Friday, August 18, 2017

Why I Raise My Child Jewish and "Jazz"

I recently had my adult Bat Mitzvah, and chanted from my Torah portion called “Re’eh” which means “see” in the imperative form. It is basically telling the Israelites how to go about destroying the holy sites and idols of the Canaanites- “...and you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place.”

Pretty awful stuff. We know G-d of the Bible to be harsh at times, but here, he is advocating violence. I am vehemently against all violence, regardless of who commits these violent acts. Left or Right. Christians or Jews. Black or Japanese. The ordering of destruction of other people’s idols makes God look really petty and immature. But I have an idea as to why Moses of all people found the idols of the Canaanites to be such a threat. Remember the Golden Calf after his recent stint on Mount Sinai? He must have been really disappointed by the Israelites who were allured to the hedonistic majority culture and built an idol for themselves. I think these harsh commands were his overreaction to the Golden Calf, a god Israelites could see and touch.

However, it is one thing to prohibit graven images of other gods, but to ban all graven images of living things is quite another. Even at Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in New York City, none of the stained glasses contains any images of people or animals, not even a fish. Why can’t we just have some representation of OUR G-d? Doesn’t G-d realize that it is hard enough to sell a currently non-intervening God, like ours? They say “seeing believing”. What could be a harm to have a nice little painting of OUR G-d?

In fact, seeing is very powerful. Some people fall in love at first sight. When someone says “she is beautiful”, he is not talking about her personality. We are heavily influenced by our sight and rely on it to make many important decisions.

By the same token, many people “see” my daughter and I together, and often assume that I am her nanny. And every time I see an Asian person here at Temple Israel, my first instinct is to assume that she is not Jewish.     And let me ask you. When you hear the word, “mentsch”, who comes to your mind? I, immediately think about my husband, Sam. He is truly a man of integrity and virtue. I chose to marry him based on our shared values. Yet, people cannot get over the fact that he is a black man and they have expressed that I was “brave” because I married him “despite” his race. And some thought I married him BECAUSE of his race, referring to a “fever”. And those who did not make either of these comments still made assumptions about him: his upbringing, political views, athletic abilities, and even his choice of entertainment or preference of food that are stereo typical to his race. And these assumptions about him were outright false, or grievously incomplete to say the least.

Growing up in Japan, I never even had to think about race. I was always a Christian first and a violinist second. I was raised with Protestant values alone, and never participated in any traditional Japanese holiday celebrations or rituals. My musical aesthetic was 19th Century European. As a child, I grew up listening to Heifetz, Auer, Gingold, Goldberg, Joachim, Kogan,  Menuhin, Milstein, Mintz, Oistrakh, Perlman, Stern, Szigeti, and Szerying. Nobody in Japan has ever questioned my identity as a Christian and a classical violinist, and they respected me. In fact, I used to be celebrated as a Christian violinist. However, when I came to the US, all of the sudden, I became an “Asian” violinist as if Mendelssohn violin concerto would suddenly sound Asian when I played it.
So is it safe to say “seeing is misleading”, or at least it can be in some cases? Would it be possible that G-d would want us to use senses other than sight? What about listening, “sh’ma” instead of “re’eh”? I personally feel that listening is superior to seeing as it takes more work of contemplation.      

It turns out that the famous Bible commentator Rashi also had a similar thought. He interpreted “see (re’eh) on the condition that you listen (and obey)”.
And in my Haftarah portion (Isaiah chapter 55, verses 2 and 3), the root of the word sh’ma, (shin, mem, and eyen) appears three times!! 

 (“Listen well to Me, and you shall eat what is good, and your souls shall delight in abundance. Open your ears and come to me; hearken and you shall live.”)

We say “a picture is worth a thousand words”. As Jewish people, we get no pictures but we have certainly compensated our lack of imageries with not a thousand, but millions of words. We love our texts despite what’s in them. We listen to the written texts so we may wrestle with, question, deny, interpret, and teach them to our children. And we certainly don’t teach our children to destroy anyone else’s properties, but we encourage them to question anything in the Bible. Nothing is off limit. 

In fact, I was delighted when our daughter questioned the origin story while attending JCC Nursery School. Yes, she maybe agnostic at best, but she is a proud Jew who loves to share her Jewish knowledge and ethics with her friends at Spence. She cares about the poor and the sick, and constantly reminds me of being kind “chesed” to everyone. 

She loves her family, her extended families, family friends and our families by choice who are all represented here this morning.  I teach her to respect her Protestant roots and get along with people of all ethnic backgrounds. We expose her to all cultures and encourage her to think critically and independently, and not be afraid of discussing biological and cultural differences among us humans. I remember when she was three years old, she came home and told me that one of her classmates had told her she was “very tanned”. “What did you say to him?” I asked. “I said ‘thank you’” she said.

When Naomi was first conceived, we realized that our lofty ideal of multiculturalism was not going to work as a family unit. We foresaw obstacles in our daughter’s future, being raised in a society filled with identity politics, which uses our skin colors to determine, categorize and judge people as groups. We wanted our child to be an individual, free from groupthink, and societal pressure of camaraderie only with one side of her racial makeup while vilifying the rest. Both my husband and I grew up with cultural pressures and religious beliefs that were harmful to us. For many decades, my husband has been very different from his family, and I, too, have had very little in common with my family, even though we love our family very deeply. Therefore, we as a nuclear family, needed to find a new identifiable community that held OUR values in order to help our child succeed in life, instead of viewing herself as a victim. And more importantly, we wanted a community with a strong infrastructure to support our values. We had considered many things. I looked for a church for atheists, or some call it, Unitarian while Sam suggested that we raise our daughter “jazz” to which I said, “definitely NOT”. 

