Southern California Obon Matsuri (Festival) Season 2010

Living without a routine and going beyond my existing network is a daily practice in opening my eyes to this wonderful world we live in. I lived in California for five years and this is the first time I ever attended any Obon Matsuri (festival), a very popular and lively event in the Japanese-American community.

In Japanese Buddhism, around July, the temples recognize obon, a ritual that honors the ancestors. Traditionally, in Japan, they have a service, and the community organizes the festivals. However, in the United States, the Japanese American community is the temple, for most of them gather there, which is why it is unique for the temple itself to organize the matsuri. Cultural traditions and practices transform, and we have this wonderful yearly event celebrated by the Japanese-American community and open to all. Throughout the day, there is standard festival food and games, they play Taiko, and they end with a long dance to honor the ancestors, then wrap it up with a group prayer.

It was rather interesting at the three temples I went to in Venice, Little Tokyo, and West Los Angeles, because I as a Third Culture Kid stood there amongst my Nikkei (Japanese-American) friends, and my Japanese friends from Tokyo at the festival, all with our own impressions. For Tomii and Kentaro, they saw it as something slow and the usual thing, just a bit different from their own memories of life in Japan; for Jana and my other Nikkei friends, they see it as something that’s their heritage and a yearly event for fun and tradition. For me, as a Third Culture Kid, I loved it even as out of place as I felt. Sure, they opened their celebration of the odori kai for everyone, and after my initial hesitations, I had fun amidst a feeling of envy and alienation.

Why did I feel envious? I guess it’s because unlike these Japanese-Americans and my Japanese friends, it’s easier for them to say that it’s their culture, their practice, their tradition. For me, after moving around Thailand, China, the Philippines, and United States, I just feel that–in spite of my Chinese-Filipino heritage and American passport–I still can’t say that there’s any culture to call my own. If anything, it feels like everything–including my ethnic heritage and nationality–aren’t really mine per se, rather, that they feel “borrowed.”

Although I can say that I have familiarity with my Chinese, Filipino, and American heritage, they still don’t feel like they are mine since it’s more like I go through the motions and stand outside them. Sometimes it’s like I am Filipino, Chinese, and American when I pick and choose, like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Yes, I’ll remember Philippine Independence Day when someone tells me, I’ll eat moon cake in the fall, and I’ll celebrate both Lunar New Year and Fourth of July, and I’ll go with my friends to Cinco de Mayo, but ultimately, it’s like I’m a blank slate, the proverbial tabula rasa (which is incidentally the name of the foundation dedicated to Third Culture Kids I hope to one day create), standing outside looking in.

A counterpoint to this is that as Third Culture Kids, we have our own culture, which is defined exactly by that blank slate, with no nationality or ethnicity restricting us. We have a community that exists when we realize who we are, but there are very few passionate people dedicated to helping the rest when, like many times, in groups and communities, there are more free riders who take what they can and then move on. In fact, I didn’t even know I was a Third Culture Kid until a few years ago. Although I will never be able to speak for all of us, I do have enough in common with them through my experiences, feelings, and growth as a human being for us to all relate to in some small way.

When talking to my good friend Erin, we talked about some of the mistaken assumptions people make about how culture has to be about exoticism and “otherness” which is why they think there is no American or Philippine culture, because they adopt so much from other cultures. Whether it is the European immigrants, the Native Americans, or whatever different waves of people coming through, they have this strange misunderstanding that it is not American culture, which runs contrary to the idea mentioned above how culture and traditions transform, as evident in the Japanese-American community and temples celebrating obon.

From one anthropological perspective, culture is constantly evolving and transforming, and globalization has always been happening throughout the ages. Culture is neither static nor is it bound to any geographic locale, yet it becomes a badge of pride and a mark of identity in this ever-changing world when more borders are drawn rather than bridges built. How ironic I say this from a theoretical perspective, whereas from a personal one, I still desire to have my own cultural identity.

At the very least, the best part about being a blank slate is that, like a canvas and a white sheet of paper, I can choose what to fill it up with and make it uniquely my own instead of having my identity handed out to me. I am the artist and the writer, and no country’s borders, no nationality, and no ethnicity can stand out as the primary basis for defining me as a person, as a human being, and as an individual.

Venice Obon

Adorable odori kids

Higashi Obon

Bonsai exhibit in West L.A. temple

Pretty odori kai dancers: "Hi I'm Peter Parker--take your picture for the school paper?" (note to self: JAIL BAIT)

The wonderful Jana and me at West L.A. obon matsuri

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2 responses to “Southern California Obon Matsuri (Festival) Season 2010

  1. Hi Johnny,

    I’m one of the co-founders of the Tck Book Project. Thanks again for following us on twitter. (Today was our first day using twitter!) It looks like you’ve had a really interesting journey as a TCK and it would be great if you could get in touch with us and let us know if you are interested in contributing to the anthology. I’ve also added a link to my personal blog. I’m a TCK as well and hopefully we can read more about your wonderful stories!

  2. saul gevertz

    I am enjoying reading all the subjects on your blog

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