Highlights of ASEAN

On Friday, May 26, 2017, at the Dean Acheson Auditorium in the Department of State, the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) hosted over four hundred guests for a unique and beautiful cultural program, coordinated by the AAFSW Program Chair, Sheila Switzer, and presented by the ASEAN Women’s Circle (AWC), a social organization which includes 10 Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. This wonderful program was a “sequel” to another memorable AAFSW event, presented by the Indonesian Embassy Ladies’ Association in December 2016 at the Department of State, highlighting the Batak Ethnic Culture of the North Sumatra Province of Indonesia.

The May 26, 2017 event started with a lively reception, co-sponsored by AAFSW and the AWC, at the Exhibition Hall of the Department of State. AAFSW and AWC guests enjoyed an array of unique and distinct mouth-watering dishes from the 10 ASEAN countries offered by AWC. The many elaborate and different types of sweet and savory dishes included wadjid (Brunei), nasi lemak (Malaysia), putu ayu and risoles (Indonesia), noodles (Vietnam), and many other delicious treats.

Following this reception, the AAFSW guests had the opportunity to learn about and admire the distinct cultures of the 10 ASEAN nations. During her welcominng remarks, Madame Reshanty Bowoleksono, the ASEAN Women’s Circle President, and a diplomat herself, highlighted the cultural diversity of the ASEAN countries. Madame Bowoleksono explained how AWC supports the spirit of ASEAN by strengthening the friendships as well as promoting cooperation among the member countries through social and cultural activities. The ASEAN community represents a cultural mosaic, with over 600 million people scattered around the South East Asian region. It exhibits a perfect combination of unique art, culture, and tradition reflecting the rich diverse community, which works together with mutual respect, social harmony and solidarity. As the AWC president mentioned, diversity is an asset not a liability; by respecting differences, harmony is created. Indeed, Madame Bowoleksono believes that the greatest form of diplomacy is “personal friendship,” which leads to peace and cooperation between nations.

In line with the spirit of the ASEAN motto “One Vision, One Identity, One Community,” the AWC Washington, DC member countries showcased their colorful cultures with a variety of unique cultural performances, one from each one of the 10 ASEAN countries, which are part of the AWC. Over four hundred AAFSW and AWC guests discovered the richness of ASEAN cultural diversity and shared the ASEAN community’s common values while enjoying the following presentations from each country:

Singapore showcased three of their main cultural costumes: a Chinese Cheongsam (a dress often worn during Chinese New Year and Weddings), an Indian Sari, and a Peranakan Kebaya (worn only for important events).

Cambodia showcased the Khmer traditional performance “Moni Mekhal”: the evil spirits (Ream Eyso) are always ambitious to manipulate and jeopardize the holy spirits (Moni Mekhala). However, they always face failure no matter how hard they are trying. The holy spirits always have strategies to take the bad spirits down. In this dance, the two goddesses fight over a crystal ball. During a thunderstorm, it is believed that a lightning, which comes from the Mekhala crystal, crashes on Ream Eyso and becomes a thunder. This dance is usually performed at rain inducing ceremonies and when people pray for peace in the kingdom.

Laos showcased the Lamvong Lao (dance in circle) traditional folk dance with the song Sieng Khaen Lao. This dance is normally performed during party, weddings, festivals and other local celebrations.

Malaysia showcased Layang Mas – Palace Court Dance: A beautiful traditional court dance from the state of Perlis at the north of Peninsular Malaysia performed, in the past, for entertainment only at the Royal Palace in Northern Malaysia. This dance depicts the graceful movements of a legendary bird, Golden Swallow (Layang Mas). The movements, derived from the legendary bird Golden Swallow or Layang Mas, are considered to be quite seductive. The dancers use a long yellow scarf tied to the waist to give the effect of wings.

Brunei Darussalam showcased the traditional cuisine of the country during the lavish reception.

