Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lucky Sansei

*Issei -- immigrant first generation
*Nisei -- American born second generation
*Sansei -- American born third generation
*gaman -- perservere
*kimochi -- deep feelings

I am a sansei, and I have lived a lucky life owing to the suffering of others. I was born two months after World War II ended. I did not witness my California family’s tearful departure back to Richmond to pick up the pieces after the war. A few years before, these relatives had left their homes, farm and greenhouses in a matter of days in a so-called “voluntary relocation.” Fortunate to have relatives in the interior, they avoided going to the concentration camp by moving to Twin Falls, Idaho. Our landlord whom we called Grandpa Marshall allowed my grandfather to frame a small house for them. Close quarters.

I did not witness the daily life of being Japanese among paranoid and hateful neighbors. I did not see the family dog killed. I was not hit by stones on the way home from school. I did not witness the Sheriff come into the home to confiscate hunting guns or knives, cameras, radio. I grew up thinking all family albums had pages with haphazard blank spots. I did not see the photos of family members in Japan stripped out. I did not see the tops of our neighbor’s heads as they sneaked below our windows to see if we “Japs” had turned out our lights by curfew.

It was not my high school career which was interrupted, or my college dreams dashed.

Instead, all of this was endured by my grandparents, uncles and mother before I was born. And they put their struggles and their survival into small stories that are my precious inheritance. Because of these stories, I did not suffer the loss my sansei friends did whose parents spent their young adulthood in camps. My sansei friends talk about an inexplicable feeling formed by her parents' secrets that all things Japanese seemed shameful. I remember a sansei friend telling me that she always thought her parents met at church camp. They did not talk about Minidoka. She found out about Executive Order 9066 in high school reading a short paragraph in a history book. I was spared their ambivalence.

My life was enriched by stories about grandma and grandpa toiling behind horses pulling plows, of grandpa delivering all five children himself because they couldn’t get to a doctor. My life was rich with stories about my mother and uncles' long walk to school, owning only one outfit of school clothes apiece, coming home to work in the field. More important, my life was rich with stories about Hunt Camp, also known as Minidoka. My grandparents said it was unjust, wrong. They told me about grandma’s friend who had twins, twins who died in makeshift incubators. They told me when townspeople did not buy yasaimono (vegetables) from grandpa because he was a Jap that he took the produce over to Hunt Camp. He witnessed what was happening to the people there. He said it was wrong.

My mother read Mine Okubo’s book to me when I was a child and I never tired of the sketches of people who looked like family, stories of wind, sand, no privacy, no freedom, of gaman, (perseverance) of race tracks turned into gardens with hard community work, of beauty behind barbed wire.

I was so wealthy with Truth that when I started school, I survived being shunned, being punished by teachers for speaking Japanese, being called a Jap -- never wanting to be anything other than Japanese, hearing Japanese. Why would I want to be anyone else than someone who could hang out with Grandpa and Grandma?

At home, even when they had retired from farming and their sons took full responsibility, Grandma and Grandpa were still the center and strength of our family. They were small in stature, peaceful, humble and, at the same time, carried such authority. Because we weren’t in camp, there were no laws which forbade the Japanese language to be spoken in our home, a rule which stripped issei of the ability to influence and lead. There were no mess halls where the generations ate apart from one another. We all sat around one table during meals, at Grandma and Grandpa’s table.

There were laws that limited my family, yes. The Alien Land Law prevented them from buying land. We lived with laws that prevented the issei from citizenship, anti voting laws and anti miscegenation laws until 1967; a segregated society was our reality. Limited though it may have been, our freedom to be a family unit was left uninterrupted so the stories, the strength and the kimochi (deeply held feelings) flowed from one generation to the next without stop, from grandparent to parent to grandchildren.

Because I was lucky enough to know my grandparents as I did, I know how much the nisei who had to become heads of family in camp, their parents forbidden to take any leadership role in camp, must hurt when remembering what happened to their issei parents. I was able to spend every day with issei who were able to live their life, hard as it was, uninterrupted by a concentration camp. It hurts me to think of anyone from that precious generation suffering as much as the issei parents in camp. When people talk about how those camps were built to protect us, I have to say, as a child born to people who lived outside of "Zone A," that is a lie. Those who were interned, the majority of my people, have borne so much pain and loss that it reverberated from one generation to the next, even to those who came after the war.

I am so grateful to the Nikkei survivors of the camps who tell their stories at places like Tule Lake Pilgrimage or on panels at any number of Days of Remembrance all over this country. They tell their story even when it hurts. Their history belongs to all of us and if we tell it, it will belong to our children as well.

These survivors are my heroes, every one of them. They have turned interrupted lives into something whole by breaking silence, by witnessing, by remembering. They have dug deeply into themselves to understand and shared what they found with everyone. They have honored their parents’ memories. They have inspired a generation to love justice. They have always acted with forgiveness and simple generosity. I am so lucky to have been born to such people.

I am a lucky sansei, raised by nisei and issei . . . still.


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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.