When Seattle’s KUOW public radio station put out an open call to the community for podcast ideas, poet Shin Yu Pai pitched one about telling Asian American stories.
From that pitch came Ten Thousand Things, a podcast that tells our community’s stories through personal objects: A teddy bear. A worn-in jacket. A bike. We all have those ordinary objects that hold extraordinary value in our lives, and tell something about our personal histories. These are the stories Pai unearths during her interviews with guests from all over the country.
“Through focusing on a specific object, whether that’s an old Chinese-English dictionary or a Califone record player—the history and identity of this object—the personal and cultural values of the individual storyteller can be illuminated,” says Pai, who is also the podcast’s host.
The first season of the podcast—formerly known as The Blue Suit—came out the summer of 2022, and season two launches today to kick off Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Like season one, there will be eight episodes, with one released each week.
I recently spoke to Pai about Ten Thousand Things, how doing the podcast has impacted her as a poet, and her work as Seattle’s current civic poet.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Samantha Pak: Your podcast used to be called The Blue Suit. Why the first name and why did it change to Ten Thousand Things?
Shin Yu Pai: I based the original series on my inspiration, Congressman Andy Kim from New Jersey. Congressman Kim was photographed without him knowing, picking up garbage on the Capitol Rotunda after (Jan. 6) rioters had been cleared from the building, wearing this really beautiful vibrant blue suit. The Smithsonian Museum asked Congressman Kim to donate that suit to their collections as an artifact that could tell part of the story of that day.
We were maybe a year into the pandemic. There was a rise in anti-Asian hate crime and then the Atlanta shootings happened. The desire to create a series of Asian American stories was very much about bringing more positive stories and images of Asian Americans into the popular mainstream media, offering stories that could shatter the model minority myth.
As we began working on the second season, we talked a lot about the reasons for rebranding and renaming the project. I landed on the name Ten Thousand Things. Ten thousand is a very poetic term that’s used a lot in Chinese poetry and culture. It just means an infinite, vast, or unfathomable number. The idea of 10,000 things and its infinite quality can be a nice metaphor for the infinite permutations of what Asian American identity can be or look like.
SP: Going back to the first season, who were some of the people you spoke with for the podcast and what were some of the objects that they spoke about?
SYP: I talked to Byron Au Yong about a Chinese-English dictionary that was handed down to him by his immigrant father. That Chinese-English dictionary was something that his father would consult whenever Byron, who is a composer, would ask if he could give him a Chinese title for one of his musical compositions. There was an intimate connection to his father via these objects that had been such a part of his father’s life.
I talked to Tomo Nakayama, Seattle indie rock star, about miso. During the pandemic he got very much into cooking and doing a deeper dive into Japanese cooking as it connected to his cultural heritage and his memory.
I also spoke to Etsuko Ichikawa, a glass artist who worked in the studio of Dale Chihuly. Etsuko made these beautiful glass orbs that she embedded with uranium, which she bought off the Internet. The uranium was really an interesting development that came about in her work after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. With Etsuko living as a diasporic person in this country while that was ravaging her country, (we talked about) what it means to live in a time where we have these nuclear legacies and how they affect the environment and the long-term health of our communities.
SP: Who can we look forward to this coming season?
SYP: Shawn Wong, literary activist and novelist, who teaches at University of Washington. Shawn is just kind of a badass. In the last couple of years, he took on Penguin Random House, in a very public David-and-Goliath battle because of their wanting to reprint John Okada’s No-No Boy, a book that he copyrighted and published at one time.
One of the most exciting episodes will be the closing episode of the season in which I interview Alice Wong, the disability rights activist who had the podcast Disability Visibility. Alice is a super interesting story because she actually lost her physical voice as a result of a medical crisis that she had last summer. So now in order to have a voice, she has a text-voice application in which she types in the things that she wants to say, and then it outputs it in a Midwestern white female voice named Heather.
The object that I will spend time talking about this season is something called a Jizo Bodhisattva, a Japanese Buddhist figure that is the deity or protector of lost children and mothers. So the story is about having a miscarriage and the role in which this object plays in a ritual that is intended to help grieving parents.
If I want my interview subjects to be vulnerable, there’s no reason I should not also travel to those places to learn how to be courageous.
SP: For you personally, sharing the objects that are important to you, what has that been like? The one that you’re sharing for this season, that’s a very personal object, from a very difficult time. What was it like to be able to share that?
