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Zen and the Art of Face Painting

When my hand started shaking, dribbling black face paint all over the sink, the mirror, and the Slayer t-shirt I had picked to wear for the show, I realized I was never cut out to be a surgeon. I may have disappointed my mother, but I’m certain I had saved countless lives. It was the Battle of the Bands, and I was fighting my trembling right hand.

I had just finished painting the kanji characters for ningen (人間) on my face. I learned about it from reading Zen Guitar by Philip Sudo.

He wrote, “the very word for human being, ningen, suggests a connection to the surrounding world. Nin means person, while gen means “space.” In other words, we only become human, a ningen, in relation to the space around us.”

“That looks awesome, dude. It’s like my brother’s tattoo,” Jim said, his voice bouncing around the tiled walls of the men’s room of the Student Learning Center at the Penn State Scranton campus.

I had actually admired Jim’s tattoo, a Celtic knot armband that framed the bottom of his half-sleeve, and decided to do something like that for the show. I thought about how he had this graphic connection to his cultural history, to his family, and lineage. I remembered that passage about ningen and thought Japanese was close enough. Meanwhile, my grandfather, who survived the Bataan Death March, was rolling in his grave.

“You finished up, dude? We’re up.” We were next. I played guitar, Kov played drums, Gavin was our lead singer, and Jim our bassist. They were my only friends.

It was my freshman year. I was living on my own for the first time and was the only Asian on campus who didn’t teach. I met Jim at freshman orientation while playing an ice breaker game where you needed to pick a partner. Amid the Abercrombie and backward visors, I had worn a Biohazard t-shirt. Across the field, I locked eyes on Jim with his fiery red hair and the double-aught earrings stretching out his lobes. I knew we’d get along immediately because music had always been the cultural currency for making friends.

I was fifteen when I found a copy of Zen Guitar at Barnes and Noble in one of the homogenizing strip malls that are the beating heart of white suburbia. I was with my friends, most of whom I had been in bands with since I was twelve, killing time after a movie. We’d become friends through music, mostly grunge and metal. Not being jocks or socially adept, we felt like outsiders. Metal seemed to make our outsiderness an empowering choice and playing guitar a superpower.

I was looking through Hal Leonard’s speed technique books. I never liked playing grunge. It lacked the technical proficiency I associated with being Asian (no offense to James Iha). Aside from bands like Sevendust and Orange 9mm, the metal I grew up on was primarily white. Becoming adept at playing metal meant more than acceptance into a white world. It meant a chance at excellence.

By the time I found myself painting Japanese characters on my Filipino face, music had co-opted a lot too. Linkin Park had just come out, and Method Man was still touring with Fred Durst bringing Rap Metal to the masses. As long as it was blended with the familiar, the all-white crowd outside the bathroom had never been more able to accept the foreign and new ⁠— even a freshman like me from the Far East (aka New Jersey). Just before we stepped on stage, I noticed I had made an error. Working in the mirror, I had painted the kanji backward. Would they notice? Could they even parse out anything on my person that didn’t just say “Asian?”

The facepaint was worse than illegible or appropriated; it was redundant. I had painted an Asian character on an Asian character. I had gilded a yellow lily. However inaccurate it was, it did feel like control. I was saying I see you seeing me. I was trying to connect myself to this space, this bathroom, this town I was just settling into. Standing on stage, I ground my hand into my pick guard to still its tremble and I looked at the white noise of beige faces and began to play.

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