Crying in Public

A week after Thanksgiving, I found myself seated in a cushy, high-tech theater in the center of LA’s Little Tokyo sobbing. Around me, an audience of about 50 listened as a scholar of Japanese mass incarceration and a filmmaker and activist discussed their work. At first, I attributed my inability to stifle the tears running down my cheeks and ruining my mascara placement to hormones and fatigue. But through these two months, I have found myself, well, beside myself, several times.

In that moment, I cried because someone in the audience asked a seemingly simple question to the speakers. Something like, “My grandpa talked about working with some Japanese Americans who were arrested and he took care of their stuff while they were away…did other people do that?” The speakers explained that many people who knew Japanese Americans personally did take care of their homes and belongings while they were away. Another audience member raised their hand and revealed that a series of photographs the filmmaker used in a short film featured a former neighbor. Then, stories started flowing. Children of formerly incarcerated started sharing about their parents’ time in “the camps.” A few veterans talked about feeling inspired by the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the regiment composed almost entirely of Americans with Japanese ancestry. One survivor finally- slowly- revealed his own experience in the camps.

These stories weren’t necessarily sad. In fact, I felt an intense spirit of kinship in the room, as if these folks waited decades to share and finally got the chance. I stopped taking notes like a good scholar and started listening, really listening, through body language and facial expressions and laughter. I think the reason I cried is because that space- one where scholars and activists and folx who might have simply been there to learn or share- were all essential to the conversation. That is the space I want to inhabit and create in whatever kind of work I do.

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The pop-up Planetarium

This past weekend, I found myself beside myself again! This time, over 5,000 people flocked to the Los Angeles Public Library for a Mobile Museum Festival. My partner and I brought along our exhibit materials and kept our eye out for innovative display ideas or stories to include in our exhibit about the religious and inter-religious history of California. We saw a pop-up planetarium (think an upside-down bounce house), a museum of miniatures depicting African American history and culture in America, a set of matchboxes from gay bars, candy wrappers, marionette dolls, indigenous food sources, and a feminist book wagon. We also saw a massive iguana and a tarantula that made me itch. I felt my impulse to cry when we crowded into a packed room full of sports memorabilia- the California Sneaker Museum. The display cases were cracked. Some of the posters looked slightly tacky. The table cloths revealed a few stains and fray. But the imperfections of the accessories fell in silence compared to the objects and the stories they held. Magic Johnson’s sneakers. The founder of the museum is a sports enthusiast and has been collecting objects and stories for over 20 years. He is a scholar of popular culture- and his mission is to share his work and passion with anyone who will stop and look.

I think we have moved beyond the false notion that scholarship should be objective and emotionless, as if our sources demand we put our humanity aside for more authentic understanding. While it is true that biases and our own experiences can shape what we think and how we study, I can’t imagine not “feeling” as I interact with them. How could I not be heartbroken upon reading a letter from an incarcerated Buddhist priest, who begged the government to grant him freedom so he could return to the religious community he served for over 35 years only to find the building sold and condemned after his seven-year internment? Or courage, looking at the old photographs of the first Sikh woman Mayor in the US and her journey as a sexual assault survivor? I don’t mean to say we should make value judgments on our sources- this often shadows the authenticity of them by projecting false context- but that we are missing a key aspect of research if our own emotions go unchecked, or worse, are stifled. So, I’ll keep crying, and laughing, and finding spaces where my work is a compliment to the stories waiting to be shared.

 

Lying to Our Kids

When I was five, I got really sick.

I was stuck in bed for at least three weeks. It was awful- no school (which for me was terrible), no sports (even worse), no birthday parties, play dates, or batting practice. I’m not sure what kind of illness plagued me, but I do remember making everyone in my house miserable. And my mom felt bad, so she did something that might be frowned upon.

A week before I got sick, our local grocery store hosted a coloring contest. To enter, you had to take a booklet of coloring and activities home, complete all of it, and bring it back to the store. I remember a little box covered in yellow paper with a slot that perfectly fit the booklets. I spent so much time finishing that booklet, coloring in the lines, making sure all the puzzles were done correctly. When it was finished, my mom took it to the store and turned it in without much thought. I have never been the artist in the family. Then I got sick.

lamb chops

My mom decided I would feel better if I thought that I had won the contest. The theme was a 90s television show called “Lamb Chops Play-Along” that featured four sock puppets- a lamb, Lamb Chops, and his other animal friends. Remember that song, “This is the song that never ends…” I learned that on “Lamb Chops.” My mom bought four puppets just like the characters on the show, a new coloring book, a poster, and card that she signed with the main characters’ signatures. She told me I won the contest. I did feel better, excited about the recognition.

