Friday, August 01, 2014

 

Powell Street Festival, Vancouver

I'm so excited to be heading to Vancouver, Canada, to participate in the annual Powell Street Festival, which celebrates Japanese-Canadian Culture. Obviously, I'm an American and sensitive to the that fact (and I'm now officially once again a Californian at that)! But the experiences of Japanese in North America are of course very similar, and I'll be very interested in meeting with people and talking to them and hearing their stories.

There is a personal note here too--my mother tells me that in the early 20th century, one of our family members left Japan for Vancouver, never to be heard from again (though he supposedly was a doctor). I would so like to find out his story and meet his descendants, though I'm sure such a thing won't be possible on this trip.

I'm going to be reading on Sunday, August 3rd at 1:30 with two lovely writers--Sally Ito and Lydia Kwa. I was invited by the artist Leanne Dunic, and am very much looking forward to meeting her as well. Our reading is from 1:30 to 2:15 PM, in the Firehall Arts Center. My piece will be available as a chapbook--it's titled "Remember Your Roots: Food for Regeneration" and is about foraging, egotistical sushi chefs and mechanics with ninja powers. Hope to see you there!


Monday, July 08, 2013

 

NHK: Tomorrow Japan 3/11

I've just returned from Japan, thanks to the generosity of the Japan US Friendship Commission and the NEA. While there, I was very flattered to be asked to participate in the documentary series Tomorrow Japan. The series runs on NHK, Japan's national broadcasting system. Tomorrow Japan features journalists and artists who each examine some aspect of the 3/11 disaster, which we now know is the most costly natural disaster to date. Past participants have included Cindy Lauper, Jane Birkin and David Suzuki.

My own personal connection to 3/11 has been documented elsewhere, and you can read about it here and here. I was approached by a producer and asked if perhaps I might like to examine some of the spiritual aspects of Japan and how it is coping with the massive death and destruction. The show will run on NHK International, and also nationally. Here are a few photos that give you some sense of what I was able to do, thanks to NHK and the wonderful producer, Shigero Endo, and his crew.



Here, I am with a group of Japanese priests of different sects, participating in sutra reading. Different Buddhist sects (and also non-Buddhist sects) use different prayers to quell the dead. At this spot in Sendai, it's said that numerous people died, and that a great many ghosts have been sighted. Priests travel here to help quell these spirits.

A taxi driver I met later on in my travels told me it can take 30 years for spirits to be settled.



I'm sitting here with a group of tsunami survivors from the town of Ishinomaki, which was badly hit by the tsunami. These people all live in temporary housing. And each person has his or her own story.

The remarkable Buddhist priest Kaneta Taiou (who is a Zen priest--same sect as my family), spends several days each week going from shelter to shelter. He brings coffee and cake and plays Thelonius Monk. A man after my own heart, considering that we are all big jazz fans in my house!

He will listen to people talk, and has a way of getting them to express the very heart of what is troubling them very quickly. He's very tall and people trust his kind but authoritative--and honest--manner implicitly. It's common for women to burst into tears just by seeing his face.

Among the unorthodox techniques he uses to help survivors, is the use of clay to make little Jizo, which are a kind of Buddha. That's what we are all doing in this photo. Some women have lost a family member in the tsunami, and they will write the name of the lost person on the Jizo's back. All the figures will later be blessed, and fired, and returned to their creators.

The temporary housing units are very, very small. So any addition to the home must also be small, in order to fit into the small space.



Here I am with Kaneta-san, and his crew. Many of these people are volunteers who, like me, volunteered for the first time. Kaneta-san welcomes all people of faith to help him out--one needn't be Buddhist. His strength and his kindness impressed me greatly.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

 

Columbia University MFA Our Word Conference

Thank you so much to everyone at Columbia (my alma mater!) for bringing me in as the visiting writer for this year's Our Word Conference. I'm very excited. I'll be meeting with a group of students, reading some of their work, and talking to them about it. This kind of work is near and dear to my heart as I do, of course, want to see more voices represented in literature. And as a reader, I just want to read more about the world from sensitive voices; travel, after all, is my ultimate high and addiction. Travel is how we meet people from places we have never been to, and make friends with folks we might otherwise never know.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

 

Japan United States Friendship Commission Award

I'm very pleased--and quite humbled--to announce that I am one of five artists selected for the 2013 Japan United States Friendship Comission Award. You can read more here. This grant, funded by the JUSFC and the NEA, will enable me to live in Japan for a period of three months next year. During that time, you can bet I'll be doing as much research and Japan absorption as I possibly can. At my age, I had thought that this kind of adventure would not come to pass. And I'm so thrilled that the Commission has placed its faith in me. You can be I'll be busy, and that I'll work hard. I'll be updating my blog with more details as I learn more. Congrats to the other four finalists!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

 

Happy VaLINtines Day to You

My husband keeps telling me that because we have a boy, I am going to have to like me some sports.

