The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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Maya Kusunoki-Martin

Photo contributed by Maya Kusunoki-Martin.

“Even though I’m a sociology major and linguistics concentrator, I don’t like to try and put myself into those boxes,” said Maya Kusunoki-Martin ’21.

That was the moment when my plans for this profile went out the window. And it gave me a bit of a shock too: why should I write about what so-and-so has accomplished? Why not write about what really matters to someone?

“I don’t think of my journey here as what I’ve been involved in, I think of it more as the relationships I’ve formed, and the way those relationships have helped me grow into myself,” said Kusunoki-Martin.

A couple world-redefining minutes later, she asked me, “Do you watch SNL? Because there’s this one character, Chad, who goes…” (And here she pauses for a little) “Okay.” (with a shrug and a fulfilled grin.)

That was her big 2020-2021 lesson of the year. To go along with the flow, and whatever happens, happens.

Throughout the years here at Grinnell, she’s always been about intimacy, vulnerability and honesty. And that’s especially true of how she has approached untangling her identities. For instance, she has a white dad and an Asian mom, a relationship she says is a very stereotypical model of a mixed-race relationship. It’s something that inspired her Mellon Mays project, on looking at a niche dating site for Asian men and Black women, two of the least liked categories on dating sites.

And her interest in language was spurred by an experience she had as a kid growing up in the 626 area in California. Because her mom could not speak Chinese very well, she would carry a pen and paper around whenever they went to the food court together, and write the Japanese kanji for foods that they wanted in order to communicate with the Chinese workers at the stand.

“I came to college and I kind of realized how special that was,” said Kusunoki-Martin, “Growing up in that version of America really informed the way I look at language.”

The 626 area is made up of predominantly Asian communities, which extends to the population makeup at high schools. Kusunoki-Martin was an exceptionally talented orator when in Speech and Debate. According to her, it was her entire life in high school.

“I wasn’t a student. I was a speech kid and a student on the side,” said Kusunoki-Martin.

The community was so intense – and so consuming of an identity – that she made the decision to consciously let go of it. At Grinnell, she learned that she could let go of her external identities, and focus instead on how to relate to people.

In fact, she says used to be a bully in elementary school, out of insecurity. And she distinctly remembers the day that she chose to be kind.

In seventh grade, she would always take the same path from gym to their bio class with a friend. “So, I said, ‘What if… We just said hi to everyone we pass by?’,” said Kusunoki-Martin. And from that day on, she said hi to everyone she met.

“I don’t think I have traits. I have made choices. I made a choice to be kind. And I am still making choices about who I want to be,” said Kusunoki-Martin.

And now, at the end of her Grinnell years, she finds comfort in not seeing all of the possibilities of what she could become. She actively doesn’t want to have it all figured out.

“I want to go places that I can’t even envision,” said Kusunoki-Martin. She will simply be ready to receive everything that comes her way. “I always want to have friends…. If there’s any definition of success, it’s that. Having friends.”

Okay? Okay.

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