The next day, the store called to tell me that I had won the contest. They wanted me to meet the manager in her office so she could take a picture and give me my prizes. My mom had to make something up- “you won the grand prize!” Of course, I was ecstatic that there was another level of winning. That meant my work had been selected from a big pool, and then from another more elite pool of entries. And the prize was even better- more puppets, two posters, autographs from the cast, and even a gift certificate to the store. I did feel better, my mom’s plan had worked.

Years later, my mom told me what really happened. “I did it to myself,” she laughed. “You can’t lie to your kids.”

The reason I’m remembering this story at this time is because of the Golden State Sacred project. The mobile exhibit that depicts California’s religious and interreligious history. The exhibit depicts some communities that have been mostly unrecognized in California. It also tells histories that are uncomfortable. We have a hard time grappling with violence, oppression, internment, and surveillance. Dehumanization. But we have to face the histories that make us uncomfortable. The question is- what is “lying to our kids” in his scenario? Is there an appropriate age to talk about genocide? Rape? Considering a group of people sub-human because of their skin color or religion?

I don’t know how not to lie, because it seems as though sugarcoating these histories is worse than not sharing at all. Maybe the best goal is to simply spark questions and modes of thinking that encourage multiple narratives in one story.

This song, thankfully, ends.

Golden State Sacred!

The day after something big feels a little eerie. “I’m definitely supposed to be somewhere, but I can’t remember where,” entered my mind several times this past Friday. The mobile exhibit that I spent the last year developing and growing has finally launched. On Thursday evening, we hosted a reception to reveal the objects, artifacts, photographs, and stories that only begin to touch on the sacred history of California. It felt great to welcome so many folx to an iconic Los Angeles space: the first synagogue in Los Angeles, the host to the Women’s Mosque of America, and a place of intersection for faith, art, music and community (Pico Union Project, shout out!).

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Sneak peak of GSS before the crowd

This week I’m cheating a little bit by posting the transcript of my opening remarks for the exhibit for a few reasons, not the least of which is, I didn’t get to writing a regular post last week. More importantly though, I believe in this project because the purpose is similar to this blog, which is to lift up stories of perseverance and commitment despite marginalization and oppression in the world. I am so thankful to everyone that came, ate, observed and interacted, asked questions, offered feedback, and met someone new.

Hey Friends. Thank you for coming out to Downtown LA on a warm August night during California’s inaugural Interfaith Awareness Week. It’s really wonderful to see so many familiar faces, and equally great to see new friends. I’d like to give you a brief picture of the vision for Golden State Sacred: A mobile exhibit dedicated to California’s sacred history. Before anything, I want to acknowledge and thank the Tataviam and San Gabrieleno tribes who are the original stewards of this land, and whose land we occupy here. A note about the food we are enjoying tonight- X’tiosu is a Oaxacan-Middle Eastern fusion restaurant in Boyle Heights, started by two brothers who migrated to California speaking no English or Spanish. X’tiosu means “thank you” in Zapotec, one of the many indigenous languages spoken in the Oaxacan region. Hello Cake Girl is a practically all vegan and gluten free bakery also located in Boyle Heights.

I love California. Though I have spent almost half of my life living outside the Golden State, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and believe me, it doesn’t get much better than living an hour from the beach, the mountains, sports matches, and the best of every cuisine you can imagine. So when Reverend Jim Burklo, whose office is full of fascinating artifacts, suggested how cool it would be to start an interfaith museum, I thought “sure, that would be cool.” When he mentioned that someone told him the concept was impossible, I knew we had to pursue it. Golden State Sacred is an un-museum, in a way. The objects you see here represent only a tiny amount of our history. Through this project, we hoped to raise awareness of the stories of sacred communities that often go unheard, or perhaps have been erased. These communities have all contributed to social, political, and public life here in alta California- through immigration, innovation, and interfaith cooperation.

