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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Amos Kotomori

 

Amos Kotomori designs fashion, jewelry, building interiors and more – you can even see his creativity at work in the set design for Long Story Short here at PBS Hawai‘i. From working in advertising, with modeling agencies and with top fashion designers, his career successes have taken him all over the world. However, his most inspirational attribute is how he has dealt with life’s challenges. This Honolulu and Bali-based designer shares how his life values and no-fear attitude have helped guide him through obstacles in life with grace and humility.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Jan. 19, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Amos Kotomori Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Facing fear, I think, is one of the things that I love, because it’s an adrenalin rush for me.  It makes me realize what I have to conquer, so that it’s no longer frightening. And I think in today’s society, everything is based on fear.  And I really feel for artists today, only because there is no place to fail.

 

This artist and designer has shut down fear many times in his life, whether it was in walking away from a successful business, or dealing with life-threatening illnesses.  Each time, he had no idea what was going to happen next.  Amos Kotomori, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Amos Sadamu Kotomori of Honolulu and Bali has about him a kind of mystique.  He inspires ardent admiration on the part of many of those who work with him or who hire him.  That’s because he can take an art design and elevate it with touches that nobody else thought of, and which are inexpensive.  Or, as one of his colleagues said, he can even make something out of nothing.  He designs fashion, jewelry, building interiors, and more.  In fact, he designed our Long Story Short set at PBS Hawai‘i, as well as this Hawaiian Victorian parlor stage for our Nā Mele TV show, that time featuring Tony Conjugacion.  He says the spiritual values that his parents passed on to him while he was growing up have always been at the heart of what drives him to dream and to create.

 

Being Japanese, we believe that like, our destiny is created with our name.  And part of it is that I was named after Amos Cooke.

 

He actually came here to be a missionary.

 

Exactly.

 

And became an educator and a businessman.

 

Right.  His daughter gave me his name.  My dad was the first Japanese osteopath in the islands, and Margaret was his patient. She came and said: I would like for him to have my father’s name.  And so, that’s where Amos came from.  And Sadamu came from the temple, and it means never-failing, like the daruma that always pops up.  But with that, my parents always made it a point.  It’s not about never-failing; it’s about learning from failure, it’s about having expectations and sometimes lowering them to learn the lesson.  You know.  So, that’s all part of it.  But the most important one, I think, is my last name, which is Kotomori, which is a forest of musical instruments.  And I always hear the music in everything.  I mean, it makes life so much easier.  You know, my dad really believed in service.  He loved what he did as well, as an osteopath.  It’s a nerve and bone specialist.  But he was a country doctor, in the sense that it wasn’t the money.

 

I see.

 

It was about people coming, and they would give us food.

 

In payment.

 

In payment.  And that was fine.  I remember one Thanksgiving, someone gave us a live turkey.  It was really mean.

 

But, you know, what do you do with a live turkey; right?  You just kinda go like: Okay.  And then, it disappeared, and all of a sudden, it was meat.  ‘Till today, I can’t see buying avocados, bananas, mangos, because they’re supposed to be free.

 

Mm; lychees, too.

 

Lychee; yes.  You know, all of those things, you know.  But that’s what growing up in Hawai‘i is, is that everybody was Auntie, Uncle, Halmeoni, Halabeoji, Popo, Gung Gung.  You know, all of those things; it just meant that they were family. And I think that’s what is the difference here.  And that’s why I think when I look at people, I don’t look at them as, oh, this is a cohort of work and a peer.  You know, I just think we’re all working towards moving in one direction.

 

When he saw you interested in art, was he worried?

 

Many parents do get worried when they see that art compulsion.

 

Yeah.  You know, art just kind of came by, because my mom was the creative side of it.  And you know, she made my shirts, she printed my shirts, she sewed all my clothes for the first two weeks of the school year. So every day, I had something new to wear.

 

That was unusual.

 

That was unusual, but I didn’t know it.  I really didn’t know it.  So, my love for textiles grew from that.  But you know, it’s like we are who we are because of all the experiences, you know.  And I think part of my DNA comes from that strength of being independent from my dad. And he died when I was in my early twenties.  And he left me an obi, which I love.  I got a print from his office.  But more than that, he left me messages of how to survive, how to really see value in everything around me.  So, it wasn’t about money.  It wasn’t about, you know, never failing.  It was always about doing more, and maybe serving.  My first memory that I have visually, ‘cause I’m a visual person, is my dad holding me next to the volcano.  And it’s like I can still see him there, and always pointing to the sky. And so, I always look to the stars. And the message really is that if you have a dream, if you have something that you really want to do, it’s possible.  And the song, you know, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star actually turns into A, B, C. And that is the next message, is that with education, and I was brought up this way, that you can do almost anything you want.  But the key is, I think, what my mom always told me; I was born under a lucky star.

 

Do you believe that?

 

And I believe that.

 

Designer Amos Kotomori has enjoyed career successes that have taken him all over the world.  He worked in advertising, modeling agencies, and with top fashion designers.  Eventually, he designed his own line of men’s aloha shirts. He says he was often in the right place at the right time, but his no-fear attitude is what really opened doors for him.

 

I was working at Parks and Recreation.  I was the one who did the summer art programs, working with all the parks and the schools, and you know, doing that.  And someone walked in and said: Would you like to apply for a Rockefeller fellowship?  And I said: Oh, what’s that?  It was thirteen states wide, and only ten got it.  And I was one of the lucky recipients, and so, I got to go to San Francisco and study, being museum curator in community arts.

 

All that from Parks and Recreation?

 

Parks and Recreation.  And I was one of the, you know, say top fifteen positions.  And I left that because I didn’t know what that offered, in terms of the next step.  And so, I did.  And I met the promoter for Issey Miyake, which is like a dream.

 

Explain Issey Miyake.

 

Issey Miyake is a Japanese designer that is internationally known for his fabrics, pleatings.  Just an avant-garde designer.  And he invited me to Paris to see his show.  I was in the Rockefeller Foundation, and I asked for a week off, and they said: Mm, no, you can’t go.  And I thought: Hm.  That was a Friday.  I walked in on Monday morning, and I said: I’m leaving the program.  And they said: You don’t leave Rockefeller.  And I said: I am; I have a plane ticket this afternoon, I’m going to Paris.  You know, it was the fear that they were trying to instill in me that you don’t do this. And the don’ts, don’t work with me. I think sometimes you just have to challenge it, and see what’s out there.

 

And you’re prepared.  What if this thread goes nowhere?

 

You know, it didn’t have any place to go when I went there.  And when I got there, I didn’t have clothes to wear to the designer shows.  I went to Printemps, which is a department store. I bought men’s underwear, and I layered it.  I took a kimono, I took the sleeves off, I made a scarf.  I had a friend who made a jacket for me out of Japanese sex banners. I wore that.  I got invited to Issey’s show, then to Kenzo’s.

 

How many pairs of underwear was involved?

 

I wore three different layers of shirts, which was like long-sleeve, three-quarters, and a short-sleeve, and a tank.  And it just was that, you know, with jeans.  And no one was wearing jeans at that time, I think. It was okay, but not really acceptable to go to a designer show.

 

But you looked like an avant-garde kind of guy.

 

Well, it’s the best I could do, and I had fun doing it, putting it together.  And for whatever reason, from there, I was invited to Dior.  And said: I really want to coordinate shows.  So, the coordinator actually had me go to the House of Dior, and I watched them put on a show.  They put a full-length fur coat on me and said: Now, you walk the ramp, ‘cause you have to know how to be a model, you know, know what it feels like.  And that was my training.

 

It sounds accidental, but is it?  One, you’re willing to go.  If somebody invites you to something, you’re willing to go.  But I mean, it seems like you’re getting an awful lot of special treatment.

 

It sounds like that.  But you know what?  This is me.  I mean, this is my ordinary life, ‘cause that’s the only life I knew.  It’s like, doing an agency, there was a need for it. And I wanted to serve that for our people here, the local people, you know, just to be represented in national commercials.  But even that, I gave the agency away, and basically, it was one of the hardest things to do.  And someone told me: You’re giving up the agency because you’re afraid of success. And that really hurt.  But at the same time, when I went away, I left and I went to England, and it took me a while before I realized that success sometimes is knowing when to stop.  And it’s okay, ‘cause there’s something else to learn.

 

What tells you it’s time to stop?

