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!