Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In the midst of the global pandemic, Sascha Koki discovered something unexpected — her curls. Sascha, a thirty-something Japanese and Black woman, had been straightening her hair as soon as she’d been able to get hold of a flatiron. The slow, endless early days of the pandemic offered much time for pause and introspection; but jumping deep down a rabbit hole of self-identity wasn’t Sascha’s intention.
Just months before the stay-at-home orders took effect, Sascha serendipitously chopped her hair into a short bob. “I effectively did the ‘big chop,’ is what they call it in the curl community, when you just chop off all the dead hair and start over. I had already started the first part, the hardest part of my hair journey without knowing it.” Sascha said.“It really started as a simple, ‘oh well, I guess I’ll do that curl journey I’ve been wanting to start, since I’m going to be home anyway; who’s going to see me?’ And I began learning about my hair type, what spirals mean and all these hair conditioning and shampooing processes — it was overwhelming.” But overwhelming as it was, Sascha committed to her curl journey, documenting her progress on her Instagram account (@saschakoki).
Born to a Japanese mother and Black father, Sascha has lived in Hawai‘i nearly her entire life. She is a former Miss Waikïkï and a Rainbow Dancer for the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. She is vice president for Media Etc., a public relations and marketing firm, a new lifestyle columnist for The Hawai‘i Herald and shares her love of fashion, beauty and wellness on Instagram. She’s bilingual in English and Japanese and is well-versed in the nuances of local island culture.
While Hawai‘i’s multicultural landscape includes many families of hapa (or mixed race), “on the mainland, there are communities of Black people who sometimes are only interacting with just Black people; but in Hawai’i, you may not really interact or see another Black person,” says Sascha, who grew up with maybe five people with textured hair like hers.
The topic of explicit and implicit Black hair bias is personal and complex. Sascha recalls people touching her locks without permission and receiving unsolicited comments like “you look better with your hair straight.”
For much of her childhood, Sascha says she easily accepted her Japanese side and pushed away her Black side, partially because she didn’t know of anyone else. People would guess that she was Brazilian or Puerto Rican. Sometimes when people would find out she was Black, they would ask her to “speak ebonics” or say things like, “I have a Black joke — do you mind?”
“I grew up as the token Black kid without realizing I was the token Black kid,” says Sascha. As a child, she couldn’t quite put those emotions into words and ran towards her Asianness, hoping that was enough. That included flat ironing her hair, partially because straight hair was what she was used to seeing and like many young girls, subconsciously wanting to look like her mom.
Sascha says much of her story is entwined in her mother’s story, because her mother’s life shaped hers. Her mother, Chihiro Kitagawa, was a middle child living in Japan and rebelled against her parents by working in a fashion boutique instead of going to college. One day, the boutique owner noticed that all the garments Chihiro wore would quickly sell out and promoted her as a buyer for the store. Chihiro befriended the workers at the surf shop next door, who taught her how to surf. She was enamored with surfing, eventually saving enough money for a surf trip around the world. When they stopped in Hawai‘i, she fell in love, vowing she would someday live on the island.
Flash forward a few years — Chihiro planned to enroll for art school in New York, but a friend convinced her to join her in Washington, D.C., instead. It was there that Chihiro met Sascha’s father in art school, and shortly after, Sascha was born. Her parents dropped out of school and moved to Chihiro’s hometown of Nagoya, Japan, just after Sascha’s first birthday. While in Japan, Chihiro focused on her dream of relocating their family to Hawai‘i.
“It was not, ‘I wish we would’…it was ‘we are going to move to Hawai‘i,’” says Sascha, who says that her arrival never halted her mother’s dream, but instead spurred her to move to the islands even sooner, so she could raise Sascha in Hawai‘i.
Chihiro met her goals, and they moved across the Pacific to the hills of ‘Aiea. Though they lived on the leeward side, Sascha and her younger brother, Ken, went to school in Waikïkï, where Kitagawa began her marketing company. In the ‘90s, says Sascha, Waikïkï didn’t have the plethora of Japanese-speaking families and she and her brother were the sole bilingual Japanese kids at school. People assumed they were military kids. She had a bully, and spent her early elementary years feeling like she didn’t fit in.
