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Reclaiming Asian Names

I read an interesting article yesterday about Asian Americans reclaiming their native first names, giving some background into a recent Twitter trend of adding your Asian name into your display name. A common theme in the stories shared by people interviewed for the piece is having had to change their names in order to make it easier for white Americans—or, more to the point, to give white Americans fewer opportunities to exclude them. I love the idea of taking pride in Asian American culture and identity, and displaying one’s Asian name is something I can understand as empowering for people who have been othered or shamed. For me, personally, it doesn’t feel completely applicable.

One of the people interviewed for the article was Susan Kiyo Ito:

Susan Kiyo Ito from Oakland told me Kiyo is legally her middle name, despite the fact that her parents had wanted to make Kiyo her first name.

“My parents had wanted to name me Kiyo after my late aunt, but then they changed their minds and decided to make that my less visible middle name because they didn’t want me to be teased," said Ito.

Her father had a similar story about his own name.

“My father’s name was Masaji (Mas), but white people struggled with his name, so he joked that they could call him Sam — Mas backwards — to make it easier for them to remember and pronounce.”

“Many of my Japanese relatives used English names in public for assimilation and white folks,” she added.

For me, like Ito, my Japanese name (Kenji) is legally my middle name. I think of it as my Japanese name, but I have never felt comfortable going by that name. And, more to the point, no one has ever called me by that name, inside my family or out. Being gosei and biracial, my relationship to Japan and Japanese culture is very different from someone who has immigrant parents. It’s always been a lot more… tenuous? Neither of my parents have Japanese names, and neither they nor I speak Japanese. Three of my grandparents also didn’t or don’t speak Japanese (though, of those, one was my white grandfather). My Japanese American grandfather also didn’t have a Japanese name, as far as I know, though some of his siblings did.

In some ways, my relationship with my name feels similar to my relationship with identity in general. It’s not that I have ever tried to hide my Japanese-ness (nor is that something I could do even if I wanted to), and my parents didn’t pick my name for assimilation. They didn’t have to pick my name based on some idea of making it easier for me to assimilate because assimilation is something that my family already did fairly thoroughly several generations ago. I think of myself as “Mike” or “Michael” because that’s my name.

It’s not that “Kenji” isn’t also part of my name and my self. It’s just that there isn’t a conflict or separation between “Mike” and some more authentic version of me. “Mike” isn’t a mask that I’ve assumed (or that was put on me) to make “Kenji” more palatable or to make things easier for white people to understand. It’s just my name.

I think that the discourse around Asian American identity tends to very entwined with the immigrant narrative, with things like assimilation or rejection of assimilation. And there are good reasons for that. That sort of leaves someone like me out of the discussion, which used to bother me a lot. But as I’ve grown older and learned more I’ve come to understand that there are good reasons not to center my personal experience with identity in what is fundamentally a political discourse. I guess I do think that there is room for an interesting discussion about the ways Asian American identity discourse can be, I think, a bit essentialist. Or about what is or is not my “authentic” culture. But that isn’t and shouldn’t be the center of the larger discourse.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I really like seeing other people put their Asian names in their profiles, or including their names written in Asian characters, and I support everyone in doing that. But I don’t think it’s something I’ll do, myself.

Holding Your Own

I’ve been thinking a lot about social media lately, about why it feels particularly challenging for me lately. I think a lot of us—maybe most of us on Twitter—feel increasingly unseen and unheard. I think most people want to feel like their existence matters, that it has weight and importance. I think most people want the opportunity for their perspective or emotions to be noticed and given consideration. Social media offers at least the promise of a remedy for that.

It is a stereotype about Twitter that people blithely reveal intimate and vulnerable truths there that they don’t elsewhere. I think that speaks to what this specific platform is good at: giving us an outlet for our feelings that feels simultaneously personal and public. That’s particularly true for those of us who don’t have big followings. There is enough anonymity that when we say things there it doesn’t necessarily make much of a ripple in the overall stream, but there’s also always the chance that someone will actually notice and engage. I think that even extends to the way many of us think about Twitter when we are actually replying to someone else.

And this sort of highlights both what I find useful about Twitter and what I find challenging about it. I don’t begrudge anyone the desire to be visible. I feel that, too. I want to be known and seen and accepted, for my opinions and emotions to be respected, even validated. I also have often appreciated the opportunity to hear what other people are going through. It has not only given me the opportunity to connect with others and sometimes be of service, but it also has helped me feel less alone, knowing that others feel similar to how I feel.

