Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 13.11: Umami, “Jimami Tofu” and “Aunt Lily’s Flowerbook”

"Jimami Tofu"
"We have to feed our minds with umami – the pleasant and savory – if we are truly to bring depth and deliciousness to our inner lives."

Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Borrowed from the Japanese language, umami can be translated as “pleasant savory taste,” and is a derivative of umai, or delicious. The word was coined in 1908 (happy 110th birthday, Umami! You and the Cubs did great that year!) by chemist Kikunae Ikeda, and according to Wikipedia, there has been debate over whether umami was even one of the basic tastes before Ikeda described it. I find it pretty incredible that describing something can suddenly pop it into consciousness. It’s the same for medical diagnoses as well. For example, once a psychiatric diagnosis such as autism or Asperger’s enters the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, now in its 5th edition), there’s a sudden rash of diagnoses. Obviously, the predicament existed before, but once it’s described, it’s everywhere. Until we invent a new system of understanding and naming, which changes how we look at everything. A new way of looking at the world and ourselves can offer new treatments and possibilities.

Ikeda identified the amino acid glutamate as one of the sources of umami. Glutamate is the flavorful component of dashi (the stock made from kombu seaweed and bonito). Glutamate also happens to be by far the most widespread neurotransmitter in the human (and vertebrate) brain, involved in learning, memory and many other functions, and glutamate imbalance is implicated in psychoses as well as epilepsy. The taste of food to our tongues is related to the taste of the world to our minds.

We have to feed our minds with umami – the pleasant and savory – if we are truly to bring depth and deliciousness to our inner lives. What is umami to our minds? In my book Facebuddha, I describe an awakening experience I had last year, when a layer of the reactivity in my mind fell away, and I was left with a greater appreciation of the experience of interdependence. That reactivity was around trying to pinpoint a source for my own personal suffering and the suffering I saw in the world. Was it white supremacy, was it this or that factor, giving me a hard ride? Then it all fell away and I realized I was shaping myself as a reaction to the forces that shaped me – interdependent. I am because you are. People become people through other people. That chapter is called “Happy Birthday. You Are Nothing.” What rebuilt my inner life then (and also during a flood of internal activity during CAAMFest36) was relatedness, and moving from reaction to response. Neutralizing what was left of the blame game in my mind, writing a lot and relating a wide range of ideas and experiences in my own inner life, and opening my mouth and communicating with old and new friends, and listening to them in turn, brought my mind back to stillness again, though it depended on what one friend calls “generous listening” and feedback from others. But I still sense ‘nothingness’ or mu, emptiness, underneath my “identity” as a human. Subtle disconnections in relatedness remain, to be mended by experiences, and the intention to “stay humble and stay related” as I wrote in a Psychology Today blogpost about the film A Dangerous Method, about Jung and Freud’s ideas forged in solitude and relationship.

It’s also Mental Health Awareness Month, and I was acutely aware of the first rule of human life. “Ask for help when needed.” As an only child, and as an Asian American, that’s been somewhat harder for me over the years, but I think it’s hard for many. At least I’ve had practice. We often tend to carry our hardships stoically. Rule two is “If you see someone experiencing difficulty, ask them if they want to talk or need help.” What I experienced was part mental health issue, but also spiritual or psychological emergence. Rule three is “community.” I’m grateful for my CAAMily, who stayed steady with me as I went through the interesting experiences that I’ve blogged about, from being a witness to the enormous integrity of Norman Mineta (MOSF 13.5: Norman Mineta, Integrity and the American Psyche), to finding belonging in the Asian American experience (MOSF 13.6: Asian American Han), to experiencing emotional “backdraft” (MOSF 13.7: I Didn’t Land In America. America Landed on Me) and back again. My psyche kind of took a big leap, and I may have gotten “ahead of my skis” a bit, while the rest of me is still catching up, but I feel I’m back in the growth and comfort zones, and not in overwhelm. All the mindfulness and compassion meditation practice paid off as subtle presences during this process, so I’m enormously grateful to all the skillful teachers I’ve had over the years. Mindfulness, compassion and relationship really are “These Three Things,” as I wrote about for Hyphen.

Friendship – and friendliness with one’s inner life – is that fifth taste (the FIFTH ELEMENT of love – to bring in that flick directed by Luc Besson and starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich) that allows the inner life to blossom into umami – a pleasant, savory, restful warmth towards others and oneself. Life tastes good. Life can be love. But it is complicated and deep.

