By Leslie Kimiko Ward
To this day, my grandmother cannot stand the smell of mutton. “They boiled it all day in camp,” she says. “It smelled …” My grandmother pinches her face so tightly, I wince in response.
In college, a professor tells me about the internment. She explains how U.S. citizens were rounded up, forced to abandon their homes, pets, businesses, friends, lives, then marched by armed guards, taking only what they could carry, to live behind barbed wire, inside American concentration camps.
“Why did no one ever tell me?” I ask my mother.
“It’s not the kind of thing you tell.”
Even though I am curious, I do not ask how many of our family members had to share a bed inside the squalid tarpaper barracks or manure encrusted horse stables.
February 19 is the anniversary of Executive Order 9066. On that day, in 1942, our nation’s president declared my legal immigrant family enemies of the state. My grandfather was a Fife high schooler, a tri-letter athlete, class valedictorian. He was weeks from graduation when his family was rounded up. Following news of the recent travel ban, I asked my grandfather what he wants America to know, now, about what happened to him, then. He sends me this message:
“I think our government made a bad mistake upon some poor advice to put all of us in concentration camps during WWII. They soon discovered it was a mistake so they tried to correct it by allowing us to volunteer in the armed forces. Most of us were raised to respect the authority and not do anything to place shame upon yourself or your family. This created an atmosphere of men who fought with honor and broke all kinds of records during the war. It also created a group of men who fought together as a team, which made them successful. We fought to protect our nation from all adversaries.”
My grandfather received two purple hearts and a congressional gold medal for his service. 60 years later, the graduating class of Fife high school invited him to walk in their graduation ceremony and give his valedictorian speech.
These are the stories our family tells. Hopeful stories about a greatest generation, about war heroes and triumph over adversity, about a model minority.
Assimilation came fast in our family. Most Sansei, third generation Japanese Americans, married white. As a result, my generation, Yonsei, is half Japanese, hapa, like me. When my hapa cousin and his wife had babies, I remember being shocked at how white they looked. Two
generations. That’s all it took to disappear the ancestral breadcrumbs from our faces.
“That is the cutest kid I have ever seen,” my dad keeps telling me. “Have you seen a cuter kid?”
“You two have the same hairline,” I remind him.
Last week, I message my cousin, the one who looks most like me. Our white dads voted Trump. Our Japanese moms don’t make waves. My cousin admits she hasn’t spoken to her parents since the inauguration.
My mom and I talk on the phone today. She’s sad, she tells me, that politics are breaking up families. “Dad and I agree to disagree,” she assures. I know this means no one is talking to anyone about anything.
My full name means “the peerless guardian of the dark grey fortress.” I am a hapa Yonsei, fourth generation, Japanese American. My grandparents’ stories live inside me now. I spin and weave and grow around them so they won’t hurt so much. This is our intergenerational trauma. Most of the time, I pretend these stories don’t exist. This is my privilege.
“We believe that when we are dealing with the Caucasian race we have methods that will test the loyalty of them . . . But when we deal with the Japanese we are in an entirely different field and we cannot form any opinion that we believe to be sound.” – US Congress Select Committee, 1942
One summer, I got into a yelling match with my white cousin. We were in a Chick-fil-A in Greenville, South Carolina. “You locked up my GRANDPA!” I remember screaming.
When the relocation orders came down, junk dealers descended on the Japanese community. Opportunists bullied sales and outright stole Japanese American property in the ensuing chaos. Looting and vandalism happened concurrently with the hasty evacuations. In Santa Anita, CA, a riot broke out in response to rumors that policemen were illegally confiscating items for personal use. One policeman was beaten. Martial law was installed.
Two months ago, in Tennessee, I watch as my uncle’s face reddens. He is talking so fast and so loud, into the rearview mirror of our parked car, trying to convince me that discussions about racism, misogyny, civil rights, Black Lives Matter, constitutionality, are “deck chairs on the Titanic” until “Trump can fix our economy.”
My grandparents sit silently beside me in the backseat. I am the one who brings up the internment. “War is hell,” my Grandpa tells me, later, after my uncle is out of the car.
“Mrs. Nelson began to weep. Through her tears, she asked, “Why are they doing this to you? How can they do this to you? You are American citizens, born right here in Portland. It’s wrong, all wrong. What is going to happen to you?”
We sat silently. We had no answers, but the memory of strawberries red and unreachable.” – Sato Hashizume, “Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American
Next week, I’ll begin drumming taiko again. I know that what I need now is to beat all of my feelings into a drum, and bathe myself in echoes of my ancestors. I know this will give me strength.
If there is such a thing as truth, and I believe there is, I will keep searching for it inside my family’s story. Immigrants, zealots, healers, terrorists, capitalists, racists, prisoners, queers,
God-fearing bible worshipers—I am the legacy of all those I seek to understand. If I can begin to reconcile these conflicts inside of myself, then I can begin to embody the unity I seek in the world. As it happens, rarely do I have to dig very deep to find relevance, to feel empathy, or gain insight.