Photos by Vincent Trinh and Tim Shimizu
“So you’re doing this Hyphen thing?”
My tie has been
bothering me all night. I loosen
We are taking a break from mingling, posted in a corner of
the after-East West Players gala reception at a fancy hotel in North Hollywood.
Tuesday Night Café OG and Blacklava Clothing-mastermind Ryan Suda scans the crowd. I pull at my tie again. Ryan makes me nervous. He’s always made me
nervous, the kind of nervous a four-eyed fourteen-year-old feels when hanging
out with an intimidating cool older cousin.
He breathes in.
“You know you have to
In April I flew to San Francisco as a competitor in the 2013
Mr. Hyphen Pageant, sweating through a talent portion, a Q&A session, and a
Project Runway-style challenge. Adrenaline pumping and dressed to the nines, I stood on stage to
represent my family at Tuesday Night Project (TNP), producer of Tuesday Night Cafe, a free
LA Little Tokyo-based Asian American public art series.
While I made the trip
to compete, I also seized the weekend as an opportunity to connect and build
with other community organizers. I had
the chance to tour Nihonmachi/JTown with local organizer/new homie, Casey
Ikeda, and co-teach four classes on art + activism at Alameda High thanks to
longtime organizer/educator Cory Jong. I
also had a great time backstage at the show with Miguel, Tim, and Nino (my
fellow competitors), the staff at Hyphen, and Julian and Jenn from
Still, I flew up to
There was a lot
riding on it. In these tough times,
grassroots organizations like TNP are struggling. Philanthropy and arts funding are harder to
come by, and government support is slim. Behind non-profits, community collectives, and “free art” are people who
donate hours of time to provide vital public services. We hustle for every dollar, and the $1,000
prize would allow us more capacity to focus on organizational growth.
only was I taking three days off work and flying up, I had friends driving from
Los Angeles to join my cheering section of Bay homies, TNP family, and a
healthy (or unhealthy, as it later proved) helping of Hyphen Juice. Meanwhile, my mom was up late tracking the
Hyphen Twitter feed from New Jersey.
Plus I was representing a performing arts organization. At a pageant.
There was a lot riding on it.
To make sure I wasn’t walking in blind, I asked a few past
Mr. Hyphen winners and hopefuls for advice. Across the board they all told me, simply, to “speak from the heart.”
I didn’t believe it could be so simple. The past winners and contestants were
academics and full-time organizers. My
knowledge mostly came from community work outside of my corporate job, from
casual research, and from listening to my mentors’ stories. I speak from the heart all the time but,
understandably, people don’t just hand me crowns and sashes and $1,000 on the
It was a week before the competition, and I hadn’t finished
my unnecessarily complicated talent portion. The judges list was released and included
thinkers and organizers I greatly respected and, like Ryan, made me
nervous. One of my best friends
explained that non-Bay people usually don’t win and told me to prepare for a
I may have freaked out a little. There was a lot riding on this.
“Speak from the heart.” In moments of freak out, there is clarity. Perhaps it was that simple.
I thought back to where I started -- a 13-year-old Canadian
kid from New Jersey hungry for a sense of belonging in the crazy cafeteria that
is teenhood. I thought back to the hours
I spent on webforums and blogging platforms like RiceBowlJournals and Xanga,
holding a need to unearth language that would express my connection to a larger
struggle I didn’t fully understand. I
thought about how this need burned in the crucible of my chest and pushed me to
Los Angeles, weaving through dense forests of protest signs and sign up sheets
to find People; people who gifted me time for the camaraderie, mentorships, and
ultimately friendships that have allowed me language, hope, and forward
I thought about Beth Nakasone, Jeff Murakami, and Sumi
Pendakur who encouraged me to take on community leadership. I thought about Tani Ikeda, Tad Nakamura,
Daniel Wu, and traci kato-kiriyama whose work has always challenged me artistically,
intellectually, and philosophically. I
thought about my mom, my dad, my grandma, my JTown aunties and uncles, my
fellow organizers, my friends, my mentors, all of whom have pushed me to find,
ultimately, my voice and to build that “heart” to speak from.
I stood on the stage knowing that if I could speak from
that, if I could really “speak from the heart,” then crown or no crown, I would
I would like to think that I did.
Thanks to the Hyphen crew for welcoming me to the
family! I am looking forward to sharing
stories from the life of a 20-something-community-involved-working-professional
and music from the archive. Come meet me this
Saturday at the Mr. Hyphen Community Happy Hour at Tonic! I will be bartending the 7-8 shift.