So we chose Reform Judaism as it fit the bill at the time. I subsequently went through the whole process of becoming Jewish, which many of you know it to be an extremely arduous process, just so it would be good for our daughter.

And it has been incrediblly good for her. At her religious school here at Temple Israel, not only is she learning holiday rituals, Bible stories and Hebrew prayers, but she is also learning human values that will guide her for the rest of her life. I often attend the religious service for the kindergarteners, and I am constantly blown away even as an adult. Our new knowledge of the Jewish values, customs, culture, humor, recipes, songs, Yiddish words and Hebrew prayers allow us to connect with other Jewish people in all walks of life. You have no idea how many people have come up to me and asked me questions about my Jewish identity: on the train, at parties, or at our daughter’s school. From an Orthodox mother of six to, a young Israeli girl backpacking, to even Jared Kushner who wanted to know my life story, saying “my wife is also a Jew by choice”. Yeah, me and Ivanka. Becoming Jewish turned out to be so much more than just “good for our daughter”. 

But you know what else I was wrong about? I was wrong about not raising our daughter “jazz”. After all, jazz is all about “sh’ma”, listening to the other players, respecting and supporting one another. We communicate using the principles of harmony and traditions. In jazz, excellence trumps legacy. Traditions are respected and studied rigorously. There is no limitation for creativities and innovations. On the bandstand, there is no identity politics. Nobody cares what we look like or what religion or culture one adheres to. We support each other on the bandstand no matter what. I call jazz “meritocracy with compassion”. I think this is the only way people of all cultures and backgrounds can achieve great success and not get their credentials and achievements questioned everyday. So today, I believe we must all raise our children “jazz”. 

Unfortunately, it is exactly the opposite in our society. The society lowers standards for people of a certain race while brazenly punishing extremely hard-working high achieving children of other minority groups. My daughter’s achievements are constantly questioned by people outside of Spence School, only because of her skin tone, or 40% of her race to be exact. And I only wish someday in her lifetime, people will stop categorizing her into a group based on her skin tone alone, and rather start accepting her as a fully able individual, judging her only by the contents of her character as Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed for his four little children 54 years ago. Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Am I A Plain Old Person?!

My 5-year old said, "Did you know that Beth and Laura in my class speak Chinese?" "That's impressive!!" I said excitedly. "Not really. Their moms must speak Chinese." "Oh. Have you heard them speak Chinese?" I asked. "No. but their moms totally look Chinese." Okay. "They do, huh?" "Yes, totally!!" So I ask  "Do I look Chinese?" "No" "So what do I do look like?" She looks at me and says "You just look like a plain old person."

"Plain old person?" I said and gave her the tightest hug I could ever give. This was a very special moment for us as a mother and daughter. Until this moment, she had always looked at me as "the other"- the opposite of the "plain old person". Even before she could speak, she often compared my pale skin with her beautiful mocha complexion. And as soon as she learned to speak a few words,  "Me, Daddy brown. Mommy, white." "Very good," I said. I would then bring a whole box of blocks and asked her to sort them first by colors, then by shapes. (As it turns out, she was exceptionally good at analogical reasoning and scored perfect scores in various IQ exams.)

At three, she started going to a Jewish nursery school and after a few weeks there, she said "even though I am brown, why did you make me Jewish?"using her maximum verbal capacity at the time. To be frank, I was mortified a bit. I told her that one can be any color and still be Jewish, even though everyone else at school is beige. "I made us Jewish because I thought that would be the best for you. But if you don't want to be Jewish when you are older, you can then decide not to be Jewish anymore. But for now, you just ARE as Jewish as everyone else."

Then when she was four, she told me that I should go back to Japan and live there because I was born there. At five, "Don't call me brown. I just wear brown skin." And if anybody should refer to anybody else as black, she'd get offended and say "Nobody is black!"

So I had to sit her down and explain that there are many people who are called "Black" and identify themselves as Black, and the word has more than one meaning.

By this point, doubts started to emerge in me. Doubts about series of decisions I had made for my child and for myself including my marriage. This past year has been difficult for our family because we have been witnessing the true racism and blatant condescension towards minorities being portrayed as non-racist.

For example, one of my musician colleagues said the reason why our daughter got into _____ (an elite private school in New York City) is because she is black. So I told him that his statement was racist. Then he got offended by me calling his statement racist. (Remember, I never called "him" a racist.) He then went onto saying this. "Racist is someone like Trump. If he becomes the President, your husband will be working in a kitchen and you will be deported. And you won't be able to lead your own band because you are a woman!" (If anyone needs an explanation of what, in so many aspects, is wrong with his statement, I will do so in the next blog. But for now, I'll just move on.) FYI, my husband is Sam Newsome.

One of  the things that happened during this election is that it allowed people to believe that they are not responsible for their own bigotry and racism by calling Donald Trump a racist. People have become so busy signaling their moral superiority that many skipped any kind of self-examination. Instead, they chose the quickest way to advertise their non-racist status which was to call Donald Trump a racist.

Sadly, I am also guilty of my own racism and racial assumptions. Just last week, I spotted an Asian woman at my Temple, sitting next to her Jewish husband, or whom I assumed to be her Jewish husband. And for the whole service, I was trying unsuccessfully to believe that this woman was a Jew and that she could read Hebrew and knew the prayers. It was painful for me to admit that I was not able to do the very thing I ask others to do for me, which is to accept me as a Jew without any scrutiny.

