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Miss Asian American Colorado 2009

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Erika Tanaka had held it together.

On May 30, the night of the program’s finale show, the judges named her the 2009 Miss Asian American Colorado (Miss AACO). She held in the tears and brandished her trademark smile as last year’s winner, Duacee Lor, placed the crown upon her head.

For two months, the 20-year-old Regis University student had been a part of the Miss AACO program, earning experience through a variety of service projects and forging lifelong relationships with young women who became her surrogate family of sisters.

She had entered with concerns about the cattiness and stigmas often associated with pageants. But this isn’t a typical pageant – there was no emphasis on physical appearance, just the beauty within. In an
hour of meeting the other young women, her fears were alleviated.

While the program is a competition, these women were not her competitors – they were her peers. They were leaders of student organizations, volunteers within their communities and, most importantly, shared her passion for service.

In the coming weeks, the women worked together on various service projects and built a bond with one another. When it was time for the finale, it didn’t matter to them who would win.

As the night wound down and the audience was clearing the theater, Tanaka’s “big sister” in the program, Trisa Bui – recipient of the Miss Asian American Activist award in 2008 – was waiting on the side of the stage. Her face red, Bui looked at Tanaka and said, “I’m so proud of you.”

Tanaka finally let out her tears.

A broad perspective
Born and raised in Colorado, Tanaka is the oldest of two, to an immigrant from Japan and a refugee from Vietnam. She grew up in Golden, Colo. where she often found herself being the “only Asian” in her social circles. However, her parents instilled a strong sense of their cultural identity into her.

“Even though I grew up in a white neighborhood… my parents taught me about my background and encouraged me to be proud of it,” she said.

Her father is an aikido instructor, so as far back as she can remember, martial arts has been a part of her life.

“I’ve been doing (aikido) pretty much my whole life,” she said. “(My father) does demonstrations at the Cherry Blossom Festival. I’ve been attending Japanese festivals my whole life.”

Her mother was a refugee from the Vietnam War and her experiences helped shape her daughter’s upbringing.

“I’ve always been really aware of my mom’s story,” Tanaka said. “She was a refugee, so my grandma always told me stories about it.”

Growing up in a multicultural family had its struggles. Tanaka said she had difficulties figuring out her own identity.

“Sometimes I didn’t feel like I was super Vietnamese or super Japanese, so a lot of times I struggled with that,” she said.

But it was her diversity that helped her realize that she had a broader look at the world.

“Now I realize that you can just balance it out and it just gives me so many resources to look at the world from,” she said. “I have three different perspectives to look at the world from as an American, a Japanese American and a Vietnamese American.

“I feel like it makes my perspective on the world much more multidimensional. You can look at things in different ways and see other people’s points of view and be open to it.”

But what goes along with having different heritages is lots of good food, something Tanaka enjoys, from eating pho late at night after Thanksgiving dinner to sushi at nearly every family gathering.

“I think that’s the biggest thing growing up in Asian families – everything revolves around food,” she said. “So having Japanese and Vietnamese was a perk.”

Left and right with involvements
Even before Tanaka enrolled in the Miss AACO program, she was already involved in many different extracurricular activities.

Beyond working toward a biology degree, she’s the president of her school’s pre-health honor society, helping procure medical professionals to come and speak to students who are considering entering in the field of medicine.

“(The students) can get a real-world perspective on it,” she said.

She helped start a group called J-Spot, a club that arranges activities to help engage the younger generation with Japanese culture. “We all got together and talked about how there are all these different activities for older Japanese people … but not that much geared toward young people,” she said.

“But what takes up most of my time is drumming with a local taiko group, Mirai Daiko.” Six years ago, she saw the all-female group performing at a restaurant.

“My dad just started talking to them… ‘my daughter was interested in playing taiko,’ and they just invited me to a practice,” she said.

Passion for service
A reward for winning the Miss AACO title is receiving the opportunity to fulfill the service project the winner wrote about in her application essay. For Tanaka, it’s a subject near and dear to her heart – teen suicide prevention.

Three years ago, she lost a friend to suicide – a fellow Japanese- American taiko player.

“That was shocking to me because he was so successful and seemed like a happy person, so no one saw it coming,” she said. “I decided then that I couldn’t sit around and not do anything about it.”

With her service project, Tanaka is plans to hold a fundraiser in the next year with all proceeds going to the Second Wind Fund, a Colorado nonprofit that focuses on teenage suicide prevention.

“I want to frame suicide prevention in a very hopeful, positive way,” she said.

With the help of the other women in the program, Tanaka plans on organizing different performers from the Asian-American communities to help make it an uplifting event. And she wants to have a speaker who has overcome a suicide attempt to talk to the crowd.

“Until then I’m going to try to get workshops together,” she said.

Mental health and the causes of suicide is a subject that’s not often breached with many Asian families, she said.

“What I’m working with is based on the belief that suicide is such a problem because of the stigma that’s associated with it – especially in Asian cultures,” she said. “It’s not something that’s talked about.”

For many younger Asian Americans, she said, their parents came from difficult circumstances, so families deal with cultural differences and often communication barriers.

“I just feel like if you’re having an issue with depression or struggling with a problem – any problem is significant and you don’t have to compare it with other people,” she said. “If it’s making you feel sad, you have the right to ask for help.

