One of my favorite events every school year was United Nations Day. It was a day where students directly participated in multiculturalism rather than sitting in a classroom reading about it. Students were encouraged to dress in their country’s traditional clothing (ex: saris, dashikis, hanboks, sarongs, etc.), wave flags of their country of nationality – or wear them, and not in a disrespectful way, and even dress up in cultural clothing that was not of their own heritage. This does not mean cultural appropriation – in fact, it was an appreciation of a culture other than your own.
My childhood self was thrilled when UN Day came around. I was excited to choose which country to represent, what new foods to taste, and what my friends were going to wear. I realize as an adult that I am the minority in most spaces, which is a label I am happy to be. I came to realize it’s not common to meet a chick with a white dad and a brown mom, who is one third of a biracial, multicultural, interfaith family. As diversity is one of my biggest values, I am fully comfortable in my own skin. UN Day was a chance to wear that skin proudly. As a Bangladeshi-American with a Muslim, Bengali mother and a Catholic, American father, there was plenty of room for creativity. Usually, I chose to sport a sari or salwar kameez – traditional Bengali clothing. A sari is a long cloth that desi (which refers to South Asian) women drape around themselves, over a petticoat (similar to a crop top) and accessorize with heavy jewelry. A salwar kameez is a two-piece outfit: typically ankle-length pants (that look similar to what someone who is unfamiliar with this desi culture would see on Princess Jasmine from the Disney movie, Aladdin) and an intricate shirt that comes to upper thigh lengthwise. Stick a bindi (traditional accessorized mark) to your forehead and voila! – I felt like a brown princess!
The day would be spent circling around a massive food festival (thank you, moms and dads for cooking!) and trying delicacies from at least 40 different nations – chicken satay on sticks, rice wrapped in banana leaves, beef bulgogi, flavorful pasta, funnel cakes, simmering curries, samosas, vegemite on tiny toast, bratwurst, Swiss chocolate…you name it. We would then traipse into the auditorium to watch a slew of cultural performances like bhangra dance, Korean mixed martial arts, a flag waving ceremony where students would saunter onto stage with a flagpole from a different country, and finally end with a chorus of “We Are the World.” Living in India and Indonesia, there were often spotlights on the history of those countries during UN Day. At the American Embassy School (AES) in India, students from over 30 countries would gather to hear the ferocious tale of the Ramayana. At Jakarta International School (JIS) in Indonesia, we would watch in awe at performances of Wayang puppets, accompanied by gamelan – percussion and gong instruments. The point was to appreciate the country we were residing in at the time by being immersed in their traditions.
The beauty of UN Day was celebrating diversity and multiculturalism in such an engaging way. There is nothing like an open environment that welcomes questions, allows for you to try new things, and most importantly, emphasizes that differences should be celebrated. It was remarkable to walk onto school grounds and see the pop of color from people sporting their traditional dress from their country, hear the excited chatter as kids darted to-and-from food stalls, giggling and slurping down whatever delicacy they had chosen. It was beautiful to see parents of all skin colors and nationalities intermingle, to be in classrooms where teachers came from all corners of the world so being taught in accents that ranged from American to Japanese to Australian was normal. When I moved back to the US, it wasn’t that culture lacked in any way here, it was that it wasn’t part of the curriculum at the school I attended. I missed hearing people converse in their native language, of lunchtime filled with intriguing smells as peers indulged in food that ranged from chicken katsu to burgers, of seeing people from different backgrounds interact – because it was normal. It was our normal. And that is something I took for granted at that age.
It was my favorite day of the year, and an event that I try to bring into adulthood so that people can enjoy culture in a way that is open, warm and welcoming. JIS was the final international school I attended, so UN Day in 2010 was my last one. The most impactful idea that I brought back to the U.S. with me is the official national motto of Indonesia: bhinneka tunggal ika which translates to unity in diversity. There are some things that as a TCK you are lucky to bring into your new life, and for me, celebrating culture with my friends is just that.