by Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
On June 10, 2017, something monumental occurred in the heart of Grand Rapids; for the first time, the city turned its attention to the Asian community for the inaugural Grand Rapids Asian-Pacific Festival. The afternoon was a tour de force of programming that honored the myriad cultures that make up West Michigan’s Asian population: Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Laotian, Filipino and more.
The turnout for the inaugural festival was massive; Rosa Parks Circle swelled with a crowd of thousands that spilled into the surrounding Monroe Center.
While the promise of familiar fare and less-Americanized Asian cuisine undoubtedly drew many to the celebration (a Filipino food truck sold out multiple times), event emcee Jennifer Pascua noted a critical detail.
“People stayed,” she said. “The food brought them there, but they stayed and watched the programming and people were so respectful. They were just in awe.”
Born to parents who immigrated from the Philippines, Pascua, whose signature jubilant smile can be seen on WZZM 13, grew up near Chicago in a neighborhood where sharing and celebrating cultural differences was a part of everyday life. As a child she was encouraged to explore her heritage; at age 12, she took the initiative to become fluent in Ilocano, the third most spoken native language of the Philippines originating from Luzon, located in the northern region of the archipelago and the country’s most populated island.
In 2005, Pascua moved to Grand Rapids from Northern Illinois to take a job as morning anchor at WZZM 13.
“I am one that goes with my gut,” she expressed. “And I knew Grand Rapids would be a good place; I could see the potential. However, people warned me, ‘You are probably going to be one of the few minorities there. Are you going to be okay with that?’”
She found herself unprepared when she was confronted with the absence of diversity and prevalent cultural divisions in the city.
“I wasn’t as prepared as I thought,” she commented. “Until then, it hadn’t dawned on me how lucky I was to grow up in a really diverse neighborhood.”
Pascua immediately got involved with the community and has since participated in the Asian American Journalism Association, West Michigan Filipino Association, Artist Creating Together of West Michigan, CASA of Kent County and the YWCA.
“Getting involved is the best way to see what your city has in its own backyard,” she commented.
When organizers approached her about emceeing the Asian Festival, Pascua didn’t hesitate.
“It was important for me to be involved with the festival,” she expressed. “I am very proud of my culture, and I am also very proud of the fact that I was born here and am Asian American.”
Pascua emphasizes that enjoying the dynamic programming of the festival, which showcased not only cuisine but dances, calligraphy, artwork, martial arts, music and more representing dozens of different cultures within Asia, was an experience she relished sharing with her two sons.
“My kids are biracial; it was fun for me to be able to make sure it isn’t just about the food,” she smiled. “There is so much more that goes into it than that, and for them to be able to see that was a really cool experience for me. I hope they pass the desire to learn on to their kids one day.”
This year, the festival takes place on June 9; however the celebration has expanded from a one-day event to an entire week of cultural appreciation and exploration in different venues across the city. The Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts will host an Evening of Bangladeshi Dance and Music (June 5); the Grand Rapids Art Museum will showcase work by Pakistani-American artist Anila Agha (June 7); and the JW Marriott will host a sumo wrestling match (June 8) the evening before the festival which, Pascua notes, is arguably the most anticipated event of the week.
She commends the organizers for utilizing educational and interactive elements to emphasize reverence for the full-contact sport that has origins dating back to the year 794 in Japan .
“It will be a true sumo match,” she said. “It is just going to blow people away.”
For Pascua, the festival moves Grand Rapids closer to becoming a city that regularly honors and explores the many cultures that make up the community.
“We need to continue to strive to get people to want to learn about other people’s cultures because what makes us different is what is so beautiful,” she expressed. “A lot of people have questions they don’t know how to ask, and this gives people the opportunity to ask them.”
Attendees and organizers of the festival note that its greatest achievement is shattering the preconception held by many Westerners that Asia is a single culture; Asia is made up of 48 different countries, each with a distinct history and culture.
“People saw all these different types of things they didn’t expect,” Pascua said. “It wasn’t just the typical things that people think of when they think of Asia, and that is what made it so special.”
As she reflects on the success of last year’s festival, she recalls the excitement she felt upon looking out at the bustling crowd in Rosa Parks Circle.
“When I stepped out on that stage, I was blown away by how many people were there,” she divulged. “That is when I thought, ‘This is something special and is going to last for a while.’”
Minnie Morey is the President of the West Michigan Asian Association (WMAA), one of the title sponsors for the festival.
The WMAA was formed in 2011 when the Asian Health Outreach Foundation and the Asian Professionals Organization merged.
“We wanted to serve the community better,” Morey commented. “There was no one voice or one place that could give people who wanted to get in touch with the Asian community some direction; we serve as one connection to all of the Asian groups.”
