Dear Dan from The Past,
Surprise! You joined Stanford Taiko. Didn’t expect it? That makes two of us! To be quite honest, it’s about time you implemented your “Well, why not? Let’s try it!” mindset; it’s one thing to always talk about wanting to do things new to you and never actually doing it, and it’s another to turn those dreams and crazy ideas into reality.
Shockingly for a Japanese person, taiko was something you didn’t know much about until you watched your cousin play with her collegiate taiko group. Somewhere between the steady beat of the drums and the energetic “ki-ai’s” of the performers, you were suddenly reminded of the familiar and the known — drums at the temple you frequented on Sundays as a child — by this new art form. Feeling the vibrations of the drums echo through yourself, you felt at home.
K-U-B-O-T-A. Six unique letters have always defined your family history. Each individual character carefully crafted by a series of pen strokes stares back at me almost mockingly, as if to say, “Ha! I, a collection of lines, determine the way people will forever see you — as a fake Japanese person.”
The letters aren’t entirely wrong. You are, and I am, a fourth-fifth-something-generation Japanese American, after all; our family has been in the United States for many, many years. Whether it was the unspoken experiences of Japanese internment or them living in a predominantly white area, they did not pass on much Japanese culture.
While you had some knowledge of Japanese culture in terms of food and the important holidays like Hina Matsuri and O-Bon, you didn’t grow up with bento boxes in your lunch, going to Japanese school on the weekends or frequently visiting San Francisco and San Jose’s J-Towns, all while speaking in Japanese. Ironically, it was your Vietnamese mother who started packing soba for Monday lunches.
At some point, I took matters into my own hands, turning the frustration at my cultural disconnect and curiosity of taiko into energy to learn more about it. The first time I stepped onto the Dink stage for Stanford Taiko’s auditions, I was paralyzed with fear. For the first time in years, I felt my heart hammering in my chest and my entire body tense, joints locking up.
I was shocked; never before had I felt such a sense of dread in anticipation of performing for an audience, and a small one at that! Heart in my throat and hands shaking, I froze up mid-performance, mind completely blank like I’d never felt before and face a bright crimson. I had to completely rethink the way I approached my mentality going on stage and give myself the grace to just be.
T-A-I-K-O. Five letters that also make up a Japanese word also make up me; four of them are in my last name, and the fifth, “I”, refers to me. Pardon the shower thought; it’s occupied my mind a lot recently as I’ve reflected on taiko’s importance in my life. It’s almost poetic the way taiko fits into my life, filling a niche I never knew needed to be filled. This art form is more than just a visual and auditory delight; it is an experience of physical sensations and emotional realizations, teaching me so much more than any book ever could.
Taiko most definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone emotionally (and literally when playing Tatsumaki — we’re squatting basically the whole time). It has also helped me make friends with people who are very different from me in terms of interests.
Look, I’m not going to pretend it’s always smooth sailing, especially as a total beginner. There are times when I tense up on stage when hit with panic, but more and more often these moments are fleeting. I’m getting better at playing them off and smiling through the mistakes, seeing them as moments to improvise my way back into the correct steps. Bit by bit, I’m learning to roll with the punches and keep on going even when things don’t go quite to plan, remembering that the worst that can happen is you mess up, but life will still go on and it’ll all be okay.
These experiences are often the most embarrassing and the ones I wish to forget most in the moment, but they are also the ones that have taught me the most about what it means to be human. Performing for an audience has taught me more about resilience and courage in the face of fear than any book ever could; I’m forced to implement that knowledge instead of just memorizing it for the sake of regurgitating it back, or “practice what I preach,” if you will. As someone who’s long been in the position of helping others, whether it was cross country team members or my own family, it’s a complete change of pace to be the one in need of help and take my own advice to heart.
Maybe in four years, future us will look back on the person who wrote this letter with the same fondness that I have looking back on the scared person who longed to break out of her comfort zone. I know that by then, no matter where life has taken you, you’ll have found more joy in your uniqueness and embraced all the parts of you — the good, the bad and the ugly. Until later!
The Dan of 2023 <3