MIA MARTIN WRITES – When I first met Eriko Lee Katayama last spring she was a classmate of mine in Professor Plate’s Introduction to Media and Politics of Asia. At the time, I was unaware of the details that make her a one-of-a-kind competitor for this year’s Miss Asia USA 2014, which starts in November. Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Eriko comes from two ethnicities. Her half Japanese, half Korean background gives her not only a unique beauty, but also a broader cultural awareness of two prominent Asian countries.

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Eriko in traditional, Korean attire.

Eriko graduated from Loyola Marymount University last December with a degree in Asian & Pacific Studies. She currently lives with her two dogs in Downtown Los Angeles, where she is studying for the LSAT.

(The interview below was held earlier this spring.)

Q: Was competing in Miss Asia USA something that you always wanted to do or is it a recent pursuit of yours?

A: A makeup artist had been convincing me to run for Miss Asia USA since 2011, but I never felt that I was ready until this year. I’ve always wanted to seize the chance and run for it, but I knew inside that I was too inexperienced and young to deal with the pressures and obligations. Since I’m older, wiser, and much more confident as a 23-year-old, I decided to run for this pageant as a representative of my motherland, Korea.

Q:  What events in your life have led you to this pageant?

A: Honestly, when I was in college, I was overwhelmed by the amount of assignments and projects that I had to do. Since English is my third language, studying intellectually challenging subjects in a foreign language gave me too much stress on a daily basis. I had to spend more time in the library compared to other students since I’d spend hours just memorizing new vocabulary or working on my pronunciation.

So, when I graduated from college in December 2013, I finally had time for myself to find what I would really like to do. One day, when I went to the hair salon in Koreatown, the makeup artist who had been encouraging me to run for a pageant came up to me again and told me that she saw so much potential in me. Suddenly, I felt confident and knew that I would enjoy it. Plus, it would be the perfect opportunity for me to improve myself physically and mentally. So, I finally said yes to the artist, and she was very excited.

Q: Are there certain physical or personality traits that are more desirable or emphasized in Asian American competitions compared to the common American competitions?

A: I think Miss Asia USA is looking for a queen that’s mature, articulate, and elegant who can represent the Asian American community. This pageant is not all about being hot, sexy, or having a perfectly tanned bikini body.

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Q: What type of community service do you do and why is this important to you?

A: When I lived in South Korea, I worked closely with a non-profit organization that helped North Korean refugees throughout their re-settlement process. My grandmother also had a restaurant and always hired North Korean refugee women, providing them temporary lodgings, meals, good salary and medical benefits. I practically grew up assisting them and their children, so I’m very passionate about educating people about refugees and what we can do to help them. If I am fortunate enough to become a winner of Miss Asia USA 2014, I would want to utilize my title and media exposure to spread awareness about how North Koreans are still suffering at this moment and what we can do as individuals to help them.

Q: How do you feel your Japanese and Korean traditions added to your identity? Does your ethnic background ever conflict with mainstream American culture?

A: The tension between Korea and Japan is still visible and intense. My childhood was the definition of identity crisis: living in South Korea and having a Japanese name was not ideal.. My Japanese friends would not accept me as Japanese, and my Korean friends would hate me and even threaten me for having a Japanese heritage! Trust me, telling your best friend that you are a half Japanese and getting an “I can’t be your friend anymore, because you are a blood traitor” letter the next day was not pleasant for a 10-year-old girl.

I had to use my grandfather’s last name to attend local schools. But some of my friends would find out that I was a half Japanese since I looked “mixed” to them, and often their parents forbade them from hanging out with me! And this is the main reason why my parents wanted to immigrate to America. They thought no one would judge me for being a half Japanese and a half Korean here. And they were right; barely anyone in America has pointed a finger at me for being mixed.

Q: How long have you been preparing for this competition? How much time do you set aside to prepare for this competition? Will you change how you prepare as you get closer to the competition? If so, how will your routine change?

A: I turned in my application in late January of this year, so it’s only been three months so far! But there have been many obligatory events that I had to attend, so it’s been very hectic. For example, for the National Costume Fashion Show that was held at the Korean American Chamber of Commerce Gala, I was the final act of the show. For that I had to get custom hairpieces, costumes, and shoes. I also had to practice walking in the national costume since it’s very heavy and difficult to walk in.

Right now, I would say that I spend about two hours a day working out with a personal trainer, but that’s about it so far. Since the pageant will be held in November 2014, I still have lots of time to prepare myself. This summer I’m planning on practicing with a pageant coach who has trained Miss Universe delegates, and I’m also planning to hire a nutritionist and schedule more intense personal training sessions to get myself physically ready.

Q: Are there any new talents and skills you are working on? Do you have a long-time skill that you’ve been perfecting for this event?

A: For me, it’s been all about working out. This is a beauty pageant after all, so I have to get into the best shape of my life, both body and mind. I also think that my ability to speak three languages will help me in many ways. It makes it clear that I’m very culturally aware of my two countries and how the two traditions relate to the world around me.

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Q: What are you hoping to get out of this competition?

A: If I were to win, I would hope to be a role model and an influential figure to others. Someone that has been a role model and figure to me is my grandmother. She inspires me through her lifelong devotion to help North Korean refugees throughout their settlement process in a completely different society and culture. Every year, my grandmother would have a countless number of North Korean refugees visiting her with letters, gifts, and delicious food. They all say that, without her help, they would have not survived through the cultural adaptation process in South Korean society.

However, my grandmother’s ability to help the North Korean refugees is personal and limited. She always tells me if I want to make a big statement and spread awareness in a big group of people I have to be well known. My grandmother was very happy when I told her my decision of running for Miss Asia USA, because she thinks it’s a great opportunity to get myself out there and do humanitarian work.

To follow Eriko’s journey through the Miss Asia USA pageant, along with regular updates from the woman herself on fashion, modeling, food and her daily life, go to www.erikokatayama.com.