According to the 2016 Census, Kent County’s population is made up of 3.2 percent Asian; up from 2.3 percent in 2010. The organization provides trained navigators to help the various associations (there are half dozen formally established groups in West Michigan that focus on serving the needs of specific Asian groups.) with healthcare enrollment, connecting to community resources and educational workshops, interpreters, ESL classes and more. In her work, Morey seeks to keep people focused on uplifting new immigrants as they find their footing in West Michigan.
“We were all immigrants, and we have to be reminded about what you have to go through when you first come here,” she expressed.
The WMAA board consists of prominent community members such as award-winning entrepreneur and President of Eastern Floral Bing Goei; Cora Hanselman, a senior financial analyst at St. Mary’s Healthcare; and Sue Y. Chu, a senior client relations consultant for DTE Energy, among many others.
Their combined experience allows them to quickly help new arrivals assimilate and become successful.
“We have such a great board,” Morey expressed. “I am happy that we are able to help those who are new to West Michigan.”
Morey was born in the Philippines and spent her early life in Northern California; her father, a Philippine Scout, was granted citizenship after the scouts were given the opportunity to join the U.S. Army.
“I grew up in a very diverse community and went to a diverse high school,” she recalled. “It was a great time to grow up there.”
Growing up, Morey practiced traditional Polynesian dance, and when she moved to West Michigan in the ‘80s, she started teaching dance classes.
She has since led dance troupes in performing at hundreds of festivals and private events, including the Grand Rapids Asian-Pacific Festival. She speaks to the power of dance as a vehicle for cultural learning.
Of the festival, Morey reflects that although she has been a leader of West Michigan’s Asian community for many years, the festival provides even her an opportunity to learn more.
“I am so happy there is an event for all of the communities to come together and share their individual culture,” Morey smiled. “It is a fun place to go to and experience different things. Even though I work a lot with the Asian communities, there is a lot to learn.”
For Sonal Patel, representing her home country, India, at the 2017 Grand Rapids Asian Festival was a thrill.
“It was an amazing experience,” she smiled. “Everyone loved it.”
Patel is from Gujarat, a state in Western India (India boasts a population of 1.3 billion, making it the most populated democracy in the world.) She moved to Grand Rapids with her husband 15 years ago, and opened India Market, a specialty grocery store in 2015. At the store, shoppers can find a plethora of dried spices that are the staples of Indian cooking, more than 100 varieties of tea, curry leaves, various types of rice and lentils as well as fruits and vegetables not found in the produce aisle of your average supermarket: winter melon, dosaki cucumbers, banana flower and more.
For Patel, the store allows her to connect to the community and lend a hand to newcomers.
“I love talking to and helping people,” she smiled. “For people moving here from India, they can get groceries at my store, and I can also share information on how to join the temple and how to connect to other organizations.”
Adjoining India Market is Patel’s restaurant, Indian Marsala, which she opened in 2017. The eatery serves “authentic Indian food ranging from street fare to dishes inspired by traditions of royalty.” Of Indian cooking, Patel describes a rich tapestry of spices such as chili powder, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon (all which, she says, help your body digest food and aids the immune system) woven together to create stunning flavors that set the cuisine apart.
Patel is gracious about sharing her culture and bridging gaps in understanding.
“I love being involved in anything that brings out Indian culture and makes it more visible,” she commented. “If we have something where people can come and learn about Indian culture and enjoy, it has to be open for everyone.”
Upon moving to Grand Rapids, she became heavily involved in the West Michigan Hindu Temple, sponsoring and volunteering for events that educate the community. She also began teaching Garba, the native dance of her home state during which performers don fabrics in stunning hues of red, pink, yellow and orange.
The Patels are one of the few Indian families living in their Forest Hills neighborhood, and Sonal welcomes the curiosity of neighborhood children, giving them the opportunity to learn about Indian culture first hand. For her, educating the community is a family affair; at last year’s Asian festival, her three children, ages 7, 8 and 11, served food with her at Indian Marsala’s food booth and performed Garba with her onstage in front of the crowd of thousands.
“It was so much fun,” she expressed. “People kept wanting to take pictures with us, and that made the kids feel very special.”
This year, festival-goers have the opportunity to witness a recreation of an Indian wedding, which typically lasts anywhere from 3-7 days, condensed into one hour with segments showcasing various traditions throughout India. Sonal says that in India, a country of 29 states and 22 native languages, the cultural landscape varies widely, but is united by a common trait.
“India is full of diversity,” Patel expressed. “India is full of nice, soft-hearted, kind people. India culture is strong.”
Patel underscores what Pascau and Morey testify to as the greater impact of the festival on the West Michigan community and the distinct Asian communities within.
“Now people realize what Asian means. We are all Asian, and we are in the minority at this point, but this is the best way to step up as a community and say, ‘We are here.’”
For a full list of programming and volunteer opportunities, please visit grasianfestival.com.