Uh.

See, I thought I married the perfect guy. A few years ago, we were out for dinner on a Sunday in the Meatpacking District (back when Florent was actually run by Florent), and the waiters were like: "Ooh! Not Super Bowl fans are we?" And I was like: Wow. This guy is amazing. He didn't even know it was the Superbowl.

But he does now. And then there were the recent years during which we had to follow the Mets. I didn't like watching the Mets. I loved some of the players, but overall, I would watch them and I would think: "They do not want to win. They want winning to happen *to* them." And life doesn't work that way.

I don't like sports. I think it goes back to being a dreamy, creative kid who wanted to read a book even on a sunny day, but I'm quite sure the jocks who picked on me in high school were part of it too. I made sure I didn't go to a college where the football team ruled the social scene. And now here we are today and I have a boy.

Last week my husband started to talk to me about this basketball player. He was not "important" and wasn't a star, but was suddenly winning games for the Knicks. He had also tranformed the team. Everyone was suddenly playing better. And he's Asian American.

What? There are no Asian American athletes. We are best at programming computers and going to medical school. But we don't play sports. Sometimes we write books, but there is only so much room for us in the marketplace.

Anyway, I was intrigued. But then, I watched part of a game in which the Knicks were playing the LA Lakers. Even I have heard of Kobe Bryant, though my general impression of him was that he wasn't very nice. Supposedly, when the reporters asked Bryant if he would be guarding against this Asian kid, Bryant said: "Let's not get ahead of ourselves." Actually, he didn't supposedly say it. He said it.



So there they were, the Lakers versus the Knicks. And there was Jeremy Lin. He was determined to win. And win he--and they--did. And he helped them win by doing things like this.



One of the things that has quickly impressed me about Lin--aside from his story which I'll get to in a minute--is his determination to make his teammates feel like they are on a team. In this way, they are all lifted up. They all play better. And this is a reminder to us: we are *all* always capable of *more*. If you think you can't, then you won't. But if you think you can and you focus, then you will. You *can*. The news reports keep talking about how Lin has been playing with a "second string." And yet, that second string beat the Lakers. Because they suddenly knew they could do something.

One thing that has bothered me about sports is the emphasis on money and the poor tolerance of bad behavior on the part of athletes. It's like--oh, here we go again. Someone beat up a woman or is doing drugs or stole money or is caught cheating or whatever, but is paid millions to "stand" for some kind of symbol. I hate this. I am not an idiot. I am not going to applaud some young man who chooses gobs of money for physical feats that are all about *him* in lieu of learning, say, how to think and read and be kind and what it is that makes us human. I haven't liked pro sports for a long time because the purity of the game feels very tainted to me. Then, along comes Jeremy Lin, and the story shifts.

It turns out that Lin is a Christian. And vocal about it. Not vocal in a "I must convert you" kind of way, but in a "I want to lift you up" kind of way. I respect this. Wanting to share your positivity with the world is a good thing. But! This man who is such a gifted athlete, almost didn't get to show his teammates what he had. He was continuously overlooked. The whole "skipping college to go pro" thing didn't happen to him, because his coaches couldn't see how talented he was. Now, why couldn't they see? No one wants to say it, but we all know why. There may have been a myriad of factors--Lin himself says that his game is not best one-on-one, but with a team--but it's impossible to discount his ethnicity. (Oh, if I had a dollar for each time someone has said; "But you just don't seem that tough, Marie.")

No one will say this, of course. But here is what they will say. I find this quote fascinating.

Some coaches have wondered whether Lin, who is of Taiwanese descent, did not receive a closer look by recruiters because of his ethnicity. Coaches have said recruiters, in the age of who-does-he-remind-you-of evaluations, simply lacked a frame of reference for such an Asian-American talent.


