I think I've needed to write this article for over a decade.
It's a conversation that I had with my close friend and partner in crime back when we were knee-deep in our own student organizations. He was Director of our Asian Pacific Coalition, while I was President of our Nikkei Student Union (NSU). We had spent several years bouncing around Southern California, checking out all the culture/cultural nights/shows put on by fellow NSUs and Asian American groups on campus.
Each show had its own flair, its own unique story, and of course, its own budget. But a peculiar thing we noticed in our conversations with club leaders and show producers is that no one seemed 100% satisfied with their productions. Even for myself, I distinctly remember feeling satisfied and accomplished after our NSU Cultural Night had concluded, only to then go to the on-campus Korean Culture Night (KCN) the following week and marveling at the production value, the set, the costumes, and the corporate sponsors. Just a single look at their 60-page program booklet nearly wiped away all the pride I had in our own production; I just remember thinking… "wow, we have a long way to go."
It's this kind of thought that I think really misses the point.
But before we move on... here's a little video from what I call "the good 'ol days."
During that senior year, I remember my friend and I interacting with leaders from the various API groups on campus and with NSUs from across the state. We would hear things like, "our goal is to get our culture night to a $10,000 budget," or "I want to elevate our culture night to be more like [insert club here]." The more we heard this said, the more we realized that the rhetoric around culture nights needed to change.
I had fully intended to write an article about this at the time… but then graduation happened, life, and a platform like Yo! didn't exist.
Culture Nights are Back
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Culture Show put on by UCSD's NSU. With schools back in person, clubs have now had a couple of years to bring their culture nights back to real life.
Three of our Yo! Interns were involved with that show. But, peculiarly again, while the first sentence from them was "you should totally come out and watch our Culture Show," it was always quickly followed up by a second sentence, "but, don't have big expectations."
It was a reminder to me that it was time to finally put this article down on paper.
The Ingredients for a Great Culture Night (there’s only two)
The show was fantastic. I loved every minute of it. It really personified the two primary ingredients for a great CN, and actually, those two tenets are right here within the mission statement that appears in their program booklet.
Requirement 1: Did it bring your members closer together?
Just like the mission shown above, the purpose of on-campus organizations is to build community by bringing together students with shared interests and passions.
Witnessing their members share laughter, good-natured teasing, and support was the best part of the show. As the night drew to a close, Erin (CS Producer) and Sarah (President) took to the stage to give their closing remarks. They went through a comprehensive list of all the peers who had contributed to the success of the show and reflected on what it meant to the club. Requirement one fulfilled.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the CN comparison game that we sometimes forget the core purpose of the show and the core purpose of the club. It’s about the members. Remember that the fruits of your labor rest in the community you’ve built through the experience.
Requirement 2: Did you Educate?
The second part of the mission promotes awareness of JA culture, history, and issues. Education is not predicated on the size of the budget or production. Think about some of the best lessons you’ve learned from others; in many cases, it’s from those that you know and trust. Because culture night is a gathering of people that know and trust your club, you have an audience that’s ready to learn.
As the club shared stories of personal identity and community preservation, I heard concepts like gentrification, supporting small businesses, and exploring student organizations. The show did a fantastic job of offering insight into our community's concepts and struggles.
One last example to illustrate the point. Here’s a BuzzFeed list of ridiculously costly movies that flopped at the box office and a list of low-budget films that won Oscars. Great stories and worthwhile education can come in all shapes and sizes.
So Get in the Right Mindset.
The next time you're at one of the CNs of your fellow clubs, forget the size of the program booklet, the number of sponsors, or the size of the venue and instead, remember these two requirements: build community and educate your audience.
If you've already completed your culture night for this year, feel proud of yourself and know that so many others of us are also proud of you.
I told our interns that I had big expectations for their show, and they delivered on all of them. Let's make every culture night an opportunity to create meaningful connections and expand our understanding of different cultures. By prioritizing community building and education, we can make a lasting impact on our members and audiences alike. Keep up the great work, and let's continue to showcase the richness and diversity of our communities.
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