But in times of widespread harm and trauma, when we are all very understandably using Twitter in the way we always have, broadcasting our feelings—which, again, I also do—it gets difficult for me. Rather than feeling connected, I feel overwhelmed. And since I also live in the world, in times like these I am also already feeling overwhelmed by events, and so trying to hold or even just witness everyone else’s feelings just compounds what I’m already feeling. What makes it even more difficult is that a lot of people—wittingly or unwittingly—use social media to ask or even coerce others into fulfilling their need for visibility. Having that need is natural and unavoidable. But making others meet that need is unsustainable.

Compared to what people with bigger followings get—especially if they are women—I don’t get a lot of people showing up to argue with me. But I get some, and my perception is that it’s been happening more often in recent months. The overwhelming majority of the time, when someone responds to me in a way that feels argumentative, I think what they are actually saying is “I feel unseen, and I wish to feel seen.” Which, again, that’s a natural and understandable way to feel, which I also feel. I try very hard to keep this in mind when answering people, to give them as much grace as I can while also maintaining my own boundaries. Most of the time, it goes fairly well. I think people seem to come away from our interactions satisfied that they were heard.

It bears pointing out, of course, that much of my ability to interact this way is because I am relatively privileged. Being a cis straight man who is not, for example, worried about my livelihood means that people treat me better as a baseline and that I have fewer stressors. That, in turn, means that I have more available emotional capacity to hold space for other people.

Still, my capacity to hold space for others’ emotions is not unlimited, and more and more often I find myself feeling depleted. I think that a lot of people just do not think about what they are asking of others. That is, I suppose, me trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and not assume that people are purposely trying to take advantage of others. I know that happens, too, of course. But I prefer to think that most people just don’t know how to manage or take responsibility for their own emotions. After all, it’s not something that most of us are taught how to do. I certainly wasn’t. I am fortunate to have had the resources and opportunity to work through these things with a therapist. And, obviously, even with the years I spent doing that learning and work, I still backslide and slip up sometimes and put my emotions on other people.

I do wish that more people could be more aware of what it is that they’re doing when they try to make others hold their emotions. I do wish that people could be more considerate. Then again, I know it’s harder to be considerate when you’re going through it. It is difficult at best and sometimes completely impossible to be emotionally aware and responsible when your own emotional reserves are depleted. I know that, and I think about it a lot. I try to give people as much grace as I can, not least because I have always appreciated it when people have extended me the same consideration when I wasn’t at my best. I am not entitled to your grace, which means it is precious when you give it to me anyway. But I still get depleted after a while. I get tired or frustrated or angry or sad. As I know that I, too, have made other people tired or frustrated or angry or sad when I’ve tried to make them hold my emotions.

And something that I want to be clear is that usually when I have asked someone to hold my emotions, I haven’t said that that’s what I was doing. More often I said it was about justice or right/wrong or speaking out/calling out or something else about them and not me. The thing is, the fact that it was, at root, about making someone else hold my feelings doesn’t mean I was wrong about it being about justice. It doesn’t mean I was incorrect in what I said about the behavior or words I was calling out. I don’t mean that I’m infallible on morals or justice. I have certainly been wrong about that kind of thing many times and I’m sure I will be again. I mean that the emotional motivation and the intellectual/moral motivation can coexist, and one can feed the other. That is, it’s not merely a justification to say “this is about justice” when I am trying to make someone else see me. Both things can be true at the same time, I think. I’m saying this because I want it to be clear that I am not telling people not to call out injustice and I am not saying that all call-outs or arguments are emotionally motivated, and I am not saying that emotionally motivated call-outs are inherently invalid.

What I am saying is that I think it is helpful to recognize the emotional components of our actions. I think it is helpful for others and for ourselves. It’s helpful to others because when we are aware of our own emotional processes, we tend not to inappropriately burden others as much. It’s helpful to ourselves because it helps us be more intentional in our actions. And I think it’s helpful in general because the more we take responsibility for our own emotional processes, the less we deplete other peoples’ emotional reserves, and the more they can respond with grace and patience to others. It helps the general temperature come down.

I know that in the middle of an ongoing crisis is not the time to be asking people to do more. Again, when we are in crisis and our reserves are depleted, we just don’t have the capacity left to hold space for others. I know that. But I know that not everyone is equally depleted right now. I am very tired lately and not at my best. But I still have enough capacity to keep trying to be aware of my emotions and to keep trying to be gracious to others. I think that if I have some capacity left, then surely there must be others who do as well. And maybe those aren’t the people who need to hear all of this. Maybe those people are more likely to already know all of this. But I hope that if there are people who aren’t completely depleted and who haven’t heard this stuff before, or who could use a reminder, then this discussion might be useful to them.

