Organizers talk new 'Community Square' and expanded health screenings

Now a Central Ohio staple for over 20 years, the Asian Festival — founded by Dr. Yung-Chen Lu — got off to a somewhat rocky start in 1995, at least according to a handful of committee members who have been there from the beginning. One recalls having to call in police to get cars moving after a traffic jam. Another remembers the performances starting two hours late.

“It was a struggle,” said Cora Munoz, chairperson of the board of directors. “We attracted a few thousand people and we never, ever dreamt that, to this day … we would have more than 100,000 people.”

According to Chairperson Manju Sankarappa, as many as 180,000 could show up — weather permitting — to this year's free festival, which “promotes the importance of cultural diversity in building a vibrant, prosperous and healthy community.” The festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, May 27 and 28, at Franklin Park.

The now-massive event is managed by 200 volunteers throughout the weekend, a 40-person organizing committee and an 11-person board. And planning begins each year in June, following the previous festival.

“We ask [our volunteers], ‘What were the deficiencies? What should we do to help us make it better?'” Sankarappa said.

This year, a new addition is the Community Square, showcasing celebrations and festivities of myriad Asian countries, which will also be described in a program book. Attendees can enjoy games — Cricket is new this year — martial arts, exhibits and a marketplace featuring items from Asian-American vendors. And then there's perhaps the most popular attraction: Asian cuisine.

“It smells amazing from a mile away,” said Volunteer Committee Chair Tina Maharath, who began attending the festival as a child. She stressed that the event not only promotes Asian culture, but it is essential for preservation purposes.

“We are growing in population … [but] our generations have been here for so long that we've adapted to the American culture,” Maharath said. “So now the next generation has to step it up and … show some Asian culture within Columbus, or else it's going to fade away.”

Other than the festival, it's difficult for people to engage in Asian culture in the city, Maharath said. “Within the colleges, they have programs for student Asian groups, but [otherwise] there's not much else.”

Asian-Americans preserve culture in part by performing, and music and dance are significant components of the festival. However, each year organizers have to bring in performers from around the country due to a limited amount of professional groups in Columbus.

“[Although] we have the largest Asian Festival in the United States … we don't have a large presence in terms of performance,” Marahath said. “We have small groups here and there, but these [other] groups are very large and … they're really well known in the social media world.”

This year's fest will feature a Vietnamese group from California, two Korean groups from Chicago and a Mong group from Minnesota.

Besides the food and fun, there is a career fair and a health pavilion. Attendees can get health screenings — for everything from blood pressure to Hepatitis B — which are not common in Asia, Maharath said.

“With the Asian cultures, they feel like they're too healthy and they don't need to get screened. It's not a concern,” she said. “But then they get screened and they find out there is a concern.”

“For a lot our participants, they look forward to this every year for their annual checkup,” said Munoz, who is also a nurse.

This year, the festival has expanded its health-care to include services such as orthodontics and vision screenings. And Nationwide Children's Hospital will be onsite both days.

However, with the Affordable Care Act in jeopardy of being repealed, Asian festival organizers are concerned they may not be able to provide health screenings for clients who have to be pre-screened ahead and rely on Medicaid.

“We won't have some of those recipients of these wellness screens to participate because they don't have the finances,” Maharath said.

“Our community will suffer just like any other community,” Sankarappa said, and mentioned they are reaching out to Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Rob Portman. “[But] as a fast-growing Asian population in the country, and Ohio specifically, we want to make sure that our voices are heard.”

Other political considerations may affect the Asian Festival this year. “People know that the president doesn't necessarily agree with individuals who are refugees and immigrants,” Maharath said. “We might have some folks who protest. … We're prepared.”

Though the current political climate is inspiring division throughout the nation, the Asian Festival encourages acceptance.

“The message is we value diversity and we respect difference,” Munoz said. “All of us have unique qualities and we can live together and enjoy all that we can offer.”