Culture Nights At UCI: Redefining Culture

Photo provided by Kababayan at UCI

Edited by Sydney Huang

Take a stroll through anywhere on campus and you’ll find small reminders of why you probably decided to come to UCI. “#3 Best College in the U.S. – Money,” ”29 Graduate Programs ranked in the nation’s top 50 – U.S. News & World Report,” and of course, “#1 university doing the most for the American dream – The New York Times.” 

The American dream has become an identity marker for most first-generation students coming from immigrant families. It reverberates through us as a constant mantra, always telling us, “you can make it too.” The fantasy of becoming the first college graduate in the family, having a stable job and income, and rooting a family in America is what many of us have been expected to achieve. However, the American dream is just that—a dream. It’s an idealized lifestyle that may not fit every single first-generation kid’s own ideal future. Instead of a dream, it can become a constant source of stress, pinging in the back of their heads like a notification they can’t swipe away because their parents serve as a constant reminder that they need to fulfill that specific American dream.

The Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) is one of the many cultural clubs on campus that hosts their own culture night. Most culture nights honor the prospective culture through intricate choreography and traditional clothing; however, many also stage plays or skits. Each culture club creates their own distinct performance but there is one theme that courses through almost all skits: the main character constantly stands behind the wall of expectations that their parents have built for them, brick by brick. 

“The child knows what’s best for themselves and they should do what they love, but when the parent doesn’t let them, they restrict their child, so they have to start lying and [that] creates a disparity [in] the relationship,” Michael Mac, director of VSA’s culture night, said. 

Mac also mentioned how a number of members would be performing their last culture night with VSA, not due to their own volition but due to their parents’. This is a narrative that closely resembles the one VSA tells in their skit wherein the main character joins a dance team, completely disregarding their own father’s demands. Through similar narratives, culture clubs such as VSA are attempting to reconcile with their own families by tearing down the wall that separates them through a theatrical and performative outlet. This narrative that each member participates in not only shows their respect for their culture but also forces their families to acknowledge the shift in what aspects of their culture the younger generation values.

Google “culture” and you’ll get, “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” This definition maintains the focus of culture as a form of history rather than as an ever-changing shift of social expectations and attitudes that UCI’s cultural clubs are making moves to showcase. 

Pratima Khunte, culture show director for the Indian Subcontinental Club (ISC)’s culture night, calls the club a “home away from home.” She recalls how most Asian Americans feel lost after moving out of their homes—homes which are saturated with their culture through language, food and, most of all, family. “We move out of our house,” Khunte said, “and we need a place to connect.” 

Although they might have left their parents, siblings and cousins in their hometowns, ISC has become a sort of extended family for Khunte and other members. It became a safe space to connect with parts of their history they never experienced in their own households and gave them the opportunity to relearn their history, reinterpret and redefine it through culture night. 

There is a sort of intersectionality between UCI’s culture clubs wherein each club interpolates culture into their present college experience as opposed to exclusively focusing on traditions. There’s a mixture of traditional dance, dashes of their respective foreign languages and extravagant costumes encompassed with urban dance scenes, music and, of course, relatable memes. 

It is through culture clubs that students are able to redefine their voice within their culture. All cultures are evolving and will continue to change from generation to generation as traditions are interpreted through different lenses. Shionne Matsuda and Brandon Dere—the directors of Tomo No Kai, the Japanese and Japanese American culture club on campus—look towards culture night as a way “to represent our culture and the many different facets and characteristics of it.” As a result, they’ve found “a better understanding and appreciation for the things that may otherwise go unnoticed.” 

Not every person of color will have an experience of their culture that precisely mirrors one another—meaning, there will always be more stories to tell that will continue to propel culture nights. Hopefully, more people will make strides to reconnect with their culture here at UCI to help cultivate more diverse stories that need to be told. For example, Kababayan, a Pilipinx American culture club, spotlighted a lesbian couple and explored topics of internalized homophobia stemmed from familial expectations for their culture night. Culture night has evolutionized to become an avenue for minorities to gather, discuss and empower each other. 

The members of VSA, ISC, Tomo No Kai, Kababayan and more, may not be related by blood, but the bond they create through culture night may sometimes be stronger and just as everlasting. 

Jin Hee Park is a third-year English and Criminology, Law, & Society double major, and the Opinion Co-Editor for the New University. She can be reached at jinhp7@uci.edu.