THROUGH THE FIRE: Curating Culture

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By MARI NAKANO
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on February 3, 2011.)

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Two haori hang between my dresses and long coat. A patched-up Noguchi lamp sits crookedly on the nightstand. My mother-in-law’s haiku hangs between the bedroom windows. White rice accompanies just about every dinner, and musubi, hand-molded and stuffed with umeboshi,  escort us on long travels. There are as many Japanese league basketball tournament and taiko T-shirts as there are o-hashi in my cupboard. Furin hang from the curtain rods, waiting to ring in next summer’s breeze. An empty box of Botan Rice Candy is pinned to the studio wall.

A yen or two is always found mixed in the bowl of excess pennies, dimes and nickels located by the entranceway. The yen — it is near worthless, but it is valued because, like all the rest of these objects, it symbolizes connection to a cultural root.

Sprinkled throughout my apartment are constant reminders of my identity as a Japanese American. These objects are everywhere — on my bookshelf, on the windowsill, by the shoes, in my purse, in the refrigerator. As I look around, I realize how I’ve been sculpting my own understanding of what it is to be Japanese American. Identity, in so many ways, is relative to place, time, interaction and personal choice. My objects are an ongoing curation of the things I embrace and understand about my culture. From the string of foiled paper cranes to the set of miso bowls given to me by my mother…the more I look at all these things, the more I wonder what my own children will one day curate for themselves. I wonder how the generations ahead of us will shape their meanings of being Japanese American.

When I was younger, I thought mostly of my identity just in relation to myself. Who was I becoming and what did it mean for me to be Japanese American? I suppose now that I’m a bit older, married and thinking about children, my radius of being is much larger. I slide back and forth between the Nisei, Sansei and Yonsei generations, so I wonder what things will be like for those, say, five or more generations from now. I’m so curious to know.

I don’t worry about the direction of our heritage in America. I believe in preservation of culture, but I also believe we should shape ourselves to be what we understand ourselves to be. I believe as a Japanese American community, we should be able to offer knowledge and exposure to traditions, history and culture, especially for those who seek it and don’t have as much access to it; but, in the end, I think there’s no measure of what it is to be more Japanese American than another.

Since moving to New York, I realize what a privilege it has been to grow up in California, surrounded by large Japanese American communities. It was so much easier to “find” yourself in relation to your ethnic heritage. I suppose it felt safer to partake in the pursuit of discovering oneself. New York, so far, doesn’t have the same type of access. There is no epicenter. There is no enclave. Unlike Los Angeles, you can’t just go to the Japanese American National Museum, stop by an Obon festival and maybe pick up some manju on the way home, all in a half-mile radius. You can’t drive a few hours to Manzanar or Tule Lake and say, “See, this is where your grandparents had to live during the war.” The community is more or less scattered out here in New York and it has presented to me a whole new way of having to think about existing as a Japanese American.

When I have children, how will I point them towards resources? And when it’s not me who should be some sort of a cultural guidance, will there be a community where they can go? Will I be somehow disappointed if they don’t get the same exposure of Asian American history, Japanese American gatherings and communal spaces as I did?

I never had to think if my children weren’t going to get to benefit in the same ways as I did. I didn’t really think that I’d leave California. Now that I’m here in New York, I’m realizing that my family may not grow up in the same way as me. Their collections will be very unique. Their sense of self will mature and bear different fruit. Through it all, I will be learning how to share what I know in a way that is open to their own curiosities and interpretations.

What I’ve taken from my own growth, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, from Nihonmachi to Little Tokyo, will be for me to give in the best ways I can. As I continue to curate my life, I hope that I can be a strong resource for my children along the way. When they see the objects in our home, I hope they know they will always be embraced by their culture and that they are allowed to shape their own meanings of being Japanese American.

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Mari Nakano can be reached by e-mail.  Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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