“Famous last words” and Japanese death poems offer two strikingly different approaches to mortality.
I was born in the middle of March in a small town in China. My parents didn’t give me a name; they simply never got around to choosing one. On April 7, I nearly died after choking—and they saddled me with that date as a moniker, a sort of inescapable memento mori. When I came to the United States, at age five, my mother told me I was to be named Angela, after a coworker of hers. Was this coworker particularly kind or smart or pretty? I asked. By all accounts, no. It seemed to be an entirely arbitrary decision.
Fittingly, I’ve long been fascinated by the traditions surrounding the words that bookend a life. There’s a split, I’ve found, between the East and the West: the latter favors spontaneous last words that serve as a final confirmation of your personal brand, whereas the East has a custom of premeditated death poems, jisei, that offer a rare chance to break with convention. These differing traditions offer a glimpse into the clash of individualism versus collectivism, spontaneity versus control—forces I’ve tried to balance in my own life, living between Asian and American culture. Read More