 

You know, it’s like … again, from the heart to the gut.  And that’s it, and following it.  What happened when I left the agency was that I ended up in Morocco.  A friend built a kasbah there, and he said: Come.  And he’s been saying come for years.  And when I went there, I realized that in third grade, I had done a painting, and I called it Hot Fudge Sundae Mountains. And I can still see it; the valley like this, the cream coming down a lake, and hot fudge sundae mountains. Because I had never seen snow, I didn’t know what it was, but I knew what a hot fudge sundae was, and it looked like that, with the whipped cream.  Many years later, I give up the agency, I end up in Morocco in Marrakesh. And I look out the window of this car … I see Hot Fudge Sundae Mountains.

 

Exactly what you drew in third grade.

 

Exactly what I saw in third grade.  The only reason I remember that painting is because at Royal Elementary, it was sent to the Art Academy as an example of third grade art.  But that’s the only reason I remembered it.  But all of a sudden, bam, the image was there.  And I thought: If I hadn’t let go of the agency, I wouldn’t be here. I’m back on track.

 

So, that’s a dot.

 

It’s a dot; I’m back on track.

 

You’re connecting the dots.  What about money, though?  I mean, you know, you were running a successful agency.

 

You know, to this day, I don’t know what my balance is.  I really don’t.  I’ve never put an emotion on money.  And the reason for it is because it’s a number.  I feel like a number needs to be met at the end of the month, to meet all the bills, and somehow, it’s there.

 

Somehow, you were this town kid, who became a—you know, you’ve rubbed shoulders and had projects with top fashion designers internationally.

 

M-hm.

 

And you’ve been able to choose between successful projects as an artist that pay the bills.

 

M-hm.

 

I mean, like you said, there’s a reward in creativity.

 

Yeah.

 

But often, there’s not a reward financially.

 

Right.  I think when you get stuck on a number, you know, it makes it really, really difficult to succeed.  Because for me, let’s lower my expectations.  You know, because I’m getting there, I know I’m getting closer to it. But then, sometimes the dots don’t connect, and when they don’t connect, it means that I’m drawing the wrong picture. It’s really meant to go here.  And that’s okay.  And when I start from there, I can do another one.

 

It’s all about resilience.

 

I don’t know if I am, but I think I believe in good things.  I believe that good things happen for its own reasons, and that belief has given me life.

 

Who is the most interesting top fashion designer you’ve worked with?

 

I think it would have to be Dior.  I’ve never met him, but I worked with the people.  I don’t speak French.  But what happens is that art is universal, it’s a language of its own.  And they wanted me to do their silks, their batiks and silks, and I couldn’t stay in Paris anymore, because I got the call from my mom a year after my dad passed away, and she said: You must come home; I need help.  You know, family first.  I came home.  Paris would send me fabric and say: Just do whatever you want, and send it back to us. And I did for a while, and then, you know, it was one of those things where you go like: Wait, I can do this myself. And so, I took the chance, and responsibilities took on another thing here, you know, when you’re caring for someone, when you’re trying to survive in different ways.  Maybe that’s why I changed professions, in many ways.  But it always led me to where I am.

 

I see a lot of men wearing your shirts.

 

Oh, thank you.

 

They’re very distinctive.  And I just wonder; what’s your thought in creating a shirt, that kind of shirts? What are they like?  You know, what’s your thought process?

 

It took me two years to really develop the shirts in terms of finding the fabrics, and doing the designs and the textile process. You know, it’s like from silk screening to abstraction, to hand painting, to embroidery; all of those things. But for me, wearing a shirt that I’ve worked on and designed is wearing a prayer.  Because it stems from a story, and when people wear it, hopefully, they feel that prayer.  They become happier, or maybe more determined.

 

You designed the shirt you’re wearing now. 

 

Yeah.

 

Is there a message in the shirt?

 

Basically, what this is, is it’s almost like spirit writing, in many ways because it’s calligraphy.  I don’t really know how to do calligraphy in written form or standard form, but I think there is a message in it which is, stop and connect the dots. You know, sometimes you gotta live long enough to get enough dots to collect, you know, and connect them up and doing this.

 

Oh, that’s why they don’t connect sometimes.  You gotta live longer.

 

You gotta live longer.  You know, but for me, it’s like the shirt is basically to see messages, everywhere.  We hear it, we see it.  Things don’t just happen for no reason.

 

Honolulu and Bali designer Amos Kotomori has had many successes in his life. But it hasn’t been easy.  He got past many obstacles along the way.

 

What was the worst hit you’ve ever taken?

 

The unexpected, not knowing was basically when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.  Came out of the blue.

 

You didn’t feel bad?

 

I didn’t feel bad, except I was peeing blood. Not a good sign.  So, that was my first thing.  But that was a good thing, because it made me, obviously, stop and take care of it.  But it was Stage 4 cancer of the hip bone, my bladder, and colon.  And you know, I didn’t know it then, but when I came out, they said: You’ve got six months.  That was eight years ago.

 

Wow. What a devastating diagnosis.

 

But you know, it’s like, I went to the doctor’s, I left Queen’s, I made it to Safeway Kapahulu.  I got the call: You’ve got cancer, you’re going in on Monday.  This was a Thursday.  I was going to a camp on Kaua‘i to cook for fifty people; it was a music camp.  And I thought: I can do that.  So, I left on Friday morning, came back Sunday afternoon, cooking for fifty people, and went off to surgery the following morning.  But you know, things don’t stop because things happen to you. You know.  But I think from it, I learned to be a better caregiver, I became a better listener.  Because rather than asking, How are you feeling?, when someone’s recuperating, I always ask, What can I do to help, is there something you need?

 

But often, people don’t know what they need, or they don’t want to say.

 

Sometimes then, it’s basically just sitting there with them and keeping company.  And that’s okay.  You know. But what I also learned is that like, people think that when you go through heart surgery—‘cause I had five bypass, working on ten percent.

 

Ninety percent blockage?

 

Blockage; yeah.  It was pretty amazing.

 

When was that; was that after your cancer?

 

After the cancer.  My chemo was so intense; I did fifty-four sessions of chemo, twenty-four hours long each of them.

 

I can’t even imagine that.  So, you had surgery, and then you went into intensive chemo.

 

Chemo.

 

And was the cancer eradicated?

 

I still go to see my oncologist every three to four months.  And I love that, only because they’re keeping on top of it.  So, you know, every day, every moment, every breath, is certainly a blessing.  And so, you appreciate that.

 

What happened after your heart surgery?  I mean, ten percent, you must have been operating on such little …

 

I didn’t know.  And what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.  That week, I had done ten fashion shows, and it was the longest fashion ramp in America.  It ran from Macy’s, all the way down to Sears at Ala Moana Shopping Center.  We laid a carpet out there, and you had to walk it ten times with the models.  And that just happened days before, and I didn’t feel it.

 

You weren’t wheezing?

 

Nothing.

 

Wow …

 

You know, your body acclimates.

 

For a while, I guess.

 

Yeah.

 

So, then did you have stents put in?

 

They went in for a stent, and I got up after that, and they said: Mm, so little bit more major.  So, what happened is, I said: Okay.  You know, so it was gonna be in a couple days.  I checked myself out of the hospital, continued doing my meetings and everything.

 

Your doctor had a few words with you after—

 

Well, he called me the next day, and he said: Where are you?  And I said: I’m in a meeting.  He says: You’re supposed to be here resting for your operation.  I said: Well, if you want me to rest, I need to do these meetings so that I can feel better about, you know, not being available for about a month.  And I set it in my mind that even for cancer, thirty days.  Because I was taking care of my mom at that point, too, and she had Parkinson’s and dementia.  And I told her, I said: I’m going for surgery, and I’ll be gone for thirty days. And to the day, I was back with her. So, you know, you can.  It’s a number.

 

But you know, you do take a moment to think things through, and you had to contemplate that you might not make it through.

 

You know, it’s like, the way I looked at it, when you’ve only got such short time to organize, and as they say, get things in order—

 

M-hm.

 

Which is a nice way of saying: You’re gonna die, so you know, make it easier for the people that are left.  The way I looked at it; it’ll be like Zorba the Greek, where everyone crawls through the windows and claims whatever they want in my house.

 

And that’s fine, ‘cause I’m not gonna be around. You know.  But it’s like, every piece that I have in my home has a memory, and that’s what I surround myself with, is those memories.  But I don’t hang onto them because it’s about making new ones every day, creating new ones, and meeting new people, and challenging. You know, there’s been moments where not knowing the challenges and facing fear, I think, is one of the things that I love, because it’s an adrenalin rush for me.  It makes me realize what I have to conquer, so that it’s no longer frightening.  And I think in today’s society, everything is based on fear.  And I really feel for artists today, only because there is no place to fail.  You know, whereas before, we did it because we needed to do it.  It wasn’t wanting to do it; as an artist, I needed to do this. I needed to.

