The imaginary critic in my head says that I capitalize on my Asian heritage far too often for someone who is only a quarter Japanese. To most of you I probably just look kind of yellowish and vaguely ethnic. I’ve been mistaken for Puerto Rican (when I used to wear my hoochie hoops and work at a hardware store), Latvian (by an enormous drunk leprechaun at a Southie St. Patty’s Day party) and even Brazilian *wistfully recalls the killer glutes she sported back in her ballet days.* I’d love to keep an aura of intrigue about my heritage and mystify you all with my freckles and yellow skin and seaweed-loving ways…
But inevitably, I will tell you my name, you will mispronounce it* (“Muh-REEko? Nailed it.”) and you will uncomfortably search for the new-PC term to simply ask …What are you?**
My brothers Billy and Ryan, with their redheaded Irishy looks and normal names, never had to deal with these shenanigans. When it comes to the Japanese genes, I got the name, Billy got the polite manners and Ryan got sumo eating abilities. We all inherited the haunting perfectionism and love of green tea.
So, some time ago I decided to preemptively strike on all social interaction and to identify maybe-too-strongly with my minorly Japanese roots. To be fair to myself, for third-generation Asians, my brothers and I had pretty strong cultural awarenes. I grew up eating my Grammy’s recipes, folding origami, sporting Hello Kitty brand everything (courtesy of my generous Japanese relatives), and touring major American landmarks with said relatives when they visited.
All of that to say that everyone can just cool it on the ethnic judgment when I try to teach you a cool new Japanese word. I recognize that I should technically be learning Gaelic terms. I get it, okay? But you try living your life with an undeniably Asian name and see if you don’t get a little heritage-zealous.
It is my favorite Japanese phrase and I learned it from a book that one of those obscure visiting relatives gave me. As I understand it, it roughly means a wistful sense of longing and appreciation in the presence of beauty, laced with sadness at its transience. The fact that we Americans do not have a word for this specific emotion that I feel so strongly and so often makes this phrase quite a treasure to me. I like knowing that there were enough people out there, way back in history, feeling this tug so deeply that they created a word for it.
I felt Natsukashii up on Lookout Rock, sitting with my boyfriend Drew and looking out over the foliage, thinking I could sit there forever and wondering if maybe I was in love. I felt it the night before Big Guy’s wedding, sitting on her parents’ stairs and listening to some of my best friends play hours of worship music in preparation for the ceremony. I felt it in Hawaii, driving through the mountains toward the North Shore beaches and crying because I didn’t have room in my heart for all of the wonder. In these moments, I’ve caught brief glimpses of what I assume Heaven will be like and felt a ferocious wistfulness take over. An almost-panicked need to capture the moment to revisit later and forever because surely this must be significant.
In these moments, I’ve learned to stop reaching for my camera or journal and to sink into stillness and enjoy. Because when I realize these moments cannot be captured, all that I’m left with is awe and gratefulness – a perfect recipe for worship. Natsukashii is easily my favorite form of worship, because It stills me, nudging and whispering you’re not the center of this wide, wonderful universe. He’s God and you’re not.
What terror and relief.
C.S. Lewis explains this flawlessly in Mere Christianity, saying,
If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.
Amidst all of the confusions and disappointments this life of balancing Christ and Christianity brings me, natsukashii has provided me with some of the greatest hope of and evidence for a better world. A better world created by a better God than I could have ever explained or desired.
I have to believe that the sharp wistfulness I feel in the face of magnificent creation is visceral evidence of a Creator. And I love that he’s left bits of Himself for us in that way.
Now tell me, readers – now that I, in all of my Asian wisdom, have taught you the way of natsukashii- I want to know: When have you felt natsukashii? Do you love it as much as I do?
*for the record, it’s MAH-ree-ko. Accent on the second syllable. Like Mario, with a k.
**The only place this hasn’t happened was in the magical paradise of Honolulu, where nearly everyone had a smidge of Asian in their DNA, looked similar to me and readily accepted me into their ‘hapa’ ranks.