Culture on campus: Cultural nights at UO allow students to share their heritage
Leaving home is a huge transition for many college students. It’s one thing for students to leave behind their mother’s home cooking, the familiarity of their rooms and the comfort of their families. But for others, leaving home means leaving behind part of themselves.
At the University of Oregon, ASUO funds multicultural groups in its efforts to host celebrations devoted to showcasing the unique heritage of students from across the globe.
Throughout the year, UO students and Eugene citizens gather on campus to celebrate a variety of cultures through events hosted by UO’s international student groups. These culture nights give the people of Eugene a glimpse at the range of minority cultures found in the city and on UO’s campus that are often underrepresented within the larger community.
Video produced by Eric Schucht.
“I think these events, first and foremost, create a space for cultures and the people who identify as part of those cultures that are usually a minority,” said Yue “Adam” Shen, a UO student from China.
Shen is the ASUO international student advocate. She helps international student groups strengthen their communities and highlight the richness of their cultures within the campus community and Eugene at large.
Here at UO, students from over 100 countries, who total 12.7 percent of the student population, are all categorized by the registrar as only “international students.” Cultural nights allow these students and those with deep cultural ties to express their heritage with any of their interested peers.
Many student groups such as the Japanese Student Organization (JSO) and the Students of the Indian Subcontinent (SIS) host culturally focused events as opportunities to share their cultural heritage with the Eugene community and stay close to their roots while away from home.
Vikas Mankala and Nishan Senthirajah, co-vice presidents of the SIS and first-generation immigrants (children of immigrants to the U.S.), feel it’s important to seek out those cultural ties as part of the UO community.
“Being in the United States, we’re a little bit removed from India and that area,” Mankala said. “I really want to stick with my cultural roots. The mission of the club is to spread Indian culture throughout campus and raise awareness of different cultural elements.”
Mankala and Senthirajah know first-hand the effort it takes to put together events as co-vice presidents of SIS. The SIS holds three major cultural events throughout the year. They host Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights celebration, during the fall. In winter term they host several Bollywood movie nights to help immerse students in Indian culture. But the group’s largest event takes place during spring term and is called Utsav, which is the Sanskrit word for celebration.
“I grew up with [Indian Culture] very much ingrained in my upbringing. Being away from home when you go to college, you’re not with your parents and family anymore,” said Senthirajah. “You’re exposed to almost a different side of reality and it’s good to be involved with an organization that keeps you aware and appreciative of your cultural background.”
Utsav generally involves an afternoon of performances before serving a meal, which the SIS usually arranges to be catered by a local Indian restaurant, usually Taste of India or Evergreen. Many other events, such as Japan Night, work with campus catering to arrange a culturally themed meal, but the SIS uses nearby restaurants for a more authentic spread.
SIS is reviewing auditions to see who will perform at this year’s Utsav event, which usually involves various song and dance routines. Last year, the SIS even arranged for comedian Hasan Minhaj from the “Daily Show” to come to campus and perform his “Homecoming King” comedy routine about his life as a first-generation immigrant.
According to Cathy Webster, co-president of the Japanese Student Organization, events like these are also important to the campus community because they bring attention to the many diverse student groups across campus.
“It’s a way for people to be proud of their culture and where they and their families have come from and really share that with the rest of the students at UO,” Webster said.
On Feb. 19, students, Eugenians and their families waited patiently in a line that curled around the foyer outside of the EMU Ballroom for the annual Japan Night celebration. The line stayed full until the event sold out and those still waiting were turned away.
Inside, the room was filled with tables covered in Japanese snacks, candy and glowing paper lanterns. In the back, there were several stations with traditional Japanese games and activities, such as origami and a hachimaki headband making table. These caught the attention of visiting children and adults alike.
Over the course of the evening, there were a variety of performances inspired by Japanese culture, including dance performances by Duck Street Dance Club and a taiko drum performance by student group Ahira Daiko.
The night began with children from Yujin Gakuen Elementary, Eugene’s local Japanese immersion school, singing and playing Japanese hand drums. The entire audience later competed for prizes by playing Janken, the Japanese equivalent of rock-paper-scissors. Then, Theresa Wanner, a sophomore journalism student at UO, sang “Hanamizuki,” one of Japan’s most popular karaoke songs, while wearing a flowery, black kimono.
Halfway through the night, performances paused for an intermission so performers and attendees could enjoy a ramen buffet provided by campus catering. Performers and attendees crowded around the buffet line, scooping long tangled noodles into bowls and garnishing their meals with a variety of toppings.
As the night went on, the audience remained engrossed with the performances, games and cultural fare. At one table in particular, Tim Lutz and his wife Cindy Lutz sat — with Tim proudly wearing a hachimaki headband adorned with the word “Emperor” written in Japanese — enjoying the night’s events. Tim and Cindy attended the night’s festivities to support their daughter Lily Lutz, a senior at UO studying Japanese language.
Although Lily is not Japanese herself, she has been involved with the JSO for the last two years, and according to her father, has had a natural interest in Japanese culture since she first learned to read. Lily regards events like Japan Night as “a great opportunity to interact with Japanese culture.” She thinks involvement with groups like the JSO is a great way to experience and share a different culture.
Students and members of the Eugene community alike can look forward to several more culture night events this year. This year’s Utsav will take place during week five of spring term, and Africa Night, hosted by the African Student Association, will be on June 3. Keep an eye on the UO events calendar for more.
“These culture nights are like highlights, where you can see cultures that aren’t usually seen in the mainstream majority,” Yue “Adam” Shen said. “It gives them a chance, on this campus particularly, to be in the spotlight.”
Video produced by Eric Schucht.