However, Sascha and her brother spent summers in Japan, where her mother enrolled them in elementary school. In Hawai‘i, school ended in May, but in Japan, the new school year started in April, so the transition was fairly seamless — they were still in the same grade and their classmates were just starting to get to know each other, too. It was the summers in Japan, where Sascha bonded with her grandparents (O-mama and O-papa), caught up on Japanese TV and became mesmerized by Nagoya-centric commercials, which still brings waves of nostalgia every time she hears a Asahi-do Camera jingle. She discovered Pokemon (six months before Pikachu reached Hawai’i’s shores). She took her first ballet lesson, at a studio just down the street from her grandparents’ house. Summers in Japan balanced out what could have been a much harder time with bullying in Hawai‘i, because in Japan, Sascha was super popular.
“The kids were like, ‘oh, it’s Sascha and Ken from Hawai‘i,’” she says with a laugh. Sascha and her brother were not only the first kids her Japanese classmates had met who were from Hawai’i, but also the first part-Black, part-Japanese kids who did not look Japanese but could speak Japanese fluently. On her first day at school in Nagoya, Sacha remembers walking past six different classrooms, each filled with 30 to 40 students, who leaned closer to see her as she walked by. As soon as the recess bell rang, as if part of a choreographed routine, all the kids from the entire level rushed to her classroom, peeking through the window to catch a glimpse of her. Her classmates instinctively became protective of their newfound classmate’s celebrity and shuttered the windows.
“Is it always like this?” Sascha remembers asking.
“No, no,” her classmates said. “It’s because you’re here — it’s so exciting!”
Back in Hawai’i, Sascha later transferred to La Pietra, where she was all of a sudden surrounded by girls who were transplants from Japan. “We had our little J crew,” reminisces Sascha. “Except it was spelled with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘c.’” There were five girls in J Krew and most of them spoke Japanese or had parents who were from Japan and shared common interests like anime and J-pop and could bond over similar upbringings.
Sascha describes herself as a ham, someone who found fun with the stage and the spotlight. She often modeled for her mom’s advertising clients — her first gig was for the Gecko store, where she donned an oversized Gecko T-shirt and geckos clipped to her hair. She later signed up for a modeling agency, but jokes her runway career was derailed when her “Asianness kicked in” and her height tapered off at 5-foot-4 inches. Sascha grew up a dancer and nearly quit when she was a “moody teenager,” but her mother reminded her that she had already dedicated so much time to dance and should stick with it, even if it wasn’t ballet. Sascha relented and chose Honolulu Dance Studio, where she began learning jazz and hip hop. “Because I look like this,” says Sascha, gesturing to herself, “people expected me to just know how to do hip hop, but I grew up a ballet dancer, so I was upright the whole time, super awkward.” She pleaded to her mother for extra help; she wanted to take classes outside of her regular classes to catch up. Her mom agreed and the extra classes helped Sascha grow more confident in hip hop and jazz, enough to feel comfortable in class and eventually earned a spot as a Rainbow Dancer in college.
It was through dance that Sascha met her future husband, Brent Koki. In a classic Hollywood-style “meet-cute,” Brent says they had actually met twice … and Sascha had “snobbed” him twice; once he had introduced himself at a dance class and another time at a bar in college, but Sascha insists it doesn’t count because she doesn’t remember. But the one time she does remember, Brent was in town, home from touring with the Cheetah Girls and was a guest judge for tryouts at her dance school’s yearly audition.
“Who’s that?” Sascha had whispered to a friend.
“Hel-lo,” her friend responded. “It’s Brent Koki.”
Brent, a local boy from Käne‘ohe, began dancing at 18 years old, but always had a fascination with hip hop and quickly became part of Hawai‘i’s dance community.
