Thursday, May 11, 2017

How labels limit potential

Ever told another taiko player that "oh, I don't play odaiko," or "I don't play fue."?  In other words, when was the last time you defined yourself by what you don't feel comfortable playing?

Was it because you haven't had the opportunity to enjoy/play something, or because you really don't like the feeling of being unskilled on a different instrument?

It would be easy to judge someone who does that, but I can't say I've never done it myself.  This is a human trait, after all.  Take fue, I've never tried more than a short 15-20 minute session to make some noise.  I wasn't good at it, the idea of learning to play it didn't really appeal to me as much as other instruments did, and we have other people in the group that are happy to take it up.  So I admit I will say "oh, I don't play fue," and it end there.

But what does it do to your potential as an artist when you start defining yourself more and more in such solid, binary terms?  What are you losing out on?

There are a lot of taiko players in North America who are of mixed-race.  Half-Japanese, half-Filipino, half-White, half-whatever.  Some people might very well say they're one thing or the other, choosing whatever suits them.  Maybe it's because they feel strongly one way, maybe it makes them feel better, whatever.  But what happens when there's indecision, when there's confusion?  It will make a person think, make a person question.  And from questioning comes answers, even if not solutions.  But there's potential there - energy there - from which to draw from, energy that cannot exist when someone simply decides "I'm not that," or "I'm this."

I can use myself for the next example.  I'm White.  My ancestry is Scottish, Russian, Irish, and German.  Didn't start karate until my teens, and taiko near the end of my teenage years, so no Asian influences growing up.  Now, could I call myself Japanese-American? There's a Japan, there's an America, but there's no place called "Japanese-America".  This term is an artificial construct that society created to help define people.  Being Japanese-American is being part of a culture, having a certain mindset, and based on all the activities I do and some of the ideals I've adopted, I could argue that I fall under the definition.

Some of you are probably thinking of reasons why I'm wrong, some of you are probably trying to wrap your head around the concept, some of you might be confused.  But in that, in those arguments and conflicting thoughts, there is energy.  That's the kind of energy I referred to earlier, the kind that can lead to inspiration, exploration, creativity.  To simply define myself as one thing and say "well, that's what I am" closes the door.  A few doors here and there help me get through the day, but if all I do is close doors, how much am I shutting myself off from?  Am I simply just trying to protect myself from thinking?  From questioning?  From seeing where it takes me?

So maybe you're not going to suddenly decide to take up an instrument you've been avoiding, or engage someone in a philosophical discussion about culture appropriation, but if you can be aware of the doors that you've shut - or that you've kept open - you can at least have the choice of what to do with them in the future.  Without that awareness, all you have is hallways with nowhere to go.

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