In writing this, my point is concise, so I’m just going to give it to you straightaway. We need to stop putting on culture shows. Now.
This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend two culture shows, the first being the Lunar New Year (LNY) Celebration put on by a few Asian identity groups and houses, and the second being Jubilee, put on by Ujamaa during Black History Month. Both productions were well done (although being an organizer in the LNY Celebration does make be a bit biased), and you could tell the amount of time, planning, and practice went into each of those shows.
What’s the point of putting on a culture show? As I stood backstage at the LNY Celebration, all I kept thinking the entire time was that I spent all my time putting work into a production with the goal of putting my culture on the stage, or to “teach” my culture to the audience.
And as I looked out on the audience, I was even more disappointed. Why were we putting on this culture show (essentially a Chinese culture show) to a sea of yellow faces? Why were we putting on this teaching moment for people who are not necessarily the ones that need to be taught?
To be fair, the audience was not only Asians. There did exist a limited and almost hesitant diversity in the crowd.
From a piece they wrote on Wesleying, Christian Hosam and Maurice Hill write,
Black History Month, as it stands on campus, is a performative activity.
And while the purpose of their writing doesn’t address exactly what I’m saying here, that point they made should resonate, as the word choice in that sentence speaks volumes. And for me, you could replace “Black History Month” to apply this idea to our LNY Celebration as well.
It’s a performance activity, a showcase. It’s a display on the stage condensing our cultural experiences and cultural diversity into a series of performances that limit the imagination and threaten our identities.
But what, you say, what about culture shows being for the community that puts on the show themselves, for them to celebrate their own talent and culture?
It doesn’t take a culture show to do that. I see the hesitation in calling the Lunar New Year event a “culture show,” although it is exactly that. We call it a “celebration” instead—this is precisely why on the promotional flyers I designed for the event, I called it a “culture show and dinner.”
I don’t think it’s a celebration.
I think culture shows are an intense disservice to the communities and groups putting them on. Hours, weeks, and sometimes months of planning and coordination are put into a two hour event, and still someone covering the LNY event has the audacity to write,
The disappointment of the night, however, was the food. I’m willing to bet that the prospect of food, especially good food, was why most people came. Despite a job well done by our student chefs on the first three classic Chinese dishes, the main course of the night was Chinese take out. Not that there’s something wrong with getting a caterer, but the event had falsely advertised “home-cooked food” to attract guests. I’m sure General Tso’s chicken deserves its popularity, but for the occassion, I’m not sure that’s the best we can do.
The first three dishes the author somewhat praised already took three program houses dedicating an inordinate amount of time to cook up. It’s not possible for us students to put on such a production because, after all, we are just that—we’re students.
The anxiety and stress I experienced in anticipation for the LNY Celebration was ridiculous. A couple weeks before the event, I was even intent on getting away that weekend, to make up some excuse about needing to go see family in NYC or something and just hop on a train out of here. Students shouldn’t be experiencing such stress over these “teaching moments” to the wider community that doesn’t even show up.
The same author criticizing the food writes,
An even more important progress is that the Asian community itself is opening up, integrating and accepting American culture gradually instead of rigidly following the ways things are done back home.
I don’t really know what ze means with this. On the surface, I understand, but I don’t see how with the LNY Celebration, our community is “opening up” to American culture. And what bothers me even more is that this “celebration” was not just a product of international students breaking the “ways things are done back home,” but a collection of students that include many Asian Americans that are just as invested and apart of both Chinese/Asian cultures and American culture.
At the end of the day, I still am proud of what we were able to put on for Lunar New Year. I’m thankful for my fellow organizers who stepped up to get the ball rolling, as well as the performers that worked hard to put on an excellent performance. But I don’t think any of it is worth it.
There is no need for me to teach my culture.
There is no need for me to squeeze my culture into a two hour time frame put on display.