The first time I was exposed to spoken word poetry was at my hippie liberal arts college. I didn’t get it. It seemed silly and pretentious. Annoying and boring. I found it embarrassing to watch. Over the years I'd occasionally get invited to a poetry slam or open mic night and I always said no because I thought that spoken word was an art form I just didn’t appreciate. As it turns out, that’s only because I’d never heard any Asian performers so I'd never heard any spoken word that spoke to me, about my life experience.
A few days ago I came across Japanese-North Carolinian spoken word artist, G Yamazawa’s incredibly powerful piece, "Home" via sansei writer Gil Asakawa’s blog, Nikkei View. (There's a less shaky video with better sound quality here if you can't watch shaky videos, but it's a less fiery performance than the one Gil linked to so I recommend listening to the one above.)
Listening to "Home" I felt a tightness in my chest and tears in my eyes as he talks about 3.11 and knowing something was wrong, feeling the 18-wheeler parked in his heart and seeing in his mom's eyes that she wanted to return to Japan (I did too) and about how his mom told him he couldn't understand because he wasn't born there.
She said: 「ジョージお 分からんと思う、そこで生まれてないから。」 "Jōji o wakaran to omou, sokode umare tenaikara," which G translates as, "I don’t think you’d understand. You’re not from there." My brain translated it as, "George, you don't understand, you weren't born there," which is a little closer the original. My friend who helped me with the Japanese (Thanks, Stacey!) said a direct translation would be, "I don't think you would understand, George, because you weren't born there."
The funny thing about getting older is that at some point you cross a line and all your teachers stop being older than you. This is the week that 23-year-old nisei G Yamazawa schooled me on spoken word. He may sound like a Southerner but he looks like he could be my cousin and although he's in a different generation both demographically and culturally (he's nisei, I was born in Japan but identify as sansei because my maternal grandparents came to the US in the early 1900s so I have a nisei mom), his experiences resonate. Perhaps growing up as an Asian in the South in the 90s/2000s was similar to growing up as an Asian in the Northeast in the 80s?
Some more of my favorites:
- 10 things you should know about being an Asian from the South
- Dear Grandma (
also, a very different version from his album which is worth a listentrack doesn't seem to be on SoundCloud anymore :( )
- Linsanity Speaks
- April 22, 2014 performance for the Asian Student Union a UVA
- Buddhist in America-Story of Spoken Word Poet George Yamazawa Jr.
On a local note, I was surprised to learn recently that Cambridge is home to East Meets Words, the longest running Asian American open mic night series in the country. I had no idea we had a thriving Asian American arts community. They've been running since 2005. It happens the second Friday of every month at 8pm at East Meets World (934 Mass Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139), which used to be a Chinese-language bookstore called East Meets West. Next one is this Friday.