So when someone says something that seems racist, I try not to judge him/her and try to forgive that person. It certainly is difficult because racist remarks hurt my feelings, especially when it is about my own child. It is especially painful because the person who is hurting you so deeply has no recognition of guilt or shows any signs of remorse and ridicules me instead. But there is absolutely nothing I can say to them because they are not ready to be changed by a conversation they enter into (borrowing from Cornel West).

And as far as my own child, I do not condemn her to be a racist. She is merely assessing the world around her using all of her cognitive abilities and trying to make sense. Her thought processes are developmentally appropriate for her age, if not slightly ahead of her peers, and even ahead of some of MY peers.

So today, I celebrate my daughter's new developmental achievement. She finally sees me as a "plain old person" and not a person belonging to another country or someone with a different skin complexion from hers. She just sees me as a person just like herself, not one of the "others". It took her many years to get here and she still has a lot of wrestling to do. But we now know that she is capable of judging a person by the contents of one's character (as MLK had dreamed) when it comes to her own mother. She still has a long way to go, but at least she is now on the right path.

Are you?

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Authenticity & Identity I Have Found Through Music

“Hi, my name is Meg Okura; I am a jazz violinist and a composer” is something that I would say when I introduce myself.

But is this an authentic statement? “My name is Meg Okura.” Yes and no. Sometimes people ask, “what is your REAL name” as if it’s not a real name. Meg Okura is just one of many names I have been called: the Chinese violinist, the Asian chick violinist, Connie Chung, Meg Okurawitz, and a few that I can’t mention here.

All joking aside, my birth name is 大倉恵. That's the name I used to be called growing up in Japan. But now, everyone calls me Meg Okura, with the exception of my mother in law, who calls me Mrs. Newsome. Newsome is my husband’s name. Although I never changed my last name to Newsome, she still calls me Mrs. Newsome. I once confronted her about it, and she finally confessed that she just cannot remember my Japanese last name. It’s okay. We’ve only been married for 12 years.

This week, we have just celebrated Rosh Hashanah and next week for Yom Kippur, will be again at Temple Israel, the synagogue where my daughter Naomi and I converted to Judaism. I took the Hebrew name רָחֵל (Rachael). It sounds as far away as it can get from the Japanese language. In fact, none of my family or friends in Japan know about my Hebrew name. So who am I really? Who is this Meg, Megumi, רָחֵל, Rachel, Newsome, Okura person?

12 years ago, my husband, Sam Newsome, a great soprano saxophonist, married a nice Japanese, Christian, classical violinist. Today, he is married to a Japanese Jewish jazz composer and violinist, who composes day and night, instead of doing housework. Back when we first met, all I wanted to be was a real jazz violinist like Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, and others. I knew I could make myself sound just as good as them. But my husband would say “jazz is all about expressing yourself. You have to have your own unique sound.” But I DID NOT WANT TO sound unique. I just wanted to sound awesome. I wanted to sound “authentic”. Authentic jazz. The “real” jazz. I despised that word “unique”. That kind of attitude seemed so narcissistic to me. But I kept hearing him and other jazz musicians saying that I must have “my own voice.” And I had no clue what that meant. I didn’t know what it meant to be “authentically-me” as a jazz player.

As a classical violinist, being authentic meant largely 18th and 19th Century European. There was not so much room for “self-expression” especially in orchestras where everyone has to play uniformly under the dictatorship of the conductor. It felt normal to me as it fit Japanese collectivist value that I grew up with. We care more about the harmony of a group than the individual expressions. There is a famous Japanese proverb, 「出る釘は打たれる」"A nail that sticks out will be hammered". If you choose to be a leader, you are always going to have people hating you and being critical. If you choose to keep your head down and hide in the crowd, you may not get hammered.

Many people don't know this about me, but I actually dropped out of school at one point. It's OK. It was just kindergarten- the kindergarten that belonged to an evangelical church in Japan. My poor mother grew so tired of hearing me kvetch about having to sing and dance to children's songs and play with sands and clay all day, she decided to grant me my wish and allowed me to spend all day sitting in the corner of my bedroom doing what I loved the most: contemplating. I contemplated about the things that made me wonder, such as G-d, creation, and duality.

The more I contemplated, the less all of these things made sense to me. I got so frustrated and tired, I finally decided to give up critical thinking and accepted God into my heart as my parents told me to. I decided to believe everything they believed: that God made this world in six days, that all babies were born sinners, and that if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, God would burn you in the hell-fire, over and over for eternity. And, don’t forget, that He LOVED me.

I also believed that I should not question my parents especially about G-d and all of the strict rules they were imposing on us. We just obeyed their rules and were never allowed to express what we wanted. In fact, my parents were never concerned about what I wanted. When I told my mother that I actually wanted to become a composer, her answer was very simple: “Girls cannot become composers.” I believed that statement and never pursued becoming one until years later.

So I practiced the violin- the instrument of my mother's choice. And apparently, I was very talented. I even have perfect pitch. So it was decided by my teacher that I was going to become a concert violinist. So I worked hard. I even got accepted to 桐朋学園子供のための音楽教室 Toho School when I was five, and I was one of the top students there. I also got straight A's and often got a perfect score on other tests. But everytime I achieved something, my mother would complain that I was too competitive and working too hard and that I needed to relax more. My parents always reminded me of a Bible verse Matthew 19:30 "But many who are first will be last; and the last, first”. It means, if you care too much about worldly success, you will have lower status in heaven. ...It was all about the afterlife. Everything in this world was just a prelude to eternity in heaven, ...or hell. (I wasn’t sure if I could get into heaven since I was not able to forgive my rapist… But that’s a topic for another day.)