“And knowing that you can ask for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”

A life-changing two months
While the Miss AACO program offers leadership training and service opportunities, Tanaka had different intentions when she signed up. Growing up in Golden, Tanaka had few friends who were of Asian descent, so she thought this would be an opportunity to meet others with similar backgrounds and shared her ideals.

“I thought it was a way to meet other Asian-American girls who are like-minded, motivated and who share
the same passion for service as me,”

Tanaka, and the other 16 contestants, were paired with women who went through the program last year. Tanaka was placed with Trisa Bui, a University of Denver student who won the Miss Asian American Activist award last year.

“Trisa is hands-down the best big sister ever,” Tanaka said.

“Right after the two were paired,” she said, Bui got her involved with different activities such as NAAAP and the RISE conference.

“(Bui) really believes in this program and it’s so important to have people like that in the program because it makes other people passionate,” she said. “When you have someone so passionate, it’s hard not to be passionate yourself.”

That passion for service helped as the women came together to work on various service projects. One of the projects included helping Habitat for Humanity build housing for low-income families.

“Habitat for Humanity was really fun because it was something where we were all out of our element,” she said. “ … We were moving these big ol’ heating vents around. Some of the girls were kicking down signs
and doors.”

The women were broken into small groups and had to create and execute their own service projects. Tanaka’s group went to the Denver Rescue Mission and served breakfast for the homeless.

“It teaches you to be confident and know that your abilities are valued and you’re a valuable person in the community and you have so much to give,” she said. “Because I think a lot of people don’t realize how rich their talent and abilities are and how much they have to offer the community.”

But building confidence in oneself isn’t just what Tanaka said she gained from the experience.

“New friendships with like-minded people that I feel will be my lifelong friends and we can all help each other with anything we want to do,” she said. “I feel I can call any of these girls with any future projects and they would be there in a second.

“ … I didn’t think two months would do this, but it definitely did.”

The beginning
The journey of these 17 women began early April and organizers knew they had a good group from the start.

“Back in the beginning when we were looking through their applications, we were so excited,” Annie Guo, Miss AACO Director, said. “ … The committee said over and over again that this group of women was very strong and that there were so many great candidates who we would have loved to all be Miss Asian American Colorado.”

And strong women they had. Among them Nguyen Nguyen is cochair of the Asian American Student Union at Colorado College, Iris Bulalayao is chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Student Union at UC Colorado Springs, Christine Thai is co-president of Next Generation Voices and Stephanie Yoon will be the president of Asian Unity at CUBoulder in the fall.

“All these women were already doing a lot of things when they came in this year,” Guo said. “ …They came in with such strong credentials.”

In the coming weeks, they worked on various service projects from organizing improvement outlets with Habitat for Humanity to making gift baskets for Safehouse Denver, a shelter for battered women. They participated in a self-defense class and later broke into groups of four and five to create their own service opportunities.

“I’m so glad about all the opportunities I was presented,” University of Denver student Jessica Choe said. “Habitat for Humanity was something I always wanted to do.”

Just half an hour before the start of the show on May 30th, the women were downstairs in the dressing room, adding final touches to their cultural attire.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Choe said. “I’m a little anxious, a little nervous. But I’m really excited and looking forward to it.”

Some huddled together for group pictures while others practiced their moves for the Bollywood dance opening.

“It’s really fun watching all the girls freak out and we’re all freaking out together,” Stephanie Yoon said.

For some, this moment is a time to reflect on the other strong women they have met.

“I’ve met some amazing girls and they’re all so beautiful and wonderful and smart and intelligent,” Colorado Technical University student Giane Morris said. “And you don’t find girls like that all the

But the one thing that’s shared by the contestants is the experience and bond they’ve built with one another.

“The past two months have been great,” Yoon said. “It’s been a lot of bonding and getting to know the
girls and that we all are really good candidates and if anyone won, I’dbe so proud.

“And I know at the end, we’re all going to cry because it’s really emotional.”

The end of a chapter
After an energetic opening dance sequence, the women – adorned in vibrant cultural attire – introduced
themselves to the crowd.

“I am not shy to share to the world my culture, my costume and my language,” University of Colorado Denver student Kaila Lee said. “This makes me who I am. I am proud to be an Asian American.”

Organizers cut out the evening gown competition this year because they wanted to distance themselves from the P-word and make this a true leadership and service program.

“Some of the performances were very traditional, like traditional instruments or songs in foreign
languages. And you had everything up to the very Asian-American performances like spoken word or
hip-hop dancing,” Guo said. “It was great to see how diverse we are as Asian Americans because we are both (Asian and American).”

After the votes were tallied and the crowns and sashes were given out, the contestants and the committee take a moment to breathe. But everyone realizes that the next step is yet to come.

“There are days when it’s hard and there’s so much going on,” she said, “but I think at the end of the
day, you just have to remember what our mission is and how you are making a difference in the community.”

For more information about the Miss Asian American Colorado program, visit

Other Recognitions
Miss Unity, 1st Runner Up: Abhinetri Ramaswami
Miss Impact, 2nd Runner Up: Christine Thai
Miss Talent: Laila Nguyen
Miss Network Savvy: Dana Seaman
Miss Asian American Activist: Pakou Xiong
Miss Heart of Gold: Jennifer Nguyen

By Joe Nguyen,

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