One of my friends said she had heard that JIMAMI TOFU (by Jason Chan and Christian Lee) was being criticized because while it was set in Okinawa, Okinawans were only the backdrop. I carried this slight “bad feeling” about the movie as I watched it. Where did that bad feeling come from? A self-righteous part of myself that wants to view things as good or bad, particularly where race and ethnicity are concerned? Interesting.

In fact, what I found was a pleasant (but perhaps overlong) film about a couple who are two fish out-of-water, but who find greater depth in life over time. [SPOILER ALERT] The man of the duo is Ryan (Jason Chan), a Singaporean chef now living in Okinawa. His wife, Yuki (Mari Yamamoto), is an Okinawan food critic living in Singapore, where they originally met and married. Between them, they have love, they have intense and brutal criticism and anger, they have separation, and finally camaraderie over a meal he prepares for her as a gift in her recently deceased father’s restaurant, as she reminisces over her relationship with him. The meal is capped by an orange, served in a beautiful ceramic container. She remembers picking oranges with her father as a young child.

Father: Did you know orange is the color of love?

Yuki: But this one’s dirty.

Father: Sometimes you can’t easily see love. Sometimes you have to taste it.

That was the umami moment of the film to me: a hard-to-please woman, very career-driven, who comes home to relationship and love by simply savoring her memories and present experience, being held by the warmth of relationship. Nirvana is right here, if we could only see it, as the Buddhists say. Ryan’s nirvana seems to be in letting go, and being really present for himself and the women in his life, as the film closes with scenes of him and his Okinawan friend/girlfriend floating underwater, at one and at peace. Ahhh. Umami. JIMAMI TOFU showcased not only the blending of Chinese, Southeast Asian and Japanese elements in the Ryukyuan Okinawan cuisine, but also the mix of masculine and feminine principles within both Yuki and Ryan. They both become more wise and related over time.

Closing Night performance “Aunt Lily’s Flower Book.” Photo by Stanley Lee.

Closing night was hella San Francisco umami. A packed to the gills Herbst Theater beheld Brenda Wong Aoki’s AUNT LILY’S FLOWER BOOK, a live storytelling performance by Aoki backed by her husband jazz musician Mark Izu on bass, and Shoko Hikage on koto. Aoki and Izu are two of the OG’s of the Asian American activist and arts communities, and FLOWER BOOK wove those stories from 70s San Francisco into the wider tapestry of their families’ lives going back 120 years to the founding of Japantown, San Francisco, through Internment, to the present day and facing forward. Their families’ story spans dislocation, destruction, resilience, and healing through love and art, told in performance, music, home movies and her Aunt Lily’s recovered diary, along with a tender final closing photograph, portraying the world before us.

Noted psychologist, documentarian and former internee Satsuki Ina spoke with Stephen Gong before the performance, about silence in the aftermath of trauma, and healing.

“A great deal of the story that you’re going to see tonight has to do with multiple atrocities. One of the words that was never applied to the Japanese American experience was that it was trauma. When trauma occurs, there’s a natural response to try to separate ourselves from an atrocious trauma. So the stories get buried. By individuals who experienced it, because it’s too overwhelming to let that experience stay present. Also the community and the larger society and the source that perpetrated the atrocity. Everybody wants to forget. And when the forgetting starts to take place, it makes our story unspeakable. We lose the words to describe it. What happened to the Japanese Americans is a classic example of that. Our parents never spoke about it, we knew not to ask about it. When those stories get buried and we lose the capacity to connect our history to our present, it has all kinds of ramifications for our general well-being and how the community doesn’t connect very well. Personal story telling is a healing journey. It’s a way in which all the emotions that were suppressed and frozen can be released. Part of Brenda and Mark’s mission is to create an experience that will tap into your heart, that will allow you to have empathy and identification with the traumatic emotions and experiences that the people have. Personal storytelling is a way to heal. Not just ourselves, but our connection to each other and particularly to heal our community… Storytelling requires us to go into the past so we can bring it into the present so we can understand what might unfold in the future. But in the larger perspective, with today’s current political climate, our storytelling becomes even more and more important. It’s relevance for what is happening today is so resonant. It has brought people out, more than ever, to begin to share their stories to warn our country that what’s happening now could lead to the exact same things that were considered and deemed unconstititutional. Mark and Brenda come from a social justice perspective and they’ve been activists and using the arts as a medium for educating and inspiring people to take action.”

Ina then described going to a current day immigration detention camp in Texas, where young mothers, children, pregnant women and other asylum seekers were being held in what can only be described as inhumane circumstances. (Full audio available on my podcast at Soundcloud, Stitcher and iTunes.)

