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North Dakota Asian-American Arts and Culture Initiative
North Dakota Asian-American Arts and Culture Initiative

How much time do you spend thinking about who you are and what that means? And when you are shaping that identity?

Are you partnered? What's your job? What sort of food values do you have? There are also questions like, how long have my people been in this area? Where were they before that? Have they been here the whole time? What does that mean?

Today, a conversation about identity and specifically among a group of people that make up a very small percentage of the state — and that is people of Asian descent making up approximately 1.7% of the state, but impacting our food, even our faith. We speak with Joan Klein of the North Dakota Asian American Arts and Cultural Initiative. The NDAAA-CI has already held five events, specifically focusing on one country at a time.

Coming up on Thursday, April 11, at 5:30pm at the Morton Mandan Public Library is "Know Your Culture: Indonesia." Throughout the conversation, you'll hear us talk about identity, dance, and religion.

But we start the conversation with what's often referred to in global conversations as "kimchi diplomacy." This is the idea that a country uses its soft power, the food it's known for, the culture it's known for, to lure people in. It's an easy way to get the foot in the door to learning more about a country — something Klein, who originally comes from the Philippines, is also doing herself.


Joan Klein

Speaking for Philippines, where I'm from, back in the day, natives did not have any utensils. So we use our hands to eat. And we use plant materials, such as the banana leaves, like you mentioned, to put our food on, such for plates and whatnot.

So we, you know, we utilize nature. And then we were colonized by the Spaniards and basically everyone else in Asia. So the Philippines, I feel like is a melting pot in Asia.

So we were colonized by Japan and China. And, you know, Malaysia came over as well. So when those people came, you know, the chopsticks were introduced, the forks and the spoons and the knives, all the utensils were introduced.

So that's where those come from, in terms of the Philippines. Yeah, so fascinating that you get a history lesson when you look at a culinary dish and how it has changed over time. For sure.

Ashley Thornberg

We're visiting today with Joan Klein of the North Dakota Asian American Arts and Cultural Initiative. You can find out more at NDAAACI.org. We're learning about the upcoming event, Know Your Culture, Indonesia. It is happening on Thursday, April 11th, from 530 to 7 p.m. Central at the Morton Mandan Public Library.

Joan, 1.7 percent, according to census data, of North Dakota identifies as Asian. And of course, this would be pan-Asian. This might be Japanese.

This might be Korean. This might be Filipino, such as yourself. When we talk about coming together and celebrating a culture that would be in a vast minority, why host an event like this?

Joan Klein

For myself, I feel like it's a great way to have not just a celebration, but also an education.

Showing who we are and then educating what we are, what we represent, and in our culture and also in our arts. Like I mentioned, we're going to have a performance art and we're going to have some items, Indonesian items, portrayed in the events as well. So this is to educate the community of what we represent and also let them know that this is a fun way of learning.

It is a family event, so kids can come as well and then celebrate with us and learn with us and ask questions, ask tons of questions. We love that. We love to talk about what we're proud about.

We're really proud about our culture and we love to share that to everyone. Okay, I'll bite. What are you most proud of, about being a Filipino woman? I guess why I love our food.

Like you mentioned, food is huge. And also the fact that we just love music. I love to sing.

I love to dance. We love to celebrate with music. And that's what I think I feel like the most proud of.

And I show that to my kids and to others. Yeah, how would you compare the dance culture of your background to the dance culture of where you are now? It's kind of hard to compare because we're so influenced by the Western culture as well. So yes, we have our traditional ethnic dances, but also our modern dances now are very much like hip hop and whatever it is here or Western or Europe.

I think the dawn of the internet. That line is very, very, very much erased, I feel like. Well, yeah.

Ashley Thornberg

And that's such an interesting word to use there, erased. Because of course, that has been such a significant problem for many culture groups for so long, the erasure of the culture. But then, like you said, there has been this mixing for so long and this blending.

And when it comes to culture, there is this line between what is 100% authentic Indonesian versus what might have been influenced by an immigration pattern or, or a religious tradition here and there. And I'm just curious, what, what sorts of doors are opened? Let's stay positive, at least. What sorts of doors are opened by recognizing and honoring that culture does change as people, technology, and all of that changes?