 

And if you failed, then you said there was a place for that?

 

There was a place for that, because not everything worked.

 

Well, what was the place?  I mean, how did you bounce back from a failure in a very tough occupation to support yourself?

 

Well, you know, it’s like, it comes down to, it can be worse.  It’s that simple.  You know, when things are really bad, and then I go: It really can be worse.  And when I stop and think about that, I go: I am blessed.

 

You said artists don’t have room now to fail.  But actually, life is materially better.  I mean, you know, when you look at what we have, compared to what we had a generation ago.

 

I agree with you.  I mean, I think I’m here because of medical, you know, developments that certainly saved my life many times.  I think that like, life is better with the computer, the cell phone, all of these things.  But I just think that one of the things that we’re missing is the basic element of kindness, being able to listen to each other, being able to care for each other in different ways.  I think that really changed my life, but that’s the way I was brought up.  I start and end every day, you know, with a prayer of my own.  And it’s basically time for gratitude.  And I think about all the things that I’m grateful for, for the day, when I start. And at the end of the day, some things may not go well, and I think about it, but I’m still grateful for it. And it makes me believe that I’m blessed.  It confirms that I’m born under that lucky star.

 

Honolulu’s Amos Kotomori now spends much of his time at the serene retreat he built in Bali, Indonesia called Villa Bodhi.  Like most of his projects, it started with a dream.  And while he says Hawai‘i will always be home to him, it’s a place where he finds possibilities in thought.  Mahalo to Amos Kotomori for sharing his life stories with us.  And mahalo to you, for joining us.  For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

I kinda want to get a sense of how your mind works creatively.  ‘Cause I know if this table were filled with textiles, or just various objects, I know you could create something from it.  What’s your artistic process?

 

You know, if I were to look at this table, I see the stripes, I see that they’re organic.  But more importantly, I see the light reflected on the surface.  And with that, I see a lot of scratches.  And, you know, like, it’s almost like there’s ring marks from a glass, or you know, just simply putting their ring on it and doing this, you know.

 

I think there’s a Hawaiian bracelet mark somewhere. 

 

Bracelet marks, and all of these things.  And that’s what fascinates me, is the scratches. Because those were made by people; they’ve left their mark.  There’s different momentums to it, there’s different depth to it, you know.  I see that, and I go, like: That’s what I want to capture.  So, I’m motivated to do something like that.

 

You also picked this very table for this very program.

 

You know, this is an example of how a thought can manifest itself.  Because in my mind, when I was doing the set many years ago, I thought a triangle table would be perfect for this, because it makes us closer.

 

M-hm.

 

We’re not sitting further apart.  It’s, you know, not a rectangle.  It was always odd to have a rectangle.  And I had it in my mind, went down to C.S. Wo, and there it was.

 

On sale, yet.

 

On sale, and affordable on your budget.  And you know, so we got that, we got the rest of the set, we got the chairs, everything.  And it worked.

 

[END]

 

 

 

Kimono Revolution

Kimono Revolution

 

In KIMONO REVOLUTION, Yoshimasa Takakura, a kimono shop owner from Fukuoka Prefecture, launches an unprecedented project: to produce elaborate kimonos representing each of the 206 nations recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Takakura’s goal is to see all the country placard bearers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics dressed in their special kimono at the opening ceremony. Across Japan, kimono sales are down, interest in the cultural tradition has waned, and the weavers, artists and textile experts who guard this traditional craft have dwindled. Takakura is fighting to save the declining kimono industry by calling on artisans across Japan – both established and emerging talents – to come together to create innovative designs. KIMONO REVOLUTION illuminates the painstaking work, technical skill and artistic vision that goes into each kimono, and follows Takakura’s quest to bring new life to an old tradition.

 

 

 

AMERICAN MASTERS
Ursula K. Le Guin

 

Explore the remarkable life and legacy of late author Ursula K. Le Guin, whose groundbreaking work, including The Left Hand of Darkness, transformed American literature by bringing science fiction into the literary mainstream.

 

 

 

PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS
Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi

PBS HAWAII PRESENTS: Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi

 

In this new film, Professor of Anthropology Christine Yano explains, “If we want to know something of what some of these womenʻs lives were like…we could do no better than to listen to their own words, as expressed through song.” The women that Professor Yano is referring to are Japanese immigrants who worked in Hawai‘i’s sugarcane fields in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through their canefield songs, or holehole bushi, these women sang about their joys and sorrows of trying to start life in a new world. Hosted and narrated by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, the film tells the story of music teacher Harry Urata, and his efforts to record, preserve and perpetuate these musical oral histories.

 

Preview

 

 

 

Our American Family:
The Furutas

OUR AMERICAN FAMILY: The Furutas

 

Through hard work, the Furutas, a Japanese American family in Wintersburg, CA established a successful goldfish farm, only to have their business devastated and family separated in the wake of WWII. Following years in an Arizona relocation camp, their indomitable spirit prevails as they return home and band together to pursue the American dream a second time.

 

Preview

 

 

 

Another “Highest Possible” Four-Star Rating from Charity Navigator!

Another “Highest Possible” Four-Star Rating from Charity Navigator!

CEO Message

 

Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawai‘i President and CEO

I sometimes feel like Forrest Gump when I open my office mail. It’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

 

Look inside and there may be notice of a snag in funding, a delay in expected tech equipment, or a demand for the retraction of a statement made on a television program not even carried by this station.

 

The other day, opening the mail was all joy – like finding a dark chocolate truffle, my favorite. Among the notes, viewer P.F. hand-wrote: “You have the best television programming in Hawaiʻi … Keep up the excellent work!” Viewer G.H. wrote, “You rocked my world with that NOVA special!”

 

And the sweetest chocolate of all in the mailbag: a formal letter from the head of the data-driven national nonprofit analyst Charity Navigator, informing us that we’d once again attained the best overall score possible – four out of four stars.

Charity Navigator: Four Star Charity Rating

“Only 32% of the charities
we evaluate have
received at least 2
consecutive 4-star
evaluations, indicating
that PBS Hawaiʻi
outperforms most other
charities in America.”

Michael Thatcher
President and CEO

The company’s President and CEO, Michael Thatcher, let us know that the company had assessed our financial health as strong. And we scored a perfect 100% rating in accountability and transparency.

 

Great news! It’s truly important to us to steward operations and funding, and to make forward-thinking, strategic decisions. I share the four-star news with you, because it is our wonderful donors and supporters who placed PBS Hawai‘i in this solid position. Thank you! We’re mindful that you voluntarily give to support our programming and services, and it fills the heart.

 

Our Board of Directors and Staff take nothing for granted. After all, each year brings to most nonprofit organizations headwinds of some kind – whether they be economic, programmatic, legal or political.

 

As PBS Hawai‘i greets the new year, we savor this moment in time, and feel profoundly grateful for our fellow Islanders and others who uphold us, as we uphold our non-profit, non-partisan mission.

 

And it’s a mission that’s better than the biggest emporium of the finest chocolates.

 

It speaks to building community and a stronger democracy. With your backing, we convene diverse voices, and share learning and discovery through storytelling that profoundly touches lives.

 

May your 2020 be full of health and happiness,

Leslie signature

 

 

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAIʻI
Assisted Community Treatment

 

Additions to an existing law are designed to make it easier for state judges to order homeless people with mental illness into treatment. How does the law work, and does it protect civil liberties? Join the discussion on Assisted Community Treatment on INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAIʻI. You can phone in, or leave us a comment on Facebook or Twitter. INSIGHTS is also streamed live on pbshawaii.org and PBS Hawaiʻi’s Facebook page.

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Pam Arciero

 

Hidden beneath the antics of Sesame Street characters, you’ll find a principal puppeteer who hails from ʻĀina Haina in East Honolulu. Pam Arciero has been with the children’s series for nearly 40 years, primarily as Oscar the Grouch’s girlfriend, Grundgetta. Arciero got her start in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. There, she joined a summer program in puppetry – one that would change the course of her life.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Pam Arciero Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

How would you describe how you were in class?

 

I was kinda the loudmouth.  I mean, I spent a lot of time being told to be quiet.

 

Surprise!

 

And you built on that for your career.

 

I built on that. Yeah; that really made it … you know, it’s—it’s who you are. And really, every puppet is a part of you. You have to find that part of yourself that connects directly to the character in order to make it believable and real.

