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!