Let's be clear from the start. I am not beautiful, popular, rich or any of those other things that would give me entre into society. So, when I get small glimpses of the culture, I have to fight my inner Margaret Mead, and not become detached. That sort of happened on Saturday, as I attended the annual Cherry Blossom Festival Queen's Program in Japantown.
The festival itself is a wonderful month long celebration of Japanese and Japanese-American culture, which I have been attending for years. The parade on the last day is particularly fun (and this year features George Takei – who must be excited to hear about a Queens program…)
Part of the festival is the Queen's Program, where each year the Queen and her court are crowned. The court will spend a year doing community service, serving as ambassadors of the Japanese-American community and getting in touch with their roots. It is not a beauty pageant (despite all the young ladies being quite attractive) and the judging is based solely on essays, interviews with the judges and a live Q&A. There is no talent portion, no swimsuit, none of the trappings that make me take pageants less than seriously.
One of my best friends is a former Cherry Blossom Queen, and she still works on the program. She asked me to attend, and so it was that I was sitting in the second row amongst the past winners. Needless to say, I stood out a little.
I was struck by a few things during the contest (is it really a contest if they all win? I mean sure, the Queen gets more schwag at the end, but they are all part of the court) The opening speeches by the ladies were over-rehearsed and wooden. They seemed like they had been coached to hammer the personality out of them. Given that my friend was one of the people helping with that part of the program, I kept that to myself…
Each of these ladies made me realize just how much of an underachiever I truly am. One woman had two Masters degrees! Two! At the age of 24. Sheesh. I barely have a BS (it is in Theatre after all) at the age of 37. They were all doing amazing things.
It was especially interesting watching with former contestants. Sadly, there were no catty comments or "Mean Girls" moments, but they did bring an interesting perspective. They also had an uncanny ability to predict when one of the girls was about to cry. I wonder if my observations about things were as foreign to them as their's were to me? Let the record show that I called the winner (although, I still think anybody with two Masters should just win outright..) which impressed them.
One thing that was sweet was how close these girls had remained. My friend won several years ago, but the women in her court were still among her best friends. We all had dinner afterwards, and the genuine affection was nice to see. They also felt a kinship with the contestants. I was warned, however, that not every year's group was as close as my friend's court.
The last thought the program brought to me was how lacking a cultural identity I am. Sure, I referencing being a Texan or being a Jew, but those are more prop than anything else. I use my "culture" like Groucho glasses, to entertain and to disguise. It has no deeper meaning, it is not really a part of me. Seeing these young women so closely identify with their culture (and how tight the community is) made me regret that a little.
As an aside, San Francisco's Japantown is one of only three remaining in the US, and it is fantastic! Definitely worth a visit.
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