What on earth is a frame of reference? You mean, there were no other Asian players to compare him to, so he was compared to black and white players and found lacking? And, despite his stellar accomplishments and the data on his playing, why exactly was he found lacking?

I would like to put forward another idea and this is that there is a different physicality in different cultures. An extreme example would be, for starters, the Japanese ability to use space and the western ability. In her marvelous book, Watching the English, Kate Fox dissects the British tendency to apologize, even if something is not their fault (sound familiar?) To test her theory, Fox devised a "bumping into people" test to see who would apologize if bumped into (not their fault) and who would not. The only people who scored higher on the "will apologize if bumped into and its not their fault" test were the Japanese, who she found almost impossible to bump into. Their sense of physical space was so finely tuned that you could not bump into them.

That's an extreme case of how someone's physical language is different due to culture. I would argue that in his natural "resting" state, Lin doesn't telegraph "aggressive I will score lots of points grrrrr I am extoverted" in a way that is immediately obvious in the west. What he does have, are skills. What he didn't have, was empty flashiness. And so, over and over, coaches missed him.

Now, watch this, the closing from the game last night.



The game is tied. The game will go into overtime unless someone scores. Over and over--in this direct and aggressive way--the Knicks try to score. They can't. Someone throws the ball to Lin. And what does he do? He does not force points. In fact, he puts up his hands and tells his teammates to fall back. He's going to take on his opponent one and one. And then he just stands there and lets the clock run. What is going on? Where is the direct attack?

And then suddenly--bam. He scores 3 points. He has calculated an entirely different way to play and to win the game. And he's lifted up everyone else in the process.

I can't even begin to tell you how much I identify with this story. I've come to accept, for example, that I'm not someone who scores a lot of points at a young age and gets the ball in over and over again. I'm not the best at a direct attack. If I try to behave this way, it doesn't work. I do have a great work ethic--and I've tried to put this into my exercise. I'm going to have to find another way to succeed, if that makes any sense. And sometimes, success takes enormous patience.

Here is what Lin says about the years that he was overlooked as an athlete. He quotes from the Bible (and I am not a Christian and I don't own a Bible, so forgive me if I get this wrong).

1. Suffering builds character, character builds hope and hope never lets you down.

2. In so many instances in my life, God has turned what seemed to be “bad” situations into great ones.

3. "I'm not in a battle with what everybody else thinks anymore."

4. He started every morning with a devotional before heading to the gym to work out. Whenever the anxiety tried to creep in, he whispered a Bible verse to himself:

And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28


I occupy a weird place among my peers. I'm not a member of any organized form of religion and it would probably be impossible for me to join one. But I think about religion a lot and I write about modern spirituality when I can. And this is because I think the toughest questions are always spiritual.

How do I stop eating bad food? How do I forgive? How do I get myself on the damned exercise mat? The answers are usually spiritual in nature. And there's a link between what we do physically, and how we feel emotionally and spiritually. The yogis knew that, and that is why their physical practice has a spiritual element.

Remember: today is a new day. Always.

You can always do more than you think.

You are not stuck in one position in life.

One little thing can change the way you fit into the world, but the change will probably not come because of something that *happens* to you, but because of your efforts. You may have to try several things--you may have to try different diets or different attitudes--to find something that will work for you. When you find something that works, stick with it. Some times you will have to persist through difficult times, but if you are doing your best, then you will never be sorry about the time you spent "suffering." And your persisting will probably be the thing that brought about an eventual change.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

 

National Geographic: A Time to Run

Last July, I traveled to Japan for National Geographic. My assignment was to write a "cultural piece" about tsunamis in Japan--the world's most tsunami prone country. There were no firm rules about the piece, and my research and my questions led me to lots of interesting places, and into conversations with many different people.

Ultimately, I ended up writing a more personal piece than I had expected to. You can read "A Time to Run" here, or in the February issue of National Geographic, with the dog on the cover. In this essay, I talk about the childhood journals I kept in Japan. Each night, I'd write an entry under my mother's watchful eye, and do a drawing. It's strange now to see that many of these pictures included waves and the water--but then this is not so strange when you consider that we were often by the beach.

