As Virginia Tech struggled to recover from the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, residents of International House at UC Berkeley came together in a riot of colors to celebrate unity in diversity Saturday.
The annual Edith Coliver Festival of Cultures—known as SpringFest—was a burning example of how peace was still possible in a globalized turbulent world. Of how, in these difficult polarizing times, tolerance is more important than ever.
“It wasn’t easy that the attacks took place the week we were busy preparing for SpringFest,” said Dr. Liliane C. Koziol, director of programs at International House. “But we knew that we had to make the festival a success. Everyone was in a state of shock. Students felt vulnerable because the same incident could take place any time, anywhere. An Asian student came to me fearing backlash on his community. Finally I-House issued a statement saying that we were with all students and would provide them with counseling at any time. There was no way we could just sit there and act as if nothing had happened.”
Koziol said that I-House had always had a history of cultural festivities such as the one on Saturday.
“However, between 1960 and 1990, there was a hiatus,” she said. “In 1991 I wanted to revive the spirit of celebrating different cultures once again. When we started out, there were only ten booths. We have definitely come a long way since then.”
Edith Simon Coliver—an I-House alumna—stepped in then to fund the event, Koziol said. Considered a “woman of the world,” Coliver was fluent in German, French and Spanish, and conversant in Tagalog, Portugese and Mandarin. She was the first woman field office director for the Asia Foundation as well as the first woman to serve as vice president of the World Affairs Council of Northern California.
On Saturday, thousands gathered at the I-House to share world cultures which were represented by a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells. Flamenco musicians rubbed shoulders with young Turks while wiras—Indonesian warriors—shared a joke with Chilean huasos (cowboys).
“In spite of what happened last Monday, the spirit is upbeat,” said Koziol.
“Both Luca and Anna are Italian but they are dressed in kimonos for the show,” said I-House Executive Director Joe Lurie. “Bao is Vietnamese but he’s wearing a Tibetan costume. Therein lies the essence of I-House. Everybody gets a chance to not only see other cultures but also experience them.”
The first coeducational, interracial residence west of New York, Berkeley’s I-House attracted controversy and raised fears in the community about “mixed marriages” in the ‘30s.
“It’s possible to celebrate differences, to co-exist and to appreciate different cultures. We make that theory live,” Lurie said.
As Ah-Rom Lee and Jaeran Song—both exchange students from South Korea—practiced steps from a traditional Korean fan dance, their friends cheered them on.
“We are really sorry for the victims at Virginia Tech,” Ah-Rom, a psychology major said. “We were scared that we would be singled out because the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was Korean. But then this is Berkeley and people here understand that the attack had nothing to do with nationalities. Cho had a mental problem. Koreans on the whole are not aggressive.”
Haas MBA student Kim Nguyen, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975, said she has felt the sting of racial discrimination at times.
“Not in Berkeley, but it has happened in the subway in New York,” she said, delicately arranging spring rolls at the Vietnamese student booth. “As for me, I bear no ill will toward Americans because of what happened in the Vietnam War. It’s in the past. America provided us with a home and I am grateful for that.”
Christina Lnu, an Indonesian student from Jakarta, said that she had feared a backlash toward her community because of events in the news as well. “People here often associate Indonesia with terrorism because it’s a Muslim country,” she said, showing off ethnic artifacts to visitors. “I want to change that perception, make people aware that there is more to my country then just terrorists and Bali.”
Jeremy (another Indonesian student who did not want to give his last name) said that he had been affected greatly by the shooting.
“It had taken place in a engineering building and I am a physics major at Cal,” he said. “I am in a college campus as well. The good part about being scared is that you become more aware of the people around you. You want to reach out to them and help them if they are in trouble.”
As the afternoon progressed, a melee of sounds—Sufi strains, African thumb pianos, dried Caribbean bamboo sticks—could be heard echoing throughout the building.
“You wonder whether what happened last Monday in Blacksburg will happen here,” said Adeeti Ullal, an Indian student. “But then you look around and you see SpringFest. You see people having an open dialogue. You realize that there’s always going to be something bad but that today is an example of something good.”
Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee
Jaeran Song and Ah-Rom Lee, UC Berkeley exchange students from South Korea, discuss dance steps with their friends before performing at the I-House SpringFest Saturday.