Each spring semester, several U-M Asian student groups mount “cultural night” presentations to share the cultures of their home countries in their adopted student environments. As it works out, it’s mostly friends of the performers and other members of the local community from each country who come. But more Ann Arborites should check out these presentations, because they offer a unique window into how traditional culture is being passed along in modern Asia.

I’ve seen presentations from Korea and Malaysia; both were interesting, and there’s also a Vietnamese event on February 2. But the one I’m most familiar with is the Indonesian Cultural Night, which happens this year on February 23. It usually begins in the Fishbowl, where the $10 admission buys you an authentic dinner. It’s currently the only place in town to get Indonesian food; this trendy and infinitely varied cuisine hasn’t yet made it to southeastern Michigan. Lots more things are happening along the hallway–a gamelan orchestra plays, and I’ve seen Indonesian hip-hop dancers there–and there’s usually a table selling absurdly cheap batik and bagged coffee that will make you the envy of serious coffee-heads. Watch the Indonesian undergraduates as they move about and are photographed in costume with their friends. The atmosphere has the charged quality of a high school musical.

Then the fun moves into a nearby auditorium, where the students present a skit of their own devising. Each skit is adapted somehow from traditional stories, or elements of them, so as to allow performances from different traditions around the Indonesian archipelago. In one show a few years ago, the star, a U-M undergrad, played the daughter of the deceased sultan of Yogyakarta, whose representative was sent to bring her back and reacquaint her with her Indonesian roots. The plot took quite a few twists and turns, with video interludes and a sword in a stone, and performances that included a dance troupe sent from the Indonesian consulate in Chicago. This year’s skit is based on the Ramayana epic that arrived in Indonesia from India in ancient times.

The Southeast Asian Studies program at the U-M is notable for the quality of the visiting artists it brings to campus. Each year, Indonesian dancers and puppeteers and gamelan orchestra teachers give and direct remarkable performances of a kind that are available at only a few other places in the U.S. But culture has to remake itself to survive, and the student Cultural Night shows are one way that happens.

This year’s Indonesian Cultural Night begins with dinner at 6 p.m., followed by performances in Angell Hall Auditorium B at 7. Advance tickets (required) are generally sold in the Fishbowl and at other campus locations during the week before the event. For more information, email Maria Magdalena Winarni at mwmaria@umich.edu.