Joan Klein

You know, influence, the word influence is, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

And like you said, men, mending or combining different techniques, dance, for example. I feel like that's, that's a, you know, a modern way of showing our culture as well. We're gonna show a dance called Kekak.And, you know, she is a modern dance teacher as well. And then she knows this traditional Indonesian dance, and she's going to perform that. And she's teaching that to her colleagues, and which is, you know, fascinating and also empowering.

And I'm sure, I don't know exactly what the performance is going to be. I don't know if there's going to be a mending of modern and ethnic, but that will be fascinating to see what they come up. And I'm very excited to see that.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, I watched just a little bit of some YouTube videos on this dance and was pretty surprised at the length of those videos. Some of them were an hour or longer. Just realizing that your background is not Indonesian, and I don't want this to come off as, okay, they're all the same because they're different, you know, from me.

But is there a similar dance where it is kind of that ritual performance? As I understand it, this is a dance that honors a story in the Hindu tradition practiced at temples, and it is a deeply spiritual practice. Do you have any dances that would be kind of in that vein where it's an expression of divinity?

Joan Klein

Not necessarily. The Philippines, we have a few different religions.

Like I mentioned, we were colonized by the Spaniards, so Christianity, Catholicism is huge. So not a lot of dances are in Catholic programs and masses. But in other, I'm Catholic myself, but in other religions, definitely we will have that.

Most of our dances are more of a telling a story of everyday life. So not necessarily worship, but more of a, you know, courting or showing what we're doing in the field and, you know, planting and so portraying more of what we do day to day. Oh, that's really fascinating.

Ashley Thornberg

Why do you enjoy that kind of dance?

Joan Klein

I enjoy all dances personally, but those Filipino do do that, I believe. I'm not necessarily familiar with the history, per se, of those. I'll have to do some research.

But they do show that to kind of keep the tradition going. Because I know when the other countries colonized us, we didn't want to lose who we are and what we did. So to show and pass on to the younger generation, it was kind of like a storytelling through dance.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, it's always fascinating to me how many forms of nonverbal communication there can be. And yet I'm dance doesn't come to mind for me, perhaps because I don't really come from from a culture with a strong dance tradition, or at least it was lost in my specific family patterns.

And so this one, of course, specific to Indonesia, but Joan, you have done others of these in the past. How well attended are events like this?

Joan Klein

I believe it started low. Well, in the Philippines one was big because we had quite a few Filipino friends, actually, a big community here, Filipino community in Bismarck in Mandan area.

And so we had the Philippines and then we had Japan. And sometimes too, it's hard when it's a Thursday night, not a lot of families can make it. And during, you know, the winter time, we had to actually we had to make sure the Philippines we moved it to a different date because there was a snowstorm.

We had it scheduled in October, and we moved it in November. And then we had Japan, and then China. And the more we went through the series, the more people knew about it.

And so, you know, they came to the first one, they're like, Oh, this is fascinating. So they told their friends and more people came to the next one, and so forth and so on. And the last one we had India, we had to pull all the chairs out of the storage.

So we were like, I don't know if we have room for everyone, but it was a great problem to have. Well, that must feel pretty good, especially as one of the co-founders of this organization. Yes, yes.

The Know My Culture, it was really fascinating to see people were so interested of learning. And it was also kind of rewarding that the presenters were thanking us for allowing them to give them a chance to tell people about their culture. And that was really nice to have them share.

And they were so happy to share to everyone who they are and where they're from.

Ashley Thornberg

I'm looking on your website, and there is a section here called Asian countries. And it lists many, many more countries than I really would have thought.

Yes, Asia is the biggest continent. Yeah, I mean, obviously, people are going to think of China, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines. But you know, Saudi Arabia is on this list, Qatar, Russia.

Part of Russia. Yeah, yeah, right. Realizing that that would only be part here of Pakistan.

Timor-Leste. India. Yeah, I mean, yeah, I suspect I'm far from alone in being so under informed about this part of the world. What kinds of questions do you tend to get asked at events like this?

Joan Klein

I know a lot of repeated questions was about the role of men and women. There were, you know, in China, especially, a lot of their traditions were focused on, we celebrated a lunar new year for the China one. And a lot of it was focused on the grandmother.

She was the head of the family. And, you know, people gathered towards the women's family. And that was a lot of questions with that.