In my late teens, I made my solo debut at Kennedy Center. I also got accepted to Juilliard. I moved to New York with just two suitcases and continued my studies in classical violin. I also got to experience other things in New York, such as dating. Naturally, I have dated a few Jewish boys. I was pretty much an every Jewish mother’s nightmare, trying to convert their boys to Christianity!

For me, the assimilation to American culture was pretty easy. For the first time in my life, I received a lot of affirmation and acknowledgment for my accomplishments on a daily basis, and I didn’t have to look over my shoulders with the fear of being hammered. What stands out the most was my newly discovered ability as a composer. Many of my Juilliard professors often praised my work. One even told me that one of my assignments was the best he had ever seen in his 28 years of teaching at Juilliard.

So I started composing more and more. The more I did it, the more I loved it. Time seemed to pass the fastest when I was composing. It enabled me to experience certain intense emotions on cue. And as I got more deeply into it, I realized I needed to study jazz if I was really going to be a great composer. I knew that the harmonic sophistication of jazz would provide me with a wealth of information. Learning jazz was very challenging, especially on the violin, which some may still consider the “wrong” instrument for jazz. It’s like learning a new language, but it was worse because I didn’t grow up listening to jazz at home. But I kept trying, and eventually, succeeded.

As a result, and thanks to my husband’s honest and relentless criticism and constructive advice, I was able to start my own ensemble in 2006, called the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble. It wasn’t easy since I really had to change my mindset about jazz. Instead of thinking of being “Asian” as a disadvantage, I had to learn to embrace it. Instead of getting angry at people who called me the Chinese violinist, I picked up the actual Chinese violin- the instrument called 二胡Erhu. And instead of trying to fight the “classical” side of my instrument, I put that virtuosity and rich expression forefront and called it “chamber jazz”. And you know what? It kind of worked.

I finally discovered my own voice through my ensemble. It was the music that I wrote just for myself, not for anyone else. And to be honest, I really didn’t care if other people liked it. And for the first time in my life, I felt I was being authentic musically. I totally owned my music and this genre I called “chamber jazz”.

And through this musical journey, I started to be able to understand what it means to live an authentic life. I stopped worrying about how others perceived my life choices, especially what my parents wanted, and truly started to live a life of my own. I am a Jew by choice, American by choice, jazz musician by choice, and a mother by choice. To some, I may sound totally meshuggah (crazy) and confused. But I am neither confused nor crazy. In fact, I have never been so sure of myself till now.
There will always be purists. The orthodox Jews and the jazz police will argue that I am not a real Jew, or my music is not really jazz. They will all call me “inauthentic.” But I say to them, perhaps you lack imagination. Most American people deem me a Japanese person forever because of my appearance and my accent (a very slight one). And Japanese people consider me American because I don’t fit into their cultural stereotype, nor truly understand or agree with their culture and values. And to be perfectly frank, I am often surprised when I see myself in the mirror because I don’t really look like the person I feel I am inside.

So what is my real name? Is Megumi Okura more authentic than Meg Okura? Quite the contrary. Megumi Okura barely exists. But 大倉恵 on the other hand will always exist in my family members’ hearts. I will be theirs forever. And I am honored that the other Mrs. Newsome calls me Mrs. Newsome. I hope that I can be the wife who deserves such a title. And the name רָחֵל Rachel, Roche, Rocheli, the names called by some of my Israeli and Jewish friends, the tribe of my choice, and the culture with which I chose to raise my daughter.

All of these names are authentically mine collectively. They are not mutually exclusive. Meg would have never existed without Megumi, and obviously, I AM an Okura-- many Okuras are a bit meshugah, and some very smart and funny, including my 落語家 (raku go ka) comedian uncle. And without my mother, רָחֵל Rachel would have never existed. My mother is the one who had always told me how much she admired Jewish people because they always “educated and studied.” She is the one who has discovered my perfect pitch, and also played so many violin concertos on vinyl every morning, performed by masters like Heifetz, Milstein, Stern, Perlman, Szigeti, Auer, Kogan, Joachim, Menuhin, Oistrakh, and need I say more?

Who and what I have become today exists not “in spite of” my parents, but rather “because” of them. Every gene in my body came from them. DNA doesn’t lie. But my gene expression got changed after I was exposed to jazz. My DNA got a heck of a lot more expressive...

Today, I have joined the ranks of New York jazz composers. My mother was wrong. Girls CAN become composers. Being a jazz composer and being a mother of our daughter, I feel more authentically "me" than I ever have before. It’s just that, for me, authenticity came from many unexpected places.

Shanah Tovah!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why “Are you Korean or Japanese?” Is Not a Good Pickup Line

(What kind of Asian are you?)

Strangers make racial remarks to me frequently, almost as frequently as they acknowledge me for being an ovulating homo-sapien as I take the bus or the subway in New York City. But if you are just trying to start a friendly conversation, “Are you Korean?” may not be your best choice. It doesn’t translate very well with me because this is what I think it means.

  “Even though I didn’t grow up with many Asian people around, I still know that there are different cultures within the Asian culture. So I better let her know that I know that.”

“My last girlfriend was from Korea. And you look like you could be her sister."

    Whichever the case, there is nothing wrong with asking this question. I just don't feel like talking to you. No one thinks it's an offensive question, right? Well, you might be surprised. I have to say it's one of the most delicate topics among Asians. Despite the fact that DNA studies show our close ties, the Asian people themselves like to think that their physical attributes are different from (and better than) that of the other nationals. These are excerpts from my real life experiences.