 

Meet this Honolulu native from ‘Āina Haina who is now a principal puppeteer on Sesame Street… next on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaii’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. The characters of Sesame Street have become iconic staples of children’s programming – but have you ever thought about the people beneath the puppets? One of them, a principal puppeteer of the longtime children’s series, was born and raised in East Honolulu, and she’s my fellow Kalani High School grad – Pam Arciero. For more than three decades, she’s played Oscar the Grouch’s better half — or shall we say, grouchier half? – Grundgetta.

 

What are some of the great moments between Oscar the Grouch and girlfriend—your character—

 

Grundgettta.

 

–Grundgetta?

 

Um, well, we were gonna get married.  That was very exciting.  And then, we thought that uh, getting married would make us happy.  And being grouches, we don’t want to be happy. And so, we decided to call off the wedding at the last minute.  And then—but little did we know that actually, most people are not happily married, and so, we would have been perfectly happy. Who’s not a grouch; right?  There are times when you just a really grouchy.  And she—uh, she—also, she says exactly what she’s thinking at any given time.  You know, so that’s kind of a … in a world where you really do need to be circumspect a lot, you know, not … to offend anybody.  She just says what she’s feeling.  You know.  [GRUNDGETTA VOICE] That’s a hideous outfit.  You know, she’ll just go there.  So …

 

I know you took over that role from someone else.

 

Yeah; Brian Muehl had done it for one year, and I’ve done her now for thirty-four years.  So …

 

Did he give you any advice?  I mean, on how to play this woman grouch?

 

No.

 

He said: You’re—you’re the perfect person for this; you—I’ve seen you be a grouch.  And he handed it to me.

 

Oh, that’s it.

 

Basically.

 

Thank you for mentoring.

 

And I worked with him, yeah, on—on different shows, so he knew, he knew me a little bit.  So, he says: Yeah, it’s totally—y—you do it your way, ‘cause you know her better.

 

And you do other puppets as well.

 

Yeah.

 

Background, and who else?

 

Right.  That’s part of the—there are two skillsets you have to have.  Besides just doing a main puppet and a character, you do have to be able to um, do backgrounds.  And backgrounds are just like every dog, frog, cat, fish, bat; you name it, you get to so that stuff.  And then, there is assisting.  And assisting is actually a pretty major thing, and I actually love assisting.  Because you watch the other performer figure out how to do all these things.  And that is because some of the characters have um, two hands, like Ernie and um, Telly Monster has two hands.  And I consistently have been Telly Monster’s right hand for about 30 years.

 

Is that the important hand?

 

No, not really.  But it’s a balance.  Because your hand is in the head of the puppet, and then, your other hand is here—the left hand, usually.  And then, the right hand comes in, and you have to match and do everything in synchron- synchron- synchronicity with the other character, the other hand.  And it has to look natural.  It can’t look like this hand is doing this.

 

Right.

 

You know, you can’t be talking with this hand so… And movement is so important in puppetry.  In order to get a believable character, you have to break down the movement and take everything you do with the whole body, and do it between your elbow and your fingertips to make it … you believe that this is alive.  And you know, Bert—Bert moves differently than Ernie; right?  Bert’s very stiff when he walks, and Ernie’s kinda lumbering, and cute, and funny.  Um, and so, having a movement background is very great for puppetry, because you are breaking down the movement all the time in your head, and putting it, again, between your wrist and your elbow, and making people believe that Ernie is walking this way, and Bert is walking this way, very stiffly.  So, that analysis, the ability to analyze movement, and then put it into the character, is huge for me.

 

To be a puppeteer at your level, you also have to have lots of physical agility and strength.

 

Yeah; yeah.  We—we keep up.  I mean, when you work—when I first started working, and I first started working with Jim Henson, we did a hundred and ten shows in six months.  So, you were working every single day.  And I remember the first week I started, I was working in New York, and it was cold, and I was gonna get a cab home, and I’d been working all day.  And now, we work eight, ten hours a day with our arm like this, right?  We were walking, try and get a cab, and going… Somebody else, could you hail the cab?  I can’t lift this arm.

 

Oh …

 

I couldn’t do it, ‘cause it literally was that- that challenging.

 

And then, the focus to have everything between your hand and your elbow …

 

Yeah; that’s—it’s directing all your—all your energy—

 

Effort there.

 

Yes, right.  And it has to be alive, and all your acting goes into that little piece.  You know, so it’s—you learn it, and it takes a long time.  Really.  Uh, I—nobody walks in off the street and becomes um, um, a television puppeteer.  You just can’t.  Between the fact that we have three cameras, and—

 

Taking close-ups. 

 

Close-ups, and wide shots, and far shots, and you have to ride those three cameras looking at the monitor.  And the focus of the pup—the reason we do that is, the eyes don’t really see.  So, I’m looking at you right now, but a puppet might not be in the shot, because the eyes are stationary.  So, you have to learn to do that with each camera.  And every camera cut, you have to adjust the focus just enough to be alive, and looking down the barrel of the camera.

 

Right; all those intricacies.

 

So, that just takes time.  It just takes exposure um, to—to the process to being … all the details of what we do, it’s very, very—

 

Well, it also doesn’t look physically comfortable when we see you— I mean, and you’re right up against other puppeteers.

 

Right.  If you’re comfortable, you’re doing it wrong, is the rule of thumb [CHUCKLE] that we have among the puppeteers.

 

And yet, you love the work.

 

Oh, I love the work.  Uh, there’s nothing I’d rather do.

 

When you work with your gang on Sesame Street, everybody knows you’re from Hawai‘i, even though you haven’t lived here for many years.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

But you certainly visit.

 

Yeah; uh-huh.

 

But how do they know?

 

Well, I often have a flower in my hair, and I—I often dress in Hawaiian clothes.  In the middle of winter, you’ll see me in a Hawaiian print shirt with, you know, sweater underneath, and tights, and … And I kinda talk about it a lot.  And sometimes, I’ll slip into a Hawaiian accent—you know, I’ll do a Pidgin accent when they’re giving me a hard time. Eh, what; I owe you money?

 

And you also created a character who speaks Pidgin.

 

Yes, I did.  Um, we had an outreach kind of Baby Muppets series.  And um, so it was Baby Big Bird, and Baby Cookie Monster, and Baby Abby Cadabby—different ones.  So, I played Auntie Nani, Big Bird’s auntie who took care of him as a baby bird.

That was very exciting, and I was able to push that Hawaiian influence in.  ‘Cause then they said: Well, maybe we’ll go Jamaican.  And I go: Well, you gotta get a Jamaican person, because I can’t do that one, for sure.  But they liked the idea that he was from Hawai‘i.

 

Nobody around you could really relate to the dialect, right?

 

Not too much.  But they could understand it.  That’s the advantage to Pidgin; it’s quite understandable.

 

M-hm.

 

Jamaican Patois—‘cause I worked in Jamaica a fair amount, is almost—if they speak quickly, you will just not—you can’t believe it’s even English, ‘cause it is so fast.  And so, they also do much more in-words; you know, words that only they understand.  But Pidgin is pretty understandable, by most—

 

And that was the whole point, right, in the plantation days, so that everybody could understand each other.

 

Each other; right.  So, that was the basis for it.

 

 

It was here in Hawai‘i where Pam Arciero, a creative since childhood, got her first taste of puppetry, at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa… and caught the attention of a visiting lecturer, a renowned puppet and costume designer.

 

 

I was getting a drama and dance degree at University of Hawai‘i. The gals I was hanging out with at the University had a puppet troupe called Mo‘olelo Ki‘i ‘Ilima.  And it was kinda- more or less sponsored by the University of Hawai‘i drama department.  That was Tammy Hunt was there at time, and she was wonderful uh, Theater for Youth teacher, and taught puppetry as well.  And so, she encouraged us to do shows…

…and we would do—go out into the community and do these little Hawaiian story puppet shows for umm, pretty much every elementary. I mean, I played every elementary school in the State of Hawai‘i.  I’d been in every auditorium at that time. That just sort of led me to saying: Hm, this is interesting, this is good; I can make a little money.  ‘Cause we made a little money doing it.  And then, they said: Well, this man’s coming to teach this summer; maybe you want to be in it.  And I said: What?  And they said: His name’s Kermit Love, he works with the Muppets, and he’s coming to teach this summer course, so you should take it with us. So, I said: Okay, sounds great.  And um, so I did, and he was wonderful. Kermit umm, was the man who built Big Bird, and designed Snuffleupagus, and he was a famous costume designer.  At the time, he was already long white hair, long white beard; it looked like you were taking a class with Santa Claus. But he’d already worked with Agnes de Mille, and Mr. Balanchine at the ballet, he’s built costumes and puppets for them.  So, he was just world renowned, and you were just like: Oh!

