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Not so Far East: Festival brings Asian culture to Gwinnett

DULUTH - Bin Dai and her husband emigrated from China two decades ago, but they hold dear the customs and language of the rapidly industrializing country they left behind.

The Gwinnett Center on Saturday provided the family - Dai, her husband Yongheng Xu, and three young kids bedazzled by the drum-heavy Lion's Dance - a cultural journey without the exorbitant airline costs.

"We just want our children to experience different countries, cultures," said Dai, who made the trip from DeKalb County. "It's a learning opportunity for them."

If you dig dumplings, are hot for hibachi or savor Singha Beer, consider the Asian Cultural Experience in Duluth your cup of green tea.

Making its debut in Gwinnett, the festival is expected to draw up to 12,000 over two days for attractions that include dance performances, an array of food vendors and even a kite-making exposition. The Atlanta Botanical Gardens has hosted the previous 15 festivals.

One attendee, Rosalyn Alke, lived in Japan in the early 1980s, back when her husband was a U.S. Marine. She drove from Athens to peep at the Chinese fan dancers.

"I've been interested in Asian culture for a number of years," she said.

The event, which consumes every crook of the Gwinnett Center, is a collaboration of reps from 15 different Asian countries, from the Philippines to Nepal.

Apart from the injection this weekend of thousands of dollars to local businesses and the Gwinnett Center itself, the cultural gathering could pay Gwinnett economic dividends for years to come, said Dr. Emelita Breyer, an Emory researcher and the event's spokeswoman.

Local businesses can make or break initiatives by Georgia economic development leaders to recruit companies here from all of Asia, Breyer said. It matters that corporate heads know, for instance, they could find exotic cooking ingredients in nearby grocers, ones operated by Asian immigrants.

The festival unveils Gwinnett to business leaders who'd otherwise only pass through.

"They tend to migrate where they find a home," she said. "This kind of gives them a sense of home ... Our best ambassador to the world is our people."

Census data from several years ago show more than one-forth of Georgia's Asian and Pacific Islander population lives in Gwinnett County. Breyer believes the 2000 Census estimate of 240,000 Asians in Georgia will have doubled in a decade - neck-and-neck with Hispanics as the fastest growing group, she said.

Singing the event's praises was Sichan Siv - a former New York City cabbie from Cambodia who rose to the ranks of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 2001.

"If I were to use only one word (to describe the festival), it would be 'impressive,'" said Siv, a storied globetrotter. "This is one the best organized Asian-American communities I've met."