A Conversation with Aimee Eng ’03
– by Faraneh Carnegie ’05
This past year, Aimee Eng ’03 served as the Cherry Blossom Queen of the San Francisco area. The Cherry Blossom Pageant is not a typical pageant based on physical beauty. Rather, the pageant was designed to promote community service and cultural awareness within the Japanese community. The event is held every year in April as part of an annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Other events during this two-week long community festival include a senior citizen recognition ceremony, a parade, and the awarding of several scholarships for deserving high school seniors.
Eng was appointed pageant Queen after an extensive application process. The process yields five women who then spend three months preparing to serve as the Cherry Blossom Court: cultural ambassadors for the North American Japanese Community. Eng and her court attended and volunteered for several events in Los Angeles, Seattle, Honolulu, and Japan. The Cherry Blossom Court also has the opportunity to orchestrate their own events. One of these events was a Pan-Asian Festival for children in Orinda, California, which included cultural representation from 12 Asian countries. Currently, Eng is interning at City Hall in San Francisco, working for Mayor Gavin Newsom. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Aimee Eng about her time at Wesleyan, her experience as Cherry Blossom Queen, and her future ambitions.
Faraneh: Why did you decide to attend Wesleyan?
Aimee: I was born in Oakland, California and grew up in Orinda, California, so coming from a public school in a homogenous neighborhood (upper middle-class, white, suburban), the diversity and the initiative of Wesleyan's students really appealed to me. Until Wesleyan, I wasn't really involved in any Asian/American groups; I didn't really have the opportunity to explore my biracial heritage in school or in my extracurricular activities.
F: Which faculty or staff members influenced you the most while you were at Wesleyan?
A: Professors Indira Karamcheti, Su Zheng, and J. Kehaulani Kauanui were all very encouraging and supportive. Through the subject matter addressed in these professors' classes and interacting with the many students I met, I became increasingly involved in the Asian American community. Wesleyan was an experience I would never trade; it was incredibly eye opening to experience such a diverse community and explore the myriad aspects of my dual heritage. There were a lot of people at Wes who were really helpful and supportive of Asian/Asian American student initiatives. Ciaran Escoffery ’00, Leilani Kupo, and Cari Macdermott were all very cooperative. I think that the value of Asian American studies, ethnic studies, and queer studies, etc., cannot be overly emphasized. Those courses were really important to me and have continued to shape my interests and passions. They can help to define a person’s self-perspective and view of the past in a profound way.
F: What were your main interests while you were at Wesleyan?
A: When I first got to Wesleyan, I was mainly involved in theater and other activities. In my sophomore year, however, I took an ethnic studies class, the first one taught by Professor Kauanui. During my junior year, I started taking a lot more courses about race, class, gender, and inequality; everything that I didn't learn in public school. That really changed the focus of my involvement. My last couple of years at Wesleyan I did a lot of research on Chinese American history in California. I got an Olin Fellowship after my junior year to do research on the Chinese American side of my family in a larger historical context. I studied the immigration of Chinese workers to California during the Gold Rush. I used my family as a focal point of the study. My senior year, I wrote a grant proposal for the Freeman Asian American Initiative Program. This time I decided to explore the history of the Japanese American side of my family (my mother’s side). I was able to go to Hawaii and Japan the summer after I graduated. It was an amazing experience. On the third day there, I met cousins living in the same village that my great grandfather had emigrated from.
F: How did your experience visiting Japan shape you?
A: It was incredible. Because I am sixth-generation Chinese American and fourth-generation Japanese American, I never felt that I still had relatives in either country. Finding my cousins in Fukushima, Japan fostered a connection to Japan and Japanese culture that I had never felt before.
F: Is that one of the reasons you became involved with the Cherry Blossom Pageant?
A: Yes. When I came back from Japan, I started taking Japanese language classes at UC Berkeley and that fall I found out about the opportunity to be involved with the Cherry Blossom Pageant. I did not really know that much about it, but I knew that it was based on community service and that it was a wonderful opportunity to meet people in the Japanese/Japanese American community.
F: What things did you do to represent the Japanese/ Japanese American culture or community during the year?
A: San Francisco has one of three remaining historic Japantowns in the United States (the others are located in San Jose and Los Angeles). Because there are so few Japanese Americans and so few spaces in which to celebrate that culture, it is really important to perpetuate the history and sense of community. Several community organizations are represented in Japantown, such as Kimochi, a senior organization that takes care of seniors who live in and around Japantown, and the Japanese Community Youth Council. These organizations all sponsor various events for the community, such as the Obon Festival, which is a traditional Japanese cultural event. The Cherry Blossom Court volunteers to staff these events.
F: What did you appreciate most about your year as Cherry Blossom Queen?
A: It was an incredible opportunity for me to meet people, both within the Japanese community as well as outside the community. During my year as Queen, I was invited to travel to Japan a second time with the Sacramento-Matsuyama Sister City Group—a local group that promotes international goodwill by traveling to other countries—and with Mayor Heather Fargo to attend a mayor’s conference in Hiroshima.
F: What are your future ambitions?
A: I have always been interested in local politics, ever since my grandfather, Raymond Eng, served as vice mayor of Oakland, California when I was a child. I am now working as an intern at City Hall and I am trying to strengthen the relationship between San Francisco Japantown and City Hall. I like local government because it deals directly with people all the time. I would eventually like to be either a mayor or a city administrator.