By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Amid applause, Kelly Aramaki walked to the center of the stage at the top-floor banquet room at China Harbor Restaurant on Oct. 18. <!–more–>
“I didn’t know I was going to be on this track. I was a bit misdirected at times,” Aramaki said. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology with a minor in music from the University of Washington — the dissonant areas of study represented the conflict he felt as an undergrad. At the time, he defaulted to the pre-med track.
“Which made my parents really happy,” he laughed.
For his studies, Aramaki volunteered at Seattle Children’s Hospital but there weren’t enough hours for them there, so he supplemented that by volunteering to help teach local children. The experience contributed to what would ultimately be his purpose in life.
“I was touched by the work an educator can do for the life of a child, for the life of a family,” he said.
Today, Aramaki is Seattle Public Schools Executive Director of Schools — Southeast Region.
“My dream is to provide a life, changed, to each child,” he said, “whether they come from affluence or not, whether they’re black or Asian or Latino, regardless of their zip code and their parents’ income.”
Aramaki was one of 10 honorees at Northwest Asian Weekly and Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s first-ever Visionary Award Gala, an event honoring local visionaries in the local APA community.
Like Aramaki, fellow honoree Tejal Pastakia, founder and principal of the architecture firm Pastakia + Associates, fell into her work almost randomly.
“My parents gave me the option of going into medicine, becoming an engineer, or becoming an architect when I was 18. I picked architect; it seemed cool because you draw all day.”
Pastakia is anything but flippant about her work, though. She spent years designing affordable housing and creating spaces that fit the idiosyncrasies of differing populations. In her acceptance speech, she talked about the power of taking old buildings that others find decrepit and, instead of tearing them down, revitalizing them — making them sustainable.
Jinyoung Lee Englund also carved out a career through feel and intuition, rather than through plans. Englund is known for her work with Washington State’s Republican Party, including a stint as director of scheduling for former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi.
Although Englund grew up rather apolitical, the desire to contribute to social causes led her to Mozambique where she spent two years as project development coordinator for Iris Ministries.
“It was in working … that I learned the role of a stable government, the importance of policies that empower people rather than trap or devalue them,” said Englund. “People in politics are wholly impassioned. They want to live their life for a cause. And I want to live my life this way.”
Education and young people
Herb Tsuchiya, now retired, spent most of his career as a pharmacist. However, Tsuchiya’s lasting impact is most felt in his volunteer work for local organizations that serve APAs, and in his church, where he aims to inspire young people to make positive marks on their world and communities.
“I believe in taking chances on people,” he said. “We created a scholarship for young people who want to go into ministry, for instance.” Tsuchiya said that when churches in the United States with Asian American congregations need new leadership, they often have to look overseas for them because there are few Asian Americans in that line of work. He aims to change that with his scholarship. “It’s important to prepare for the future by encouraging and educating young people.”
Mike Yoshitomi, Bogey Bear Jr. Golf Foundation Executive Director, concurs, saying that kids in Bogey Bear aren’t just learning to improve their golf swing, they’re gaining life skills. Bogey Bear is a nonprofit with most participants between the ages of 7–12, who get mentoring in golf.
“It’s about the benefit of learning to be confident through hitting the ball far,” said Yoshitomi. “For me, the kids get to interact and have new experiences with people they didn’t know — they get to learn from others.”
Dylan Yamamoto, 15, is a student and on the golf team at Garfield High School. He cracked that his team hasn’t won a game yet — but to him, winning is not the point. “In the past year, I’ve not only improved at golf, but I’ve made new friends and learned life skills — and it was all for free.”
Donald Hellmann, a recently retired professor of the University of Washington and a former director of its Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, was the only non-Asian recipient of the Visionary award. His interest in Asia began in the 1950s, when he was drafted and sent to Korea. He qualifies himself as a member of the first generation of Americans to learn about Asia in a non-war context.
Hellmann talked about the changing times and lightly touched on globalization — he said that he saved a poem that a Chinese international student had written for him, because he was her favorite teacher. He talked about the funny oddity, of him, a scholar who is white, teaching a Chinese student who has traveled all the way to Seattle to learn about China.
“It’s something I wouldn’t have believed when I started.”
Finding success with passion
Ben Zhang owns a number of companies, but he is particularly known for building Greater China Industries, an import/export business. He is currently its CEO. Zhang was an international student who came to the United States from China to study economics. As a student, he worked part-time at a Chinese restaurant and at JC Penney. Zhang would later boldly recruit his supervisors at JC Penney into Greater China Industries.
“America is really a great country. I came here with $350 and didn’t speak a word of English,” he said. “In America, the opportunities are there. As long as you have the passion and the drive — you will succeed.”
The Massive Monkees, a renowned breakdance crew from Seattle, has worked with the likes of Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Missy Elliott, LL Cool J, Ludacris, 50 Cent, and Akon — though its members have stayed close to their home base. More than a year ago, they opened The Beacon studio in Chinatown, which has a free after-school program for young dancers of all ages and skill levels.
“We want to show young people that it’s totally possible to be successful doing something they love,” said Anna Banana Freeze, one of two women in the crew.
For 15 years, the Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation (ACLF) has trained and nurtured leaders within Seattle’s underserved APA communities. One of ACLF’s founding members, former state legislator Kip Tokuda, passed away last July. Incoming ACLF chair and current vice president of the board Nicole Keenan spoke about Tokuda’s legacy.
“Kip worked with you because you wanted to help yourself,” she said. “He saw the flame in someone and helped them grow that flame first into a vision — then a reality. … We’re building our community. We’re very proud of our community. We’re carrying on Kip’s legacy.”
Stella Chien worked in finance at Overlake Hospital, but she is known for her community work, particularly with the Seattle Chinese Garden.
Born in Manchuria in 1931, Chien lived through the Manchurian Incident, World War II, and the Chinese Civil War by the time she was 16. She was separated from her parents as a child and raised by her grandparents, fleeing conflict for much of her youth.
“I was all by myself since I was a baby. I was born in a war, then lived through another war, then another. During the wars, I lost my family. When I say I hate war — I have my reasons.”
“I love peace,” she added. “I believe I can start small to have a nice, harmonious society here in Seattle. I got here and I’ve been here for 60 years. In that time, I’ve seen this city grow and prosper.”
Today, Chien acts as a matron figure of the Seattle Chinese Garden.
“I love art,” she said, “but I can’t write. I can’t draw. I can’t do anything. But I can grow flowers.” (end)
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.