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Common Ground : UC Irvine was a place to explore differences and bridge gaps between cultures--and have some fun--Sunday during the Cultural Friendship Faire.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 1,500 people came to UC Irvine on Sunday not to celebrate their diversity but to share a common bond.

Organized by an American Buddhist group, the idea behind the university’s first Cultural Friendship Faire was to promote harmony among cultures in Orange County by having different ethnic groups proudly share either with food or through folk dances.

“Our intention was to start some effort to bring people of different cultures together,” said Frank Williamson, Orange County director for Soka Gakkai U.S.A., a Buddhist lay organization that promotes peace, culture and education. “When you look at the problems in the world today, they’re caused by differences between people. . . . We want to try and find more things that people have in common.”

The same theme was promoted by President Clinton in the president’s San Diego speech last week on easing racial tensions in the United States.

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And while organizers for Sunday’s event said the president’s topic was a coincidence, many at the fair said they believed there was more purpose to their attendance because of Clinton’s remarks.

Artist Fushio Nishio of Costa Mesa expressed her own sense of racial peace with a water color painting of the American Indian guide Pocahontas and Englishman John Smith.

“I drew Pocahontas because she shared a love for other people,” Nishio said of her painting, showcased near the performer’s stage. “I drew different colors on leaves around her that were symbolic of the many different types of people we have in America. I think this stuff is very important for the world, yes?”

Nishio brought both her sons, Jami, 14, and Gilbert, 18. At the fair, her sons were in charge of children’s activities such as the water balloon toss, while she helped youngsters make friendship bracelets out of different colored yarn.

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“Why so many colors on the bracelets?” Nishio asked. “Because all children know that we’re created from different colors.”

Nishio’s son Jami said he stuck with eating hot dogs rather than Greek or Mexican food that was for sale at the fair.

“This is pretty good; you meet a lot of interesting people,” Jami said.

Nationwide, there are about 330,000 Buddhists who are members of Soka Gakkai International-USA. In Orange County, there are more than 1,500 members, Williamson said.

The fair was held not as an opportunity to recruit converts, organizers said, but simply to invite residents and bridge the gap among cultures. For example, dancers and singers also were asked to bring their families as part of the event.

In a sense, it was a coming out party for the Buddhist organization’s Orange County members, who are also looking forward to the opening of the $200-million Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo.

When completed in September 2001, the 103-acre campus will become the organization’s second university in the Southland. The other campus is in Calabasas.

“We don’t want to segregate ourselves,” said Jeff Hendrix, 42, a UC Irvine graduate student in dance, who became a Buddhist in 1989. “We want people to know who we are and what we’re doing in the community.”

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For 3-year-old Ankushi Rao of Irvine, who attended the fair with his mother, Ish Rao, the fair’s purpose was easily lost while he learned how to make giant soap bubbles that flew on the wind.

“He’s having a good time,” said his mother, wearing a flowing green and fuchsia sari.

Ish Rao was with her friend Amrutha Bas of Cerritos. Both women were part of an Indian dance troupe that performed a kolata, a folk dance with sticks popular in the southern part of India.


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