We recently attended the fourth annual Thai festival in our neighbourhood. It’s been going from strength to strength recently, and the best Thai restaurants from all over Belgium come along and set up stalls to sell their food. There are fruit carving experts, Thai masseuses, dancing and martial arts displays, etc. It’s all very enjoyable and tasty and gives you a warm glow of tolerance and multiculturalism, but this time I started questioning the whole idea a bit.
Brussels is a strange town in this regard. Plenty of other world capitals are home to immigrant populations, and I don’t think Brussels is any more multicultural than, say, London or New York, but it feels different. For one thing Brussels is relatively small, with a larger proportion of expats and immigrants than other towns its size. For another, a large proportion of those expats come here to work for multinational organisations, and there’s a large infrastructure and support network which allows you to live in a comfortable expat bubble and not really integrate or even speak to the natives if you don’t want to. Now obviously plenty of people do learn the language, make local friends, etc, but I get the feeling that the different communities here are a little more self-contained, and I think this shows in the cultural festivals.
The Brussels festival calendar is pretty full – at any one time there’s bound to be a Thai or Peruvian or Lichtensteinian cultural initiative of some kind, and it’s great to have this kind of stuff on offer and that people take an interest, but it feels more like a slickly-rehearsed display for tourists than an opportunity for intercultural dialogue and exchange.
Sure, people will drink a Singha, devour a plate of pad thai, politely feign interest in the traditional dances, and maybe pick up a leaflet about package deals to Phuket, but I’m sceptical that there’s any real contact or learning going on. On the other hand it’s often more successful as a chance for Belgium-based Thais to get together and re-connect with their own culture, perhaps reminiscing about life back in the old country, and complain about the weather in northern Europe.
Festivals are fine and have their place, but I increasingly find them slightly unsatisfactory. Basically what this makes me think about is what’s really important to me when I travel in terms of having a memorable, meaningful experience of another culture. Now I’m not one of those travel snobs who’s constantly in search of the most “authentic” or “genuine” thing, as this implies that Thais all live, eat, worship and act in one particular way and if you don’t get a piece of that during your two week stay, ur doin it rong. But what I get from visiting a country (and what I don’t get from cultural festivals in another country) are those little differences of detail and sense impressions: the feeling of dust and exhaust fumes in the back of my throat in Agra, the bustle and noise of a square in Marrakesh, the press of sweaty bodies in the streets of Seville during Semana Santa, frost in my nostrils and eyelashes in Lapland…
[photos below from a tour of Thailand taken in 2002]