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20th annual CelebrAsian - Jewels of Asia
A newfound perspective in 2023
Every Memorial Day weekend, I look forward to one of my favorite events of the year – CelebrAsian, the Asian heritage festival held in downtown Des Moines just west of Des Moines Central Library. This year, the 20th annual CelebrAsian theme was “Jewels of Asia,” a fitting name to showcase many of the gems of Iowa. The festival is hosted by the Iowa Asian Alliance, founded in 2002.
I recall attending my first Asian festival in 2004. It was a much smaller gathering held at Waterworks Park and along Gray’s Lake. I remember watching dragon boat races on the lake. The next location was on the lawn west of the Iowa State Capitol. For several years now, the festival has been held downtown with plenty of room to sprawl out onto side streets boasting a large space in the middle for a digitally interactive performance stage.
I am fairly certain I have attended the Asian festival all twenty years, usually with my two sons in tow. This year they couldn’t go with me, so I decided to enjoy the festival on my own this past Saturday. For the past two years, I volunteered in the beverage tent. It was a good way to be among people and meet some new faces in the community. This year, I decided to try something entirely new. Instead of slinging Sapporo Japanese beer and pineapple-infused sake, I volunteered to dress up as a festival mascot. The festival has had various mascots over the years, including Hello Kitty, Kung Fu Panda, and Pokémon characters.
As I was waiting in the volunteer tent, a mother poked her head in and said her son really wanted to take a photo with Charmander, a bright orange reptilian Pokémon character. I agreed and told her I would put on the costume and meet her son outside the tent. As I stepped into the fuzzy costume, I had no idea what lay ahead.
Another festival volunteer offered to lead me around as I couldn’t see much from inside the giant, round orange head. I could see straight ahead through the mouth, but if I tipped my head down, the head fell forward. As soon as we started walking through the crowd, people wanted to take photos with Charmander. My helper did a great job managing the Pokémon-crazed fans and taking photos using their phones. Every time we walked a little farther, more people waited for their photo op.
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I had fun observing the swarm of people while inside the anonymous costume. The adults and children had no idea who was crazy enough to don a plush and padded costume on an 80+ degree day. They didn’t know if I was a teenager or a 48-year-old woman. Interestingly, more adults than children wanted their photo taken with Charmander. Young kids needed coaxing from their parents as some were scared and overwhelmed to see a life-size character on the street in front of them. Others were thrilled to see a real-life Charmander and gave me hugs and high-fives and accepted pats on the back from me. Two women thrust their small, fluffy dogs into my arms, and I had no other choice, but to oblige and hold their dogs for a photo or two. The dogs were very cute and well-behaved.
From inside the costume, I was incognito. I was nothing but Charmander. As I observed the crowds gathering around me, I noticed the variety in age, race, and gender, but everyone in attendance at the festival was there for the same reason. They chose to make their way downtown Des Moines to celebrate and appreciate diversity and the Asian immigrants and refugees living and working in Iowa communities.
After my stint as a mascot, I explored the festival to enjoy all the sights, sounds, and tastes in this vibrant, energetic space. What I love so much about CelebrAsian are the various villages scattered among the streets. This year there were fifteen cultural villages to explore – Cambodian, Hmong, Indonesian, Myanmar, Korean, Pacific Islander, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Laotian, Nepalese, Tai Dam, Vietnamese, and Filipino. The villages have food for sale, cultural demonstrations, artifacts and traditional clothing on display. Attendees are free to wander around and visit the villages while taking time to enjoy delectable, traditional dishes. Sampling food is always my favorite part of any cultural festival.
First, I sampled a combo plate from a Filipino vendor including beef on a stick and papaya salad. Then I decided to be adventurous and try a steamed pork bun, something I’d never had, but loved. After that, I visited a few colleagues and friends at the Vietnamese Village. The eggrolls were some of the best I’ve ever had, so full of flavor. I brought home some shrimp spring rolls for lunch the next day and finished off the night with a strawberry bubble tea from Rolling Wok Café.
CelebrAsian offers more than culinary delights. There are cooking and robotics demonstrations, scholarship awards given, a table tennis tournament, a children’s area with inflatables, a cultural fashion show, musical entertainment on the big stage, a talent show, etc. This year there was also an Asian drag show and Bollywood-style dancing lessons.
I am always fascinated by the Sepak Takraw tournament played on the lawn of the festival. This sport originated in Southeast Asia and is known as kick volleyball and is played with a rattan or plastic ball. Players can hit the ball using only their feet, chest, shoulders, knees, and head. This sport requires a lot of flexibility to keep the ball in the air to launch it over a net.
The main act on Saturday night was an Asian musical duo. They were on stage singing to a huge, standing-room-only crowd at the conclusion of the two-day festival. I left at almost 10 pm, my belly full and my heart swelling with pride for my homeland, my Asian community, and my state.