I am a white girl. And last night, I designed a Kanji cross stitch pattern for the Japanese word “ma” (though the kanji character also represents “architecture”).

“Ma” is a word I learned 15 years ago, when I worked as a receptionist for the summer at Honda Research and Development (located, of all places, in Marysville, Ohio). Roughly translated, ma means “space,” “interval,” “the space between,” “gap,” or even “breath.” I first noticed the word as a verbal pause, used by my Japanese-born bosses. Instead of “Hmmm,” or “Interesting,” or “Well,” they would nod their heads, and quietly mutter, “Ma” before finally responding. Their verbal “ma” indicated a pause before continuing. It let me know that my boss was thinking about his answer, his words, before continuing to speak. That he wasn’t just stopping the conversation—he was giving it his full concentration, giving it the space it deserved. Architecturally, ma represents the gaps between posts, doorways, even possessions. The kanji character combines the character of Sun (or, at times, Moon) and Gate. So, the symbol is of the light of the Sun, peeking through the gap in a Gate.


Ma has recently been appropriated by Westerners as part of our cultural progression towards minimalism. Minimalism is certainly having a cultural “moment” here in the U.S. The argument is that Westerners (primarily Americans) are being buried underneath our possessions. That our general culture is one of acquirement, of ownership, of excess, of more. We purchase large houses, and fill them with the general accouterments of our bloated, consumerist, over-commercialized lives. We buy large cars, only to drive them alone down six-lane highways, playing DVDs in the back. We physically take up more space, and crowd everyone else out. Ma on the other hand, encourages space. Emptiness. Silence. The current, popular minimalist argument is that there is a power in nothingness that Americans just don’t (or can’t) appreciate. Instead, the argument continues, we need to look to such inspiration as traditional Japanese architecture and art, and the ma contained therein.

Of course, this argument in favor of minimalist ma is pure cultural appropriation. By setting up an “us” versus “them” dichotomy (even if the “us” is cast negatively, while the “them” is something to be admired and mimicked), the basic tenants of colonialism remain intact. It is the Far East equivalent of the Noble Savage, teaching all of us Just-too-Worldly-for-Our-Own-Good Westerners all about what really matters in life. It cherry picks a single element of traditional Japanese culture, and insists upon its centrality, its necessity.

But, of course, arguing that ma is a driving element of Japanese culture is just as insulting as arguing that country music defines America and Americans. There are certain segments of our diverse and wonderful population for whom country music is, in fact, a definitive—and defining—element of their culture. But it also ignores the incredible complexity of our country and our culture (which, truly, can’t be defined by anyone as “our” culture. No one person can ever possibly make that claim). Japan can be cluttered. Americans can be silent. Space can be liberating. Stuff can be comforting. Embracing minimalism as though one were eschewing “American” ideals in favor of “Japanese” ways is overly simplistic and insulting. It is an example of white privilege: to placidly smile and speak of “admiration” without ever engaging in the work of cultural study or personal growth. It is deciding to “try on” another culture, another ethnicity, while feeling secure in the knowledge that, should things get rough, one can always “take off” their cultural appropriation and move on, never having to experience the burden of ethnic or cultural difference. You can simply comb out the corn rows, unstick the bindi, take down the Dreamcatcher, and return to the cultural neutrality of whiteness, never having to explain yourself again. So, too, with the ma, in an America that celebrates, values, and rewards the outgoing, the bold, the adventurous, and impulsive, an individual raised to ponder silently, to step back, to humble themselves can’t simply adopt gregariousness as a means of fitting in (not even mentioning the racial implications of Japanese culture versus white America).

Knowing all of this, why did I decide to design a ma? How can I possibly justify this appropriation?

Well, maybe I can’t. I do have a deep, academic interest in the concept of space (hell, my dissertation was titled “The Spaces of Sex,” and looked at how the spaces and places literary characters inhabited changed the ways they expressed or repressed their sexuality[ies]). But my academic knowledge of space is a strictly Western, intellectual one. And all of the books I studied were published in the West. While I thought of ma throughout writing my dissertation, I never once mentioned it. Never studied its history in any depth.

