at McMaster for over 10 years and is known as the largest multicultural event on campus. MUSC rooms are used as country pavilions where cultural clubs serve food from their culture and have visual displays. Displays featured costumes, masks, historical posters, art and music.
The main feature of the pavilions, the food, was a smorgasbord of flavor. It’s not everyday that students get to accumulate over 50 countries’ traditional food on only one plate. Some particularly standout dishes were served by a variety of nations. The Egyptian stall featured koshary, a popular street-vendor dish in Egypt comprised of rice, noodles, lentils, chickpeas and fried onions, topped with tomato sauce. The West Africa pavilion served spicy Jollof rice, a traditional Senegalese dish. The Armenian room offered boreg, a feta-stuffed phyllo pastry turnover topped with sesame seeds. The Indian section included the sweet gulub jamun, syrupy milk-based dough balls. Yet it was hard to isolate particular dishes amidst the vast selection of sweet and savory items; every pavilion made a mouth-watering effort to proudly represent their country’s culinary achievements.
Some particular exhibits arranged by the cultural groups for display at their pavilion were also notable for their interactive nature and enthusiastic delivery.
On the first floor of the exhibit, Isreal stood out. Israel’s pavilion was unique in the long-term promise it offered attendees: that any wish they wrote and stuck to the poster-board imitation of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Western Wall will be brought to the real Wall. This is a sacred Jewish location where over a million written prayers and wishes are slid into the crevices every year in the hope that they will be answered. During one club member’s trip to Jerusalem this summer, the wishes will be delivered and painstakingly inserted into the auspicious wall.
Moving to the small but vibrant island south of India, Sri Lanka also didn’t disappoint. The Sri Lankan pavilion offered a fun interactive activity: trying on the traditional Kandyan saree. This version of the women’s sari is unique to Sri Lanka, and looks very different from other kinds. Participants were guided through the three segments of the traditional dress - skirt, sash and frilled upper-skirt - while aspects of Sri Lankan culture were discussed. Afterwards, a photo-op in front of their map and artifact display was encouraged.
The Japanese pavilion featured many traditional elements of Japanese culture such as an origami station and the opportunity to try on a kimino. Students were also on hand to teach attendees about Omikuji, a form of Japanese fortune-telling.
The game has a series of fortunes ranging from great fortune to very bad luck. The general fortunes are written on narrow bamboo sticks which are shaken out of a small container. They are then traded in for written pieces of paper with specific adages.
Some examples of fortunes The Silhouette encountered were, “Do not leave your house – certain misfortune”, “Something bad will happen to you soon” and “You will succeed in some of the things in your life.”
Moving away from the Asian subcontinent towards the tropics, the MACaws (or the McMaster Association of West Indian Students), occupied a pavilion where multiple nations were represented. Some countries included were Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica.
The MACaws welcomed students into their pavilion, adorned with a lei curtain and blasting soca music. Students were treated to peanut punch and ginger beer while they took in the palm trees, fishing nets and hammocks that were set up.
The event also featured a dance performance element that was repeated twice throughout the day. Cultural clubs were invited to showcase different cultural dances and submit small write-ups to explain the significance of their culture and its traditions.
Groups invited people of any background to join their dance pieces. For example, the Latin American group featured many types of dances and activities characteristic of Latin America, such as salsa and involved non-Latin American students.
Khurum Shafi, a recent McMaster alumnus and dancer in the Latin American piece and the McMaster School of Bhangra piece, explained how Pangaea created a unique cross-cultural forum for students to learn about other student’s cultures through performance.
“Usually a cultural performance is done in front of people of your own culture and background but Pangaea is one opportunity to do it in front of other cultures.”
The styles of dance presented were as varied and diverse as the nationalities they represented. From sensual Egyptian belly dancing, to ceremonial Assyrian dancing, the audience was introduced to many dance styles they may not be able to encounter on a regular basis.
Such was the spirit of Pangaea in all its forms: introducing students and community members to people, food, dress, dance and cultures they might not have previously encountered, and encouraging an ethic of inclusion, cooperation and respect along the way.
I’m not sure how, but about two months ago, I received a letter from a Canadian lobby group that will remain unnamed, which started off as follows: “British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have all declared multiculturalism to be a failure.”
Part of their argument was around the rise of religious extremists in the past 10 years, and how such extremists are negatively impacting the progress of Western states. The organization was soliciting monetary contribution for ongoing research and policy work. As one of my friends would go on to say: “I was shocked & offended.”
I’ve always seen Canada’s multicultural fabric as its strength, as an opportunity to exercise tolerance and learn about people and their practices, and benefit from their strengths. Inevitably, however, there is the reality that different cultural groups will look to ‘their own’ as they make significant transitions (i.e. migration), or hold onto traditions that are important to their identity. But that shouldn’t be a limiting factor in defining what Canada is or represents, and suggesting that multiculturalism as a policy has failed is simply not fair.
Back in October 2011, I spent two weeks in Guyana, a country situated in north of South America, bordered by Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. It’s the only English-speaking country in South America as a former British colony. The name Guyana derives from a root word meaning ‘the land of many waters’ as three major, and many hundreds of other smaller, rivers traverse the country.
In Guyana, there is a mix of people of East Indian, African and Aboriginal origin. There is a mix of Christian, Hindu and Muslim religious practices and celebration. The food reflects these diverse traditions. Different cultural and religious groups have united through marriage or business, yet when it’s election time (as when I was there), there is a strong polarization between those who are Afro-Guyanese and those who are Indo-Guyanese.
In some ways, Guyana is multicultural. But the multiculturalism there is not the same as the multiculturalism here in Canada. Here, there are Canadians of Guyanese origin, and Canadians with origins in countries representing the world from Mexico to Nigeria to Poland to Pakistan to China. The list can go on. Canada is thus also like a ‘land of many waters.’ There are the Great Lakes, of course, but it is the diversity in people that makes us so unique.
Differences are not meant to divide, as the media might promote, but rather to recognize varied expressions of the human experience. This diversity strengthens our advancement as country by providing perspective on a range of issues, whether they are political, economical or social. If we don’t optimize on this expression, then yes there is a chance that our elections will become polarized. Yet, there are just so many different groups that such polarization will not come so easily. In a speech given in the 1960s,
Malcolm X said: ‘Unity is the right religion.’
Differences aside, multiculturalism can help with such unity, and in the expression of these varying cultures through film, music, art, comedy or poetry there is undoubtedly a lesson for people to learn about people.