Myanmar showcased the cultural Thingyan Water Festival dance and song along with traditional Myanmar Ladies’ costume wear. Thingyan is a water throwing festival, which is celebrated every year in April. The Burmese people spray water at each other during this festival. The traditional costume, worn by the Burmese men and women, is called Longyi.

Philippines showcased a song sung by Mr. Allan Palacios Chan, a well-known tenor. Maalaala Mo Kaya is a Tagalog Love song, which is a kundiman, a genre of traditional Filipino love songs. Maalaala Mo Kaya, which means “Will you remember?” and the voice of Mr. Palacios Chan mesmerized the audience. The country of Philippines is well known for having many talented singers in the Southeast Asian region.

Thailand showcased the Blessing Dance: Bestowing blessing has been a Thai way of life since ancient time. The “Blessing Dance” emerged out of this tradition and is usually performed to welcome honored guests. In Thailand, messages, play and cultures are expressed through dance movements and rituals. The classical dance, which was performed on May 26, is over 500 years old.

Vietnam showcased the Conical Hat Dance and featured the song: “My home country.” Vietnamese women in traditional white long dresses (Ao Dai) with conical hats performed a dance to praise the beauty of their country. This dance is an invitation to visit and experience the exotic land of Vietnam.

Indonesia showcased the Angklung Ensemble. Most of the members of the Angklung Ensemble are the wives of the Indonesian Diplomats from the Indonesian Embassy of Washington DC. Angklung is an Indonesian musical instrument, which originated from the West Java Province. It is made of two to four bamboo tubes suspended in a bamboo frame, bound with rattan cords. The bamboo tubes are especially carved so that each individual Angklung can produce an individual note. UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has recognized “Angklung,” the Indonesian bamboo musical instrument, and its music as “World Heritage.” Nowadays, this instrument is used by the people of other surrounding countries as well, i.e. the Philippines. This Angklung Ensemble and the Indonesian Embassy Ladies Association, led by Conductor Ms. Tricia Sumarijanto and Madame Reshanty Bowoleksono on the keyboard, played “Country Road” and two traditional songs: “Suwe ora jamu” and “Ilir-Ilir.”

As impressive as this whole cultural presentation of the 10 ASEAN countries was, the highlight of this event was certainly the “Angklung interactive.” Each person in the audience was given an Angklung. Then, the audience was invited to play the Angklung with the guidance of Ms. Tricia Sumarijanto. Using “hand signing,” Ms. Sumarijanto quickly taught the audience how to play the Angklung. Indeed, under Ms. Sumarijanto’s instruction, the audience produced a beautiful Angklung harmony while playing a well-known lullaby and the “Can’t Help Falling in Love” encore requested by the audience!

During the program, which was attended by an audience of more than 400 AAFSW- AWC guests, there were two sets of raffle ticket drawings. Raffle tickets were given to all guests as they entered the Auditorium by the AWC. Each of the 10 ASEAN countries had generously donated a gift to be given to 10 lucky AAFSW – AWC audience members, who were the holders of the winning raffle tickets.

This was a spectacular event, which was very well attended and received by all guests. Our AAFSW guests interacted with many other cultures and learned about other countries’ traditions, especially the traditions of the South East Asian countries. Both AAFSW and AWC enjoyed the cooperation and are ecstatic with the co-sponsorship of this event and its great success!

As Dr. Joanna Athanasopoulos Owen, AAFSW President, noted at her closing remarks while thanking the ASEAN Women’s Circle President, Madame Reshanty Bowoleksono, the 10 AWC Country Embassies and Diplomatic Personnel, the 10 AWC Country Coordinators, and the AWC Committee, especially Ms. Silalahi, Ms. Rubianti, Ms. Syukur, Ms. Harahap, and Ms. Sumarijanto, as well as the AAFSW Program Chair, Sheila Switzer, and the AAFSW Office Manager, Barbara Reioux, for their amazing work, this AAFSW event was indeed the epitome of “soft diplomacy at its best!”

Dr. Joanna Athanasopoulos Owen
AAFSW President