As a liberal arts institution that prides itself on holding specifically red doors open for just about anyone and everyone, we here at Muhlenberg certainly understand and preach support for diversity in both academia and life. Culture is one of the most unique and beautiful forms of expression of a person’s way of life that we don’t really get to see very often in passing. With so many foreign cultures, both traditional and modern, hidden in plain sight all around us, it becomes almost a shame that most students don’t know of, or haven’t had a chance to experience, what life outside of our little bubble is like. It was with these principles in mind that the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures worked together with the International Student Association (ISA), the Multicultural Center and the Office of International Student Support to hold their second annual International Week.
International Week this year started the festivities on Thursday, Oct. 19 with a performance by Dr. Javier Avila titled “The Trouble With My Name” and continued on for a week with various events featuring collaborations with Student Activities, the Multicultural Center, the department of Theatre and Dance and the Chaplain’s Office. For the final event at the end of the week, on Oct. 26, Dr. Eileen McEwan, chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures and Associate Professor of French, and Jouman Barakat ’20, president of the ISA, set up the International Week Performance Night and Dinner as one big blowout night of cultural performances celebrating our differences.
Dr. McEwan and Barakat worked with the local Sodexo branch and Seegers Union’s dining staff to prepare a variety of foreign dishes for people to enjoy while watching the multicultural show. The show itself, MC’d by our own Barakat, started with the first half of the acts performed by domestic students in the foreign language that they are studying. The line-up involved all types of songs in the languages taught here, as well as a fair bit of dancing. There were two incredible Italian Arie, a classic Russian song from an old fairytale, two songs in Hebrew, a jazzy French song, an interpretive dance and a Chinese love song; there was also an English song translated into Spanish, a slightly americanized popular Spanish song and even a whole Spanish class singing (and dancing a little) along to a Spanish pop song. The big event from the first half was when everyone attempted to circle around in a Dabke dance line after learning the basic steps.
The second half had an even greater range of acts with the main focus being on foreign students sharing parts of their culture. Kate Ekanem ‘21 performed an energetic and powerful contemporary Nigerian art dance in what I think might be an Yoruba buba dress blouse, unfortunately I know very little about Nigerian culture the type of dress is just my speculation. Next, Tongyao Su ‘19 played a song on a Guzheng, also know as a Chinese zither. YuFei Li ‘20 did a presentation on the types of teas, how the preparation and choices of tea vary from China and American and problems with Lipton cornering the market here with expensive, very low quality tea. The second to last performance wrapped up the musical section of the night with our very own Top Naach Bollywood dance club bringing things home doing what Bollywood does best: getting everyone pumped up with their energetic, synchronized, discrete body movements, almost narrative hand and arm gestures and unexplainably addictive head bopping to the beat.
The final act of the night was a showing of the 17 minute long, professional grade documentary “Off the Menu” by David Ossa ‘19 and Niko Romero ’19. “Off the Menu” offers a brief but impactful look into the personal and work lives of three of our beloved dining staff: Mary Martinez, May Zoda and Awa Faye. In the documentary, the three women tell the story of their past, how they got to Muhlenberg and what their life is like now in their native language. Martinez explains her life growing up in Villalba, Puerto Rico, seeking a degree in nursing to help others, but then she left her home with her three children and came to the U.S. to escape from her abusive husband, which is how she came to work at Muhlenberg. Unable to speak English at the time, Martinez recalls the difficulties she had trying to work in this strange new place, but with the support of the management and the students, she’s been able to progress and learn to love her job here. Her daughter is even planning to continue Martinez’s dream studying nursing to be there for others.
Zoda talks about how she came here with the rest of her loving family from Syria in 1989 for better income job higher education at a University. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find time to take care of her family, work and study and had to instead put plans of officially studying English on the back-burner. Zoda has been working here for sixteen years, enjoying the respectfulness of the students, and she is still able to live out her Syrian lifestyle with her family and new grandchildren.
Faye speaks about moving here from Senegal with her family when her husband became the technical director of a farm in America. Faye has been working at Muhlenberg for almost ten years and takes great pride in the African custom of always being the first to greet someone before they greet you by saying “hi” to everyone who comes into the dining hall while she’s there swiping them in. A personal note to Faye: it might be a little late, but I would like to welcome you back from Senegal; as a freshman, I haven’t had the chance to get to know you just yet, but I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you. I’m sure I’m not alone in expressing my joy to have you back with us safe and sound.
As for the rest of the documentary, I do not believe I can do the documentary justice by trying to describe the whole experience of watching it, particularly after a full night of energy and celebration, so I will instead recommend that everyone takes just take 20 minutes between classes to watch the documentary for yourself in order to have something to think about next time you grab your next meal.
I went into the International Week Performance Night and dinner completely ignorant to what the the show was going to be about, all the different foreign cultures that would be represented and even of all the ways what we would be able to show off those cultures. Spreading the diversity of our campus with performances like this takes perfect advantage of the music, theatre and dance prowess that we are so known for. Honestly, I think this was the most fun I’ve had without knowing what was going on at all, so all I could do is just enjoy the ride of songs, dances, and expressions in foreign languages. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us next year in 2018’s International Week.