I could also argue that, as an English PhD, I’m interested in ma from a linguistic perspective. After all, English has no true verbal equivalent to ma. We can create awkward phrases describing “the delight in negative space,” but there is something truly beautiful in the simplicity of the mono-syllabic “ma.” As a certified (well, diploma-tized) word nerd, I love that. Perhaps my interest is strictly linguistic, then?

Or, I could also say that as a do-it-yourself home improvement-er, and as a person interested in how to literally lighten up my overly-brown, early ’90s, American Transitional house, ma interests me from an architectural perspective. How do I create the sense of space in a playroom cluttered with kids’ toys? Perhaps ma is meant to help me maintain my sanity.

But, of course, all of these things are just sad excuses. The fact of the matter is that I like “ma.” I like the idea of space. Of appreciating nothing, and silence. I like it because it is completely contradictory to how I was raised. As an extrovert among extroverts, my family was full of loud talkers, all competing for verbal space and attention. Silence was not very well known in my house. And as for space? Though we lived on 12 acres, I was surrounded constantly. By trees, by outbuildings, by books and memorabilia. By other people. My mother once threw a dinner party for 50 people, and she was able to feed them all on real dishes. No paper plates needed. We just owned that much stuff.

And I want to do better as a person. Speaking with my Japanese bosses back at Honda, hearing their thoughtful “Ma,” let me know that I don’t always have to fill the silence with sound. That I don’t always have to be sitting around, planning my next speech while not truly engaging with the person with whom I’m speaking. That I need to appreciate the ma. For me, personally, the kanji ma is a way to stop associating silence and space with death and negativity. Because it’s true: silence terrifies me. (That song, where Alanis Morissette cuts out the music? Makes me anxious every time.) And I think it’s an issue of ego, of letting go. I need to stop finding my own voice, my own stuff, my own displays of status central to happiness and calm. I need a little ma.


With that in mind, I will be stitching up my kanji ma. But I will not be selling it. It’s not mine to sell. And I will not be wearing it. It’s not a bauble for me to carry around. Instead, I think I’ll frame it. Simply. Elegantly. With lots of blank space around it. I’ll hang it in my office, and look at it to remember to de-centralize myself. And, along with my self and my ego, I can also use it to decentralize my experience and my culture. To check my privilege. To question, and analyze, and reflect, and struggle. To check in every now and then with myself, and explore whether or not I am experiencing the world humbly and gratefully, and without assumption. To remember that ma is not mine to possess, but is rather something that I can learn from. Something I can continue to study, to ask questions about, and to explore. Don’t get me wrong. This ma will not be there to “save” me. I’m not looking for a Noble Savage. I’m not trying to benefit from an artifact of a culture. Rather, I’m hoping to appreciate the ma which is creating such an important moment within Western aesthetics. Because, while using ma as an “us versus them” justification of minimalist aesthetics repeats damaging colonizing rhetoric, I think that engaging with minimalism as a way of life without appreciating and studying its Eastern philosophical roots is far more troubling and disingenuous. As my interest in the concept of minimalism grows (not disconnected from my growing interest in the study of yoga as a daily practice), it is essential that I learn all that I can about the cultural histories of these movements. Their roots; beyond beautiful Pinterest boards and Instagram photos. Too many people love the concept of “uncluttered” and “open” and “clean” spaces, without really understanding their historical significance in a culture outside of their own. I don’t want to do that. I want to learn. I want to be here for that. I want to show up for that work.

And that’s my justification for sewing up—but not selling—a ma kanji. Appreciation without appropriation is a complicated, difficult path to follow (and I’m not sure I’m there yet), but it’s one that is worth exploring, worth attempting. I hope I’m up for the task.