• Brandon Spars

Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation, Part 2: Eth-Noh-Tec and Anne Shimojima

Updated: Sep 4

As part of my ongoing research for the third volume of the Live to Tell series, which is focusing on cultural appropriation and the interface between traditional and personal storytelling, I met with Anne Shimojima and the two founders of Eth-Noh-Tec, Nancy Wang and Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo. I have to admit that before the Zoom appointment I was nervous, not because I thought these professional storytellers were going to lambast me with criticism, but because I was starstruck. These three tellers are most often found on the biggest stages at the most prestigious national events. What an honor. How kind of them to make time to speak with me. I should thank Simon Brooks for facilitating this.

I explained my project, which started as simply looking at how appropriate it was for me to tell Balinese myths and legends as a white storyteller, but quickly transformed into an examination of my complicity in white supremacy through my high school teaching and community storytelling. I mentioned an example of a story that I perform, The Calonarang, and a folktale that I use in my classroom, “The Picky Maid.” The folktale sparked the beginning of our discussion.

After I admitted that I repurposed the story, which comes from the border region between China and Korea, to illustrate an agrarian society (rice is featured quite heavily in the story), Nancy pointed out that it can never be understated how important rice is to some societies. In Cantonese, it is very typical to greet someone with the question, “Have you eaten rice?” Nancy pointed out that one seldom leaves a single grain in one’s bowl, and, if a young person does, each grain foretells a pock mark on that person’s future spouse. Robert added that the content and context should always be in service of the story, which made me immediately think that I should expand on the historical context (the transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic societies with the advent of farming) by looking more deeply into some of the specifics of this story and the region from which it originated. Robert emphasized that there is no single, correct way to approach telling stories from other cultures, and that it was a never-ending process or search fraught with tensions.

Nancy illustrated a worst case scenario in which a teller might perform a story and have no idea how to pronounce the names of the principal characters. This, she warned, is actually doing harm to the culture from which the story comes. She added that teaching about stories in the academic setting of the classroom runs fewer risks because of the time that is available to create context, to encourage the student listeners to learn about the story and the people who tell it, and because the focus is on the story and the people rather than the person telling the story. Performances, by comparison, run the greater chance of the culture being made to serve the teller, who may or may not have done their homework.

Anne spoke to these same questions. She began with a brief summary of how she began storytelling as a librarian who wanted to expose students to stories from all over the world. She certainly told traditional stories from Japan, but she also told stories from other cultures with the purpose of expanding her student’s horizons, piquing their interests, and making them curious about other places. She was explicit about not telling Native American stories, which she pointed out were “owned.” To share those stories she would read from books written by reliable authors, most often Native American themselves. She added that she is not the person who can say when a teller can or cannot tell a story. She believes that if one does it with respect and tells the story well (which includes pronouncing the names and words correctly), one can sometimes tell a story from another culture. She added wryly that she often hears other storytellers mispronounce the word “samurai,” which is an immediate sign that the teller has not done their research, and is therefore, albeit unintentionally, being disrespectful of Japanese culture.

Anne cited three very illustrative examples. In the first, a white teller at a storytelling guild meeting told a Japanese folktale. She wanted to give her main character a name, a Japanese one, so did she call a Japanese friend? Did she contact a Japanese cultural center? Or the consulate? No! She decided she could simply make one up. “Ishimugu,” was the name she created because it “sounded Japanese.” All present—Robert, Nancy, and Anne—rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

Anne’s second example resonates with the anecdote with which I begin my forthcoming book. In my anecdote, it involves the production of “Electra” at the high school where I teach. Our theater director used Chinese costumes and Japanese Taiko drumming as the music for the play (the costume designer was Asian American, herself and Sonoma County Taiko was hired to conduct a series of workshops). In the case Anne shared, an all white cast of students performed “The Crane Wife,” a play about a Japanese folktale. Many things about the production were troublesome for Anne, but in a very respectful letter meant to educate and inform the school, she pointed out that an example of the performance’s distortion of Japanese culture was in a climactic scene in which a mother says goodbye to her son. The performance had them kiss each other goodbye, which was very un-Japanese.

In a third example, Anne discussed a unit on Japan at an elementary school. Of course, she mentioned to the faculty member doing the planning, there will be rice—not Chinese rice, or Thai rice, but Japanese rice, specific grains cooked a specific way. The faculty member in charge dismissed Anne’s constructive suggestion by casually stating that for convenience, they would simply serve rice pudding. “Rice is rice,” they said.

I could see the patience on the faces of all three of these accomplished storytellers. I immediately thought of Irmawati, who, rather than eating every grain of rice from her plate (she eats with her right hand), leaves a pinch on the table. This pinch of rice is for the four spiritual siblings who are born with her and accompany her through life. I thought of the international students (from China) who sit amidst the American students who throw rice at one another. I thought of slurs about Asian products, like the racist term “rice rocket” for a Suzuki motorcycle.

