Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders cultures celebrated in North Texas

More than 1,000 North Texans celebrated Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander heritage and culture at a half dozen festivals in Dallas-Fort Worth this weekend.

Organizations representing various parts of Asia shared their cultures and talents with festivalgoers in Dallas, Garland, Grand Prairie and McKinney. On Sunday, hundreds of people attended Dallas’ first Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage and Dragon Boat Festival at White Rock Lake.

The weekend was also a chance for artists and historians to showcase work that highlights Asian Americans in North Texas.

Aaron Betts and his wife, Tandra, brought their daughters, ages 6 and 7, downtown Saturday to learn about other cultures. Mom and Dad even gave the hula a go

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“We are from the Midwest, so this is all very new to us,” Tandra Betts said. “So to be able to come out and get educated on the different cultures and different people …”

“Different food, different dances, different music — all of that stuff,” Aaron Betts said, adding to her thought. “Because all we have is television, so we don’t get actually to experience this.”

Dax Miller, 39, and his daughters look at the different vendors and organizations featured at East and West Fest at the John and Judy Gay Public Library in McKinney, Texas on Saturday, May 18, 2024.(Hojun Choi)

In downtown Dallas, a small stage took its onlookers across the world.

The city-hosted celebration marked its second year Saturday, this time bringing more people, vendors and performers, said Chen Yuan, a community outreach representative for Dallas police. She said, the format was shifted to highlight cultures from five countries: China, Korea, Turkey, India and Indonesia. Performances also showcased music from the Pacific Islands and Hawaii.

Scores of people gathered for a globe-spanning lineup kicked off by the University of North Texas Chinese Ensemble. The six-person group played four songs originating from different areas and ethnic groups in China with a number of traditional Chinese instruments, including pot drums, varying chordophones, and shengs — an organlike wind instrument with as many as three dozen vertical pipes.

“It was very special,” Yuxin Mei, the group’s director and a recent UNT doctoral graduate, said in an interview after the performance. “I really enjoy this. I think this is a good opportunity for us to showcase traditional Chinese music.”

Later, dancers dressed in silk sarees and chelengas — anklets affixed with bells often worn by classical Indian performers — took to the stage. Two duos showcased bharata natya, a centuries-old dance form known for its intricate footwork and emotive facial expressions.

The dances often tell a story, starting and ending with prayer and sometimes using specific body movements to portray characters and deities from Hindu mythology. The groups stamped their feet to the high-tempo beats, the wide swings of their arms and legs in sync.

Their guru, Shalini Chandragiri, watched from beside the stage with a smile. The dancers are enrolled in the Arathi School of Dance, where she started as a dancer and later became their teacher. She remarked afterward how she often reminds the dancers that “they’re also percussionists,” referencing their chelengas.

Two dancers, Ashrrita Sathish and Nandita Sriram, both 14, said they’ve been dancing for more than a decade. They described how they connect deeply with the stories told through the dances.

“I feel closer to my religion,” said Sriram, who lives in Frisco. “I’m learning more stories day in and day out, and I’m very glad with what I’m learning because they teach us life lessons, too.”

“For people watching, it can seem new and can seem unique and it is all of those things,” Chandragiri said. “But I hope there was something within them — maybe it’s the rhythm or something else they can connect to — that they see there’s this oneness, this commonality, within all of us.”

On Sunday the sound of lion dancers, martial arts teams and music from different parts of Asia could be heard on the lawns of Bath House Cultural Center. Teams rowed through the waters of White Rock Lake for Dallas’ first Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage and Dragon Boat Festival.

Eva Buskas, Houston Heat board member. said the dragon boat team has competed in , in Irving in the past. She said she is among the hundreds of thousands of people in the Houston area who lost power amid last week’s deadly storms.

Still, she was heartened that many of her team members were able to compete Sunday.

“The whole thing behind dragon boating is wherever you end up, wherever you do your festival, whatever conditions the waters are, you adapt,” she said. “We’ve got water, we’ve got great boats, and I think it’s a great event.”

The dragon boat festival also featured a photo and oral history exhibit that featured the stories of Vietnamese Americans in North Texas, a project helmed by oral historian Betsy Brody. The Dallas Asian American Historical Society showed a preview of its “Hear Me Roar” documentary serieswhich is scheduled to premiere May 30 at Angelika Film Center and Café. For the project, the historical society conducted interviews with dozens of Asian Americans from the area.

Denise Johnson, a cofounder, said she hopes the film helps create change by giving people a different perspective of the Asian American experience.

“It’s mostly people talking about their lives, but I think there is a lot to learn in walking in somebody else’s shoes,” she said.

Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was also celebrated in Garland, Grand Prairie and McKinney.

On Saturday morning, about 250 people ran a 5K at Asia Times Square to raise awareness about anti-Asian hate. Matthew Loh, CEO of the retail center, said he was thankful for all of the runners who participated in the inaugural event.

“I want make this an annual thing; I want it to grow,” Loh said. “I think it’s important to replace hate with compassion, love and togetherness.”

In Collin County, more than 100 people attended East and West Fest on Saturday at John and Judy Gay Public Library in McKinney.

Solina Vong (left), Nina Eng and Natasia Nhan of Selepak Khmer Angkor prepare before their dance performance at Garland’s second annual Asian American Heritage Festival at Winters Park on Saturday, May 18, 2024.(Hojun Choi)

“We just love cultural events. We love letting people feel like they have a place at the library and that everyone is welcome and represented here,” said Jenna Norris, head of the special events team at the library.

Garland hosted its second annual Asian American Heritage Festival, which featured performances that represented at least 17 cultures.

Jennifer Nguyen, a longtime advocate for the Asian American community in Garland, worked closely with city officials to organize last year’s festival .

“It’s very important because us as Asian Americans came from every path of life from different countries,” Nguyen said. “We brought great value to the city of Garland as well as the state of Texas and the U.S. This is the best way to celebrate our success.”

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