ST. PETERSBURG — A balmy breeze ripples dozens of flags from around the world. It's the kind of evening that makes Ching Lacey love Florida.
Standing under a white tent Friday night, the 5-foot Chinese woman explains how she came to Vinoy Park, where the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society hosts its annual festival this weekend.
The SPIFFS fair brings together people from different nationalities to teach the public — youngsters in particular — about world culture.
Lacey moved to New York City from Hong Kong almost 30 years ago to attend graduate school. She later moved to Florida, where she found both the weather and the people were warm.
"Wherever I go, I see people smile at me," she says. "There's always things going on. I don't feel lonely."
Around her at the fair Friday night, a jazz and blues band introduces its members, including one from Africa by way of Alabama and another from Trinidad by way of New Jersey.
Along the sidewalks, dealers hawk their wares: dream catchers with feathers, sparkly bangles, hundreds of beaded necklaces.
Tents offer a variety of foods, such as spicy pad thai, samples of Cuban sandwiches and even the fair staple of fried Twinkies.
And on the main stage, a man talks about Russian nesting dolls as a polka band takes the stage.
It's the usual scene at the SPIFFS fair, St. Petersburg's own version of It's a Small World, which started in 1975.
Bill Parsons, SPIFFS vice president, said the fair usually draws about 25,000 people. He most enjoys seeing older folks sharing their heritage with youngsters. Parsons, a representative of the Russian heritage group, attended the first SPIFFS fair.
Lacey, 59, who teaches tai chi and is the principal of a Chinese culture and language school in Clearwater, has come to the fair for about 10 years.
When she was in her 20s in China, she was in a car accident that dislocated both shoulders and made it hard for her to raise her arms.
After about a year of treatment from a European doctor, she started tai chi and got better. She concluded that people should take the best from Western and Eastern cultures.
"You should learn from both," she said.
Now, she uses the master's degree in economics she earned at a New York college to blend her livelihood with her love. In her school, she teaches the language to adopted Chinese children and their parents. She teaches tai chi and qigong in Seminole to students as young as 15 and as old as 80.
One student, David Patterson, 59, of Clearwater, started at her studio about a year and a half ago. Patterson volunteers at the fair and says Lacey's teachings have improved everything he does.
"It just worked out that it seems I have a natural gift for qigong," he said. "It was quite a surprise for me."
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.