The exhibit challenges two main ideas: first, that history is static and in the past, and second, what we usually mean by “religion.” Golden State Sacred is never finished- as we continue to collect stories and artifacts, the exhibit grows richer. The exhibit also takes on the presence of its location. For example, tonight we gather in the oldest synagogue in Los Angeles. As a true interfaith community center, this space hosted the first Women’s Mosque in America and consistently welcomes faith-based celebrations, art installations, music, and other community building activities. This space matters to our sacred history. We might not say that absolutely anything is religion, but what can we include when we consider ritual, community, commitment, divine images and names, culture, race, gender, and so many other intersections?

Some of this history should make us deeply uncomfortable. As you’ll see, religion is embedded in violence and oppression, from enslavement to internment to state-sanctioned surveillance. It is essential to engage with these truths, often ignored or avoided, because the pursuit of justice requires a deep understanding of past injustices contributing to current ones. Golden State Sacred is a balancing act- how do we engage with our own communities in ways that promote interfaith cooperation by both celebrating those before us and recognizing the wrongs committed?

Finally, and most important, some notes of gratitude. To the Interfaith Youth Core, the Germanacos family, the Stanford Office for Community Engagement, and the most beloved USC Office of Religious Life, thank you for both resource and moral support. I offer the most profound gratitude to the individuals and communities who shared their time, their stories, and their objects with us. Thank you to my family for dealing with a mess of objects and book stands and tablecloths and glitter in the living room. Many folks in this room offered their wisdom, including obscure sports chants like “Och Tamale” from the University of Redlands. Finally, though I do not mean to single anyone out, there is someone who has been with this project since its unique inception- this person designed the logo on all the materials, worked to make the exhibit aesthetically pleasing, and most of all spent many late nights talking through everything from social media to color schemes to sharing a mutual love for Jackie Robinson. Jose, thank you for never giving up.

Gold’s Food

Jonathan Gold, iconic Los Angeles food writer, passed away on Saturday. Just as I heard the news, I was shoving a donut in my face and enjoying local art in pleasant summer evening air.

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LA-inspired cupcakes: jamaica-lime, brown butter peach, michelada

I felt particularly sad about Gold dying. It’s not as if I knew him personally, or even saw him often on television. I did pour through his books and reviews of restaurants. When the food truck craze hit, I appreciated that Gold encouraged eaters to frequent the trucks started and owned by immigrants and children of immigrants. He challenged the whole notion of “exotic” food, suggesting instead that Los Angeles is home to traditions and cultures that often center around food. Instead of writing “critically,” Gold pointed us to the “unknown” eateries around the city that make me homesick when I’m away for too long.

As I have been researching and interviewing for the mobile exhibit project Golden State Sacred (you can follow @goldenstatesacred on Instagram, shameless plug), my goal remains the same even as the design of the exhibit shifts. Los Angeles is a global city of untold stories. My hope was to begin collecting these stories and stewarding them through the objects on display. So far, I have been so lucky to meet people gracious enough to share their stories with me, even beyond their faith. What is amazing to me is how everyone makes a way here, somehow.

We have much work to do. The cost of living in California is beyond atrocious. Despite what seems like a new luxury apartment building going up every day in the greater Los Angeles area, affordable housing is dire. As a surgical resident, my sister saw her fair share of addiction and substance abuse. While these should not be political bargaining chips and have been used as such in the past, we cannot deny that people suffer. We cannot deny that California is as much a police state as every other, and people of color experience racism and different kinds of violence every day. This state is soaked with the blood of California Indians who worked through forced labor to build the now prized missions. It is stained with the chain link fences that caged American citizens. It is responsible for the murder of unarmed black bodies and the exclusion of human beings based on alleged legal documentation.

The stories that I have collected- as Gold collected through food and dining- give me reason to confront the violence and erasure that religion has caused on this stolen land. Saturday was a day of mourning for the children who have been separated- it was, at the same time, a celebration of young people that organized and led the action in downtown Los Angeles. I hope to keep the stories alive because they deserve honor and remembrance in the years to come. Just as Gold left glamour and ritz to the other food critics, I want to make myself uncomfortable enough to keep learning every day.