By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER, Rafu Staff Writer
Growing up, “I felt like I had two different lives,” says Emily Folick. “My weekends were all Japanese. But then on weekdays, at school, I was white.”
Emily, reigning Nisei Week Queen, grew up in Tustin, in Orange County, with her Sansei mother, Caucasian father and two siblings.
In Tustin, she says, she was “one of, like, three” Japanese American kids at her school. Most of her school friends were white. But on the weekends, she went with her family to the Orange County Buddhist Church (OCBC) in Anaheim, where she participated in the youth group and played on the basketball team.
“We had practice on Saturdays, we had games every Sunday, we had tournaments and we traveled together… I slept over at [my teammates’]houses every Saturday night before basketball games,” Emily remembers.
Because of all the time they spent together, her OCBC teammates became some of her best friends. And the more time she spent as part of the team, the more connected she felt to her Japanese American roots.
“I think that’s really how I became more involved with this community,” she says. “Now I definitely identify strongly as Japanese American, and I find that I’m much more involved in the Japanese American community than anything else.”
Still, at five-foot-ten with brown hair and a non-Japanese last name, Emily stands out. Often, people — even complete strangers — approach her, curious to know “what” she is.
“I always think it’s the strangest question to be asked. I don’t just go up to people and ask them what they are,” she laughs. “But I guess because they can’t really tell? I don’t look white, but I don’t look Asian… so I find myself having to explain a lot.”
Within the Japanese American community, though, Emily rarely faces questions about her ethnicity. Even during her run for Nisei Week Queen, which requires contestants to be at least half Japanese in order to compete, she says that she was never treated with hostility.
“But,” she says, “the one question I have been asked — and actually I was asked this during the interview portion of the coronation — was how I feel that I can represent the Japanese American community while I’m not full Japanese.”
This is a question that has followed mixed-race Nisei Week Queens since 1974, when Eliza Akemi Cuthbert became the first hapa ever to wear the crown.
In his column, “Horse’s Mouth,” The Rafu’s own George Yoshinaga returns regularly to the subject of queens with mixed heritage and non-Japanese names. His position appears to have softened over time: in 1976, he lamented the loss of queens with names like “Midori Tanaka,” while this year, he wrote, “I’m not trying to sound racist. It’s just that I wonder what the Nisei Week Queen contest will be like 40 years from today. We don’t even know if Little Tokyo will still exist in its present form 40 years from now.”
These are fair questions, and they’re ones that Emily thinks about as well.
When asked on the coronation stage if she felt she could represent the JA community despite having only one ethnically Japanese parent, she answered, “I think I represent the modern-day Japanese American community.
A 2012 report by the Pew Research Center found Asians to be the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. But among all Asians, the number of “Asians in combination” (that is, mixed-race Asians) has grown more rapidly in recent years than that of “Asians alone.”
The report also confirms the continuation of a trend Japanese Americans have long known about: among Asian ethnicities, Japanese in the U.S. are most likely to marry outside their ethnicity (64% intermarry) and are most likely to be multiethnic or multiracial (41%). And because these numbers include foreign-born Japanese (32% of Japanese in the U.S.), the rates of “mixing” are even higher among American-born Japanese alone.
“In our generation, Japanese Americans marry intermarry so frequently that you’re going to have to get used to it,” says Emily. “Pretty soon, a lot of our community is going to be mixed.”
But the community is already mixed, even in ways that have nothing to do with race. Her years on the OCBC basketball team have taught Emily this.
“More than other immigrant cultures, I think that Japanese Americans differ a lot from Japanese,” she says. “Because during the war, in the camps, we had to change our culture so much, and we had to kind of hide our Japanese culture from the rest of America after the war.
“Because of that, we developed our own culture. Like the basketball leagues. That’s not a Japanese cultural thing, but within our JA community, it’s a way of life… There are a lot of things that we consider JA culture that are not Japanese culture.” Like Spam musubi, like American taiko, and like Nisei Week.
So if the Japanese American community is already mixed, why fight further change? Yoshinaga asked whether Little Tokyo “will still exist in its present form” 40 years from now. And if you take “its present form” at face value, the answer almost has to be no. How much has changed between 1972 and today, in Little Tokyo or in the world outside?
But the root of the question remains: in a community like this one, given that some degree of change is inevitable, what should we hold onto, and what do we need to let go?
Emily’s personal goal as Nisei Week Queen is to encourage younger Japanese Americans to see the JA community as something worth holding onto, and to help them realize that this will take effort.
“Now that the older generation… is dying out, I think that the younger generations are having a hard time filling those footsteps,” she says. “We’re in the community through our parents growing up, but then after we go to college we find our own roots, a lot of [us]don’t get back to the community.”
Before being on the Nisei Week court, Emily says she didn’t realize exactly how big a deal it would be. But now that she’s spent the last several months visiting community organizations, attending events, and even traveling to Japan, she has a deeper understanding of what Nisei Week means, beyond the crown and sash.
Being on the Nisei Week court means having an opportunity to see parts of the community that she’s never seen before, and to show older generations that someone cares about their experiences and plans to pass on their stories.
Recently, “we went to a poetry reading at Centenary (United Methodist Church),” she tells me. “The poet, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, is 90 years old… and a lot of his poems are about his stay in Tule Lake. He was a no-no boy…
“It was really interesting to hear his perspective. I’d never personally spoken to a no-no boy… You learn about [those stories]at JANM, but it’s not very often that you get to hear them from the mouths of the people who experienced them.”
“When you go to these events,” Emily continues, mentioning visits to the VA and Go for Broke, “people get so excited to see us and spend time with us. And it’s at that point when we realize, This is a big deal. Nisei Week and being on the court are not something to take for granted.”