     A Korean girl: “Meg, you don’t look Japanese at all. You look Korean because you have big round eyes. I know most Japanese people have slanted eyes.“ (giggle)

     A Chinese girl: “Meg, if I didn’t know you were Japanese, I would have guessed that you were from China because you don’t have those typical Japanese slanted eyes.”
    A Japanese girl: “What? Somebody said you look Chinese? How rude! Don’t worry. You don’t have slanted eyes like the Chinese! You are pretty!”

     So the discussion of which of the three Asian countries one looks like she is from is simply ridiculous. I think it’s best to start a conversation with something else, like you would with any other human beings. Also, by starting with race, it gives an impression that you are only interested in stereotypes of that person's race. So it’s better to wait for a few minutes (or weeks) if you can resist it. I should also note that while some Asian girls may fit some of the stereotypes such as quiet or polite, many Asians today do not. So you might want to be ready for disappointments. 

      Several years ago, I met a musician on a gig who lived in New Jersey. When the topic of real estate came up, he said to me, “You and your husband should move my town in New Jersey. We like people like you to come to our neighborhood.” “Why?” I asked. “Well, when blacks come to a neighborhood, the property value goes down. And the problem with Jews is that they don’t eat the same stuff and kids can't play together.” Needless to say, I was offended by his insensitive, yet very candid remarks. Despite my anger and hurt, I remained silent because I knew he would not have made these remarks had he not made wrong assumptions about me in the first place.

His wrong assumptions were:
#1) Since I am Japanese, my husband must surely be Asian too.

#2) Japanese people are Buddhist or Shinto, and certainly not Jewish.

#3) And therefore, there should be no reason for me to take his anti-Semitic and racially insensitive remarks personally.

#4) Even if he exposes his racist views, I will just take it and won’t make any waves because we (Asians) are “nice”.

    Though I don’t expect anyone to know that I am a Reform Jew or that my husband is an African American, I still don’t consider myself to be that unique. So many musicians are in interracial marriages/relationships. Also, most of my classmates in the Judaism conversion class were Asians, getting ready to start Jewish families. Take the new senior rabbi, Angela Buchdahl at Central Synagogue, one of the largest Reform congregations in the country. She is Asian and a famous rabbi.

    Just last week, I met a U.S. based dancer Hanna-Lee Sakakibara at a gig. She looks Asian like myself, and many people in the audience could not tell us apart. But when you hear her speaking to my band-mates in Hebrew, you would know immediately that she is not a recent convert. Despite her looks, Hanna-Lee speaks perfect Hebrew and English because she was born and raised in Jerusalem by a Japanese father and Australian mother.

    Or let’s take our fellow musician like Helen Sung, one of the top jazz musicians of our generation. We all know that she swings the hell out of that piano. She was born and raised in Houston, Texas. Yet, strangers constantly treat her as a foreigner. How much more American can a person be? Isn’t becoming one of the bests in jazz enough to qualify her as an American?

   So think again before assuming that Asian Americans are somehow less American than all of the other Americans. “Where are you originally from” is a question people ask after an Asian person had already answered the question “where are you from”. It doesn’t matter what city you were born in. No U.S. city can satisfy those who insist on playing "let me guess what kind of Asian you are" game. What is so satisfying about finding out if a person’s grandmother is from Taiwan? So you can then say “I love Thai food!!”?

    Growing up in a fundamental protestant household in Japan, I missed out on every seasonal celebration of the Japanese culture. We grew up in a church with American and German missionary families and my parents constantly reminded us that we Christians were different from the secular world and that we did not belong to the Japanese Buddhist/Shinto culture. I always felt like an outsider growing up in Japan and truly looked forward to finally coming to America to be with my fellow Christians.

   So I am sorry if I don’t act Japanese enough.

- No, I don’t cook Japanese meals for my husband everyday if ever.

- I am not subservient, quiet or nice.  
-To the contrary, I am a bitch and I curse like a sailor. (Sorry for the stereotyping of sailors!)

- And I will not bow when I see you. 

- I have always hated Hello Kitty 
- I am not that good at math.

- I do neither karate nor karaoke.

- I do not eat Sushi everyday, or can afford to do so.

   And I am sorry if I don’t seem proud of being Japanese. But I find it challenging to be proud of a country that committed the worst atrocities against humanity in the history, and deny it to this day. The Japanese killed more than 30 million Asian people, not to mention human experiments of the Unit731 (sometimes even on children), mass murders and mass rapes (The Nanking Massacre), military organized rapes of Comfort women, just to name a few. 

   So the “what kind of Asian are you?” question is not a good ice-breaker. I am tired of having to answer this question, especially when all I want to do is to get milk for the baby and get back home. I do not need a guy reminding me of my Asian appearance on the subway platform at 1:00 AM after playing 3 sets at Zinc Bar. And please stop harassing me when I ignore you, lecturing me how I should be proud of my heritage just because I don’t want to engage in a conversation with a drunk.

    The problem with us Asian people having to constantly tell people where our ancestors are from is that there is an underline implication of us not being real Americans. I have met many Japanese people in California who have been U.S. citizens for several generations whose Japanese American parents were put in the U.S. internment camps during the WWII. For a long time, Asians have kept low profile because their rights and wealth have been taken away by the government at times, in spite of their hard work and services to the country. Today, Asian Americans earn the highest median personal incomes than any other racial demographic, thus paying more taxes to the US Government. Maybe it's time that people start accepting Asian Americans as real Americans.

