They say you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Perhaps “they” should expand that saying to include not judging people until you’ve spent an hour wearing their traditional headdress.

Following its mission to give “voice to the experiences of people from across the globe who call Texas home,” the Institute of Texan Cultures shone the spotlight on San Antonio’s Asian community during the 30th annual Asian Festival Saturday.

Festival attendees of various ages and ethnic backgrounds got to experience what it feels like to be a Sikh by trying on a turban for a few hours.

“The gentlemen at the Sikh booth were explaining the significance of the turban while they were putting it on my head – how it relates to their culture, and that both men and women can wear it,” said festival goer Marc Hoffman, whose roots are German and Irish. “I definitely got some looks. That’s not something I’m used to, so it made me think about what that must feel like on a daily basis.”

“I grew up in Chicago, so I’m familiar with ‘the look,’” said his wife Cecelia, who is Mexican-American. “[The looks I got today] didn’t feel like a judgment – more like a curiosity – but it would be interesting to see how people react if you wore a turban outside of the festival grounds.”

Exactly one week after Chinese New Year’s Day, approximately 12,000 festival goers welcomed the year of the rooster and the opportunity to learn about the various Asian cultures represented in San Antonio through the festival’s spread of dance and musical performances, cooking demonstrations, and interviews with notable members of San Antonio’s Asian community.

The institute’s grounds east of Hemisfair Park were occupied by a multitude of booths displaying handmade artwork, jewelry, clothing, and accessories from China, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Laos, Indonesia, Pakistan, and other countries in the Eastern hemisphere.

Scents of Indian samosas, Japanese Yaki-soba, and Hawaiian Kalua pork wafted through the crisp air around the institute while red lanterns and parasols brightened the scenery on an otherwise dreary day. Bhangra dancers moved to vibrant drum beats as Indian women painted henna on attendees’ hands; people played games of Chinese mahjong; the San Antonio Bonsai Society displayed its signature trees; and Chef Phillip Parker demonstrated how fortune cookies are made, among the many activities the festival had to offer.

According to 2016 statistics, Bexar County’s Asian population comes in at 2.7% and the San Antonio metro area’s at 2.37%. While masked by its relatively small numbers, the city’s Asian population has seen significant percentage increases and diversification over the past few years.

A series of conversations with some of the Asian community’s most influential members featured Rosario’s owner and restaurateur Lisa Wong, UTSA Professor of biomedical engineering Dr. C. Mauli Agrawal, Founder and General Manager of WestEast Design Group Katherine Kimm, and San Antonio Symphony Associate Conductor Akiko Fujimoto.

Fujimoto, who moved from Japan to the United States when she was 14 years old, cited music as the unifying force that helped her connect with her American peers then and the international musicians in her orchestra today.

“You become part of a tribe,” Fujimoto said. Even if your cultures differ, you can still find common ground on which you grow together, she added.

A member of the University of the Incarnate Word Asian Culture Club dances to hundreds of viewers.
A member of the University of the Incarnate Word Asian Culture Club dances in front of hundreds of spectators. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Festivals like these serve exactly that purpose: to familiarize the general public with the wide variety of societies that are woven into our city’s cultural fabric. By expanding our horizons and learning from one another, we are able to grow more cohesive as a society. Oftentimes we simply lack knowledge of other populations’ cultural practices, so promoting appreciation for foreign lifestyles, rituals, and traditions teaches us to identify commonalities and embrace our differences. After all, our diversity and the ability to harmoniously coexist and thrive together is what constitutes us being united.

Hanna Oberhofer

Before moving to San Antonio in 2004, Hanna was a competitive rhythmic gymnast in her native Austria. She earned degrees from St. Mary’s University and the Texas State Graduate College before joining...

Scott Ball

Scott Ball is San Antonio Report's photo editor and grew up in San Antonio.