 

So, he was named Kermit before any other Kermit.

 

Yes. The story is—Jim Henson and Kermit Love lived in the same apartment building, and the doorman said: You know, Jim, there’s someone who’s named Kermit in this building; I think you should meet him.  And so, they met, and they realized that they had so many similar interests, and then Jim hired Kermit into the—

 

But there was already Kermit the Frog at that point.

 

Kermit the Frog existed, and Kermit Love was way older than that. So, that’s how they connected.

 

Oh …

 

And- and just- he was a wonderful influence; wonderful mentor.

 

And didn’t he want you to get into puppetry right away?

 

Who?

 

Kermit Love.

 

Yes, he did. Probably ‘cause I was really, like, gaga about puppets. Well ‘cause once I found it, when you find what you love, you just can’t stop, you know, obsessing about it.  Just like being in love with someone, you’re in love with what you’re doing, so you just keep every- every detail.  And then, I think because I was so willing to just learn, and learn, and learn, and practice, and practice, and practice, hours, and hours, and hours standing in front of a monitor and camera to get that right.  And I still do.  I will still rehearse when I’m not working.  If I haven’t been on camera for a month, I’ll pull out my video camera or—you know, now it’s so easy ‘cause you can flip up your computer and just work in, and make sure that everything’s working properly in your body.  Because the other thing, it’s reversed; right?  The monitor is backwards.

 

Oh, that’s right.

 

So, when you have your hand up and you move this way, it goes that way on the picture.  And so, if you don’t have your—there’s a point where you brain just clicks it over, and it makes perfect sense.

 

 

Physical agility, creative interpretation, and hours of practice – these qualities were instilled in Pam Arciero long before her time at the University of Hawai‘i. Since she was a little girl, Arciero loved everything about the arts.

 

 

I always loved um … dance and ballet, and play-acting was kind of what I did a lot of.  And I loved playing with dolls and small figures, actually, as a kid.

 

And did you talk—did they talk to each other?

 

Oh, yeah.  I—

 

Did you make the voices?

 

Yeah, not so much.  But actually, I did; when I watched TV, I always imitated voices as well.  That was really fun to me, to try and copy voices.  So, of course, my parents thought that was an extremely odd thing, but they—you know: Go ahead.  Um, and so … as a kid, I never thought I would be anything—I thought I would be maybe a ballet dancer, uh, maybe an actress. I like to sing, I like to make stuff, art stuff, so I kinda just liked doing all of the arts.  That was very interesting to me.  Not so good on the math side, but—

 

What about singing?

 

Singing; I always sang.  Yeah; I always sang a little bit.  And you know, once I was in high school, I was in chorus, and all the different things.  Um, and we did uh, acting, a little bit of the plays at Kalani. But everyone said: That’s not a real job; what are you gonna do, what are you gonna do?  And I just went: Well, I don’t know, I don’t know; maybe I’ll be a ballet teacher, maybe I’ll be a schoolteacher,  maybe I’ll be …

 

I know your father was in the Army as an officer, and then he was a Matson executive.

 

Right.

 

Did he have any thoughts about what you should do?

 

His encouragement really would have just been—he was very much about being who you are.  Which was kind of unusual in those days; right? He was a very romantic and—uh, soul.  And I think—I think the war was very hard on him, which is why he would—you know, he’d often … he’d recite poetry and go off on these kind of tangents with me. But like many World War II people, they never spoke about what really happened.

 

Right, there are not a lot of details.

 

There’s no details about what it was, but you could just tell.  He’d just go: You know, life is really short, you just can’t.

 

That was that generation. They didn’t talk about it.

 

It was that generation; they did not tell you what happened to them.  They did not.  So, they would react.  And you know, like many men of his generation, they always—they would … tie one on pretty frequently.  You know, they’d get drunk, and they’d start rambling these different stories.  But not much detail of what those stories were.  But he would also do funny voices.  And part of—I think my ability to get funny voices was to make him laugh, while I made funny voices too.

 

Oh …

 

You know, and he loved humor and poetry, and dancing, and music.  So, it was a- umm, a very—he was a very interesting man.

 

And what about your mom?

 

My mom is also—was also in arts and crafts.  She loved Hawaiiana, she was always in a Hawaiian civic club or in a—um, what were they called, the U.E., United—they had ladies clubs in those days, and she was always starting one in the neighborhood so that they could learn how to make Hawaiian quilts, or they could make recipes and stuff.  So, she was very uh, involved mom, and active um—

 

And so, both artsy parents.

 

Somewhat; yeah.

 

Arts-oriented parents.

 

Yeah, yeah. I guess that’s true, in comparison to some others.  Yeah.

 

You know, our parents did lots of backyard hula, luau kinda things, you know.  Um … and … she was a very fun person.  I just loved being with her.  And she didn’t really sing, but she would try.  And like I said, she would sing with the Hawaiian Civic Club and do different things, and so, the inspiration was always, with her, the community that was happening.  And her neighborhood community, all her—all my aunties in the neighborhood, they would have coffee every day together, and it was that kind of, you know, old school style.

 

Was she a stay-at-home mom?

 

She was a stay-at-home mom until I was about thirteen.  And then, um … during the war, she um … her college education was interrupted by the war.  So—and we all know what the war in Hawai‘i ‘The War’.  Um—

 

World War II. 

 

World War II; the only war.  Um, and she always tells the famous story, I know many people have talked about this, being in boats and picking up on Pearl Harbor Day coming, picking up stuff.  Um, and in fact, my grandfather, who was half Japanese, um, was driving by Pearl Harbor.  He was a single guy, and uh, he had been at a girlfriend’s house and was coming home.

 

It was about seven in the morning when—

 

Yeah.

 

–the bombs came.

 

Right.  Um, and apparently, they spotted him and picked him up, and they arrested him.

 

Oh, for being AWOL?

 

No; for being a Japanese spy, they thought.  And so, my father had to go and bail him out two days later once everything settled.  They—they pulled him out of jail, took him home, and say: No, he’s just—he’s a dentist.  You know.  He’s a local Japanese dentist.  And he wasn’t even all, he was half Japanese.  So, um … but she’d always tell story about that—stories about that, and that, and you know, after Pearl Harbor, hel—helping to uh, recover bodies and parts, and stuff, you know, and boats.

 

And she did that?

 

She did that.  She worked for U.S.E.D.  We always sang that song when I was a kid.

 

U.S.E.D.?

 

Yes, you know.  Fifty cents an hour, four bucks a day.  Um …

 

Mm.

 

So, she had those stories.  And then, you know, my father was … I guess everybody at that time was pretty much involved with the war in some form or another.

 

And what about culturally; what would you say your culture was, growing up?

 

My father, being Italian from the East Coast, brought certain sets of ideas.  Some of it was sort of the macho Italian stuff.  And then, my mom; she’s, you know, Hawaiian, Japanese, English, kinda local stuff.  So, our culture really was a mix of that.  And uh, I would lean towards Japanese culture, was sort of where our comfortable wheelhouse was, and then a lot of Italian spaghetti stuff.  So, I always like to say: I don’t know whether to have sushi, or spaghetti. You know, is kind of where I came from.

 

And you had a big family, too.

 

Yeah; there was five of us.  Is still five kids.  Um, and that was … you know, they were spaced out rather well; we’re about five years apart, for the most part.  So—

 

So, you get along.

 

Yeah.  You have an—always an older—older sibling doing something.  And it was bad.  When I went to Niu Valley, every single class I went to, my three older siblings had had that teacher.  So, they had expectations of what you were gonna be like, and it was like, I was never that—you know, whatever they—

 

You were different from the other kids?

 

Absolutely.  Every one of us were different from each other, you know.  So …

 

How would you describe how you were in class?

 

Umm, I was kinda the loudmouth.  I mean, I spent a lot of time being told to be quiet. Surprise!

 

And you built on that for your career.

 

I built on that. Yeah; that really made it … you know, it’s—it’s who you are.  Um … and I think that’s really one of the things always in my life, I’ve tried to strive for; just to be who you are.  ‘Cause you can’t be anybody else, really.

 

But how ironic too, because you’re always becoming other people, or other puppets—

 

That’s where I become other people.  That’s where you get to look at other people, and make fun of other people. By choosing their character traits, and rolling them into a puppet.  You know.  Um … an—and getting to explore—and really, every puppet is a part of you.  I mean, there’s that—you have to connect to it on some level, just like any acting role.

 

M-hm.

 

You have to find that part of yourself that connects directly to the character in order to make it believable and real.

