It looks easy — lining up and following the movements of the little old ladies who have been doing it all their lives. But it’s hard work, and I work up a sweat almost immediately during Obon practice at the Denver Buddhist Temple gym.
I didn’t grow up dancing Obon every summer like many Japanese Americans. Wherever you find JA communities, you’ll find summertime festivals where people gather to dance to old-style Japanese folksongs in circular formations, where they watch a group of master dancers in the small circle in the middle, and mimic every move. My wife Erin, who grew up with Obon every year during Denver’s Sakura Matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival, describes it perfectly as “Japanese line dancing — in a circle.”
The dancing will take over Lawrence Street during the 40th Annual Cherry Blossom Festival this weekend on Saturday night at Sakura Square. The Obon — or Bon Odori, which is the actual term for the dances — follows a full day of performances and demonstrations, vendors and food served up by the Buddhist Temple (Erin and her mom and I volunteer each year to sell manju, or Japanese pastries, inside the gym).
The dancing is festive and fun, but the purpose is serious: Obon is a traditional Buddhist custom that pays tribute to the deceased — especially to one’s ancestors. Continue reading →
It’s May. Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. I wonder, though, if this celebration of our heritage is an idea whose time has passed. I’m glad that we have our month every year, but I’m worried that we’re emphasizing the wrong things year after year.
Erin and I are starting to feel that APA Heritage Month may be counter-productive. The Pacific Citizen published a well-written piece last week, “Time to Rethink Asian Pacific American Heritage Month?” and I agree, it’s time to re-think the tradition even though it’s only 31 years old.
Last year, I wrote about how a 10-year-old Denver event, an Asian community celebration held in downtown Denver every May, needed to evolve from just Asians performing for other Asians.
It was a useful educational display back when our many communities stayed cloistered and Japanese didn’t know much about Vietnamese, and Vietnamese didn’t know much about Filipinos, and Filipinos didn’t know much about Cambodians and Cambodians didn’t know much about Koreans… you get the idea. But today, with especially young people mixing a lot more outside their own communities, it seems like a closed celebration, like preaching to the choir about the richness of our heritage. If you attend the annual event, you’ve seen many of the same performers year after year.
Even if the audience was expanded outside the Asian community, though, to the wider non-Asian population, I wonder if that would be good or bad for Asian Americans. Continue reading →
I just had a great meal at our favorite restaurant in San Francisco’s Japantown, Iroha. It’s a noodle house that serves up a great deal: A lunch combination special of ramen topped with a couple slices of pork, and gyoza dumplings on the side.
The restaurant is more crowded than usual, and filled with lots of non-Japanese who are here for the first time. That’s because J-Town in general is hopping this weekend. It’s the second weekend of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, or Sakura Matsuri. There are vendors with booths selling everything from junky trinkets to high-class jewelry, lots of food and stages of performers and martial arts demonstrations, all with a Japanese focus.
But there’s also a Japanese American undercurrent, with young people flocking to stores that specialize in anime and Jpop music. It’s a cool mix of traditional and contemporary — much like J-Town itself. Continue reading →