"I take pictures of cute Asian girls for my website. Can I take your picture?"
I stared back at him—a gangly, dreadlocked white dude. The bags under his dull eyes did nothing to conceal his piggish glee as he cast his gaze over my 13-year-old body, which was now shaking and barely holding onto the innocent copy of Inuyasha that I had been reading in peace.
I wasn't expecting anyone to bother me in the manga section at the local bookstore in our small Eastern Washington town. I was the only one in there 99 percent of the time. Unsure of what to say, I opened my big fat 13-year-old mouth and yelped: "LET ME GO ASK MY MOM!" He ran like the coward he was, and like the other cowards I would confront in the future. They all have the same panicked, pathetic, oh-shit-I-can't-masturbate-to-you run.
In college, I never once had someone ask me about my Greek heritage (thanks, Dad, for giving me a quarter of your Greekness), but I was somehow also surrounded by fraternity Greeks who always wanted to ask about my tight Asian pussy in front of my friends and fellow partygoers.
Being a person of color in a world filled with awkward cultural exchanges and misunderstandings is rough. I focused on moving to Seattle—a place that, to me, offered the possibility of cultural refuge.
Whereas manga occupied only a lone aisle in that local bookstore, once I moved to Seattle I spent hours walking around Kinokuniya, which is tucked inside my favorite grocery store, Uwajimaya. I discovered I could easily find Japanese literature, art, food, cooking supplies, and cosmetics. I began meeting people who shared in the Japanese portion of my identity, and I began going to events that were put on by Japanese people.
To non-Japanese people who want to engage with Japanese culture, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do this. I want you to know my culture beyond anime and manga and cosplay. These things are great, but when they are all that people assume you like, when they are all that people know about your culture, that assumption and lack of awareness start to feel really abrasive.
Before I moved to Seattle, we used to take trips out here as a family. One of the first cultural events I attended was the Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month Celebration at Seattle Center. I remember bouncing on my mom's back as we watched Seattle Kokon Taiko infuse their energy into the massive drums onstage, and then... I don't remember much, because baby me had fallen asleep. Some lullaby!
Taiko traditionally originates from a conflict between the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu and her brother Susanoo. Like every god ever, the brother and sister got into a celestial pissing contest over who was the greater god of the two. Shit got real—as fights between two stupid, powerful people do—and a traumatized Amaterasu soon went into a cave to hide from Susanoo. I mean, I would too if someone murdered one of my attendants and then dumped a skinned pony, Godfather-style, in my loom. She hid until Uzume, the resident goddess of having a good time, emptied a sake barrel and began rocking out on the thing. The frenzied drumming drew out Amaterasu, who lit the world once again.
Uzume's actions led to two distinct Japanese traditions: As she danced with the sake barrel, the kagura ritual dance was born, and the barrel itself became the first taiko drum. If you want to try banging one yourself, Seattle Kokon Taiko offers a variety of classes and workshops that are friendly to even the most amateur demigods.
Seattle Kokon Taiko's origin story on their website describes how the group initially formed in April 1980 following a performance by influential Japanese taiko troupe Ondekoza at that year's Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival. After some initial separation from the larger collective into smaller subgroups, Seattle Kokon Taiko came to fruition when the groups came together in 1992. They cite influences such as the Kodo and Uzume taiko troupes and Seiichi Tanaka, who is known as the North American "father of taiko," in their performance styles.
A great deal of contemporary Japanese performing arts are inspired by traditions, religions, and distinct subcultures that hold thousands of years of history. However, there are also Japanese art forms that are inspired by more recent events. One such practice is butoh, a form of Japanese dance theater that is known for its often grotesque yet oddly playful imagery infused into each performer's hyper-controlled movements.
"Butoh was born out of the turmoil and chaos of World War II Japan," Joan Laage of DAIPANbutoh Collective told me. "There are different styles within it, but there are basic aesthetics and philosophy that have to do with the sense of the body as a vessel or container, and a sense of space and the body being able to translate those inner energies."
Laage is a leading presence in the Northwest butoh community, and she founded the collective in 2009 with Sheri Brown and Helen Thorsen. The troupe grew to eventually host performers Diana Garcia-Snyder, Kaoru Okumura, Lela Besom, Erica Akiko Howard, and Shoko Zama. DAIPANbutoh Collective also organizes the Seattle International Butoh Festival, which takes place July 5 to 15 this year, with events in Seattle, Shoreline, and Snohomish.
Other events on the calendar this summer include Japan Fair (formerly known as Aki Matsuri) on July 7 and 8 at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, where attendees can find an array of traditional and contemporary Japanese art, imported goods, community resources, food, performances, and workshops.
The Dragon Festival, on July 14 and 15 in and around Hing Hay Park, is a pan-Asian celebration of food and culture that features a $3 Annual Food Walk for attendees interested in some cheap and delicious international bites.
A week later, you can dance in the streets to traditional Japanese music at Seattle Buddhist Church's 86th annual Bon Odori festival, on July 21 and 22. Though Bon Odori (also known as Obon) is a summer festival, you should know it's a cultural gathering that is meant to remember and honor our ancestors and their visiting spirits. So the cosplay is great anywhere else, but you will definitely stick out if you decide to try it at Obon.
However, if cosplay is your thing, you will be kawaii as hell wearing it on June 30 at the Summertime Cosplay Picnic at Gas Works Park.
All these gatherings have varying atmospheres that may be unusual for newcomers, and they can initially seem intimidating to take part in. I've been there. The easiest way to navigate new cultural experiences is to observe the people around you, ask for help with what you do not know or understand, and listen.
There is a significant difference between cultural appreciation and fetishization. That dude from the bookstore is a prime example of how to go about cultural exchange like a complete creep. The fraternity Greeks I knew in college may have specifically fetishized me, but their cruelty was merely an extension of their lifelong entitlement. Those people made me feel unsafe. They scared me. Shō ga nai—nothing can be done about it. There will always be people like them.
Meanwhile, I'm lucky that I got to escape, to survive as a person of color in this world. I've learned how to dance with multiple cultures and my multiracial identity. I no longer dance to a grief-stricken testament, or constantly sacrifice who I am for the comfort of others. From the womb to the streets of Obon, me, and people like me, have always been here, and our dance is proud. It is strong.
If you are lucky, we will invite you in. Just be a good guest.