Moreover, it’s been my experience that my own reserves of emotional energy have become deeper and easier to maintain the more I keep this perspective in mind. The more I practice emotional awareness, the more I’m able to be gracious and kind to others. Possibly this is because when I’m aware of what’s going on with myself, I’m better able to determine what boundaries I need and better able to maintain those boundaries

If you can’t do this right now, it’s okay. I’m not criticising you or calling you out. I also don’t mean to make it sound like I have it all figured out. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that injustice doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be addressed. Just, this is stuff that I’ve found helpful for myself. So, if you’re able to make use of it, I hope you will.

From the KTCO Archive: Ken Rosenthal

This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm revisiting my 2016 conversation with photographer Ken Rosenthal. Ken's work has always stuck in my mind for both its striking visual style and the way that he uses images to represent and explore his internal emotional and psychological state. Whether he's looking at landscapes or family members or familiar objects, his photographs resonate because they represent the personal. We talked about several bodies of work, including his series The Forest and a series that was then a work-in-progress called Days On the Mountain. For the second segment, Ken and I talked about change, and how when it comes in our personal lives it can spur us to new heights in our work.

Since I first released our conversation, Ken has gone on to publish Days On the Mountain as a beautiful photobook via Dark Spring Press. You can order a copy directly from Ken via his website, either the book on its own, or a signed and numbered limited edition copy with a print.

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.

#MatteredToMe - March 19, 2021

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

  1. The line at the center of Gabrielle Bates's poem "Time Lapse" stopped me in my tracks, as I think it's intended to. How that functions in the poem, breaking and connecting the beginning and end, is breathtaking to me. (CW: reference to gendered violence)
  2. I always like Brandon Taylor's letters. Being someone who also came to the arts haphazardly and on my own, I related strongly to the discussion in this week’s letter of finding "where you fit in the constellation of the culture." I'm also very interested in the ways that our views of sentimentality and Romanticism may be changing in art and literature, so this is really hitting all the notes for me.
  3. I've said this before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: Yanyi's letters are remarkable for their consistent generosity. Here he talks about community, fear of intimacy, reciprocal kindness, and love.
  4. I also very much appreciated Yanyi's letter from Wednesday. I think the feeling he describes of being so tired of having to write about death, and yet feeling a responsibility to do so, is something many of us feel and have felt if we are from vulnerable communities.
  5. Finally, I finished reading Anahid Nersessian's book Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse this week. I thought it was fascinating and moving in how it combines scholarship and personal storytelling. It felt, in a way, like a poem, itself.

As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. I've been thinking a lot about how kindness is necessary for a better world, but not sufficient to get us there. I'm grateful to everyone I see doing the work.

Thank you, and take care.

I Don't Want to Have to Talk About This Again

So, yes, I have been thinking about anti-Asian violence. I’ve been thinking about it all year, and after the shooting in Atlanta, I am sad and scared and so, so tired. It’s on my mind, of course. But I haven’t been talking about it much online.

Partly, I rankle at the idea that I as an Asian American need to talk about anti-Asian violence in America. I’ve talked about racism a lot over the course of my lifetime, and I’ve talked about it a lot more as an activist over the past few years. I think it’s important to talk about. And certainly I know that waiting around for white people to fix racism is untenable. But I still feel that the time it’s most important for me to speak up is when my own communities are the ones perpetrating or benefiting from injustice. It shouldn’t need to be Asian people speaking out about anti-Asian racism, just like it shouldn’t need to be women speaking out about misogyny or queer people speaking out about homophobia.

But also, I find myself just getting tired of yelling about things online, and wondering how much it ends up mattering in the first place. There’s a conversation to be had about bearing witness, I think. And I think that there are ways that increasing awareness can affect the world in more material ways. But shouting on Twitter isn’t the same as organizing or activism, and at least for me it’s not even particularly cathartic anymore.

What I want to know is what can we do on a practical level to actually make things better? Donating to a GoFundMe for a victim’s family or to a grassroots organization working in vulnerable communities is a good thing to do, surely, but I’m thinking about how often small orgs end up being overwhelmed by donations after a tragedy, and, even more, how many people let a small donation be the end of their involvement. What’s the amount of money you can donate before it’s okay to stop thinking about an issue? And is it okay to just throw money at a problem and hope that someone else will do the work? My point here isn’t to shame anyone else or discourage you from donating, these are questions I’m trying to ask myself, too.

I’m skeptical of calls for more policing or hate crime enforcement, not only because of the ways that our law enforcement and criminal justice systems so often treat white suspects so differently from BIPOC suspects, but also because of the ways that our criminal justice and immigration systems are often the sources of violence against marginalized communities to begin with.

