Plaza Voices: Cultural Exchange in Denver

by Breanne Vailes, Plaza Activity Leader

With a nod, a smile, or a handshake — most people know how to greet someone from a different culture. But what are strategies for going deeper, ways to share more than a greeting or a few words? How does someone connect with and learn from people originally from another country? The Plaza program at the Denver Public Library is a welcoming space where people from various cultural backgrounds converse about topics they share in common. And just this month, at the Denver International Festival at Civic Center Park, ethnic groups from all over the world came together to share food, art, stories, and music.

Festival attendees could soak in the beauty of diversity — the pride in a man’s voice as he told a folk story centuries old, the rhythmic chimes of a song played on instruments unfamiliar to most Americans’ ears, the luster of colorful garments crafted somewhere a few plane rides away, the smell of contrasting spices mingling in the air, and, of course, the taste of a crunchy egg roll, rich empanada, spicy Ethiopian meat, or tangy Korean bowl. Hopefully, those at the festival walked away with an appreciation for the unfamiliar, for the different ways of life that people from various cultures have to offer. In the Plaza program, people who practice English, craft art, or study for citizenship tests come to learn something, but they may not realize that in bravely speaking even as they stumble, in sharing videos of customs from their home country, or in describing their favorite traditional meals, they are giving as much as they are getting. And that special moment — the cultural exchange — is what the international festival and the Plaza program share in common.

The key to benefiting from a moment of cultural exchange is to grow from it. Some of the people at the festival came, chose an intriguing menu item from a food truck, and left as essentially the same people, filling their stomachs but not their hearts and minds. In contrast, those who come to Plaza are not doing something easy when they sit in a circle of unfamiliar faces, but still they come in order to learn something. Learning takes effort, and that means removing oneself from the comfortable, fumbling over words, laughing nervously, and sometimes walking away knowing that you were not completely understood. That is okay. Cultural exchange is a process, and discomfort is no reason to not take part. Come participate in Plaza today. Check out an intercultural book, whether you are brand new to the U.S. or you have been here a while. Or just ask the lady on the light rail next to you about her experiences. Over time, you won’t be disappointed.

Plazas are an open community space where migrants from all over the world connect with people, information, and resources, building Denver’s global community. Come to practice a language, prepare for citizenship, pursue your goals, and create your future. Whatever you’re doing, we can help! Please see our web page for more information.

Written by Plaza Voices on August 16, 2019