Category Archives: Cultural Awareness Fellowship Group

Russia — Up Close & Personal

submitted by Sharyn Alden; photo by Mark Moody

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From left: Helen Bryan (chef of the Russian cuisine), Al Bryan, Majid Sarmadi, UW-Madison Professor Polina Levchenko & UW-Madison Professor Yoshiko Herrera

On March 28, Rotarians were treated to a bountiful buffet and an evening of programs when the Cultural Awareness Fellowship Group met at Heritage Oaks, Oakwood to explore Russian culture.

The marvelous buffet, prepared by Al Bryan’s wife, Helen, included such Russian specialties as borsch, chicken and beef in bread crumbs (otbivnaya) and Russian cabbage stuffed with ground beef in tomato sauce (golubtsy). After enjoying plates of pasties, the programs began.

Travel Highlights

The first portion of the evening, “Russia from a Tourist Point of View,” was presented by UW-Professor Polina Levchenko.  Before viewing a variety of hand-picked places of interest, we gained an overview of this vast country’s history, and a window into its art, architecture, culture and fascinating facts.

For example, the Russian Federation is comprised of a dizzying mix of 190 ethnicities, 21 national republics and nine time zones.

Levchenko’s tour was introduced as some of Russia’s most important places to visit. Yet these spots are often overlooked, off the beaten path or simply not available to those traveling via a guided tour.

We started with Moscow’s subway system. You could hear the audible gasp in the room when Levchenko’s photos showed what you might miss if you don’t journey underground. I can attest to the extraordinary sights seen below –massive paintings, sparkly chandeliers and art abound when you reach tunnels below.

First, we journeyed to the Veliky neighborhood Novgorod, the birthplace of literacy, Levchenko noted. We saw a setting where the Eternal Flame was the focus. Levchenko pointed out an Eternal Flame is found in every town in Russia so people can pay gratitude for the peace of today.

Before dinner I shared a few photos of my visit to mystical Kizhi Island in northern Russia with its rare collection of massive, onion-domed wooden churches and buildings. The story goes that one man with an ax created these masterpieces. Continuing the tour of memorable, offbeat places, it was wonderful to see Levchenko include this magical place in her itinerary.

Continuing the magic, we moved on to Lake Baikal in Siberia north of the Mongolian border. The massive, crystal clear lake, circled by hiking trails, is considered to be the deepest lake in the world.

Trending -Russian-U.S. Relations

Next, our evening transitioned to political science with UW-Madison Professor, Yoshiko Herrera, presenting the timely topic, “US-Russia Relations –Challenges and Opportunities.” She provided insight into political relations between Russia and the U.S.

In response to the question, “Are we seeing a new Cold War?, Herrera noted, “We no longer have a bi-polar world, and in fact, the threat of nuclear war is probably lower today.” Yet she went on to explain that distrust between the two super powers –U.S and Russia is very high.

As an example she noted that since 2014, the Department of Defense does not allow students to study abroad in Russia, which is especially discouraging for students including those at UW-Madison who have spent years learning to speak Russian and honing their knowledge about the country.

In conjunction with this point, Herrera said, “About 25% of offices at the Department of Defense are unfilled and this has been a factor in the breakdown of relationships between the two countries.”

Other areas of interest Herrera referred to as “underappreciated facts” is this one. Unlike what some may think, “Putin does not reside over a seamless, well-oiled regime.”  She went on to say there is a fragility in the region (Russia), economic decline, and an anti-Americanism sentiment.

Still, she ended the program on a positive note when she said, “There are opportunities to improve U.S.-Russian relations.”

Korean Culture Night for Rotarians & Guests

submitted by Sharyn Alden; photos by Donna Beestman

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On March 22nd, Rotarians convened at the beautifully appointed Gathering Room at Nolen Shore Condos for “Korean Night,” a Cultural Awareness Fellowship event. Cocktails were served, complements of our hosts, Soyeon Shim, Dean of UW School of Human Ecology, and Christopher Choi, UW Professor, Biological Systems Engineering.

We were treated to a bountiful buffet of Korean dishes catered by Sol’s on the Square. The challenge was not to overload each plate as the choices were intriguing and many. When Soyeon gave us a preview of the menu, she noted table-top cooking is common in Korea. I heard diners rave about the sweet potato noodles, a seafood, pancake-like presentation with soy sauce, bean sprouts and spinach steamed with sesame oil, and a wonderful surprise –potato salad with cucumbers.

Not surprising, but equally inviting, was the dish that most of us knew at least by name –kimchi a traditional, somewhat spicy Korean dish of fermented vegetables, often including cabbage and daikon radish.