 

These days, when she isn’t bringing characters to life on Sesame Street and other programs, Pam Arciero travels around the world to perform live or train aspiring puppeteers. She’s proud to serve as Artistic Director of the annual National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center.

 

 

I had no idea that being in your field, you would be asked to go all over the world to teach, and to—

 

Yeah.

 

–perform, and—

 

Yeah.

 

It’s been—you’ve been everywhere.

 

Pretty much.  Um, I… I’m lucky that way.  I—I always wanted to travel.  Um, and so, pretty much, I go and I work.  I think … the most unusual place I went, I put in a—a large acting show in Saudi Arabia.  Um, and of course, there—this was about four years ago, three years ago.  Um … and they’re very repressive of women, um, as you probably know. Uh, I had to wear an abaya to work with my guys when we were outdoors.  But it’s a very schizophrenic thing, ‘cause once you’re indoors, you can take off the abaya, which is the black—the scarf and the black, and you can wear anything you want.  And we would work and rehearse, and do all our things, and then once I stepped—once I had to go outside, I’d have to get all dressed up to even just get in a car to go back to my hotel.  Um, and you had to eat separately; women eat separately from men there, if you’re alone.  Um—

 

Were the puppeteers squished up against each other, male and female?

 

No; they were the dancing ones.  They were the big—

 

Oh, I see.

 

–dancing, and they were all male.  There would be no females.  Yeah.  Females aren’t allowed to work.

 

How did they like a female directing them?

 

The guys liked it, ‘cause they were young men, and they keep—they all said to me: Pam, five years, it’s gonna change; I’m telling you, it’s gonna change. And I’m like: Yeah.  But umm, I would do semi-submersive things—subversive things.  Like, uh, if we did a song about driving, which we had a song called “Let’s Go Driving In An Automobile,” I made sure the one female character Khokha, which is umm, an Arabian character, she’s in all the Middle Eastern productions—she drove the car.  Because they couldn’t drive; women can’t drive.  So, I made sure the girl was always the one driving.  And then, we had this little thing where uh, Ernie and Bert teach you car safety.  And if you go through—and all the things—seatbelt, and you know—

 

Mm.

 

–all the things about being safe in a car—don’t hang out the window, then you would get a driver’s license.  And we made sure that every girl got a driver’s license and would go home and say: Mom, look, I have a driver’s license. Now, that just changed; right?  They just recently changed to have driver’s licenses.  So, that actually is a li—more of a change than I expected.  But the guys really said to me, when I—the guys I worked with really thought it would be completely different in five years, that it would be a much more open society.  And I just think it’s gonna take a lot longer than that.

 

What about women in puppetry?

 

So now, it is better.  It’s still not great.  If you look at the Muppets, the main Muppet guys are still six guys.  There’s no woman there.  But Sesame Street, we have five really strong women puppeteers, and we have nine really strong men.  That’s our core of puppeteers.  So, that balance has gotten much better.  And it’s a difficult thing, ‘cause not—initially, not that many women wanted to be puppeteers. It sounded—You know, if you’re an attractive woman who does a lot of voices, you can be a comedienne or an actress.  Why would you hide under a puppet; right?  And in fact, I was doing a show called The Great Space Coaster, and our guest was Steve Allen.  And he was playing the piano, and I was hiding under the piano doing the puppet on the side of him.  And the g—the human who was in our cast came out, and she—he’s talking to her, and I’m talking with him as a puppet.  And he looks at her and he says: Well, you’re not a puppeteer; right?  You’re much too attractive to be a puppeteer.  And so I stood up like this and looked at him, and said: What?  And he goes: Well, I didn’t mean—I said: Yeah, yeah, yeah.  And got back under the piano and went back to being a puppeteer.  But I didn’t get insulted by Steve Allen. Not many people can say that.

 

And you stood up and said you wouldn’t take that. 

 

Yeah.

 

So, better, but there’s still not a big infusion of women.

 

There’s still not a lot. Yeah, yeah. I mean, we’re working on it; we’re tr—constantly looking for women who are skilled, and training new women in.  And again, it takes a long time; you have to have the patience.  And it’s one of those things, either you have it or you don’t.

 

Mm.

 

And there are some people who can train, and train, and work, and work, and they still don’t have that natural feel for what—making the puppet alive.  And you have to have that core.  So, it is a kind of uh, unique-

 

Mhmm. Skill-

 

-skillset. But uh, I have traveled a lot, all over, um, directing those large dance shows, as well as teaching.  Um, I teach at … uh, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, I’ve taught.  I’ve taught at the uh, Taipei National University of the Arts.  In Yukon, all over.  Universe—University of Hawai‘i.  Um, and actually, I have a lovely University of Hawai‘i thing that I love, which is Kermit Love came to teach the University of Hawaii puppetry, and I took that course, and that set me sail on a course.  And then, I came back 30 years later to teach that same course to—at the University of Hawai‘i.

 

And was there a young Pam Arciero there?

 

Kind of; yeah. No, not that I know, but yeah.  But it was just really that … it was completing that circle.  I’ve been very lucky to have circles that complete in my life.

 

Pam Arciero has lived in Connecticut for more than three decades, but says Hawaiʻi will always be her home. Her two sons, both of creative minds, are pursuing an array of projects, including stand-up comedy, live music, film production, and video-game voiceover work. Of her husband, Steve Lanza, Arciero says: “He has been my biggest supporter and fan, and a guiding light when I need it.” Mahalo to Pam Arciero for sharing her story with us – and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

 

Did you ever doubt yourself, that: Oh, maybe I shouldn’t do this?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Or maybe I’m not—

 

The first few years.

 

–good enough?

 

Oh, yeah; I still do.  I still have my doubts. I’m like: What am I doing? How—how did I do … you know, that’s just part of the nature, I think, of being a performer, of constantly putting yourself out there, trying to put yourself out the best you can.  And then, there are times when there is no jobs.  Or you go to auditions—‘cause I still audition; we all audition to get whatever roles it is.  You go to auditions, and you leave and you just go: That was terrible; what—what was I thinking, that was an awful choice.  And then, you don’t get the job, and you go: Yup; definitely an awful choice.

 

Yeah.

 

You know.  So, that’s just kind of the way the business is.  It’s not easy.  It’s—it’s a hard … hard part of the business.

 

So, you have to have a thick skin and being able to take rejection, even now, after all this time in the industry, and all your accomplishments.  And you have to have a thin skin, because you’re dealing with children, and you have to be sensitive to that.

 

And you’re acting; you have to ac—be able to access your emotions in order to really get it across.

 

So, you have to really feel.

 

I—yeah.

If you really want to do something, you just have to do it.  And people are always gonna say: Well, that’s not a good idea.  And—but you have to say: Yeah, but …  I think if you do what brings you joy, and you continue to follow that, you will make it happen in some form or shape. In some ways, I guess people are just: Well, you’re a girl, you can be a ballet dancer, who cares what you become.  You’re gonna be a mom, was sort of how—

 

Mm.

 

Ultimately, you’re gonna be a mom, was sort of how the feeling I got from some people.  And it was like: No, no, you don’t understand; this is not about that, this is about expressing who you are through movement, through dance, through arts.  And I knew that in—intrinsically, and I don’t know why.  But I did know that that—that was the key for me, was just to follow, to stay the course, to do what I wanted to do, and it would pay off eventually.

 

You didn’t know what the end would be, but you—

 

No idea.

 

–knew this was the right thing to do.

 

Yeah, yeah; no idea.

 

[END]

 

 

 

dancedance/Re-Volution

 

This film is an introduction to the vibrant diversity of contemporary dance in South Africa. Rooted in both tradition and the idioms of modern movement, this half-hour documentary introduces new audiences to work ranging from site-specific solos to multi-media physical theater.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Stephanie Han

 

Award-winning writer Stephanie Han draws from her life experiences to inform her poetry, fiction and non-fiction, which frequently grapple with identity in multicultural settings. Her childhood was anchored by books, which helped her make sense of others and the world around her. Though her life has taken her around the globe, she now calls Honolulu home where she continues her work as a writer and educator.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Oct. 20, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Stephanie Han Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Reading is one of the few creative art forms where we enter the mind of somebody on a deeply intimate and personal level, across time, across cultures. You’re concocting in your mind what the person looks like and they become something you invent.

 

As a child, she found refuge in books, which she called her friends because her family moved so frequently. She says reading and writing are linked and somehow writing chose her and she became a writer. Stephanie Han, next, on Long Story Short. 

