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School’s Out, Learning’s In! March Break Cultural Activities

Cultural activities, which are central to my work as Public Programs Manager at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, serve an interesting dual purpose. At once, they are a means of connecting (or re-connecting) with your own heritage and they are a means of finding commonalities with a culture very different from your own, whether that involves learning Tagalog or making empanadas from scratch or discovering the traditional round dance of the Mi’kmaw people. Not only can hometown-based cultural activities forge an understanding of the many diverse cultures around the globe, but they also remind us that Canada is a global nation, and that all of those cultures coexist here.

One of the best opportunities to take part in a wide variety of activities is the March Break period, and I’m proud and excited about what our museum will be offering, but I also have the feeling of being transported back to my own childhood; to the joy and wonder I felt when I learned about customs and traditions I had never heard of before.

Like many people, I didn’t have the opportunity to travel outside of Canada when I was a child, so I definitely see the value of children and young people participating in multicultural learning closer to home. Just because you may not have the means to traverse the world looking for cultural understanding doesn’t mean you can’t participate in meaningful, engaging activities that satisfy your curiosity about the big, wide world.

I remember, for example, that over Grade 4 March Break, I attended a day of cultural celebration organized by local Acadian teachers. We children learned a set dance, practicing for weeks prior to the event, and helped to prepare maple butter pie for the occasion. I still remember the thrill of sharing the pie, the secrets of the Acadian people and the vibrant strains of the fiddle music.

Another memorable experience was of learning some basic Japanese words and phrases from a classmate’s mother at a March birthday party in 1988 and being completely awestruck at how Japanese sounded so different from English or French, which were the only languages I had any experience with. She also taught us a bit about Japanese culture from the art of bonsai trimming and kabuki theatre to the history of the samurai.

Over March Break during my Grade 10 year, I got in touch with my own Scottish/Irish/English heritage by learning to play the tin whistle; a skill I still practice (much to the annoyance of my family) to this day. I was hungry to be part of my cultural group in a more meaningful way, and I expressed myself through the lilting music of my ancestors. And speaking of hungry…

Here in Halifax, we are very used to exploring other cultures, mainly via food, at the various festivals this city offers, especially Greek Fest in June, Lebanese Festival in July, and Italian Weekend in September. Flaky moussaka, plump olives, the complex spices of za’atar, creamy hummus, hand-made spaghettini in fresh tomato sauce, tiramisu…I could go on, but I need a snack! This means of culturally connecting via food is important (and tasty!) and certainly helps to explain the popularity of our museum’s food-based March Break workshops, from pasta-making to crêpes to oatcakes.

Our movement-based workshops can sometimes be a harder sell. After all, not everyone feels confident dancing or testing out a new martial art or athletic skill. I get that, because I am not the greatest dancer myself (just ask my Grade 2 Highland Dance teacher Danielle. I was terrible!) But there’s something very freeing about learning a dance style you’ve never tried (or even heard of) alongside a group of other people who have no idea what they’re doing. I can tell you from experience, it’s also completely hilarious and you might just surprise yourself with what you’re capable of accomplishing, whether you have rhythm or not.

We can all be self-conscious, stuck in our comfort zones, and scared of trying new things. But cultural traditions that seem exotic to one person are just a normal part of someone else’s upbringing. Not only is it important for children (and adults) to learn about a variety of cultures, it’s also really fun and can lead to a whole world of opportunity. Over a shared interest in the proper consistency of crêpes or the intricacies of Bollywood dance steps friendships can be formed, new skills learned, and lifelong passions ignited.