With the Richmond region's steady growth of foreign-born residents, international organizations may help homesick immigrants reconnect with their native culture. But for those looking to break free of the region's tight orbit and venture into foreign countries with unfamiliar customs, some of those same groups can prep you for any hurdle that may be thrown your way during travel.
The Philippine Cultural Enrichment Program ( firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com ) is the ticket if your sights are set on Southeast Asia. The program offers an excellent chance to learn the Tinikling Bamboo Dance or to update your recipe for chicken adobo, among other things. The classes, which begin in October and run until June, are organized on a first-come, first-served basis. Run by volunteers at the Our Lady of Lourdes church in Henrico County, classes meet two Fridays a month for evening sessions on basic conversational Filipino, Filipino history, traditions, music, drama and dance. Children's classes are geared toward young ones of Filipino descent, while the adult classes are open to anyone.
"After I came to the United States in 1994, I was struck with how important it is to preserve the Filipino culture. I want people to know our background," says Maria Cielo Sinsioco, who began the program in 2005 with fellow Filipino-American Ernesto Mina. The Philippine Cultural Enrichment Program culminates in August at the annual Richmond Filipino Festival, where children from the classes perform dances, dramas and song that showcase Filipino heritage.
The Caribbean is one of the top cruise ship destinations in the world, and even if you'd rather board a flight to this tropical paradise, a visit to one of the Association of Jamaicans in Richmond's (426-5000) holiday celebrations offers a quick introduction to the island's lifestyle. Honorary membership to the association is available to non-Jamaicans, providing the opportunity to be immersed in curried and jerk meats, homemade ginger beer and smooth reggae tunes. "The group began as a general Caribbean Association, but we became our own organization around 2003 so that we could share our specific culture with other groups in the community," says Eunice Green, former president of the Association of Jamaicans in Richmond.
The group does not hold regular meetings or classes, but the association's holiday festivities — particularly the Independence Celebration in early August — are fantastic ways to become accustomed to the "dinner and dance of our culture, as well as our way of communicating," says Green. "Jamaicans speak English, but people who are not Jamaican will say they can't understand a thing we are saying," she says with a laugh.
Midlothian's Spanish Academy and Cultural Institute (306-4401) was founded in 1987. With more than 20 years of experience in education, director and owner Lisa Zajur offers a variety of Spanish programs that cater to personal language needs. Industry-specific classes include "Construction Spanish," "Law Spanish" and "Hotel Spanish," while a more general "Conversational Spanish" course is offered every six weeks at the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Zajur also hosts a 12-week "Awaken the Spanish" course in the spring and fall at the University of Richmond. "In all of the courses, students learn the culture as they learn the language," says Zajur. The academy also takes an immersion program to Zacatecas, Mexico, at least once a year. "In Zacatecas, there is language training daily and you live life like a Latino for eight days," says Zajur. "It's a unique experience."
The mosque at the Islamic Center of Virginia (320-7333) is always open for those who wish to learn more about the Muslim community. Imam Ammar Amonette raves about the variety of inter-faith projects the center takes part in, particularly the Community Forum and Discussion in Remembrance of 9/11 that occurred on Sept. 11, 2011, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on East Grace Street. "These panels give people the opportunity to come and talk about issues that concern the community from the perspective of different faiths," says Amonette. The Islamic Center of Virginia also sponsors events like film showings and an open house each spring. "At our open houses, we feature food from different countries, cultural items and tours of the mosque. We are a very diverse community here, and we always try to invite as many people as possible to come along."
Sonya S. Moore joined the Irish American Society of Greater Richmond (272-4138) more than a decade ago after a trip to Ireland left her yearning for more of the culture. Now she is the president of the group. The society meets monthly at alternating libraries in the Richmond area where attendance at the meetings is free. Participants view Irish films, join in discussions of Irish food and music, and hear presentations from Irish speakers. Attendance at one of the society's Celtic festivals is also a must, where traditional Irish song and dance are paired with hearty Irish stews and spirits. "We hate the fact that the Irish are always portrayed as drunks," says Moore. "The Irish culture is so much more than that."