‘Walking melting pot’ – Thousands jam State Fair grounds on weekend for 19th International Festival

jmonk@thestate.comApril 6, 2014 

— There were beer steins from Germany, origami from Japan and a tro – a thin Cambodian string instrument that, like the European violin in use for some 500 years, uses a bow strung with hair from a horse’s tail.

There were also thousands and thousands of Midlands folks Sunday, doing what must be the next best thing to actually going abroad – spending a few hours at the 19th annual Columbia International Festival at the State Fair grounds in Columbia – and being amazed at it all. More than 50 countries, from Sri Lanka to Iceland, from six contents, had booths.

“What one word do I need to know in Ukraine?” asked Anne Bowles, 45, of Irmo, who was at the Ukraine booth with her daughter, Sunny Meadows, 15, a ninth-grader at Dutch Fork High School.

Kateryna Iablonovski, 26, born in Ukraine and now living in Columbia, smiled. “ Privit. That means hi.”

Next to the Ukraine booth was the Russian booth.

In Europe, the Russians might have just invaded Ukraine’s Crimea and triggered a world mini-crisis.

In America, Ukrainians and Russian get along.

“I represent both sides,” said Alex Ponomarev, 64, who walked over to the Ukraine booth from the Russian booth. A naturalized American, Ponomarev was once a Soviet nuclear scientist. With his wife, Irina, he now leads Christian mission trips back to the Ukraine and sometimes to Russia. Ponomarev’s father was Russian and his mother was Ukrainian.

“You are just a walking melting pot!” marveled Bowles.

Over on the other side of the enormous Cantey Building, hundreds of people sat in a sprawling food court, inhaling rosagollas (cheeseballs in sweet syrup) from Bangladesh, baklava from Lebanon, iced tea from Thailand, pupusa (a kind of meat tortilla) from Honduras and of course – Mexican tacos and French crepes.

Then there were stories.

Sam Duong, 47, a political refugee from Cambodia in 1980 who escaped from that country’s infamous killing fields, told a reporter how he had arrived in New York City in December, 1980, on a boat.

Since it was freezing and snowing that day, everyone whom Duong saw from his boat had great clouds of steam coming out of their mouths.

“I never had seen snow before, and when I saw their breath make clouds, I thought, ‘Everyone in the United States must smoke cigarettes.’ And then I saw children, and their breath made clouds too. I thought, ‘Even the children smoke here!’ And then I saw a baby doing it too, and I thought, ‘Even the babies smoke!’ ”

South Carolinians at the fair asked a zillion questions.

“The first question is, ‘Where’s the beer?’ ” laughed Heidi Chavious, 66, born in Frankfurt and long married to a South Carolinian. Dressed in a dirndl – a black and white dress with an apron from Germany’s Black Forest region – she sat in front of an enormous photo of a famous Bavarian tourist attraction: Mad King Ludwig’s castle. That’s the castle that inspired the famous Disney World fairytale castle.

Daniela McKee, a Brazilian married to an American, was telling South Carolinians that if they go to the World Cup in Brazil this summer, they should root for Brazil.

“You want to root for the team that wins!” she laughed.

The festival had more than 60 booths. Some offered food, others offered cultural information about their country and displayed all kinds of objects typical of that country, and at still other booths, people could buy everything from jewelry to clothing. At least one person at each booth was supposed to be a native speaker.

On a stage next to the food court, native-born groups and individuals presented act after act – music, dance, martial arts.

On Friday, the three-day festival opened first to schoolchildren. Hundreds were bussed in. To many participants, sharing with young people is one of the great things about the festival.

“They get to see that there’s a bigger world out there – they’ve never traveled out of South Carolina or Columba,” said Leila Nyikos, 56, who was born in Budapest, grew up in Australia and then came to the U.S. “It opens up their minds.”

Nearby, Aki Nakamura, 60, at the Japanese culture booth, said American schoolchildren love to see him write their names in Japanese characters.

“You write it down, and say, ‘This is your name in Japanese,’ and they start smiling,” Nakamura said.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344

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