At the end of the meal, another surprise:  a plate full of delicious cream puffs, made by our event organizer, Majid Sarmadi, was the perfect touch!

The after dinner program was a thoughtful, insightful “storyboard” culled from about 80 slides highlighting Korean culture. It was presented by our hosts who met in the U.S., but each was born and raised in Korea.

We learned that South Korea, about 30 minutes by air from Japan, is surrounded by “big power.” Soyeon’s mother lives within about 20 miles from North Korea, but the hosts said people in South Korea, for the most part, go about their daily lives without constantly looking over their shoulder.

The country which is about the size of Indiana has the 11th largest economy in the world. “We don’t have any natural resources,” Soyeon said. “Our resources are human resources.”

She illustrated that by noting that 80 percent of high school grads go on to college. “The country is obsessed with education,” she said. But that level of stress comes with a price. Of the 35 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea is No. 1 in suicides.

For those thinking of visiting South Korea, photos of the country’s beautiful landscape were stunning, magical and alluring.  First-time visitors might also see people bowing to each other. “This is one way we show respect for each other; in business and in personal relationships,” said Soyeon.

So much to learn in an evening, but it was a great start to discovering the intricacies of Korean culture.

Nowruz – A Celebration of the Iranian New Year

–submitted by Joyce Bromley; photos by Ted & Joan Ballweg

Iranian New Year Celebration 016Who could not use some Nowruz (celebration of spring and annual renewal)?  Majid Sarmadi brought the rich Iranian new year celebration to the Cultural Awareness Fellowship Group and their guests in this year of 2595.  This 3000 year Persian tradition is a celebration of renewal and hope with prepared foods that represent the seven angelic heralds.  Hyacinth (one of the first flowers of spring) brings beauty and its fragrance permeated the room.  The eloquently set table was a sight to behold.  Garlic bulbs decorated with a string of tiny pearls bring good health; vinegar takes a long time to make and requires patience; a beautiful tureen of sprouts (lentils) prosperity—good harvest and a year without hunger; elaborately decorated eggs promise fertility–rebirth; goldfish swimming in a bowl, a symbol of life; the illumination of candle-light brings happiness—good over evil; fresh fruit and sweets bring joy; and we ended with a taste of ground sweet sumac.  A book of poetry lay open reminding us of the eloquent Persian language.  This was the experience of haft sin and only the beginning of the evening.

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After an enthralling slide show of Iran–the culture, the geography, and its people—we traveled the gastronomic route.  Appetizers of eggplant paté, and hummus; a table display of basmati rice with saffron, casserole of assorted beans, braised eggplant with filet mignon; saffron chicken; and basmati rice with lima beans and dill—all of which were as sumptuous as they were beautiful.  All of these delicacies were entirely prepared by Majid.  Oh yes, the desserts!  Cream puffs (made earlier in the day), fresh fruit, rice-flour cookies, cardamom muffins, sohan (almond toffee), were enjoyed with a cup of tea.  At the end of the evening Majid gave us a gift to extend the evening.  We each received a freshly pressed one-dollar bill for good luck.

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We became Majid’s extended family and together we celebrated the joy of friendship in the Persian tradition and are richer for the experience.

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Israel Night: Learning About the Country’s Culture, Food, Religion, & More

–submitted by Jocelyn Riley; photos by Jason Beren


Two dozen Rotarians attended our Rotary Club’s Cultural Awareness Fellowship Event Israel Night on Thursday, January 26, at UW Hillel / The Barbara Hochberg Center for Jewish Student Life on Langdon Street in Madison.  We were treated to a delicious kosher buffet meal of falafel, chicken shawarma, hummus, Israeli salad, pita bread, tahini, and desserts including mandelbread, chocolate and cinnamon rugelach, and “Prussian ears.”  The meal was prepared by Adamah Neighborhood Table, which also runs a restaurant in the Hillel building.

After dinner, Rotarian Lester Pines gave a presentation on the history and culture of Israel.  Lester opened by telling us some details about his own relationship to Israel (which is, he pointed out, about the size of New Jersey).  At the age of 16, Lester spent 9 weeks in Israel in the summer of 1966 (the year before the momentous war of 1967).  When he returned many years later to the place where he had stayed in 1966, at first Lester could not recognize the spot.  Where there had once been small saplings surrounding the building, there was now a forest of large trees, part of Israel’s extensive “reforestation” effort.