And as for my Japanese family, friends and colleagues, I truly love you, and there are many wonderful things about the culture. But your blissful ignorance is not cute. Today, ignorance is a choice. If you chose to stay ignorant, you are not a decent human being. It's time to read up on the subject and stop honoring the Japanese war criminals as heroes. "Pride" coming from ignorance is not a virtue.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why I Think Japanese People Suck at Languages (Part 1)

Problems With the Japanese Phonetic Writing System

When Japanese tourists visit Korea, their nearest neighboring country, they like to order kimchi, spicy and sour pickled vegetables served as a side dish. Kimchi is Korea's national dish and Japanese people have been enjoying this dish since the mid 1970's. But something went wrong when my father and a group of Japanese people tried to order kimchi at a restaurant in Seoul last year. Despite their collective effort, they were not able to pronounce this word correctly. Their Japanese accent was just too strong to be understood by the Korean wait staff. 

So what exactly is a Japanese accent? Well, there are a few different ones, but the one I would like to talk about today is the lack of what I call "independent consonants". In the Japanese language, all but one consonant is followed by a vowel. So in the case of the word kimchi, it is the "m" sound in the middle that Japanese people have trouble pronouncing. They can do one of two things. Either ignore that consonant, pretending that it doesn't exist, or add a vowel. For example, the city Hong Kong is called ホンコン"Ho-n-ko-n", while the film King Kong is called キングコング "ki-n-gu ko -n-gu." In the case of kimchi, they added a vowel "u" (oo sound), pronouncing it Kee-Moo-chee. So when the Korean waiters heard "Kee-moo-chee", a three-syllable word, they simply didn't recognize what was being said.

But shouldn't Japanese still be able to pronounce the "m" sound if they can say "moo"? Yes, we Japanese people are physiologically capable of making that sound. However, it is how we think about the sound that makes it excruciatingly difficult. The Japanese phonetic writing system called “kana” does not have any symbols that represent just the consonants. The kana (both hiragana and katakana) characters originally came from Chinese logograms, and
each of these letters represents a syllable. Every kana is a simplified version of a Chinese character (漢字)and is a combination of a consonant and a vowel, except for the five short vowels (a, i, u, e, o). For example, the letter, which represents the sound "ki" (キ)comes from a Chinese character (機)meaning "machine" while the letter for "ko" (コ)is from a character which means “self” (己). These two phonetic symbols ki and ko have nothing in common visually. Therefore it is hard for a Japanese person to conceive of a consonant as an actual sound, let alone being able to recognize the sound upon hearing it independent of a vowel.

A good example of this is when trying to locate a McDonald's restaurant in Japan as an English speaking person. If you have ever been there, you know what I'm talking about. Asking an average Japanese person in the street "where is the McDonald's", would leave you to believe that the restaurant chain doesn't exist in Japan, despite the fact that there are over 3,000 of them all over the country. If you simply pronounce the name McDonald's, the only sounds that they are able to hear are "dona" and the sounds “Mc” and “ld's” are not detectable to them. For the Japanese, McDonald's is a six-syllable word, using six phonetic characters, マクドナルドma-ku-do-na-ru-do.

And to this day, I still remember feeling frustrated hearing the song "Old McDonald Had A Farm" blasted through speakers at my preschool in Japan. Even though they played this song on a daily basis, none of us preschoolers were able to fake-sing this song, even though most of us were capable of writing full sentences in Japanese using kana letters! And what's ironic is that it is as though by the age three, our brains had already mapped out such strong wiring for the Japanese  kana characters that everything we hear seems to get filtered through that mapping, allowing very few sounds through.

And this raises questions of what ifs. What if the Japanese used Hebrew alef bet (22 consonant letters with vowel markings), or Hangul, the Korean phonetic alphabet instead? Even though Hangul is a syllabic system, the each character actually contains different parts, making it possible to indicate a consonant-vowel-consonant combination. For example, the word Kimchi is spelled with two characters, 김치, the first one consisting of three parts, upper left is the “k” sound, upper right is the “i” (like eel) and the lower part is the “m”. Since the Korean language is mostly syllabic, Hangul allows much wider range and variety of sounds than the language requires. It sounds inefficient, but I think it can be useful when learning other languages. My speculation is that the structure of written symbols would affect the brain's wiring, making it possible to perceive the sounds of languages other than one's native tongue, making it easier to pronounce other languages regardless of familiarity or exposures. 

I therefore ask, “what if Japanese had learned to read and write their native tongue using alphabet system of some sort instead of the Japanese kana?” Would it make it easier for Japanese people to distinguish independent consonants, thus making it much easier to master English? The answer is no because this is only one of several challenges that we Japanese people face when trying to master another language.  (And I am planning to explain other problems in my future blogs.) But what I can say for sure is that transliteration of any foreign language into Japanese kana should have never become a standard practice. Why? Just imagine what your name would look and sound like on a Japanese paper? Have you ever heard of a famous jazz bass player se-shi-ru-ma-ku-bi-i? (セシル・マクビー)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My Conversion Speech on January 17 @ Temple Israel

Until recently, I was a very unlikely candidate for conversion. Even though I am Japanese, I was raised in a believing Protestant household, and subsequently became a Born-Again Christian at the age of ten at a Christian camp in Japan. At 18, I moved to the U.S. to attend The Juilliard School. I used to be a Christian violinist, giving church concerts, appearing at evangelical events and on Christian TV programs. And I led prayer groups at a church in New York City. Yes, I was that crazy Shiksa.

