by Summer Wong
The 9th Annual Pacific Islander Festival at the Huntington Beach Public Library was a sprawling sea of tents and blankets, roiling with waves of people and the scent of sizzling food. Last weekend, this lively festival presented an opportunity to celebrate culture and the Pacific Islander diversity present here in Orange County. As a yearly tradition, this event not only welcomes people of Pacific Islander descent, but also the entire community.
Families can stroll among island village art exhibits and live cultural demonstrations, pay special tribute to community elders and the Pacific leaders, relax to the rhythm and dancers of the Pacific under the tree-shaded festival grounds, enjoy special Pacific Island cuisines presented by islanders and shop for the perfect gift at unique island boutiques.
Although Pacific Islanders are a minority in Orange County, the population grows in size every year. Nearly a decade ago, the festival began as a place where people of same background could come together and celebrate their culture.
During the festival, colorful tents — one for each Pacific Islander country represented in the festival — surrounded an enormous center stage on which the flags of several countries hung. Speakers were dispersed throughout the event so that every attendee could hear the traditional music playing on stage.
Initially, my friend and I drove to this event excited for a reason to eat food, shop and watch live entertainment. But there was also a curiosity in me, eager to learn more about a culture I was unfamiliar with. I was amazed at the tents of Hawai’i, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Chamorro Marianas and Tahiti, all of which were uniquely decorated with brightly-colored tablecloths, exotic plants, a wide variety of rocks and handmade artifacts such as small straw houses and vibrant leis.
I chatted with a group of native people of Hawai’i, and we bonded over the yearly trips I take to their hometowns in Oahu and the Big Island. They even taught me a bit of their native language outside of my rudimentary knowledge. A little girl even gave me a seashell bracelet as a gift, and I wore it around my wrist for the remainder of the festival.
I was touched by their kindness and hospitality and fascinated by their culture and distinct customs. The people I spent time around seemed proud of their heritages and welcomed outsiders like me and my friend like we were all family.
The smell of barbeque was intoxicating and drew me to the food booths on the other side of the event. Eager, ravenous families waited impatiently in mile-long lines that extended halfway across the field.
After much back-and-forth debate, my friend and I decided on sharing a plate of chopped, grilled chicken kelaguen mannok from the Guamanian food booth, prepared with lemon juice, sea salt and hot peppers. I’ve never tasted anything with so much flavor; an amalgamation of sour, spicy and salt in one flavorful dish.
As I ate, I noticed a section of tents selling merchandise and handmade items — clothes, jewelry, hats, necklaces, flowers, purses, signs, paintings, photographs, hula flowers and scarves were all to be found mere paces from the stage. As a zealous shopper, I was always interested in handmade items not found in commercial stores. Browsing through the crowded tents, I was intrigued at the intricate designs in each earring and necklace on display.
Behind the merchandise on stage were about twenty Samoan dancers. The women were dressed in electric blue dresses with vibrant yellow lilies atop their heads. The men wore the same blue in the form of loose-fitting pants and a large yellow necklace atop their bare chests. The audience watched in amazement and beamed as the performers danced to the traditional music of their respective heritages.
For me, this event was a reminder of the togetherness, family and kindness present even in our tense society wracked with negativity and distress. I was grateful and humbled by the generosity of the people around me, and having had such a wonderful experience, I can’t wait to attend the next one