And even in India, but also in the Philippines, but a lot of questions were involved with a family dynamic and also, you know, not very much political, a lot of cultural dynamic within the community was the questions. What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that are still out there? I going back to some of the questions was the arranged marriages. Yep, that was a big question, India and China, actually.

Because people, you know, like, do they still do that? Do you know, it was like, yeah, they did back in the day. But some people may, but it's not, you know, people just marry who they want now. That was one of the big, or, you know, not big, but questions that happened.

And then, yeah, the misconceptions is, I guess, in terms of learning as well. You know, what they know. I know, with the dawn of the internet, you know, information is available worldwide.

So people know, basically, whatever they want to know. So that was a, when you think about third world countries or developing countries, you know, they're not really in the dark anymore. They're just a lot of the people in the community know what we know.

Ashley Thornberg

When you think about the future of your organization, where do you see it going?

Joan Klein

We would love to showcase more countries, like you had mentioned, there's so much, so many more countries in Asia. We would love to represent all of them, if that would be even possible.

And then we would also love to expand not just the Bismarck-Mandan area, you know, reach more areas in North Dakota. I know a lot of people would love to learn about Asia. And there's, you know, there's a lot of Filipinos, actually, that have moved to rural North Dakota, teachers and nurses.

And we would love for them to have a community, other Asians in rural places, or Fargo, or Minot, you know, those aren't rural. But reach those areas as well and give them a chance to have a community and have places to come together. What does the word like community mean to you? Community means just a group of people with having the same kind of culture and ethnic and also like, or just what we want to do.

For NDAAA-CI, our community would consist of more of a knowing the culture and also the arts. And we celebrate the arts. We want to showcase artists, so that we would love to touch on the artist community as well.

Not just Asian cultures. Well, art is part of culture. Certainly.

But yeah, and not just, you know, drawings or paintings. We wanted to performance art and film and everybody to kind of to have a belonging, a community. Jen, we've been focusing on this event specific to Indonesia, but you have a big event coming up in May.

Ashley Thornberg

Tell us about that Cultural Expo. This is our third annual Cultural Expo. It's going to focus immigration, identity and creativity.

So we actually have a couple artists, Asian artists flying from Chicago. And they're going to be in a panel and also show a demonstration and also have their art pieces featured. And then this Cultural Expo will again have food and we'll have cultural items.

And we will have a demonstration, we'll have an artist panel, and we will also have a silent auction. So you can purchase art pieces. And this is going to be at the Heritage Center from 11am to 5pm on May 11.

It's a Saturday. And this is we actually got a grant from the Arts Midwest National Endowments for the Arts. So they are helping us with this event.

And this is one of our huge events. Actually, our huge event of the year. And yeah, this is our third one.

And we are so excited. A lot of people it's an open house event. So you can come and go.

Our this event is featured on Facebook and social media and it will show the program and the times of the demonstrations and the panel happening and when the foods can be served and all that stuff. So it's all the information is there. So yeah, it's a great event.

Ashley Thornberg

It strikes me that events like this, often, at least for me seem to be geared at teaching a different culture about the culture that is presenting. But with a title like immigration and identity, it also feels like an opportunity for the presenters to turn inward and examine their own identities.

And in this case, specific to how immigration patterns shape who, at least we tell ourselves that we are.

Joan Klein

Yes, that's most definitely that that's definitely true for me. I, I'm one of the panelists and one of the artists featured.

So this is going to be very interesting. And also talking to the other artists and you know, what their history is and how they came to America and how they're shaping themselves and their families and carrying their culture and how they are passing that on to their kids and also their art, their art expression that's, you know, ingrained in their culture.

Ashley Thornberg

How do you explore that in your art specific to Joan Klein? In terms of, I love playing with photography at the moment.

I used to do paintings as well and watercolor and oil. I've done several different types of media. But at the moment, I've focused on photography and drawing.

And I think my technique is more featured in my culture is kind of ingrained in that. It's the playing of light. Looking at, you know, how I see something and why I'm photographing that piece.

I feel like that's where my culture is showing. Yeah.

Ashley Thornberg

Do you do you feel like you look at the world differently when you're holding a camera versus when you're just walking through it? Yes, I feel like I see a frame.

And the way to describe it is I see objects and I see landscape and people and kind of I kind of put them in a frame. Yeah, it's the way I guess my mind works. And see how I can capture that moment.