Healing often involves catharsis (what my mom might call “cryotherapy,” MOSF 13.8: Meditation Park), but first we must carry our stories from toe to temple. Each of us can be a kind of shaman, going deep into our spirit world of memories and connecting them to the bigger picture we see in the world, letting go of what must be let go, and focusing on what’s most important. I’m reminded of Dina Park’s film not seen at the festival, FRIDGE (available online). A man finds a magical fridge that doubles whatever he puts inside. Human beings are like that too. Whatever we put inside our minds doubles. Many of us have traumas inside. We just have to make sure we put lots of healing and relationship in our fridges, because then the traumas won’t double, they’ll transform. Perhaps they’ll transform into that “invisible necklace of pearls,” Aoki spoke of in her performance, pearls the oyster makes from the dust of suffering.

It’s a long journey, but one we can make with friends, counselors, support groups, film festivals, literature and the arts. The world is medicine. The world is food for your soul. But we have to be available for each other in ways that we are currently not.

Satsuki Ina’s CHILDREN OF THE CAMPS (available for free viewing on San Francisco Public Library’s Kanopy) also moved me deeply. Poetry by Lawson Fusao Inada (drawing the line, Coffee House Press) and James Masao Mitsui (From a Three Cornered World, University of Washington Press) illustrated Japanese American Internment, while Ina leads extraordinary group therapy sessions with other concentration camp survivors. They come together to share their lives and find some healing. It was humbling for me to see a master clinician at work, gaining insight from her own wounds to help others on their journey. She speaks of the ways that even she avoided being vulnerable by working to be “in control” of the unfolding encounter. I know the pressure; tears have come to my eyes on rare occasion in session, and there’s a part of me that has felt shame at my own vulnerability. But isn’t that the whole point of this crazy show? We’re all just human, with most of us doing the best we can to help each other live.

Just remember to eat the world’s umami.

Ananda, a disciple of the Buddha, said to him, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

The Buddha replied: “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold path.”

We’re not all monks and nuns, but there is a path we’re walking in the Asian American community together, in the American and global community together. Friendship, love and presence bring us to the depth of our experience. They can bring us to healing.

Every month, I co-lead a therapy group for Cambodian patients. Their English is broken, my Khmer is nonexistent, but somehow we share a bit of heart, a bit of community, a new experience of shared presence, a tiny seed in their storm of memories of Angkar and the Cambodian Holocaust. I can sense that this moment in our history is surfacing a lot of fears, paranoias and once-buried trauma, in myself and others as we face our lot as humans in year 2018. But We Are Family by Sister Sledge and Love Will Keep Us Together by the Captain and Tennille seem to be on my eternal playlist. There are days when it feels like Everything is Broken, as Bob Dylan sings. When hearts are broken. When I am broken. But Leonard Cohen and Rumi know that the broken places “are where the light gets in.”

Umami is that kind of delicious light of the soul. A shared meal with a friend; a smile, a laugh, a tear. Just being there, with each other, for each other. Being generous and sympathetic listeners with one another. I never found that on social media. Only in the IRL.

CAAMFest may be over, but I’m carrying its umami depth with me, to the festival of heart, available everyday, in our here and now, with one another and with ourselves.

On the way, the new Han Solo movie! I’m feeling a bit solo myself at times, but mostly inspired and humbled by the tapestry I’m witnessing of our human story of connection, love and survival.

See you at the movies and in the IRL!

FOOTNOTE: As I put the final touches on this essay, I found out that my friend and scion of the Japanese American community, Peter Kenichi Yamamoto, passed away suddenly on Sunday, May 27, 2018. I first met Pete when he agreed to be on a panel about mental health issues in the Asian American community some 15 years ago. He became a dear friend, and I am reminded of his bravery in sharing his mental health journey, as well as his voracious intellect, warmth and poetic heart, expressed in his book Journey as well as in many Facebook posts. He knew more about Marx and Hegel than I likely ever will, and had probably read more Buddhist books than me in the last year alone. I last saw Peter on Opening Night of CAAMFest, and I’m told he had a wonderful Saturday evening of enjoying Anthony Brown’s music and Angela Davis’ words. Rest in Power and Peace, my friend. A longer obituary and details about his open house and memorial this Saturday and Sunday 12-5 pm at NJAHS are here. What might be his last poem is here.

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The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent the views CAAM.

Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His full-length nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Book Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. He just found out Thich Nhat Hanh won the Gold – so he can’t really complain. His latest longform essay on gun psychology, Guns Are Not Our God! The NRA Is Not Our Church! is available now. He also leads compassion and self-compassion workshops. More MOSF posts can be found here. You can sign up for his occasional newsletter, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.