Something like 30,000 people were expected to meander through the Raleigh Convention Center this weekend for the city’s 29th International Festival, and I was happily among them.

ifliondanceI suspect we could all use a little more color in our lives, especially when it comes to the diverse skin tones and bright costumes that are on display at such events. This year’s event was set up so that the cultural booths were located along a maze of pathways reminiscent of a crowded bazaar or night market where you never know what you might find around the next corner.

Three stages provided a variety of cultural offerings, with representatives from some 60 participating groups rotating displays of music and dances characteristic of their native countries. You knew going in there would be a Chinese lion dance before it was over, and a line of happy Greeks showcasing steps from various strains of their heritage, but they were joined by many others.

ifGreekdanceMy favorite venue, of course, was the food alley, where we managed to scarf up crepes from France, cheese bread from Brazil, donuts and lentil soup from the Netherlands, pad thai and sweet mango sticky rice from Thailand, savory crepes and shrimp cake along with jasmine tea and bubble tea from Vietnam, and grape leaf dolmades from Greece. I thought some matcha (green tea ice cream) from Japan would be a fine culinary conclusion, but it was so strong that I had to buy a piece of pistachio baklava from Lebanon to get my mouth back in order. If only there had been room for the many other offerings.

iffoodA couple of hours like that offers a chance to try ordering food in French and to observe Buddhist women obsequiously waiting on a monk, always careful to keep their heads below his. It’s an opportunity to get your name written in Iranian calligraphy or Chinese script — or have your fortune read in the dregs of your Turkish coffee.

More than anything else, it’s a needed reminder that our nation is not only one among many, but that our own population consists almost entirely of people whose heritage can be traced to other countries and other cultures. It’s an occasion to jump willingly into the melting pot, to remember that our diversity can make us stronger, and to thank God that we’re not all alike.

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