SYP: It can be very powerful. It can be both triggering and sad, but it can also be cathartic. Part of this podcast, and this approach for me now—writing radio versus poetry—is about being more direct or vulnerable about who I am as an artist and what my stories are. If I want my interview subjects to be vulnerable, there’s no reason I should not also travel to those places to learn how to be courageous. It is for me, this practice of speaking the stories that are very personal and sometimes dark, but they are this practice of also becoming whole in the world.
It is part of our identity, that there’s complexity. Not all stories end happily. It’s important to have that complexity because it allows for the realness and the richness of who we are.
I knew that it’s special when I put my story out there, no matter how I feel about it. But it is this gift to the audience of knowing who I am so that there can be that credible narrator. This was a gift that I felt was important. I have had many, many women friends in the last year who suffered from miscarriage. And it is not something that is easy to let go of. I had my miscarriage nine or 10 years ago, and I still think about it. I still think about that child that wasn’t born. So, for me, it is a story that I know can have a very profound impact and is one that’s important to tell and to normalize in popular discourse.
SP: Is this your first time doing radio and podcasts?
SYP: Yeah, it is. I come from a poetry background. Radio is a completely new discipline to me that has some similarities to poetry, and I deeply, deeply love it. Radio has helped me to better discover, or to feel into, a more authentic voice. And that is really super helpful now in reading poetry and thinking about how a story is told.
SP: So let’s talk about your poetry. I know you are the Seattle civic poet (the city’s poet laureate). A lot of people have heard the term poet laureate, but what does a poet laureate do?
SYP: It varies based on who the poet laureate is and what their sensibilities are. Some poet laureates really get off on teaching workshops, traveling the state and reading every opportunity they get. I am interested in really high-impact strategic projects. One thing I feel very passionately about doing is figuring out how to do a visual poetry poster campaign. The strategy of making posters is one that’s very effective for getting people’s attention and also making an idea or a movement, visible, visual and beautiful.
SP: You mentioned how doing this podcast and working in radio has actually helped you as a poet. Can you go into a little detail about how?
SYP: Radio is a medium that relies on the voice, just like poetry does. I definitely learned about the ways in which poetry can be delivered to various audiences.
As I began to write for radio, I was challenged or pushed into having to say things in plainspoken ways. That became a lightbulb in terms of, how do you make that material, or that story, or that environment, or that thing relatable and resonant in the body or in the ear? Certainly, I have a love for language and words that may be more than most people, being a writer and a poet. But at the same time, I think this also in some ways has to do with being a mother of a young child, a 9-year-old. My feelings about poetry have really evolved from when I started writing over 20 years ago, to what I do now, in terms of just wanting to make it plainspoken and accessible to the heart and the mind. Radio really does a fine job of doing that because it’s for a very broad audience, not an audience of poets or writers or readers.
That is also what poetry is. Poetry is code switching.
SP: You’ve also written personal essays. We’ve published a few of yours here. So it does sound like a lot of what you do, at least professionally, is very involved with words which, you know, that’s me too (laughs). What got you into writing? What got you into poetry to begin with?
SYP: It was a very early choice. I have a mother who is a visual artist, with whom I don’t really share a language. My parents are Taiwanese immigrants and she came to this country in her late 20s. So her English has never been deeply proficient and my Taiwanese has never been more sophisticated than, say, a 5- or 6-year-old’s.
For me, there was a feeling of wanting to find the creative medium that could be mine. But I think more than that, because there was this poverty of language in my relationship with my mother, there was this feeling that poetry can be this imaginative language or space, this third space where my mother and I could find that common ground and meet each other.
As I have gotten older and maybe more expansive in my critical thinking around colonialism and the domination of English as a language, it’s like, “In some ways, did I begin to write poetry because it was just inculcated to me as I assimilated that this is what you need to do in order to be successful?” And I look at that now because I tried to bring back aspects of some of my Taiwanese language into what I do now, in various ways.
Poetry seemed like so many things—this language of desire, a place to escape, a place to master something that could be mine, even as it was colonizing me in some ways. So it’s a very complicated relationship.
It is a way of code switching. It allows us to navigate the world in a certain way. So that is also what poetry is. Poetry is code switching.
SP: I never thought about it that way. It’s a very, very cool way to think about poetry.
Published on May 1, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.