Lester then led us through some highlights of Israeli culture and customs.  Lester pointed out that Israel is home to many people from a wide variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, including people from Western Europe, Central Europe and Asia, and Africa.  Migration to Israel from so many parts of the world has influenced how life there has evolved.  Lester pointed to the mass migration of about a million people from Russia to Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a transformative event in Israeli life.  Many of the Russian Jews who left to avoid persecution were highly educated scientists.  Once in Israel, they initiated scientific work that transformed Israel into “Silicon Wadi,” parallel to America’s Silicon Valley.  Even though the bulk of Israel is located in a desert (the Negev) on a salty sea, its economy had for many years been based on agriculture.  The newly arrived scientists began working on projects that led to Israel becoming the world leader in desalination of saltwater and to developing a strain of potatoes that can be irrigated with saltwater.

Lester closed with a description of an Israeli festival called Purim, based on the biblical book of Esther.  When he showed pictures of people in costumes at a Purim festival, people in the audience spontaneously called out, “It looks like carnival,” and “It looks like Halloween.”  Lester agreed that even though Purim in based in ancient texts, it’s a contemporary festival just for fun.

Cultural Awareness Group at VIP Asian Cuisine

–submitted by Sharyn Alden; photos by Donna Beestman

VIP Chinese 1On April 7 the Cultural Awareness Fellowship Group met at VIP Asian Cuisine on Madison’s West side for a lively evening starting with a buffet dinner featuring several different dishes of Asian cuisine. Following a dessert of various ice cream choices ala Asian-style (this Rotarian sampled a delicious rendition of green tea ice cream), we pulled up chairs to enjoy an enlightening presentation about Chinese culture, Feng Shui and Chinese brush painting from Wei Dong, UW-Madison professor, artist and designer.

Professor Dong, who has been in the U.S. for 30 years and became a Professor a UW-Madison in 2000, heads the Design Studies Department of the School of Human Ecology. Within the first 2 weeks of being in the Midwest he visited Frank Lloyd’s masterpiece, Fallingwater” in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. He gravitated to the Midwest, and especially Madison because of his strong interest in the design elements of the architects, I.M. Pei and Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I was greatly influenced by them in my constant search of learning how opposite elements connect in combination with balance, nature and harmony,” Professor Dong said. “Everything has two opposites,” he said. “I look at everything this way –how elements construct and deconstruct each other. This is a philosophical life approach.”

He continued his presentation by talking about the concept of opposites in ying and yang the affect it has in Feng Shui. Summing up the complexity of invisible energy and balance, he said, “You can teach Feng Shui in 5 minutes but it takes 50 years to practice.”

VIP Chinese 4The piece de resistance of the evening came next. Professor Dong demonstated how he paints using more than one piece of rice paper layered on top of each other. This approach leaves much to the imagination on the back of the first sheet of paper as well as other layers. “Why draw everything?” he asked. “The Western way of drawing is more focused than Chinese art,” he noted. He showed that with examples of the same scene drawn from both the Chinese and western approach.

He added that drawing on both sides of the paper is the ying and yang approach. Then he provided examples of how Chinese paintings allow for spaces between various design elements instead of focuses on every detail. The point, he said is to intrigue the imagination.

For those who have not discovered the beauty of Professor Dong’s inspirational art, you can experience it at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMOCA) during a one-of-a-kind design showcase April 30-May 8 featuring a collection of exciting work from top designers. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

Cultural Awareness Group at KJ’s Curry Bowl on June 30

–submitted by Melanie Ramey; photo by Majid Sarmadi


The Cultural Awareness Fellowship met on June 30th at KJ’s Curry Bowl on Madison’s west side to experience Sri Lankan food and learn about Sri Lanka. There was time for fellowship before the meal.  Twenty-three Rotarians and guests attended. A interesting buffet was served featuring 2 tasty appetizers and 2 different curries and rice,  concluding with mango ice cream and a unique pudding.  In addition to coffee and tea, a special Sri Lankan drink of avacado was offered.

Following dinner, the owner’s sister spoke to the group about Sri Lanka, from the time it was under British colonial rule until 1972 it was known as Ceylon..  It is an ancient country of 20 million people located in South Asia near South-east India. Its documented history is 3000 years old with some pre-historic relics dating back 125,000 years.  The country was involved in a 30 year civil war that ended in 2009 .  It is a republic with a presidential system.

Sri Lanka is a diverse multicultural country with many religions, ethnic groups and languages. It has a long Buddhist tradition dating back to 29 BC.  Coffee, tea, gemstones, coconuts and cinnamon are the primary products that are grown and produced.  A film was shown revealing the natural beauty of the country.  The speaker also shared some of her personal experiences when she came to the US in adjusting to the cultural differences.  It was a very pleasant, interesting evening.