A little more than 20 years ago, when my son moved to Union City, Mich., he called me to say, “Mom, there are four and a half Japanese in this town.” His stepmom was one of the four, he was the half.
In nearby Battle Creek, where Jimmy attended school, the population was considerably larger and more diverse. Even so, most folks he encountered there mistook him for Mexican or Mediterranean. And when they learned he was from Maui, they assumed he was Native Hawaiian.
But then he got a job with DENSO, the giant Japanese automotive parts manufacturer. The Battle Creek plant employs 3,000 workers, making air-conditioner components for Toyota and Lexus vehicles. There, the cafeteria served miso soup and Japanese curry daily, and Jimmy’s supervisors had no trouble pronouncing his middle name, Masayoshi. Because all the top executives and most of middle management were Japan nationals, an impressive array of sushi bars and Asian grocery stores sprang up in the surrounding area. One of the best Japanese restaurants I’ve ever visited was in a Battle Creek strip mall.
While it’s a far cry from Maui, Michigan has become a comfortable home for my son. Jimmy now works on a cybersecurity team at Michigan State University. He’s become accustomed to the daily hourlong commute to Lansing, and he knows where to go in the city for great teishoku, bulgogi and dim sum. He’s still searching for a decent poke bowl, though.
Over the past two decades, Jimmy has done his part to help increase the Asian population in Union City. Between his three daughters and the arrival of a couple of exchange students, the tiny town now has twice as many residents of Asian descent as it did when he moved in. Each of his girls has a Japanese middle name, and he does his best to ensure that they are aware and proud of their mixed ethnicity as well as their ties to Hawaii and local culture as well.
His eldest, Lilly, just graduated from Union City High School, the only one in her class of 75 with Asian blood and a connection to the islands. Lilly is my mother’s namesake, and Mom and I were pleasantly surprised when the principal perfectly pronounced “Lillian Yaemi Beckmeyer” as she approached the stage to receive her diploma. As Mom knows — to her annoyance — even some of her local acquaintances can’t seem to get her name right. After the ceremony, Lilly told us she spent a good deal of time teaching her principal to say it correctly.
We took more than a dozen lei to Lilly’s commencement, enough for each of her sisters, parents, stepparents and multiple grandparents to present. I should have taken more time to instruct the Michiganders on proper lei etiquette, because a couple of the garlands were given without kisses or hugs, but Lilly didn’t care. She was so happy, she didn’t even mind when one of her classmates asked, “Why do you have all that stuff on you? That’s weird!”
The grown-ups, of course, were enchanted. Some had visited the islands and were familiar with lei-giving, but the local tradition of practically smothering the graduate was an unprecedented sight.
In her maroon cap and gown, beneath multiple layers of lei, Lilly looked like a Baldwin High graduate, as some of my Facebook friends remarked. In three years, we’ll do the same for her sister Lotus. And the year after that, it will be Lula’s turn. Hopefully, we’ll also be taking lei for Lilly’s graduation from MSU that summer.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.