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The Yin and Yang of Moorea and Jade Howson

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang has endured for more than 24 centuries. It’s the principle of duality, recognizing how seemingly opposing or contrary forces may actually be complementary and interconnected. Its well-known symbol illustrates the elegant equilibrium between the two counterparts. Each side has, at its core, an element of the other. 

Our town represents this idea. Laguna is a village of artists and creators, and of business owners and entrepreneurs. We live where the mountains meet the shore. We’re passionate preservationists and progressive developers. Our differences are our strengths, and our contradictions can often complement one another. The uniting element at our common core seems to be fervor and dedication.

The Howson sisters embody this duality, as well. They are quintessential Laguna – the Yin and Yang of our town. One is fueled by extroverted energy, the other quiet and reserved confidence. One is an artist, the other an athlete. One a “water baby” who prefers the serenity of the ocean, and the other who’s often found buzzing around the Sawdust Festival. 

The yin at home

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Moorea and Jade Howson at home

Even their heritage reflects the Yin and Yang. Their paternal grandmother hails from Hong Kong, their grandfather from Akron, Ohio. The couple met in the Hong Kong airport in 1957 (one a pilot, the other a stewardess), but made the U.S. their home. East met west. 

Jade and Moorea are so dissimilar, few people recognize they’re related. “No one knows they’re sisters,” says their mother, Kris Howson. This seems true. Mention their names and plenty of locals know at least one of them – often times very well. But the common refrain: “Wait…she has a sister?!” Even teachers they had in common don’t connect the two.

For all the young women’s many differences, there are two crucial connections – their passionate personalities and the significant impact each one has made on our town. 

Queen Moorea

Moorea, the elder of the two, recently turned 21. If you’ve spent any time at the Sawdust Festival or Woods Cove, chances are you know “Moe.” She’s the sister who exudes extroverted energy and a bright personality. It’s probably what led her to be voted Laguna Beach High School’s Homecoming Queen in 2015 and Most Congenial in the California State Homecoming Queen competition that followed.

The yin tiara

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Moorea wearing her Homecoming tiara

“Everyone at school had to vote for the homecoming court,” Moe says. “Seven girls and seven guys. They kidnapped us at 5 a.m. We went to Shirley’s Bagels. That’s how we knew we got picked.” 

At the football game, the seven couples made their way to the field and walked through a giant picture frame held by the cheerleaders. They crowned Penn Nielson their king. Then a drumroll began and Moe’s friend and neighbor –Mason Pitz – announced Moorea’s name. She dropped to the ground and kissed the turf.

“The moment was particularly emotional because Mason presented the crown,” Kris says. Marc Pitz, Mason’s father, watched from the sidelines, leaning against a chain-link fence for support. The former owner of Dizz’s restaurant was battling pancreatic cancer and was months away from dying. “It was special having him there at that last game and having Mason as the announcer.”

Moe went on to compete in the California State Homecoming Queen competition. Though she didn’t take the crown, she took something far more meaningful and true to her spirit – the most congenial contestant on the field. The title earned her a trip to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis with 72 other Homecoming Queens to entertain a crowd of 75,000 fans.

It also earned her a day at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to have lunch with a teenage cancer survivor. “I never get enough of what they do for the people there,” Moe says. The experience was the highlight of her life, and perhaps the moment when she discovered her life calling – to put that congenial spirit to work in hospitals and nursing facilities, working with either the sick or the elderly.

Moe’s compassion and empathy are innate. Two weeks after her birth, she was diagnosed with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes heart defects, developmental delays, and cognitive impairments. Moe endured multiple cardiac surgeries as a child. The condition also prevents patients from growing at a normal rate and arrests their mental capacity to around age nine. But it’s also accompanied by a warm, trusting, and sparkling disposition. Those with Williams syndrome tend to have what is described as a “cocktail party” personality – social and friendly – but they have difficulties recognizing nuanced social cues and they’re trusting to a fault. It makes Moe ideally situated for her dream job, lifting patients’ spirits at St. Jude’s and other hospitals and facilities. 

As parents, Kris and Robert Howson have been extremely forthcoming with Moe and the community about her condition. “Everybody has something,” says Kris. “A bad back, food allergies, whatever. We’ve made it very matter-of-fact. We tell her, ‘There are things that are going to be harder for you.’”

Today Moe attends an Adult Transition Program through Capistrano Valley. She learns life skills – budgeting and banking, sports classes, and self-advocacy. She receives Community Based Instruction, working in a senior center, and she attends Saddleback for classes. Math is her favorite. She’s also great with jokes. Here’s one she likes: “What did the dentist get as an award? A little plaque.”

The Laguna community has embraced her. Well known and recognized around town, particularly at the Sawdust Festival and Woods Cove, residents look out for Moe, giving her some degree of independence and autonomy away from her parents. 

World Champion Jade

In contrast to her sister, Jade is tranquil and reserved. Although four years younger than Moe, she’s played the older sister role since around age six. “Jade probably developed so soft-spoken because of Moorea,” says Kris. 

But don’t mistake Jade’s introversion for shyness or insecurity. She’s a warrior on the water – fierce, driven, and competitive. Her quiet confidence is earned.

