Michelle K Hanabusa: end of figure skating + connecting with heritage through community

This is part of our 5-part series where we share stories from LA-based community members and leaders on reconnecting with and reimagining their identities. We hope these stories ignite some deeper conversations for you, too, because we believe that this journey of self-discovery makes us stronger and fuller as individuals and community members. 


Michelle K. Hanabusa
Founder and Designer of UPRISERS

How do you feel that your heritage or cultural identity affects your life? 

My cultural identity, which is Okinawan-Japanese-American, affects my life on a daily basis. Growing up, I never really felt connected to it because I felt like most of my mission was to go completely against it. That’s a whole other story, but as I’ve gotten older and in my younger 20s when I felt really lost, I identified the fact that maybe I felt this way because I have no ties to my roots. 

It’s that first step in this journey of re-finding myself again, and through that discovery, it was becoming more and more proud of my background and where my family came from. For my grandma, who is Okianiawn, too, the culture is so different from a Japanese person, like my mom. So seeing that difference living in the same household, under the same roof, has always been so fascinating to me, seeing that happen in real-time and experiencing that as I’ve gotten older. 

I do a lot of reflection now and I think a lot of the work I do today is in reflection of those reflections.  

When you speak on this feeling of being lost, was there a particular moment where there was a turning point or was it gradual? How did you identify that it was the roots and not something else?

Most of my life I grew up trying to become this Olympic athlete. That was my first version of my identity. I saw Michelle Kwan on TV and I was like, “We have the same name! Now I'm going to convince my parents to take me to the rink every morning!” 

So 14 years of my life was that. So growing up, it was less of, “Oh, she's Asian or she's Japanese.” It was more about Michelle = figure skater. That was my identity. When that was stripped away because I had to get hip surgery, that was like a life-changing moment where I thought, “Yeah, this career is not going to happen any more. I need to rethink about what my future looks like.” The way I process the world has always been in creative mediums. So, I had to find a different creative outlet that wasn't figure skating, so it was more like graphic design and the arts and stuff like that.

From 15 all the way to my mid-20s was this journey of not knowing who I am anymore. I was no longer this figure skater. I'm nothing. Also not being tied to my roots at that time, I was just floating in the universe and kind of doing whatever was around. If my sorority sisters in college wanted to do this, I was like, sure, that's cool. But I didn't really necessarily have fun, but I didn't have an opinion. Just doing that over and over and over again, I was miserable, then going into the corporate life and doing the same patterns. 

I started to identify these patterns about me and needed to completely change all of this. It's a gradual thing. So when folks ask me, “Why are you doing the work that you're doing today? There's not this moment. It was this constant, lived experience of all of these different factors culminated into one thing being why I'm so passionate about what we're doing today. 

I feel like that was pretty similar to me as well. I feel a lot of different things all the time. What are the slow reflections that led to small changes or explorations that led me further and further down that path. 

Please complete this sentence: connecting with my culture [blank]. 

Connecting to my Okinawan Japanese roots led me to 1) feel a lot more confident in myself to the point where I love sharing my family background. I'm not hiding it anymore. Once you have a better understanding of your family history and your roots, that’s when progress happens and you can take those personal understandings and hopefully share that amongst your community.

It becomes more than just for yourself, it starts becoming for other folks as well - like ripple effects.

Do you still consciously think about your relationship with your heritage?  

Yes. Every day. It's not this thing where I wake up in the morning and have my coffee and my Rooted Fare toast and I'm like, “Let's think about my culture!” It's not so deliberate, but after putting in the effort and the work in my 20s to have a better understanding, it's almost kind of embedded in some of the activities that I participate in, like when I’m brainstorming or doodling on my iPad.

It's not like, now I'm going to draw this like sakura flower, or I'm going to read my wabi sabi book. You know how matcha is just really popular right now? I see that and it's all of a sudden like a subconscious cue in my mind of certain memories, like when I was with my grandma and she and used to make kimono herself.

Matcha and kimono. It doesn't make sense, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's almost like a cue. Once you honor these stories that your family has shared with you, it just subconsciously grows. 

Can you talk about a time when you were proud of your heritage?

So every year [during Nisei Week], you have a court rate girls and they wear crowns and stuff, which is so not my personality. But part of this was that journey of finding myself. This was the first time that I was starting to tap into the Japanese-American community and seeing all the businesses and organizations and how everything is run was so fascinating.

At that time, I only did it because my grandma asked me every year, “Are you going to apply? Are you going to apply? Are you going to apply? What are you going to do?” They capped it at 25 [years old] at that time, so that was the last year to apply. So I was like, “Okay, fine, I'll do it.” I did it because I felt like I had to do it for my grandma. 

But as I was going through the program, it was one of the pivotal moments for me of really thinking how our Japanese community, who have been here for over 100 years, has worked so hard to get us to this point. And we still have more work to do, but that was my moment where I'm really proud of our Japanese-American community, too, where it's not even just our heritage, but it was also being Japanese-American, where I was like very proud to share it. 

The night of coronation, it was really funny because I made sure that all of my white friends came because I wanted them to see this part of me because they didn't know this part of me before. So now I felt that this was their first chance of seeing the whole Michelle. 

They loved it. They made signs for me and blew up my face and put it on sticks and stuff. So I think it was really cute. Current day, even in 2019, when we told the SoCal flower market story and how it was first founded in 1912 by Japanese-American immigrants. That felt so local to me that maybe just florists and like Japanese-American people would care about. 

But as we started to launch it, even a year later, people would email us and say, “I actually don't live in California. I'm in a completely different state. But this resonates with me because my family used to be flower growers as well.” It just brought different stories to life. 

Are there any specific learnings about yourself, your family, or your culture that really empowered you? You mentioned feeling more confident in yourself. On this journey of reconnecting, what did you learn? What were the most impactful things?

This has happened over just maturing, growing up, understanding. My dad was particularly very tough on me growing up. So over the years, I had a lot of resentment built up because I'm like, “I don't know why he did things this way or that way.” I was miserable and all these things, but understanding how we as Asian-Americans have to operate in the US in order to overcome certain obstacles and setbacks. Even my great grandparents who immigrated here over 100 years ago. I didn't understand all of the nuances and s*** that they have to deal with, especially back then. 

And how that trickled to my dad growing up as the oldest son and all the responsibilities he must have had to endure, and then the racism, and we could just go on with all of the things that he dealt with, too. 

I think that's why doing this work has been so helpful for me with my personal journey, because there is a lot of forgiveness that I've been able to work on between my relationship with my dad.

What are your hopes and dreams for our community? 

My dreams for our community is to be able to fully embrace our cultural identity. That's my short answer. But on a broader perspective, my dreams for my community as a fellow founder is that I hope that we are able to find a more sustainable way where we don't feel like we have to move a million miles an hour all the time. I think being able to find a balance between taking care of ourselves, having purpose within our work, and then bringing in a little bit more empathy towards each other so we don't have to feel like we have to operate at 110% every day.

The way the world is headed and where it's going, the way we're operating right now, just doesn't feel sustainable. I feel like if we slow down just a little bit, maybe we can bring more intention to our work. 

Why are those two things important?

Embracing your cultural identity and then also thinking about the future sustainability of our community, our planet, and all of these things that we all care about at the end of the day is just a means of us being able to slow down and reflect and see how whatever we're putting out into the world, how that actually affects our broader community. 

I also feel like I want to see more women and people of color in this space - the spaces that I work in and the founders' space. We bring so much to the table and I want folks to be able to see that. We deserve to be at the table.

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