 

One on one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Stephanie Han was born Stephanie Mi Suk Yoo but goes by her maternal family’s name. A resident of Kaimukī, O‘ahu, she’s a teacher with a doctorate at Punahou School at Honolulu, and she’s a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, much of it about one’s identity in multicultural settings. Dr. Han is the author of “Swimming in Hong Kong”, a collection of short stories. Her father was one of Korea’s top scholars before he came to the United States to attend university, becoming a medical doctor and research scientist. Her mother was raised in Kunia Camp in central O‘ahu, a descendant of the first wave of Korean immigrants to Hawai‘i.  Stephanie Han’s parents met in the San Francisco Bay area, and after they were married, lived all over the United States, fueled in part by their wanderlust.

 

Where do you call home?

 

Now, Hawai‘i is home and in a sense I think it always was a spiritual and familial home to me, we just simply moved around the Continental U.S. I’ve lived in every place except the Pacific Northwest because my family was peripatetic, we were itinerant, and I have been as an adult. But this is the one place we always came for weddings, funerals, family birthdays, and gatherings, so, I would say, in a sense, if I could call one place an idea of home, this would be it. Hawaii was where I could have a sense of belonging, where I could have an Asian face but I could speak English and it wasn’t a big deal, um, where I saw different kinds of cultures and people interacting in a relatively peaceful way and this was a contrast to growing up in the mainland in certain areas where my family were kind of these pioneers, in the Midwest or in the South or even in certain areas of New England.

 

Did you experience racism or was it people who simply didn’t know what to say to you and said the wrong thing?

 

I think it was both, you know, my mother grew up in Kunia on the plantation and so when kids were kind of chicken fighting and kind of bullying me and beating me up when I was in third grade, she wasn’t gonna have that. She was, she…um, immediately asked um, somebody in the Korean community whose father knew judo, to take me on as a student.

 

So she was not a hovering parent in the sense that she approached the bully, she prepared you to approach the…

 

Yes.

 

Ok, so what happened?

 

And so, because she grew up, you know, watching boxing matches and wrestling in the Kunia gym, and so, yes, I was supposed to be a good Korean-American daughter, but I needed to know how to fight back. And so, um, we, me and the bully, we had it out in front of the drinking fountain. He was a head taller than me and the kids gathered, and I don’t even know how it…after a month, I was very confident, after judo lessons for one month, I obviously felt I could take him on, and um, you know, he hit me, and I punched him back, and then we were hauled off to the, um, by the school librarian, who, now, I know they must’ve thought it was really hysterical because I was a head and a half shorter…

 

And boy-girl, I mean usually boys don’t take shots at girls, right?

 

And boy-girl, exactly, and then…

 

So this is a bad bully…

 

Yes, and then, he was crying and I was not, I was just in shock and just paranoid that my mother would get mad at me and he never bothered me, nor did anyone ever bother me at the school again, and I was never physically bothered like that again because it was…it’s all psychological, right? It’s how you carry yourself.

 

Why did you move so much?

 

That was my parents, I think their adventure. So, for my mother, being, growing up pre-statehood, her adventure of travel…I mean, my family traveled a lot overseas, too, but her adventure was in the mainland and for my father, as an immigrant to the United States, this was also his adventure of seeing America.

 

That meant you switched schools a lot.

 

I switched schools every year until I was nine.

 

That’s a lot.

 

What you get used to is, you know, making friends, and you also get used to leaving, it prepares you for different kinds of relationships and different kinds of ways of navigating, and it also obliges you to be more open, and what it did was, it made me closer, I think, to my family and to my parents, and to hold on to things that were permanent, let’s say like coming here, seeing Grandma in the summer or seeing my cousins here, this became a kind of…a permanent idea.

 

Did you have any tricks about how to make friends as a kid when you were starting a new school?

 

No, and I think it did become difficult and it’s what propelled me to become a reader and a writer…because, um, at a certain point, I think, you know, we were often in these places like Iowa, where there were not a lot of Asian-American children, and I remember telling my mom that I had troubles making friends and she said, well, if you read a book, you’ll always have a friend. And this had to do with how she was, I think, and she was a bookworm, and she was a mom who, um, you know, sought out intellectual and creative things, and we didn’t talk as much about feelings, we could find those through books and things like that, so, um, you know, books became my world, books became a way I could make friends, she was right. Books became a path to understanding and to figuring out how people behaved, and from reading comes writing, an idea of expressing personal narrative.

 

I think I’ve heard you say that uh, your mom taught you the importance of creative expression, your father taught you never to quit, which came in very handy when you’re a writer seeking publication.

 

Yeah, so that was definitely my father. So there’s a saying he used to tell me, fall down seven times, get up eight times. A really perfect example of it was me with math studies. So when I was in ninth grade, I went off to boarding school at Phillips Academy Andover, I was a straight-A student prior, I get to Andover, everybody was a straight-A student, so, I really struggled, and I was getting a…I think I was failing math, and so, my father and mother said, we’re tired of you, you know, calling us up at, you know, every night, crying about your math homework so you come back for Thanksgiving. So I came back for Thanksgiving, I did math six to seven hours a day with my father, and um, flew back, I passed the exam, and then I stepped off the plane in December and my dad said, we’re not…we’re conquering this math thing. And so, I did math with my father…I went to work with him six to eight hours a day, every single day of my three week holiday. I would sit there in the gas station, in the front seat of the car, while he’s pumping the gas, doing math problems, um, I did the entire math book, over Christmas.

 

Did you want to do that? Did you resent that?

 

Uh, at first I resented it, but then after awhile I liked it. Like I still know the quadratic formula to this day, because he made me write it down 27 times, because he said if you write anything down 27 times, you’ll never forget it. What it showed me was that you don’t have to be good at something, you can persist and you don’t have to quit, and then I went back and I went from being a D-student in math to two A’s.

 

What does your dad think of your career? He seems like a very success-oriented guy and goes by the numbers, and being a writer is not going by the numbers, especially as a female…

 

Yeah…yeah, my dad, um, human being status is, um, granted upon a Masters degree, so now I have a PhD, so you know, it’s ok.

 

Don’t you have two Masters?

 

Yeah, I have two Masters degrees.

 

And a PhD, the first PhD in English Literature…

 

Literature, from City University of Hong Kong.

 

And you do a lot of professional teaching as well?

 

Yes, so, I consider myself a writer and educator, and I think, you know, my father was a, you know, he was a research scientist and a university professor, too, so he’s proud of that, you know, so in a sense, although it wasn’t in science and most of his family were medical doctors, even my aunts who were 85 years old in Korea, were medical doctors in Korea at the time, which was quite radical for women, but so now, you know, he knows I teach and I write and it’s something that is parallel…parallels his interests.

 

Stephanie Han’s award-winning writings are influenced by the books she read growing up, as much as by her life experiences. Her narratives often center on female protagonists who deal with issues of race, gender, and colonialism, and above all, identity.

 

You said your friends were books?

 

Yeah.

 

And you do live other people’s experiences through books?

 

Oh yeah, like my early experiences were just, you know, like in Iowa reading Laura Ingalls Wilder. I used to ask my mom why she didn’t wear a bonnet and churn butter…like why…

 

Because that’s the real mother…

 

Yeah…I sent away to the Laura Ingalls Wilder home for photos of Laura Ingalls Wilder. So there are family photos of the Ingalls and Wilder family with my family photos because they, it became such a part of how I was trying to understand where I was living.

 

Did you watch the TV show, too?

 

Yeah, but I didn’t like the TV show as much. That was kind of just a short cut, and I was one of those, you know, that didn’t match, that was in, you know, on the shores of Silver Lake, that wasn’t in the second book, you know, I could really…

 

Who’s [INDISTINCT] anyway?

 

Yeah, yeah, I was like, you know, Pa didn’t play the violin like that. You know, I was really…I could be very exact about it. And there were some, also some things that were not quite, you might say kosher, about those books, of when it was written. You know, their treatment…her treatment of how she saw Native Americans, or how Pa was doing the darky kind of dance where he was wearing blackface, and I didn’t understand this as I was reading it, so I find it sort of interesting, you know, how you read one book to open your mind, and I did need those books when I was little, to understand the farm children that I was going to school with and their background and then how later you read them differently. So, um, but yeah, you know, that’s when I would, you know, I’d say, can we have apple pie like Farmer Boy? You know…

 

But reading does…depending on what you read, does teach you empathy, or at least the ability to identify

 

Yes.

 

with somebody else whose, maybe, outer behavior is off-putting…

 

Yes.