I suppose, at this point, emotion was beginning to build up in me as I listened to what these artists have to endure not only in their professional lives, but personally every day. I certainly see the world through my wife’s eyes… I see all the racist rhetoric, the microaggressions, the privilege that Asian Americans have to swallow constantly, but I have yet to understand what I can say to those who experience it constantly.

As our conversation began to come to a close, Robert reemphasized that appropriation is very complex and slippery. Nancy told a story about how they used to lead groups to a storytelling village in China. What is a storytelling village? This is a place, not quite along the Silk Road, but at an important crossroads where stories were shared for hundreds if not thousands of years. A storyteller who accompanied them on one of these trips told a story entitled, “The Barking Mouse.” In this story, as Nancy explained, the message was that it was good to know many different languages. The mother mouse in the story barks like a dog to protect her children from a cat. Several years later, with a different group, Robert and Nancy witnessed something astonishing. One of the village tellers was telling this very story, “The Barking Mouse.” Many of the original elements were there, but, importantly, the message was different. The moral of this story was that children needed to listen more carefully to their mother’s advice. “So what exactly is happening here?” Robert asked. Indeed, this is a very interesting example of how stories have always traveled around the world from culture to culture, changing fluidly within each respective society in which they are told, but always containing that original spark of inspiration that makes us human, that makes us listen to one another, and honor one another.

Robert shared another bit of insight. Exchange can happen on a level playing field, but when the tables are tilted historically -- through conquest and imperialism -- the disproportionately powerful culture can actually negate the culture in the minority. He used an example that would make immediate sense to me. I have undoubtedly seen Balinese wearing tennis shoes, listening to Western music, spouting English slang terms. Think about the opposite case, and how few Americans know what baris or other Balinese dances are. And, if they do know something, it might be kecak, which is a rousing dramatization of a particular scene from the Ramayana performed for tourists. This dance is not even Balinese. It was created by Walter Spies, an expatriate painter living in Bali in the first half of the twentieth century. Cultures in power not only tend to have great influence over other cultures (think of western music and fashion) but also they often “take” (read: appropriate) things from other cultures and reconstitute them in a manner that lacks both context and respect. Robert described a brand of popcorn that featured a pink image of the Buddha. He then invited me to imagine how absurd it would seem and how much outrage there would be if this had been done with an image of Jesus Christ. Clearly in non-Western societies, even the sacred elements of a culture are fair game for appropriation and commodification. Nothing is sacred or off limits!

Anne has already been a part of my Humanities 3 class. When Linda Yemoto visited my class to speak about the incarceration of Japanese Americans, she had recommended Anne’s story, which has a short version and a long version. I played a recording of the short version, and my students were spellbound by Anne’s tale about her box of treasure -- a box of photographs and letters that belonged to her family, what proved to be a magical box of stories. We ended by discussing two of Eth-Noh-Tec’s many performances that would be particularly meaningful for my high school in Santa Rosa: “Takashi’s Dream,” about a survivor of the atomic bomb blast that ended World War Two, and “The Red Altar,” which follows three generations of Nancy’s family, from their arrival in Monterey right up to the present. When she began to mention the discriminatory policies, I blurted, “Yes the Chinese Exclusion Act.”

“Everybody says that,” Nancy said. “But there was so much more, and it was happening much earlier than 1882.”

Once again, I, a history teacher, had to be educated. Nancy quickly outlined the conditions her family met when they arrived in Monterey. “Chinese fishermen were not allowed to fish during the day. That was for white fishermen.” She followed this up by stating that Chinese miners had to pay a tax that other miner’s did not have to pay.

These aren’t new stories. They were just new to me. We ended by reflecting on the anti-Asian violence. “Why do people feel better than us? Why do they feel they have the right to harm us?” Nancy asked.

Nancy finished by pointing out that Asian Americans are sensitive to cultural appropriation because their property has been stolen as well as their dignity throughout American history. “And then they want to take our stories, too…”

That was how our conversation ended. There was, however, a moment at the end before the Zoom call ended when nobody was speaking. It wasn’t an awkward silence. I think I was actually searching for words with which to express my gratitude, and finding near to none, just became silently overwhelmed. Robert, Nancy, and Anne, three very busy artists with a thousand things to do, didn’t hurry the closing of our discussion. I suppose like with everything they do, they wanted to be thorough and clear. More than anything, all three of them, in not rushing out of the meeting, were conveying how important they find this issue to be. They really wanted me to understand, and they were willing to talk as long as needed to help just one person catch sight of the water in which they are swimming, the air that they are breathing, the white noise that has been humming in the background of their life for as long as they have been alive, a white noise that has canceled the voices of entire societies of people. I was reminded of something that Anne said near the beginning of our conversation when I was thanking them for taking the time to speak with me. I had mentioned that I was aware that they were probably very weary from having to constantly teach white people about their own privilege. I said something to the effect that she had probably spent far too much of her life doing this, and that was when she said that while she has been doing it for decades, her people have been doing it for centuries. Just now, some are starting to listen.