Visited at 14:00
Berlin Carnival of Cultures
My body is slowly becoming more accustomed to the time shift in Berlin. I am finally back at my regular sleep schedule, sleeping at 2am and waking up at 11am. I planned to visit a flea market today but missed my stop while taking the U8. My intentions were to get off and take the next train back to the previous platform, but the train station was slightly confusing. I ended up near the Mehringdamm platform for U6 U7.
I followed the large crowd to the streets and realized that I was next to the Carnival of Cultures in Berlin. I wanted to take pictures tomorrow at this festival because there will be a parade, a showing and celebration of cultural and ethnic performance. The site felt specific to my exploration of cultural dress and embodied performance of Hmong.
I slowly wandered around and the environment was very similar to the State Fair or your typical festival grounds. Because it was a culture festival, I found myself looking for Hmong-like and Hmong inspired materials. For the first 10 minutes I saw food vendors, lots of Latin, African, Middle Eastern, and Indian inspired food. Similarly I saw African, Latin, Middle Eastern and Indian inspired prints, accessories and clothing. There were a few Southeast Asian and East Asian food vendors selling Korean, Thai and Vietnamese food.
I walked past some Sri Lanka performers in cultural dress and I found myself thinking about the purpose of the festival. Certainly it was a celebratory atmosphere, Berliners sharing and experiencing one another’s culture. Seeing a variety of cultures being represented felt familiar, like being at the local markets on University Ave in Minnesota, or strolling down the fashion district in LA.
Yet the majority of people who were the audience were still white people-at least they appear to be white. I found myself thinking about performance, particularly who’s celebrating what and who’s performing for who? What is culture at the Carnival of Cultures? According to the website, the festival is seen as:
"A proud expression of hybrid cultural identities
The organizers of the festival proclaim that "the Carnival of Cultures is open to everybody and all forms of cultural expression. It is regarded as a platform for a proud expression of hybrid cultural identities, containing traditional and contemporary elements. It includes and attracts all age groups, professional artists and amateurs, people from all walks of life."
Indeed I saw a mixing-hybridity of food, crafts, and bodies. Small vendors selling handi-crafts made from all over the world. It was in these vendors that I saw Hmong. The kind of Hmong that was manufactured from China and other factories elsewhere in Southeast Asia for tourism. The kind of Hmong that was sold back to the Hmong people to sell for survival.
I was going to ask for prices and I thought about purchasing, however, I realized that I cannot own all these materials because I do not have space for them when I travel back home. Additionally, several of the items can be found at the local Hmong market and craft markets in Minnesota. Sometimes you’ll find some of these clutch-its at Forever 21, an accessory for the festival summer look.
I was excited to see Hmong, but was also not excited because I don’t think these vendors are aware of where the textiles and designs come from. I also do not think that these textiles are in the same position as the kind of textiles that I find at local Goodwills or second hand thrift stores. These textiles are not displaced, but designed intentionally to serve the purpose of the festival, tourist attraction, small mementos of the event.
I told myself, to not be too excited by the hint of a reflection of Hmong history and culture because these materials do not bring any awareness for the erasure that happens when hybrid cultures are formed. Looking around I wondered why other cultures were not present? Why is it that the most vulnerable communities become symbols of assimilation stories in larger cities? How different is this Carnival of Cultures from the World’s Fair or large expos that were created to educate white communities about the exotic other?
“Every year in spring, the Carnival of Cultures celebrates cultural diversity in Berlin. Costumes, dance, music, rituals - the carnival is a great opportunity for members of Berlin's ethnic groups to make their cultures visible and for everybody else to see and celebrate cultural diversity.”
Getting lost today helped push me in a direction of reflection. Walking through hordes of people, I was reminded of growing up Hmong American, a “hybrid” identity; an identity that is not necessarily one without the other, and one where culture and traditions are constantly shifting. I was reminded that in a modern society, it can feel like the larger society is moving so quickly that those who pause to reflect is endangered of moving backwards in time. It seems that people are excited for the contemporary and modern shifts in traditional knowledge and crafts, but I find myself more interested in trying to understand what is lost when these shifts happen under the myth of assimilation. What becomes past, what stays in the present and then the imagined future?