I’m skeptical, too, that just talking to our racist uncles is going to stop racist violence. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t talk to our parents or uncles or spouses or kids—I think we should have those conversations, assuming we can do so without putting ourselves or others in danger. It’s just that I don’t think the people who most need to hear these messages are likely to be open enough to receive them. Maybe I’m wrong about this, and I’m glad people want to try, but I just don’t have it in me most of the time to be the one to try to educate people about why racism is bad, or what racism even is.

Maybe it’s just because my activism focuses on legislation and public policy, but more and more I find myself thinking that the best thing we can do is make policy changes that materially help marginalized communities. And not through things like hate crime laws or increasing police presence, but rather things like immigration reform or healthcare reform or policy to address wealth inequality. In California right now there are, for example, bills to provide universal healthcare regardless of immigration status, and to establish a pilot program for community-based alternatives to policing. There is a bill to provide food assistance to all residents, regardless of immigration status. There are a number of bills to try to provide affordable housing. Those are all things we could advocate for to our elected officials—and I plan to do so. It’s not that immigrant and BIPOC communities having access to housing and healthcare and education and other resources will stop a racist gunman from opening fire. But it makes more and more sense to me that racist attitudes change after material conditions change for marginalized races, not before. That racism is not the cause of inequality but a tool invented to justify inequality, and so by addressing the inequality first, we provide a path to addressing attitudes.

But, look, I am tired of having to talk about racism and injustice. I want to talk about art and books and podcasting and interviewing. I want to talk about nostalgia and longing and the bittersweetness of watching my children grow up. I want there to be a good time to talk about things that aren’t dire and global. Maybe it’s a selfish desire to have and insensitive to admit it out loud—probably it is, I don’t know—but I am just worn out. The world goes on being awful no matter what I want, of course, but sometimes I need to look away for a while.

And I think that maybe what drives my feeling of resentment is that even still, the people who should be taking responsibility and should be the ones looking and speaking up, many of them aren’t. It’s not to say that none are—indeed, I’ve been glad to see lots of white and other non-Asian people speaking out over the past few days. But as heartening as it is to see non-Asian allies stepping up, I still have to know and even see that there are so many people who think America doesn’t have a racism problem, who throw around the model minority myth, who are just shut into their little bubbles and refusing to see what they don’t want to see.

I don’t have a big conclusion to wrap all this up. I’m tired and angry and sad and scared. I’m heartbroken for the victims and their families. I want people to be better. I’m trying my best.

#MatteredToMe - March 12, 2021

Hello everyone, it's Friday. Here are a few things that mattered to me recently:

  1. I found myself quite struck by these four short poems by Victoria Chang, but particularly by the first one, titled "Thanks." I've read the three lines and sixteen words six or seven times in the past few minutes and each time they've seemed to me different.
  2. I don't know a way to say this that makes more sense but there is this sense of hopeful desperation, or perhaps desperate hope, to Devin Kelly's poem "Self Care in the Land of a Thousand Horses" that I found both compelling and familiar.
  3. Nina Li Coomes's 2018 piece "On Jellyfish" is about depression, and it contains a particularly intimate depiction of depression. It's not a topic that I've been actively seeking to read about but somehow I've managed to find my way to several such pieces recently. What strikes me about this one is the way that it looks right at depression, it doesn't look away, and in doing so it manages to find a way through to something like relief or resolve or gratitude.
  4. Marina Lostetter did a guest essay for Sarah Gailey's newsletter this week, about aggregate storytelling from folk tales to the Arthurian legend to the show Supernatural, and how storytelling can be an expression of community. I loved it.
  5. Amber Sparks's 2019 flash story "Everything is Terrible but You Should Read This Story" fascinates me in how its use of negation makes all of the terrible things it negates visible, and yet also makes visible the act of care that the story is.

As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. If you're reading this, you've made it through a particularly difficult year. I want you to know: that's an accomplishment.

Thank you, and take care.

New KTCO: KTCO Book Club - Song (with Gabrielle Bates)

This week for the KTCO Book Club, I'm talking with poet and podcaster Gabrielle Bates about Brigit Pegeen Kelly's 1994 poetry collection, Song. In our conversation, Gabrielle and I talked about how Kelly builds the worlds of her poems, how the poems layer metaphor, and how the poems manage to be simultaneously (and paradoxically) both surreal and grounded.

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.

As always, I recommend purchasing copies of Song from your local independent bookstore, but if you don't have one available to you, Open Books in Seattle and The Book Catapult here in San Diego take online orders and can ship to you. (Those links will take you straight to the ordering pages for Song.) You can find links to Gabrielle Bates's work at her website, and you can listen to her podcast The Poet Salon (one of my favorite literary shows) in your favorite podcast app.