 

Because you don’t understand it or you don’t think there’s a reason for it, but when you read a book and you see what’s going on inside…

 

Yes, because reading is one of the few creative art forms where we enter the mind of somebody on a deeply intimate and personal level, across time, across cultures, even when we’re seeing a movie, we’re looking at somebody from the outside in, right? We’re looking at their face. We’re not looking inside their brain. So, when you’re reading, we’re entering somebody’s very intimate thoughts, it’s that magic…

 

And heart.

 

Yes, you know, how they’re dreaming, how they’re feeling, and sometimes you know, when you’re looking at a picture, um, or illustration, you might initially, you could have these reactions, you could be put off by their clothing or something and you might not be able to enter them in the same way, but when you read something, you’re concocting in your mind what the person looks like and they become something you invent. So, reading also propels us to imagine and it works a different kind of imagination gear, in a way, and we, we relate that to ourselves. Like, yeah, I remember I was riding a bicycle, yeah, that’s what it felt like, this person must be riding a bicycle in the same way, yeah, you know, and it becomes something else, verses, you know, I love photography, and I love film, and I love video, and, you know, all these other kinds of visual images, but, it’s something else, you’re outside in.

 

That’s a great point. What are some of the books that have made the most difference to you in reading?

 

Well, I would say…

 

Besides Laura.

 

It changed, yeah, it changed over the course of time, right? So, um, you know, I read, you know Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. When I was a teenage girl, then I read Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior, and that blew me away, I would say really the opening sequence, because it was the first time I could see the picture. There is a woman of color and she kind of looks like me, she’s Asian descent, and look, she wrote this book, and look, this character is not, you know, is fierce, and is a warrior, and is running through the woods and doing these things, and that was really eye-awakening, and I love Jane Austen. Years later, I read the Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki in translation which is very similar to the Austen book, and that was the book that my mother told me to read and I could see how she transposed ideas of, you know, protocol and manners and this, and how they came through to my upbringing. My narrative has always been something that’s been changing, um, narratives that were…I was told and then tried to imitate, so, I think about this idea of the stories that were maybe told to, let’s say me, through a religious or philosophical structure, which were Confucian virtues, right? Which were…Confucianism is built on the pillars of five relationships, right? King, subject, teacher, husband, wife, and almost all of them are hierarchical, except friend to friend, but there’s a very strict hierarchy that organizes a lot of Asian culture and that was the narrative, in a sense, that I think played out for me or continued to play out in a lot of my life. There was also narratives, uh, folk tales that I was told, so…a traditional, it’s a Japanese folktale, it was also told to Korean kids, was Peach Boy, which is…I’m not sure, do you know it…

 

Momotaro?

 

Yes, and I’m sure you’re familiar with this story…

 

I grew up with that story.

 

Yes, and he comes with a peach to this older parents, and he fights…you know, he makes friends with the dog, the pheasant, and the monkey, goes off and he kills all the monsters, and he comes back with wealth to his village and he’s the hero of the story, right? And this is a typical, Joseph Campbell journey…mythic…myth of the hero, which crosses cultures, right? But there really is not…we don’t find the myth of the heroine, and Campbell had said that’s because the wisdom that is had, women always have inherently, and Campbell was writing and speaking at a different time period, because women do need a narrative.

 

What you said before reminded me of something…I was fortunate enough to interview W.S. Merwin, and he said, um, when life is going along pretty well, you tend to read prose, but when you have something awful happening, some emotional thing, what do you do? You read poetry.

 

Poetry…

 

Is that true?

 

Yes, that’s totally true, and I write poetry um, when I have no words, that’s what I say, and then I write prose to try to make a linear sense of an issue.

 

As an adult, Stephanie Han has lived in many different places around the world. She kept moving in part because of the adventure of experiencing different cultures, but that was not her only motivation.

 

You told us how your, your family moved around quite a bit because of your father’s career when you were a child, but you continued to move around as an adult.

 

Yes, it set the pattern. So I thought…so that’s how I became an expatriate, ectera ectera, it set a pattern where you think moving is normal, um, it’s strange because there’s a different skill-set involved with staying, right? And so that’s, to me, this is now my question too, of staying, you know, this is my home now, so this is…this is the question of staying, and um, yeah, you set the pattern because, you know, and what you realize is, there are many people who actually do this…were just…were…maybe we don’t talk about it quite as much, or we’re referring to one place as the home, but a lot of people are rather itinerant.

 

It seems to me that you’ve been in a number of first-of situations, you might’ve been the first Asian girl in a class or…I mean, you’ve done so many um, so many activities in different countries, uh, what have you learned from that? Because it’s not surprising to me that you became a writer, somebody who’s already good in English and…generally, writers keep their distance, they’re detached.

 

Yeah, I think um, what I learned is that you have to be open and you have to be curious to different experiences and you also have to be tolerant, and I think being overseas um, for different periods of my life, also opened that up, and what I also found is language, speaking different languages matters, but you really need an open heart and you need to be able to laugh with somebody, you need to be able to eat food, you need to listen to their music and maybe dance a little, and that becomes more important than, often than, um, let’s say, exchanging literary ideas.

 

And when do you know it’s time for you to move on, or in the past, how did you figure out…was it outwardly directed or did it always come from within?

 

Um, no, sometimes people moved because they think moving will solve things, but moving doesn’t often solve what you…it could solve temporarily, a job, but maybe that’s the job wasn’t really what needed to be solved, or a question about this, right? So…

 

It’s a way of distracting yourself, in part?

 

Yes, right, and you know, there’s more…you know, there’s the adventure of being out verses sometimes, if you stay in one place, the adventure becomes of going in and going still, or going deeper, so I, you know, I…I’ve had people tell me, you know, I don’t think you can come to necessarily, any more wisdom, traveling and moving, then you can come from being in one place and going deeper. You might find that you can still come to very similar ideas of people and behavior and spirit, and some of the people I consider the most wise, who I seek counsel or friendship, or guidance from, are people who are in one place. Because they came to similar ideas and then moved and came to a different way of seeing things that were incredibly wise.

 

Interesting. One thing about staying is that you…if there are issues, you have to either work them out or, or hole up in yourself, and generally people do either…I mean, I would hope people who stay, find a way to work things out.

 

Yeah, and this just becomes the retreat of a writer, too, right? Reading and writing, for me, um, was always a bit of a social, personal retreat, so, I didn’t neces–, you know, if, the outside became too strange or difficult or, I just would read more or I wrote more, which I…I don’t necessarily advise to everybody.

 

Well, why have you moved as an adult?

 

Um…

 

Repeatedly?

 

Yeah, mostly, it was, I think it was work and opportunity, and a desire to seek, and a desire for adventure, and so I think that was the phase that I was also in, and um, there’s like a whole community, you know, if you’re an expatriate, that’s what you do…you just…you move, from place to place often.

 

And you always find people like yourself…

 

Mm hm, and it becomes a community.

 

It is a community.

 

So that is a community.

 

So how do you find people in that community?

 

Um, you know, they can initially be a much more often welcoming and opening…open to people, because everyone wants a place to live, everyone knows you need employment, so people come rushing forth with opportunities or jobs or places to live, they know you need help with this, because it’s kind of this strange pioneering community, right? Whereas, if you often move into community where people have been entrenched for along time, they’re more closed because you’re an outsider and the peculiar thing is, you know, expatriates, they often never really occupy the place that they’re in. They live in the peripheral of wherever they are and that is the community, it’s being on the periphery.

 

That’s interesting, so, perhaps, at this point in your life, that is still your home?

 

Um, no, I’d say…it’s funny, that’s why I think I ended up here because I don’t have to always be on the periphery here. I do have maternal family and maternal roots here, so it allows me to step in here. I didn’t attend school here which makes, you know, Hawaii is very rooted in people’s young, younger years of schooling…

 

Where did you graduate from…

 

Yes, but um, you know, my son is now local to here and my family is here in that sense, or I should say some of my older relatives. So, I can be both an outsider and an insider here and maybe that’s just right.

 

At the time of this taping in 2019, Stephanie Han is teaching at Punahou School and lives in Kaimukī, O‘ahu, where she also continues to write. Mahalo to Stephanie Han for sharing your stories with us and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

I don’t think people choose to be writers, I think writing chooses you and then writing becomes a compulsion. Reading and writing are very linked and um, when it is a certain level of a compulsion then it flows through you and you feel at that moment, this is what you were meant to do and you draft it very quickly and it’s almost as if your body is a kind of vessel for what the words are supposed to be, and there’s other times you sit there and you’re just miserable and you try to run away from the desk and you decide at that moment you need to clean your room, but um, you know, so it varies and you just have to, you know, kind of sit your butt in the chair.

 

 

 

[END]

 

 

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