The couple have two boys, who she affectionately calls her cubs. The cubs, of course, are hapa too — Japanese and Black from Sascha’s side and Japanese, Hawaiian and Chinese from Brent’s — and attend Hawaiian immersion school to learn more about a part of their culture Brent had been uncomfortable highlighting as a child.
Although Sascha says she wishes the cubs had continued Japanese-language school (they stopped during the pandemic), their Japanese heritage is everywhere. The cubs watch Japanese TV. They love her favorite childhood TV show, “Nintama Rantarou” and sing along to its theme song. They celebrate Japanese holidays like shichigosan. They also love to dance. They love hip hop. They make art.
“We’re making our own culture that’s both Japanese and Hawaiian, but also very American,” says Sascha. “We’re connecting all three cultures and making our own family culture.”
The Koki’s family culture includes Sascha’s curl journey — by maintaining her own curls she feels better equipped to teach her boys how to care for their curls, to model how to love their natural hair, too.
What began as a seemingly simple project, Sascha found herself drawn to connect with more girls with curls. Partway through the pandemic, she was participating in an online marketing conference, and a speaker discussed Brown Girl Biz World, where girls who are brown and Black connect with other girls in the business world.
It felt like the stars were aligning, Sascha says — that’s where her journey down the rabbit hole of self-identity began. After joining the community, the Black Lives Matter campaign began not long after, and Sascha really began to dig deeper into the injustices Black people face in America and what that looks like on the Mainland compared to Hawai‘i.
“People in Hawai‘i like to say, ‘oh that’s not us; this whole thing doesn’t affect us — but, in fact, it’s all so totally connected,” says Sascha, who began listening to podcasts and following Black Instagram collectives, who would post about Black news, celebrities and jokes. While she struggled to relate to the Black accounts, she easily connected with the Asian American accounts, seeing her Japanese grandma or an aunty in several memes.
Sascha says she’d joke that Brent was “more Black” than she was because he could relate to the slang used in internet memes through his love for hip hop. “I felt so distant from it — I couldn’t understand it,” says Sascha, describing how she’d scroll and puzzle “hmm, what does this mean…” while Brent would translate and explain why the meme was funny.
While summers were mainly spent in Japan, Sascha seldom returned to Washington, D.C. to visit her father’s family, maybe visiting her birthplace three to five times in her life, mainly because it had been cheaper and faster to travel to Japan than across the Pacific and entire Mainland.
Her parents divorced when Sascha was 16 and her mother met her stepdad while serving as his music manager, and her half-sister, Salena, was born when Sascha was 18. Her father moved to Japan, where he remarried and had two more kids. After a rift with her father a few years ago, her mother, who had her own storied relationship with her own father (which Sascha never knew about because she only remembers O-papa being a great grandpa), inspired Sascha to reconnect with her father, to show her kids that no matter what, there’s always a way back home. This year when the Kokis travel to Japan, her dad will meet her cubs for the first time.
As Sascha grows in her learning about her identity, she sees how she unconsciously and consciously emulated her mother — from working together in marketing, her love for fashion or the need to be active or mending relationships — she wants to do everything she can to be the same role model for her own kids.
Sascha, herself, is a reminder that people often don’t fit into the neat little boxes society often dictates one should and proves that forging your own path — through a curl journey, which leads to an accidental deep dive to redefine and reclaim your heritage — deserves to be celebrated and shared.
“I grew up saying ‘African American,’” says Sascha. “I felt really uncomfortable saying I was ‘Black.’” It wasn’t until 2020 where she read an article where the writer posed the question, “Why is everyone so afraid to say ‘Black?’ If you shy from the word ‘Black,’ does it mean you think of it as a negative’? If you believe that Black is a beautiful thing and something to be respected, use capital B, Black, as a term to respectfully call people.” The article resonated with Sascha, but she acknowledges that some people refer to themselves as African American and that’s perfectly okay. “I call myself Black,” says Sascha,“and that felt like a full circle embrace of the word. Yeah, okay — I’m Black. I’m Japanese and I’m Black. I’m Blasian.”