#MatteredToMe - February 27, 2021

Here are a few things that mattered to me recently:

  1. Marissa Lingen's short story "So your grandmother is a starship now: a quick guide for the bewildered" starts off with a light tone and a fun premise, but gradually and inexorably shifts to something more. I thought it was wonderful.
  2. I was so happy to see a special episode of The Big Loop drop this week. "Memory of a Dress" is, like so many of the stories on The Big Loop, wistful and beautiful, with superb writing, voice acting, and production.

As always, this is just a portion of what’s mattered to me recently. I’ve been starting to feel some glimmers of hope recently, starting to feel like things might get better in the future. We’re not there yet, but maybe it won’t be too much longer. I hope so, and for you, too.

Thank you, and take care.

Breaking Down

Boy, Twitter is awful lately, isn’t it? And not just awful in the way that we’ve been used to and talking about for what feels like forever, but newly and especially awful. I know it’s not just me; in the past month or so I’ve had a number of conversations with Twitter friends who have had to take breaks because it’s gotten to be too much.

It’s not unexpected, of course, or it shouldn’t be. After nearly a year of isolation we’re all (or as close to all as to make little difference) feeling like Bilbo at the beginning of Fellowship, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” Compounded tension and stress make everyone more brittle, more prone to fight or take out our distress on others. With vaccinations ramping up, case rates dropping significantly, and scientists starting to admit cautious optimism, it seems like some kind of normalcy is starting to become visible, even if it’s still months away. You might think that would be a boost to people’s spirits, and perhaps it is for some, but often the release of long-standing tension also comes with an emotional breakdown to one degree or another.

People talked about similar phenomena around the time of the inauguration last month (criminy, was it really just last month?), for example that long-standing anxiety doesn’t just go away, or that Twitter was likely to get more agitated as we reckoned with what we’d been through. I remember seeing one thread (which I can’t find again now) talking about how often it’s only after a trauma has passed that we feel safe enough to finally fall apart. And, of course, in many ways we are still being traumatized. We are still having climate disasters, children are still being imprisoned at the border, the President is still ordering drone strikes. It’s not nothing, though, that Trump is finally out of office.

I think it might be more than just a release of tension, though. I can’t help but think that the past four years have trained us to fight, even when we don’t need to. One of the most-shared things I’ve seen over that time has been the line from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel speech in which he says we must always pick a side. It’s a principle that has a lot of applicability right now—there is a lot of injustice in the world about which we must not be silent. But not every disagreement rises to the level of the torment, oppression, endangerment of human lives, and imperilment of human dignity that Wiesel was talking about, and something I know from experience (and from working with a therapist) is that having experienced abuse or trauma can leave us unable to distinguish between what is and isn’t actually dangerous—our bodies respond as though we are in mortal peril either way.

I’ve been thinking lately about Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment,” about his speaker who would “connive in civilized outrage” but also understands “the exact and tribal, intimate revenge.” I read this poem as Heaney processing what he saw and experienced during The Troubles, but perhaps also reckoning more broadly with human nature and the way that justice and revenge intertwine, how our motivations aren’t clean and separable, how a propensity for violence lives in all of us, no matter what we might think of our own ideals or sensitivities. I think perhaps something that has dismayed me lately is not just that we don’t admit that we’re looking more to inflict our suffering on others than to protect people or heal. Rather, what unsettles me is that some of us do admit it and call it virtue.

It isn’t for me to decide what is and isn’t virtuous, or to tell other people what to value or how to behave. And, truly, I want to give people a break. All of us have limited mental and emotional resources, and when those have been spent it’s hard, even impossible, to keep being gracious or compassionate towards others. Lately this mostly means spending less time on Twitter in general.

Ultimately, I’m not sure whether social media is sustainable for me—being on it often makes me feel more anxious or depressed. On the other hand, spending time away from it makes me feel disconnected and lonely. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to find a way to stay engaged in a way that feels healthy, but I do know that right now it’s not feeling good to be there.

New KTCO: Kary Wayson

This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm talking with poet Kary Wayson. The poems Kary’s latest collection, The Slip, are wonderfully slippery in both form and feeling, in a way that demands attention and rewards deep engagement. In our conversation we discussed what a poem can do, how we approach “meaning” in poetry, and how life changes affect our art. Then in the second segment, we talked about time and our human perception of duration.

Here are some links 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 on the KTCO website.

You can purchase a copy of The Slip directly from the publisher, or from an independent bookstore like Open Books in Seattle, The Book Catapult in San Diego, or your own local bookstore.

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