2019-03-01 / Features

A Fare Share

The State College Culture Exchange Group brings together residents of diverse backgrounds to explore different cultures and cuisines.
By Stephanie Koons | Photos By Matt Fern

The community room at Mount Nittany Residences took on a Mediterranean flavor on Jan. 6 as Sureyya Yesim Baysan Kalabak, a native of Turkey, took charge of the kitchen. She was demonstrating to a group of about 25 people — all part of the State College Culture Exchange Group — how to cook a signature Turkish dish: mercimek çorbası (red lentil soup) and bulghur pilaf.

Assisted by a few helpers, Kalabak combined lentils, broth, onions, carrots, garlic, tomato paste and cumin in a large aluminum pot. As the soup simmered on the stove, she sautéed chopped onions, peppers and tomatoes, then added the bulghur to the vegetable mix — sans any measuring tools.
“It is my eyes that measure, sorry,” she quipped to the group of local and international residents who were gathered around the kitchen to watch her demonstration.

After the lentil soup was blended and the bulghur fully cooked, the group formed a line around the counter to help themselves to the bright orange stew and whole-grain pilaf. They garnished their dishes with cumin — a “digestion spice,” according to Kalabak — and a sauce made with mint from Kalabak’s backyard and Greek-style yogurt.

“This can be found in a Turkish household on any given weeknight,” said Mehmet Bayar, Kalabak’s son. “It’s a very quick meal.”

The cooking demonstration was one of many events organized by the multicultural club, which formed in November 2017 through the online group-organizing platform Meetup ( Everyone in the community — regardless of age or nationality — is welcome to attend the events.

The group’s organizer, Qian Zhang, a native of China and a civil engineer at Sweetland Engineering & Associates in State College, says she simply wanted to gather a group of people who were interested in exploring different cultures. Since then, attendance at club events has grown from a small handful to drawing crowds of up to 50 people.

While the Culture Exchange Group hosts a variety of events, the most popular gatherings include cooking demonstrations such as Kalabak’s, and storytelling sessions in which members present slideshows that illustrate their native culture and/or personal history. The group welcomes varied perspectives — members have told stories such as a hitchhiking trip by a Russian couple across the former USSR, a background of Pennsylvania Dutch culture and an account of a historic earthquake in Peru by a former Peace Corps volunteer. The group has participated in activities such as a traditional meal at an Amish family’s home in Rebersburg, an Indian dance performance on Penn State’s campus and an authentic Colombian breakfast at a member’s home.

“It’s not a cult or we try to persuade you to buy our products,” Zhang jokes. “It’s just, come and eat stuff and have fun!”

For Kalabak, the Culture Exchange Group has been a way of connecting with people while she stays in State College to help her son, a U.S. Marine, take care of his own son. Kalabak, who arrived in Centre County in September 2017, met Zhang at an event sponsored by Global Connections, a community-based nonprofit organization affiliated with the Centre County United Way and Penn State with the mission to promote intercultural understanding.

Since joining the group, Kalabak says she has found new and unexpected ways of connecting with the local culture. Recently, the Culture Exchange Group took a tour of the Columbus Chapel and Boal Mansion Museum in Boalsburg. Kalabak found some of the artifacts to be similar to Turkish objects (some of which she owns) and engaged in a conversation with the docent after the tour was completed.
Her son, Bayar, who came to the United States 12 years ago, joined the Marines after graduating from the University of Central Florida. He and Kalabak will leave State College to move to North Carolina this summer when he is transferred. Because he is not affiliated with Penn State, he says he didn’t really have an opportunity to meet people from different cultures in the three years he’s lived here. The Culture Exchange Group has helped fill that void.

“My favorite thing in the world is eating other people’s food, other cultures’ food, so this group has brought me a lot of joy on that end,” he says.

According to Sally Des Marais, an original member of the Culture Exchange Group, one of the main benefits of the group is being able to connect with people from different cultures through the common language of English. Des Marais, who has lived in State College for several decades since she was a sophomore at Penn State, had many opportunities to explore other countries while working in the travel business. But, she says, there was always a communication barrier.
“Even when I traveled to other countries, you couldn’t interact with the natives because you didn’t understand the language,” she says. “So I have to say that’s a plus with this group — you can all understand each other!”

For Millie Rodriguez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and was born and raised in Queens, New York, the Culture Exchange Group has been a means of retaining some of the multicultural flavor of her upbringing. Rodriguez, who has lived in Centre County since 2014 and works as an administrative support assistant for Penn State’s Department of African American Studies, says she has always been passionate about diversity and was excited to find the Culture Exchange Group through Facebook.
“I attend the events purely for selfish reasons because I just need, for myself to be happy, to be able to meet new people who are of different cultures just so I can feel sane, I think,” she says.

Rodriguez says she commonly encounters misconceptions about authentic Puerto Rican cuisine and would like to clear up some of that confusion by hosting a Puerto Rican cooking event through the Culture Exchange Group within the next few months.

“I’d like to be a myth-buster and talk about what real Puerto Rican food is like and what is the history of the Puerto Rican people that brought them to have that food tradition,” she says.

For the Rev. Bret Myers, a former pastor of Faith United Church of Christ in State College, the Culture Exchange Group has been an opportunity for him to extend his knowledge of foreign cultures. While he was a pastor at Faith United Church of Christ, he arranged for the group to be able to use the church basement for events — including a slideshow presentation on Jan. 13 by German native and State College resident Lexi Persiko about her experiences living and traveling throughout Europe with her family.

Myers, who traveled across the United States with his family as a child, says those early experiences spurred his curiosity to tour Europe later in life.

“The more that I travel, the more I recognize the common humanity of all of us,” he says.
Rachel Ginder, a production assistant at Penn State University Press and a freelance writer, was one of the original members of the Culture Exchange Group and has seen the group grow in popularity in the past year. She says she particularly enjoys events when group members prepare meals from their native cultures in their homes, such as a Turkish-Indonesian fusion event that was hosted last summer by Ann Kusnadi, a local business owner from Indonesia.

Ginder, who has lived in Pennsylvania all her life but has traveled to a few European countries, says the Culture Exchange Group has inspired her to travel even more.

“State College is a very interesting place to live because I’ve met so many people from different countries,” she says. “It’s a great way to learn and just meet people and make friends from different cultures.” •SCM


The dishes shared at the meetups are as diverse as the group itself.

Sayur Lodeh
Jollof Rice
West Africa
Imam Bayildi

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