It was about ten years ago, that I started touring with “Pharaoh’s Daughter”, a Jewish Middle-Eastern band consisting of mostly Israelis and few Gentiles. It’s headed by an American Jew, Basya Schechter, an ex-ultra-Orthodox woman from Borough Park. We have performed at many Jewish festivals and all imaginable venues; Carnegie Hall, JCC’s, synagogues, colleges and even prisons. We traveled, ate, laughed, and occasionally, we cried together. For the past ten years, I got to participate in many Jewish events, from attending Passover seders to a Limmud Conference in England. Casual, yet intense discussions with my band mates during our travels, often left me thinking afterwards. I even started to question some of the doctrines of Christianity.

But it really wasn’t until 2007, after a long ride home from a gig in upstate New York, that my internal life was completely changed. During the drive, our drummer started questioning about the authenticity of the first-century Jewish carpenter- that there are many competing ideas about this man who became an itinerant rabbi. So when I got home, I got online and started digging into the historicity of this man so that I can refute this myth theory, and other shocking claims. It was a mind-boggling and revealing experience.  I began to think for myself instead of believing in blind faith. And by the end of my second day, I realized that I had been wrong, and the drummer was right!

I was so devastated that my knees felt weak and my voice trembled. I prayed for two more days in the name of this Jewish carpenter, desperately asking him for a sign. But nothing happened. The faith I had kept since I was five years old had completely crumbled down. He was my best friend, my God, my Father, and the center of my life. The sense of loss was overwhelming. Yet I had to figure out how I was going to live the rest of my life. Am I going to live a double-life and keep this from everyone?  Or, am I going to tell my family, being fully aware that the news will most certainly devastate them? Are they going to ostracize me as a result? Coming out to Christian family and friends can be very risky. As matter of fact, I once came out to one of my closest Christian friends only to be rejected. She said I was never a true Christian. Losing my spiritual friend and my faith of 30 years was painful enough, but losing my real life friend was demoralizing.

Though transitioning was difficult, I felt freer than ever before. I no longer had to hide my doubts- some of the Christian doctrines are extremely difficult to fathom and contradictory such as the concept of trinity, original sin, free will, after life (eternal suffering), and predestination. I finally felt truly authentic to myself again just like I used to feel before I became a Christian. Now I am doing exactly the same thing as I used to as a child, passionately pondering upon all of those fascinating things, like the universe, consciousness, brains, emotions, and all aspects of life. I still remember being five years old, and one day, made a conscious decision to give up my “thinking processes” and to follow the faith of my parents’. What five year old wouldn't want to trust her parents? After all, they are the ones who taught me not to run into the traffic or not to touch the hot stove.

Thirty years later, my husband Sam and I happily became parents to a baby girl named Naomi- spelled with two Chinese characters, meaning “shining and beauty.”  Naomi was the name I had picked 30 years ago when I was learning the story of Ruth and Naomi in my Sunday school class- a name that is one hundred per cent Hebrew, one hundred per cent American, and one hundred per cent Japanese. In the Bible, Naomi was the Israelite mother in law of Ruth who was a gentile who freely chose Judaism as I do this Shabbat. It is a story of loyalty and honor, and a commitment to her mother in law.

I, too have a mother-in-law whom I respect very much. Her name is Professor Rebecca Newsome. She was born in Salisbury, Maryland. She was the top of her class all throughout her life, and had received master’s degree in nursing and became a professor at the prestigious Black university, Hampton University in the 1970’s. This is no small accomplishment for someone who came from a family where both her parents were illiterate and her grandfather was a slave.

My commitment to my mother-in-law will be to teach and educate her granddaughter Naomi to strive for the best in academic studies and to be a mentsch – a person of dignity and noble character- to honor the hard work and sacrifice of her grandmother. Half a century ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King and other courageous Black leaders, often marching hand and hand with rabbis, made it possible for us to have the rights to go to the same universities as the whites, or to dine at restaurants and stay at five-star hotels, or to attend desegregated religious services. We may not be sitting here tonight if it wasn’t for their efforts.

However, while many of us minorities have been enjoying all of those wonderful privileges for many years now, the struggle for equality is still not over for many Americans.  Dr. King’s march included demands for equality in employment, wages, and housing. Unfortunately, there is a legacy of discrimination in this country, and certain groups continue to suffer disproportionately. 300 years of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow law and other state sponsored laws have lasting effects that are still felt today among underprivileged African American populations. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Being Japanese, I am often a victim of racist remarks, and have had countless sleepless nights thinking about racism.  Yet, I tend to stay passive partially because the Japanese person in me tells me to “Gaman” - "to endure the unbearable with patience and dignity”. Japanese culture discourages making of any waves. It is also my ignorance on this topic of systemic racism, which keeps me from taking an initiative.

Limmud, a Hebrew word for “learning” is one of the most important Jewish values. Limmud is not just limited to the studying of Judaism, but also includes learning in general. In the age of information, ignorance is a choice, and as a new Jew, I must strive to learn more about the history of African American struggles and other complex social issues of our generation that too often keep us divided. And I will join the collective effort of tikkun olam, “healing the world”, striving to bring peace, freedom, and justice to all people. I understand that this cannot happen overnight, but I can do my part in the way that I live my life as a mother. By converting to Judaism, Naomi will be taught the importance of integrity, social justice, and empathy for all people as opposed to closing blind eyes on day to day struggles of people in need. She will be encouraged to embrace all of her traditions and learning of history and cultures, and to be a truth-seeker so she can make informed choices in her life. She will be taught to value the sanctity of life above all, importance of action over words, and to live a socially responsible life and stand up for those who cannot.

