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#MatteredToMe - April 9, 2021

It's Friday. Here are a few things that mattered to me recently:

  1. Lyz Lenz wrote about the loss of a beloved pet, about facing unexpected pain and sorrow, and choosing what kind of person you want to be.
  2. Anne Anlin Cheng's essay "A Dilemma of Intimacy" is about interracial love, the dance of familiarity and strangeness, the double bind of being an Asian American woman. I found it insightful and poignant.
  3. Min Jin Lee wrote a tribute to her late uncle, and about the world of books that he introduced her to, and how she found her own voice through reading. There's so much love in the piece, I thought it was beautiful.
  4. I got pretty choked up reading this NYT feature of Asian and Asian American photography, both Celeste Ng's essay and the wonderful, beautiful images from so many Asian and Asian American artists. There's a certain defiance in turning toward and depicting tenderness and love in a time of isolation and hate, which I found meaningful and moving.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I hope that some time soon you can find something that nourishes you and get your fill of it, and then some.

Thank you, and take care.

Searching for Meaning

Last night, after it had already ceased being last night and was on into today, instead of going to sleep I stayed up looking up different kanji for my name. This wasn't, perhaps, the wisest use of my time at that moment as I am now at the point of mild sleep deprivation where I have turned into a living Magnetic Fields song.

I should probably back up a little bit. I've been thinking a lot about my name recently. Partly that's because of a Twitter trend that started a few weeks ago where Asian Americans began including their native names in their profiles as a show of pride and empowerment in the face of anti-Asian hate. (I should note that this is not a new phenomenon in general—I know lots of people who have been doing this for years, but it did gain some new significance and momentum recently.) It's also partly because I read Beth Nguyen's excellent and moving essay about choosing to change her name. I'm finding the discussion around names and Asian pride interesting, and it makes me happy to see people make the choices that are right for them. For myself, "Michael" is the name that my parents gave me and the only name that my family called me until I was old enough to ask them to call me "Mike." So there's no separation between "me" and "Mike."

Still, I do also have a Japanese name. Legally, Kenji is my middle name, but in my family it's more of a second first name, even if no one has ever called me by that name. Neither of my parents and none of their siblings have Japanese names, and I've always liked that I've had one, though at times I have been envious of my brothers, one of whom doesn't have a Japanese name but was named for our dad and the other of whose Japanese name came from a beloved great-uncle, while I was stuck with "second son."

But, as my mom's mom—the one close family member I have who is from Japan—would point out, a Japanese name's meaning depends on how it's spelled. Kenji is one of the most common names in Japan, and there are many different combinations of kanji that are used for it, each with a different meaning. And the thing is, I don't know how my name is spelled. Neither of my parents speak or read Japanese, so they never picked kanji for my name.

I do know how my family name is spelled: 酒瀬川. I can't write it, and I always have to look up the second character, but I know what it means. 酒 is "sake" (as in the drink). 瀬 is "rapids" or "shallows." (My grandmother used to say it was like "edge" but would then say she didn't know the right English word.) 川 is "river." Thus you get the derivation of my website and Twitter handle.

In the past when I've had to write out my name in Japanese, for a class or whatever, I've written it as 酒瀬川マイク (Sakasegawa Maiku). I could certainly keep doing that, but lately I've found myself thinking more and more about how to use my Japanese name. If I were going to start doing that, I'd have to pick a spelling on my own. But that means that I'd also have to pick a meaning. I'm not sure why it feels less strange to define your child's name than your own, but for me it does. It's always felt... presumptuous? But I've become more and more curious about how I would spell it, if I were going to. It's been sort of a strange journey.

If I were to go with the meaning I'm most used to, it would be 建二, where 建 is "build" and 二 is "two." This is the meaning that my grandmother told me when I was young, something like "second built." This would be in some ways the closest to having my family pick the name for me, I think.

On the other hand, the meaning that appeals to me most is 謙実, which (if I understand it correctly) is "humble" followed by a character that can be "sincerity" or "kindness" or "fruit." Though, there's something about calling myself "humble kindness" that doesn't feel, well, very humble.

If I were to pick based solely on which characters look the most visually beautiful to me, I would probably go with 健次. This is "strong/healthy/vigorous" and "next," which is often translated as "strong second son." I'm not sure how I feel about that meaning, but just look at it:

Then again, maybe the most honest thing to do would be just to spell it phonetically in katakana: ケンジ. That would be closest to how I was actually named, but somehow it doesn't sit right with me to have a name with no meaning at all (even if that's not at all unheard of in Japan).