I'm heading for Japan tomorrow, but this will be a personal trip. And quite quick. It's an odd time to go to Japan--the New Year has started and we are still weeks away from any winter festivities and from the first cherry blossoms. But I'm looking forward to some quiet time and some conversations with friends and, of course, relaxing in a nice, big Japanese bath. There are a few things we just don't have in the States--a good onsen is one of them.

Friday, January 13, 2012

 

Mahler, Marimba, Manners and the New York Philharmonic

Maybe you've read the reports about the iPhone interruption at the NY Philharmonic on Tuesday, January 10th. I was there. I Tweeted about it as soon as I got home. The story keeps building, and there are a few things that are being left out, and so I thought I'd just write up my own feelings about the whole thing here.

Thinking back, I'm pretty sure the phone started ringing *before* the 4th movement. It kept ringing and ringing and ringing. I don't mean it rang 4 times and then shut off and went to voicemail. I mean, it rang at least 10 times. Maybe 20. And then it would stop. And then it would start again.

I thought the phone was abandoned. I thought maybe it was backstage, by the door and had been forgotten by someone who was calling repeatedly to find the phone. I do that sometimes. I can't find my phone in my apartment, and so I call it and it rings and rings and stops and I call again until I can find it. That's what the ringing was like at the NY Philharmonic that night. We aren't talking about 4 rings and then straight to voicemail. We are talking about incessant ringing. For at least a half an hour (on and off. On and off). And this is why I think the ringing started during the second movement.

The woman behind me forgot to turn off her cell phone too. When it rang during the first movement, she jumped and turned it off and was deeply embarrassed. Her son scolded her in between movements. She told him to shut up. Then they were all quiet. This was annoying, but it's a part of going to concerts now. I hate that it's a part of concerts--just like I hate that people seem incapable of *not* unwrapping candies during the opera. I hate that the candies are opened slowly--like that's going to be less of a nuisance (note: unwrap your candies pre-performance, put them in a baggie, and pull them out of the baggie if you need them so badly).

As for the infamous iPhone--the man who owned it made no move to turn if off. There was no lurch to turn off the phone. Why? Why not jump and turn off the phone? Along the way, the orchestra played loudly--here is a clip of how loud Mahler's 9th can get: That's loud enough for most people to ignore the Marimba. But now put the cursor to 9:05 to 9:10. That is not loud enough to cover up a marimba. Note, according to Youtube, that the last movement has now been going on for at least 9 minutest. That's 9 minutes of a constant iPhone ringing.

Some have suggested that Alan Gilbert should not have stopped. But at that point, the iPhone was beyond rude. I was incredulous that it kept on ringing--and that its owner hadn't done something about the noise. I couldn't believe that no one sitting next to him was nudging him or doing anything to get him to shut down the phone. And that is why I thought, initially, that the phone didn't have an owner. That's how bad it was.

During the break, as Gilbert engaged the audience--the phone KEPT ON RINGING. Like-you'd think that as soon as you realized that the orchestra has *stopped playing because of you* that you would *turn off the phone*. The man didn't turn off the phone. We just sat there--waiting for the ringing to stop. That's when someone in the balcony yelled; "Just walk outside." Which seemed like a reasonable suggestion. But the man didn't go outside. And we kept sitting there. While the phone rang.

At last it stopped. But because it had also rung in previous movements, I wasn't sure the hall would be quiet. According to news reports, Gilbert extracted a promise that the phone had been shut off. I didn't realize this. I was just tense and worried for the remainder of the performance (which was a shame, because the orchestra sounded *great*).

And as for Gilbert--he showed he had some cojones that night. I liked him for confronting the audience member--and then apologizing so courteously to all of us. He had balls and class. I remembered years ago when I went to see M. Butterfly on Broadway and a woman came in late to her seat and David Dukes absolutely skewered her. It was uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable to have the suspension of disbelief broken like that. It's even worse, I think, that manners have broken down so much. I say this as a relatively "young" person who wasn't even alive during the height of thank you notes and please and thank you. But it really is now as though we all think we are in our own living rooms, and we are not.

On a related note--my next concert going will be to see Lang Lang, the pianist, whom some might remember I talked about for a presentation at the Knitting Factory during my book tour.I had the audience do a blind listening to Lang Lang and Rubenstein doing Chopin. I read reviews of both players, emphasizing the whole "too Asian," "too emotional," "too technical" thing, and then had the audience guess which recording belonged to whom. Finally I will get to hear Lang Lang myself. I can't wait.

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