However, over the past few weeks, a few Christians tried to tell me that I am making a huge mistake by converting my child to Judaism. I know exactly where they are coming from, and I sincerely appreciate their concerns for the fate of my daughter’s eternal soul. I would have done the same thing if I was a Christian still.

Contrary to a common misconception, Judaism is not Christianity minus the New Testament. Judaism holds very different perspectives and interpretations of the Bible, and its philosophy and values have been carefully examined and scrutinized over thousands of years. Jews of each generation have been wrestling with the written texts spanning nearly 4,000 years, from the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, to Midrash, and so on. Today, Judaism’s rich traditions and rituals are still observed by Jews in many different forms, and it continues to cater to the myriad needs of contemporary Jews, while caring for all of humanity.­

And for someone like myself, who grew up without traditional rituals and seasonal celebrations of her own ethnic culture, due to her Christian belief, Judaism’s adherence to its rich traditions, rituals, Hebrew language, music, attire, and even food, will add so much depth to our family life, and feeling of being connected to the wider community of my people. I also believe that Reform Judaism is a constructive vehicle to practice morals without religious dogmas, allowing individuals to approach Mitzvot in the spirit of freedom and choice. The principles of Reform Judaism resonate with me because they are not only Jewish values, but also some of our human virtues, including commitment to social justice, equality of women, principle of inclusion, and Judaism that changes and adapts to the needs of the day. I therefore chose Judaism for myself and my most beloved daughter.

As I stand here tonight, I realize how so many people have played different roles in my becoming a Jew. I started playing the violin here at Temple Israel in 2007 with Cantor Nesis. Over the past six years, I have had the privilege of observing dozens of wonderful Bar and Bat Mitzvah boys and girls being called to the Torah. Pretty early on, I realized that Reform Judaism held keys to the kind of parenting I wanted for my own child. While they have all impressed me, there was one particular person who made a big impression on me. Her name is Julie Aaron; she became a Bat Mitzvah on September 26, 2009. She was like a burst of sunlight. Though she was only thirteen and petit, she stood tall, and spoke with such enthusiasm, joy, sophistication, eloquence and wit. I was so moved by Julie and her story that I remember wiping my tears as I walked down on Park Avenue after that service. “How amazing would it be to become parents to a beautiful girl like her!” I thought.  Julie, of Vietnamese origin, here at Temple Israel, raised in a loving Jewish family, has been one of our official witnesses this evening!

7 months later, we found out that we were going to become parents. And I still kept thinking about Julie’s Bat Mitzvah. In secret, I was regretting that I didn’t put my time and effort to convert to Judaism earlier so our child could have been born a Jew. So this was a big dilemma, and there were very few people with whom I felt comfortable talking, namely my friend Colette Levinstein. She is the one who gave me the idea of converting my child, and she became one of my key Judaism consultants, and today, is also here as our witness.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of my Jewish friends and colleagues who inspired me through their excellence in what they do. Thanks to Basya Schechter, John Zorn, Gerard Edery, Craig Taubman, Cantor Nesis, Cantor Abelson, Cantor Ben-David; to each of you my gratitude for your music and words, wisdom, friendship and trust in me to be “Jew-ish” enough to work with you. I would also like to thank my agent, Moishe Rosenfeld for being a mensch, representing me and my Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble for the past 7 years. Thank you to my husband Sam Newsome for your support in every possible way, and shedding light on things that I wouldn’t have contemplated otherwise.  And thank you to my rabbis who have taught me along the way so far; Rabbi Janet Roberts of the Intro to Judaism class, Rabbi Buyer, Rabbi Stolof, Rabbi Sepadin, and Rabbi Gelfand. I look forward to our future journeys! I would also like to mention my secular Jewish bandleaders and conductors, the legends whom I had the greatest honor of working with, who had passed away; Alexander Schneider, Jack Elliot, and Michael Brecker. I can see all of you in heaven, smiling at me right now.

Lastly, Mom, Dad, I thank you so much for giving me life, and giving me the perfect pitch genes. I certainly would have never been playing here tonight if it wasn’t for the DNA I inherited from you guys which gives me a huge advantage as an improviser and a composer. Thank you for raising me and supporting me throughout my life. I had had truly unique and extraordinary experiences, especially for a Japanese person, being raised in a close-knit Christian community where we spent our time with missionary families from the U.S. and Germany. I probably would have never had this kind of strong desire to join the Jewish tribe, my newly embraced people, if it wasn’t for your values, integrity and love for your community of Christians. You also made so many sacrifices for your children’s education, and instilled in us the value of education. I remember you used to tell us how Jews studied all of the time regardless of their situations, and that we should study hard also. Mom, you loved classical music so much that every morning, you played records of the greatest violinists, Heifetz, Milstein, Szeryng, Menuin, Zukerman, Oistrakh, Kogan, Gingold, Mintz, Auaer, Stern, Perelman and list goes on. Did you know that every single one of them were Jews? I think you get my point.

Naomi. When I first started this journey, I always thought Judaism would be good for you. But I now realize that your becoming Jewish is good for the Jews, Blacks, Japanese, and otherwise. As the Temple President Leaf Rosenblatt said, “You being Jewish is good for everyone”! Your unique experiences and perspectives will be an invaluable asset to all people. I know you will encounter many stares, comments and questions from people who do not have the best of intentions, or just out of ignorance. But your parents will always be there for you. We know a thing or two about hardships. Besides, you now also have the Jewish people on your side. You will be gaining strength and wisdom from all of the rabbis, from Maimonides to Abraham Joshua Heschel to Rabbi Gelfand. You will be better than fine. You will be awesome!