I haven't come to any conclusions or made any decisions at this point. There's something about the idea of picking my own name that feels both exciting and like a heavy responsibility. I mean, I have a hard enough time picking out a new pair of glasses, and those just go on my face. This actually feels a lot like the process of naming our kids, an experience that was both fun and that I felt the gravity of. With each of them we narrowed down to a short list and then waited to see which one fit the best. I'm not sure exactly how that would work here, but on the other hand it's not as though I have a deadline. If I end up not deciding at all, I'll still have two names and I'll still be myself. So, I'm thinking about it.

New KTCO: Farrah Karapetian

This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm talking with artist Farrah Karapetian. Known for her large-scale photograms, Farrah’s wide-ranging practice incorporates sculpture, performance, and different forms of mark-making to stretch the photographic medium as she is driven by her intense and rigorous curiosity. In our conversation, Farrah and I talked about the appeal of the photographic medium, the tension between constructing an image and the happy accident, and the ethics of artistic beauty. Then in the second segment, we discussed the Nardal sisters and how we develop a language around issues like exoticization.

Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:

You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript at the episode page at the KTCO website.

Scattered, vol. 7

  • I got my first vaccine dose this week. I was prepared beforehand for an immune response, which has so far been barely noticeable. I was not prepared for the emotional response. Sitting in the monitoring area after my shot, I noticed myself sniffling and was briefly concerned until I realized that it was only that I was crying a little bit. I've been saying for a while now that I don't mind waiting, that I'm not sure I'll ever actually be ready to go back out into the world again. And that's true, but it still felt like letting my breath out for the first time in a long while.
  • I think something that has been eating at me both with the virus and with the anti-Asian violence is that I just don't know how much danger I'm actually in. I'm not sure I can know how much danger I'm in, really. By any objective measure, an educated, affluent, professional, fifth-generation Japanese American is at much lower risk for both than someone with closer immigrant roots, or who has a blue-collar essential job, or who is of a different Asian ethnicity. But lower risk isn't the same as no risk. The richest person I've ever met died of COVID a few months ago. People not too far from my neighborhood who look not too different from me have been picked up in ICE raids. And I've been punched in the face before by someone who was calling me a chink and telling me to go back where I came from.
  • It's been 26 years or so since the last time I was punched or kicked or shoved or spit on by someone who called me a chink. That wasn't the last time I was called a racial slur, but the last time the slur came with physical violence was almost two-thirds of my lifetime ago. And, at that, I never suffered worse than a bloody nose or a few bruises where it didn't show. I don't know that it makes much rational sense that I feel as much fear as I do. But I guess feelings don't have to be rational.
  • Yesterday, Arden Cho shared a story on Twitter about a time when she was 10, when a teenage boy beat her into unconsciousness, knocking out two of her teeth and hospitalizing her. I think the thing that caught me the most was when she was talking about now, and said "I honestly didn’t realize I was living with all this trauma, I thought I was okay. But seeing countless videos of violent attacks has triggered a lot of these memories and it’s been so heavy and painful."
  • I saw that thread because my friend Grace shared it, adding "As Asians we are taught to hide our pain & be grateful it wasn’t worse. That lifelong training has taught us & others that our pain doesn’t matter."
  • I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know if it's okay for me to feel afraid right now.
  • I can't help thinking, too, about how tenuous Asian American solidarity is and has been, how often the exclusion and perhaps even danger comes from within this so-called community. When my mother's mother first came to Salinas, she was met by a community of nisei and sansei who were skeptical of war brides. When I was a kid, my Japanese/Filipino American cousins and I would laugh at people for being fobby. And it's not like it's over. One of the first things the algorithm showed me when I signed up for TikTok was an Asian American comedian whose whole schtick seems to be making fun of Asian immigrants' accents.
  • Nobody can give you permission for your feelings, and if you find yourself seeking permission it's important to ask yourself whether what you're actually seeking is exoneration.
  • It was Friday when I started writing this list of bullet points and now it's Saturday. I think I'm too tired now to bring it to a real conclusion.

#MatteredToMe - April 6, 2021

It's Friday. Here are a few things that mattered to me recently:

  1. Jad Josey is so good at writing wistful flash stories that are full of longing. His story "You Will, You Will, You Will" was just lovely.
  2. Beth Nguyen wrote a nuanced and very personal essay about choosing a name. I know others have made different choices with their own names, but this seems just the point to me: that it is a choice. I'm glad and grateful she shared hers.
  3. Noah Cho wrote about his grandmother's hands, and how things can be unsaid but still communicated and understood. As always, I loved it.
  4. Jason Fitzroy Jeffers wrote about Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero," apocalypse as revelation instead of ending, and what true freedom might look like.
  5. Finally, Maggie Tokuda-Hall hosted Sarah Gailey in a Drunk Safari IG Live last night. It was the hardest I've laughed in recent memory, and exactly what I needed.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I just noticed that my shoulders were pulled up toward my ears. Check in with yourself: is there a tension you can release? If you can, I hope you will.

Thank you, and take care.