by Cesca Janece Watefield | Twitter @cescasings
When Pearl Fu suggested to her city leaders that there were an increasing number of residents arriving from other countries, they challenged her to bring them together.
“So I stood in the Marketplace, on street corners,” Pearl says. “As soon as I saw someone who looked like they were from a different country, I tapped them on their shoulders.”
Originally from China, Pearl has always shown dedication and out-of-the-box thinking to encourage understanding of different cultures. On March 24, the Library of Virginia will honor Pearl along with seven others as part of its 2011’s “Women in History” Program.
Pearl is largely responsible for Local Colors, a multi-cultural festival in Roanoke that began in 1990 and represented four countries. This year’s festival will take place May 21 and represent 96 countries.
“It recognizes and embraces people of diverse origins, races and ethnic backgrounds,” Pearl says. “Throughout the year, we work with schools, colleges, neighborhoods, retirement communities, government – everything you can think of – to promote multicultural understanding.”
The organization hosts year-round events including monthly tastings, and this year, a hike to benefit Haiti. The annual Festival features music, language lessons, a fashion show, food, vendors and more, as well as a special program that focuses on one nation. This year, Pearl says, organizers chose the country of Egypt.
“At the same time, we have the parade of Nations where we pay tribute to the national flag of America,” Pearl says. “Why else did you come to America if you don’t accept America as your new country? You can have both and enjoy both wonderful cultures.”
The mother of three adult daughters embraces her own fortitude. “I think [Local Colors had] something to do with opening the minds and eyes of people. I just want people to be treated as equal. People say, ‘Watch out, here comes Pearl Fu,’” she notes with a chuckle. “I am known to be fearless whenever I feel things have to be done.”
A pioneering educator, Lucy Addison (1861 – 1937) developed the first accredited high school for Roanoke’s African American community. Lucy is being honored this year by the Library of Virginia.
Looking to America
Growing up in the Yunnan Province of Southern China, young Pearl looked and listened to America. She dreamed of being a Broadway performer.
“I got hold of all things about America – books and magazines. I learned the songs and I sang them. Afterwards I found out they were jazz and blues songs.”
In the American movies she saw, Pearl remembers, “Everybody seemed free and happy and to get along. That’s what I wanted.”
She got her chance to experience the U.S. when she was accepted by Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music. She married one week after graduation to a man originally from Northern China.
She and her husband lived in Baltimore until they moved to Virginia in 1986. To meet her new neighbors, Pearl knocked on doors and offered them home-baked Chinese bread.
“Keep your heritage alive,” Pearl says. “Be proud of your heritage,” she says. “You can be American as well as hold onto your heritage.”
Until recently, few would have known that Pearl suffers from Parkinson’s disease and other health complications that cause pain. Some days, her pain is severe. But she keeps going, organizing and talking to anyone she meets.
“I’m the kind that has to keep moving and doing something or else I will collapse,” she says. “I feel there’s so much to be done. Once I get one thing going, I move on to the next challenge. I love challenges and to be able to do something that makes a difference. That’s what keeps me going.”
Pearl will be honored March 24 at the Library of Virginia. “I just do things whenever I think they’re necessary and I do things from my heart,” she says. “I didn’t expect any praise or honor. But I am very honored to receive this.”