If you’re a regular Stu News reader, you’ll recognize Jade’s name from frequent headlines. Earlier this month, she took home two gold medals at the International Surfing Association’s World SUP & Paddleboard Championships in El Salvador. Jade earned the World Title for Fastest Sprinter in the Women’s Sprint, even though she’s only 17 years old. Last year, she won first in the junior Technical races in China. Jade is now Laguna’s Athlete of the Year for the 2020 Patriots Day Parade.

The yin Jade with board

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Jade poses with her SUP board

Competitions have taken Jade on international trips to El Salvador, Japan, Tahiti, and Denmark. She’s been to Hawaii multiple times, as well as North Carolina, Oregon, and Santa Cruz. She does 10 to 16 races per year. Her longest, a 27-mile cross from Maui to Molokai in Hawaii, took over four hours. “You need a good understanding of how the ocean works,” Jade says. “Currents, swells, and waves. This would be almost an impossible competition for people who don’t live at the ocean.”

Saltwater seems to flow through Jade’s blood. Robert and Kris own Harbour Surfboards in Seal Beach, Robert an avid surfer himself. Jade’s second home has always been the ocean. She began paddleboarding at age eight, started competing at 10, and now trains four days a week on the water and two more at the gym.

Her competitive edge may be her age, which not only brings the strength of youth, but a mental hurdle for her opponents to overcome. Most competitors are in their mid-20s or early 30s. (They came to the sport later in life. SUP didn’t gain notoriety until relatively recently. The ISA World Championships have only been around since 2012.) “Winning may mean more to them because it’s the sole focus of their lives,” Jade says. Until this year, she competed in the women’s division because they didn’t offer a junior section. And she won. “I’m the little threat,” she says. “I think it’s mental for them, not for me. I’m not out to prove anything. I see these competitions more as fun. Plus, I’ve gotten better at staying calm.”

That calmness comes in handy in several situations. Sharks, for example, aren’t uncommon off Laguna’s coast. They glide beneath her board all the time, so close their dorsal fins skim the surface. “You learn to read their body language,” Jade says. “They leave us alone. They aren’t aggressive unless they’re hungry, and our boards are bigger than they are.” 

But her best marine life sighting was with her dad off Fisherman’s Cove when she was 10 or 11 years old. “It was a beautiful summer day,” Jade recalls. “He had his underwater camera.” They stopped at a kelp bed about half-mile out and spotted a mola mola sunfish, an uncommon and surprising find. “My dad got really excited, taking all these pictures.” Jade reached down and a bee stung her hand. Allergic to beestings, she began to panic, telling her father they needed to go in. “Just one more picture,” he told her. That’s when they spotted a grey whale nearby. They saw the spout. “He came up and slapped his tail down in the water, 25 feet from us. I was crying about my hand and my dad just kept taking more pictures and saying, ‘Wow! This is so cool!’” 

No surprise Jade plans to study marine biology or chemistry in college. She’s up to the task, maintaining stellar grades and getting regular acceptances to her university applications. “She’s gotten very good at time management,” Kris says. “When she was in junior high, she was paddling, playing soccer, dancing, taking guitar lessons, and maintaining her schoolwork. She’s learned to finish her homework during lunch, and study whenever she can.”

The yin Jade at home

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Jade Howson at home

For all her success, Jade doesn’t like the limelight. After winning the World Championship, she preferred sitting under a tree with a well-earned Coke to photo shoots and interviews. “She’s a lot like me,” says Kris. “Even-keeled and calm. But she has my husband’s athleticism.” It’s a winning combination.

What’s in a name?

The sisters’ names themselves hold significance. “Robert proposed to me on the island of Moorea, Tahiti,” says Kris. “At that moment, we started talking about our future and all the excitement to come. We briefly spoke about having children and thought what a cool name for a girl. Two years later, Moorea came and it was perfect for our firstborn. We also thought it was super cute to secretly know the real meaning of the name: yellow lizard.”

The yin trio

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Kris, Moorea, and Jade Howson 

When Jade came along, Kris and Robert wanted another meaningful name. “I thought of Robert’s parents, his mom in particular. She loves jade. I looked up the meaning of jade in Chinese culture. Bingo. It’s the symbol of goodness, preciousness, and beauty. To the Chinese, jade stone is also the embodiment of the Confucian virtues of courage, wisdom, modesty, justice, and compassion. So perfect for her.”

Stitching their Yin and Yang together

Although the sisters now enjoy a close relationship, it wasn’t always so. When they were younger, Moe was hard on Jade. “I pulled Moorea aside and explained that her dad and I wouldn’t always be here,” says Kris. “One day she would need her sister. She needed to be nicer.” That conversation seemed to change the tide. 

Though their parents have gone to great lengths to shield Jade from taking responsibility for her sister, today Jade voluntarily takes on a more caregiving role. She drives Moe around. Jade and her boyfriend take Moe surfing (even though Moe isn’t too keen on the water), and out for ice cream. “She still hasn’t taken me to Disneyland,” says Moe, which is – of course – her favorite spot. She has the annual pass to prove it. Jade, unsurprisingly, doesn’t care for the place.

When Jade cut her hair recently, it didn’t take long for Moe to follow suit and sport a style that matched. For all their opposite interests and distinct personality traits, what they have in common is each other and an obvious affection that transcends superficial differences.

They’re interconnected opposites. Or maybe they’re just sisters.

 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

Tom Johnson, Publisher - Tom@StuNewsLaguna.com

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