Rant & Rave

By Elyn Yao

Tuesday, January 21, 1997

Isles’ diversity
boosts her cultural spirit

Ingredients needed: The cultural traditions and celebrations of the Chinese, Hawaiians, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans and other ethnic groups in Hawaii.

Directions: Combine all ingredients to create a culturally diverse and accepting community while allowing each ingredient to retain its original flavor and shape.

GROWING up as I did, as a minority on the East Coast, in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, was challenging at times.

Looking back, I remember feeling as though I constantly had to prove my abilities, explain my family customs and defend my cultural differences to a Caucasian majority.

I was never ashamed of my Chinese heritage; I was only afraid of how others would respond to it. After all, there were only a few others of ethnic minorities who could share my frustrations.

Overwhelmed by these challenges, I had little desire to explore my Chinese origin until I moved to Hawaii two-and-a-half years ago. I immediately became fascinated by the cultural awareness, preservation and acceptance which abound here.

These new discoveries inspired me to start a journey toward cultural enlightenment which led to my entry into the 47th Narcissus Festival Queen Pageant.

During this four-month voyage, I learned everything from what the little red date on New Year's gau symbolizes (prosperity), to how my ancestors created such notable inventions as paper, the magnetic compass and fireworks. While these things may be common knowledge here, believe me, I never heard any of this in Indiana or Jersey.

The pageant provided me with the opportunity to work firsthand with authorities in Chinese history, cuisine, culture and arts. After completing a series of training sessions, I realized that I had been transformed from just a temporary contestant, into a lifetime student of Chinese culture.

THE glitter and glamour of the pageant were not nearly as significant as the cultural understanding and knowledge I gained. However, as fate would have it, I won the pageant on Jan. 13, 1996.

The title of Narcissus Queen was a great honor. More importantly, it paved a path that allowed me to continue my journey toward cultural enlightenment.

Immediately after the Coronation Ball, I began a series of public appearances which included a walk through the electrifying New Year's celebration, a cooking demonstration on the "Electric Cooking Show," a fashion show celebrating the Lantern Festival, and many more occasions that left me with precious memories and a better sense of Chinese traditions and festivals.

The highlight of my reign was serving as an "Ambassador of Aloha" on the Narcissus Goodwill Tour. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, this 19-day adventure to China exposed me to a whole new perspective of my heritage. Cultural pride filled me as I stood on the steps of the famed Great Wall and explored monuments which demonstrated the determination and diligence of my ancestors.

Maybe it's not as cool as the latest in American pop culture, but I believe all individuals of ethnic descent - whether first- or fifth-generation - should explore their heritage. This may take the form of a formal event such as the Narcissus Queen Pageant, joining a cultural association, or simply talking story with a popo, tutu or other elder.

I know it doesn't seem very important when you're naturally surrounded by such a rich culture. One can't help but absorb some of it.

But believe me, growing up on the mainland as I did, I felt lost because I lacked an important sense of self that can only come from knowing one's heritage.

Elyn Yao passes her Narcissus Queen crown to 48th pageant queen Susan Chien-Tzu Hwang at the Coronation Ball, 5 p.m. Saturday at Blaisdell Concert Hall. To attend, call the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for details, at 533-3181.

Rant & Rave is a Tuesday Star-Bulletin feature allowing those 12 to 22 to serve up fresh perspectives. Speak up by fax at 523-8509; by answering machine at 525-8666; snail mail at P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu 96802; or e-mail, features@starbulletin.com

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