I had a big decision to make in the Kent Town Square Plaza on Saturday. Do I go with my gut, and pick the Mediterranean mixed gyro and falafel, or taste adventure with the Irish corned beef sliders?
The Thai and Laotian gai yang dish, with grilled chicken and Thai seasoning, looked delicious, too, and my preference for Mexican food was pulling me just as hard toward the pollo ranchero.
The reason for my epicurean dilemma was the fourth annual Kent International Festival, where different cultures from Kent’s diverse population came together for one full day of entertainment, activities, and, of course, food from regions all over the world.
At this year’s festival, attendees strolled from the main stage and its 10 hours filled with 25 performances, over to the 28 vendor booths that offered educational activities – like learning how to use chopsticks – for those wanting to learn about new cultures.
For Janis Flagg, a member of the festival steering committee since 2010, it’s the desire of Kent residents to learn about their neighbors’ culture that drives the festival every year.
“The purpose is to find out that we have more similarities than differences, and that people can connect through the universal language of entertainment and music,” Flagg said.
The festival was first held in 2009 to highlight the different cultures that Kent’s diverse community represent.
According to the 2010 census, 26.4% of Kent’s population is foreign born, which is more than double the state average of 12.7%. Almost 35% of people in Kent speak a language other than English at home, compared to the state’s 17.5% average.
It was this unique makeup of the community that inspired Harpreet Gill, the owner of Kent’s Indian restaurant Punjab Sweets, to plan the first Kent International Festival in 2009.
“If you look around, we’re just a really diverse community. There was really nothing city wide, and this is a way for people to showcase their cultures,” Gill said.
Twenty-five groups performed during the festival, including a Kung Fu demonstration, a xylophone and percussion performance, steel drumming, Chilean dancing, two dragon and lion dances and a bagpipe performance.
Gill’s Punjab Sweets was one of the six restaurants that sold samples to festival goers in the “International Taste of Kent” food court, offering up plates of Irish, Indian, Kenyan, Mediterranean, Thai and Laotian and Mexican cuisines for $4 each.
Many of the other vendors at the festival were cultural and service organizations hoping to recruit community members to join their causes. One of these vendors was Mike Evans, a 57-year-old retired firefighter and the chair of the Snohomish Tribe of Indians.
Evans said this was his third year in the Kent International Festival, and that he was hoping to recruit young people, or “pullers,” who are interested in learning more about the song, dance, language and culture of the Snohomish people. He calls these young recruits as “pullers” because part of their experience involves learning how to row, or “pull,” down the Columbia River in Evans’ hand-carved, 15-person wood canoe.
Other vendors, like John Holt and Cheryl Truzzi, co-chairs of the Kent-Yangzhou, China Sister City Committee, attended the festival to encourage young people to learn about cultures much farther away from home. Both Holt and Truzzi are parents of students who participated in a student exchange between Kent and Yangzhou, and they hoped that having a booth at the festival would help promote the program, and a sense of international awareness, to future students.
Gill, the festival’s founder, said that the crowd this year was larger than in the past.
I caught up with Barbara and Steve Martin, who have lived in Kent for almost 20 years, enjoying the larb gai and corned beef sliders from the food court.
They said that they love the sense of community and the international flare that the festival celebrates.
“I love the idea of so many different languages spoken in the area; so much diversity,” Barbara Martin said. “I really hope this keeps growing.”