Passport DC: Cultural exchange for citizen and official diplomats alike

When I first moved to Washington, D.C., my daily work commute took me straight down a section of Massachusetts Avenue known as “Embassy Row.” This length of street gets its name from the high concentration of embassies, diplomatic missions, and ambassadorial residences located in the neighborhood; regular motorcades to and from the residence of the Vice President are a frequent inconvenience for nearby residents. It was a thrill to pass these buildings everyday, and, when I would occasionally walk the route to work, I would call my mom and exclaim, “I just technically set foot in Japan! Oh wait, now I’m in South Korea!” I wish I could say this nerdy and star struck phase has passed, but I still get excited when I enter the Indonesian embassy for Bahasa Indonesia class every week.

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Visitors explore the Indonesian Embassy during Passport DC. Photo credit: Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Passport DC is the perfect experience for those, like me, who have yet to become jaded by everything that Washington, D.C., has to offer. May is “International Cultural Awareness Month” in the capital, and Passport D.C. is a month of programming in which embassies host open houses, street festivals highlight the city’s international community, and performances, exhibitions, and workshops feature cultural diversity. The flagship event of the month is the Around the World Embassy Tour, when over 40 embassies open their doors to visitors to showcase national food, art, craft, fashion, and innovations.

This year’s Embassy Tour was held on Saturday, May 7, and its popularity was evident by the long lines of people waiting to enter the embassies closest to Dupont Circle. One friend of mine waited for 30 minutes to enter the South Korean embassy, saying, “It’s like a theme park or something.” Another friend, a native Indonesian getting her Master’s degree in D.C., said, “The queue is so long that we can’t figure out where the line ends!” Once you did make it inside, though, each embassy had a different approach to showcasing their space and culture. The South Korean embassy had a Korean BBQ food truck parked in front; the Afghan embassy featured paintings, national handicrafts and fashion, and organic seeds and nuts as you walked through the open rooms; the Embassy of the Dominican Republic felt like a party, with music blasting, a costumed dancer posing with children, and free beer. Some embassies gave out swag, like a hat from Haiti or a calendar from the Dominican Republic.

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The Australian Embassy passes out Vegemite sandwiches to visitors. Photo Credit: Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

While cultural awareness and engagement is the obvious intention behind this event, my motivation in attending was to see if it was effective—did the Embassy Tour really permit meaningful cultural exchange and citizen diplomacy within these stereotypically disengaged diplomatic centers? In fact, my two richest interactions occurred outside the embassies themselves. First, the Islamic Center of Washington, a mosque and cultural center located in the middle of Embassy Row, also opened their doors for the event and calmly, but firmly, reminded visitors to cover their head and legs in respect. The staff welcomed my questions about the meaning of the five daily prayers, comparing the fifteen-minute salat to the Catholic rosary. They also shared that the Center hosts Muslims from all corners of the world, with no one region representing a majority. Second, standing in lines created the opportunity for visitors to engage with one another, trading insights into the food and experiences from other embassies they visited while chatting about their own diverse backgrounds. I met visitors who were tourists, others who were long-time D.C. residents who attend this event annually, and still others who were international students or staff who were eager to explore the other embassies.

It was a privilege to engage in these humble interactions of citizen diplomacy as we explored the traditional houses of formal diplomacy. Living in Washington, D.C. makes it easy to stumble upon these kinds of events, and I plan to do it again next weekend at the Short Cut to Europe, the EU Embassies’ open house event.

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