Singer-songwriter Kina Grannis has built her career on her musical talent, and hasn’t made a big deal of her mixed-race heritage: She is hapa.
Her father is European American and her mother is Japanese American. She has made a big deal of her mother Trish’s ethnicity, because she has myelofibrosis, a rare blood cancer. Grannis has been an outspoken advocate for Asian stem cell donors to step forward. She served as grand marshal of San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival Parade this past spring so that she could promote her call for people to donate.
Her musical identity isn’t about being mixed. She doesn’t avoid it — she has hapa musical friends like Marie Digby and she has covered and collaborated with fellow Asian American artists like David Choi. However, her biggest influences as a child came from James Taylor, and the song she’s best known for these days is the old Elvis Presley chestnut “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” which she performed during the iconic wedding scene in the 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Still, Grannis is comfortable discussing being mixed and loves to share stories of her affection for Japan and Japanese culture.
She was raised in Orange County in Southern California, which is of course very diverse and has a huge concentration of Asians. “So for me, multiracial or hapa was the identity I grew up with,” she says.
“I feel really lucky. It was only ever a wonderful thing. And I know for some people, it can be confusing and conflicting. But for me, it felt like the best of both worlds, like I just got to call more of the planet my own. I loved getting to go through the world having this special thing that I got to be a part of.”
The mix of her cultural roots led her to treasure her Japanese side all the more. “I loved growing up with the Japanese things that I did, with the food and the culture and a tiny bit of the language,” she says. Her mom doesn’t speak Japanese but her grandmother does. “And there’s, you know, some phrases and words that we always used around the house.”
Being mixed also gave her an affinity for others. “Whenever I found other people that were mixed race too (it) kind of felt like I have these little radars, I think it means, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re like me, you’re confusing looking. Like people don’t know what you are,’” she laughs.
“I guess that’s one interesting thing about being mixed race is that whether it’s a good or bad thing, people don’t really know what to make of you right off the bat. And in some ways, it makes you a little bit of a chameleon like growing up.”
When she was younger, she says some people assumed she was Latina. Her Japanese-ness bloomed when she got to the University of Southern California and after, when she found her voice through posting her music on YouTube. “So I’m getting into college and I found a best friend who is Japanese there. And then after college finding this huge Asian community through YouTube and getting to connect to more of that side of myself has been really, really beautiful. And I’m just so grateful for it too.”
She was raised with some Japanese culture in her daily life, through her grandmother and an aunt as well as her mom. “What parts of Japanese culture did I grow up with? I think one of course, we were a no-shoe house,” she remembers. “So shoes were always at the door and friends were always a little like, ‘What do I do? Do I take my shoes off or not?’ We didn’t wear shoes in the house.”
She was also raised celebrating some Japanese holidays. “We also grew up doing some Girls’ Day traditions. My grandmother had a beautiful set of dolls that we would set up and my mom would take me and my sisters out of school, and we’d go have a little special day together,” she remembers fondly.
“So yeah, it was definitely peppered in here and there in a way that made all of the Japanese stuff feel very special to me.”
And food, of course. “Every birthday meal for me was a special going-out-to-sushi meal. My grandmother was an incredible cook, and she cooked all Japanese cuisine. So especially when she came over, we were all making tenpura together, or making gyoza. And just like feasting on everything Japanese.
“My mother is also an amazing cook. She kind of did some Japanese and some whatever else. So food was definitely a huge part of it.”
Japanese culture was simply woven into daily life in all sorts of ways that were subtle but important. “It seems like small things but even growing up saying ‘shoyu’ or ‘o-shibori’ or ‘ohashi,’ and these little words were peppered throughout your life,” she says, thinking back. “And then you go into the world and it’s like, ‘Oh, other people don’t use these words.’”
“That’s all part of my cool Japanese heritage.”
She’s passing on her cool Japanese heritage — and her biracial heritage — to Aya, a daughter who was born in 2021 to Grannis and her husband, Jesse Epstein. She thinks it’s great that her daughter is “quapa,” one-quarter Japanese.
Grannis has been to Japan both as a young girl and as an adult musician, and she’ll surely be taking Aya there at some point.
“The first time I went to Japan was when I was 12,” she recalls. “My grandmother, she decided early on that when each one of me and my sisters turned 12, she was going to take us to Japan with her for a month. So my older sister had already gone and done that adventure.
“And when I turned 12, my grandmother took me. I’d never been out of the country. Half of it was kind of exploring Tokyo and Kyoto but then the other half, I had a really, really cool experience where my grandmother had some close friends that lived in Chichibu.”
That’s when she got the full Japanese immersion. “We got to go live with this family and my grandmother actually left then but I stayed with this family. I don’t know if it was for one week or two weeks, but I went to school in Japan and I spoke no Japanese. It was a very interesting experience.
“Getting to be plopped, like right in the middle of what really is Japanese culture. What is Japanese school like? What are Japanese kids like? It was so fascinating and so amazing, like, just the way that the Japanese kids welcomed me and even though we couldn’t communicate at all and just looking through their desk to give me omiyage (gifts) and really welcoming me and getting to see how Japanese people treat their schools. It was really beautiful to see like, everybody cleaned and everybody cooked. And that was just part of everybody’s job.”
That trip has stayed with her. “That was a huge, huge dose of Japan when I was young, that was really impactful and very cool.” She went with her sister after that, and has traveled there to perform in the years since.
“And every time I go, I’ve just fallen more and more in love with it,” Grannis says. “I don’t know, I think as I get older, I appreciate nature more and just everything about Japan is so beautiful. So I love going back and my family and I went back to Japan, maybe four years ago, the whole family got to go. And my mom hadn’t gone back since she was 20. And my dad had never been so that was very cool to get to experience it as a whole family. And yeah, we ate a lot. And it was really great.”
It’ll be fascinating to see how she relates to her Japanese side as she continues her American evolution as an artist and a parent, eventually taking her daughter to learn about that side of her roots. That’s the richness that being multiracial offers.
Nichi Bei News contributing writer Gil Asakawa is a journalist, blogger (www.nikkeiview.com) and author of “Being Japanese American” and “Tabemasho! Let’s Eat! The Tasty History of Japanese Food in America.”