Wednesday, October 1, 2008

WW/ On the Winnemem Path of Life

My husband and I follow the Winnemem way of life. The Winnemem people have lived on the McCloud, or Winnemem, River from the beginning of time and were entrusted by the Great Creator with taking care of hundreds of sacred places from the Sacremento River to Mt. Shasta. How did a Sansei from southern Idaho come to follow the Winnemem way of life? Providence. Ancestral guidance. Compassion by those who have spiritual and historical claim to this land.

Twenty years ago, my husband and I adopted our daughter Soon Sun from Pusan City, Korea. From the day she joined the family, it was clear that our little five year old daughter had endured emotional trauma and that its effects went beyond our ordinary parenting abilities. We called the adoption agency begging for help. But they were perplexed also. Therapy which depended on words proved to be be futile. In desperation, we even called a friend in Oklahoma who was a spiritual doctor and who had helped many of us in the past. He suggested we go with him to a woman doctor in Northern California for help. We accompanied our friend to the first of many ceremonies of Winnemem spiritual doctor and leader, Florence Jones.

Winnemem leader and doctor, Florence Jones had brought her ceremonies back to the sacred sites in the Seventies, one of the first petitioners with the passage of the first Freedom of Religion Act. At her ceremony, my doctor friend and I joined a long line of people who had arrived asking for help. She carried a small root and smoked me up. An elderly man, Emerson Miles, her cousin and translator assisted her. Florence handed me a small spirit helper box to hold with both hands on my heart. I closed my eyes. She asked me if I saw anything. At the moment she asked I saw an image of two small animals standing by a fir sapling. In front of them, I saw the Great Mt. Shasta growing up out of the ground higher and higher, and told her that. She asked, “How do the little animals feel?”

“They feel like that’s the way it’s supposed to be and they’re satisfied, er .. happy” I stumbled with my words.

She finished my sentence, “They feel normal.” I nodded my head. She said, "That's good. What else do you see?"

Just then I saw an image of Soon Sun and told her.

She said, “You think you’re a bad mother but you’re not.” That started my tears flowing as she continued, “When you need help, come to me; I will be your mother.”

For a moment, I felt a tug of guilt, because I have a mother, but I pushed that thought away and accepted her words into my heart.

I also saw another image, Mark Miyoshi, taiko drummaker in Mt. Shasta, his smiling face floating, looking at Mt. Shasta, but before I could tell her, Emerson clapped loudly once and I jumped, startled. He said to Florence, “Did you see that? A white butterfly just came. That’s good.”

I opened my eyes again, a bit dazed and thanked her. I walked down to Ash Creek to join the family. My younger brother Roger who also came for help for his two sons and Soon Sun were playing. Roger said, “There was a little white butterfly who flew over and tapped each of these kids on the head. Wish you could have seen it!”

Since that day, I have often been comforted by the white butterflies which I associate with my doctor and Winnemem mother.

Will and I continued to go to the Winnemem ceremonies, and I would call Florence on the phone from time to time just to check in. I didn’t expect she knew me from all the hundreds of other people who came twice a year to ceremonies, but she was always friendly enough. One day when I called, a man answered and said, “I can’t talk. They’re wheeling Granny out to go to emergency. She had a stroke!” and hung up. I was stunned and didn’t know what to do.

Hesitantly, I called again the next day. The woman who answered asked, “Are you the lady who called earlier? I told Benny we should have asked for your phone number but things were happening so fast.” Sharon Branham, a Hoopa friend of Florence told me that Florence would be coming out of the hospital in a few days. The circumstances were that her family members were all out of town for a tribal commitment, and they needed someone to care for Florence when she first got home. Before I knew it, Florence had ok’d my daughter and me to go to her little ranch.

A few days later, Soon Sun and I were sitting by her three season pond, ducks swimming, and from the side, branches filled with pink roses spilling into the water. Such a serene place. Soon, Florence was driven in her Cadillac, and she and three elders were helped out by “Bear” who was living in one of the trailers at the ranch, helping out and learning the spiritual Winnemem way. Emerson and Margie, Florence’s elderly daughter, both blind, and Leona, hunched and elderly, were all being taken care of by Florence. She did the cooking and cleaning. These four elders kept each other company and lived peacefully at the ranch. My unspoken heartfelt prayer for our daughter, troubled by abuse, was answered. Here she was surrounded by wise and good grandmas and grandpas, on a ranch full of animals.

Taking care of Florence was simple. She had already taken care of the stroke by using her own herbs. She just needed rest and someone to cook and clean. Soon Sun and I worked during the day, checking in on the elders. Leona watched me like a hawk making sure I knew that everything had its place and how Florence liked her kitchen to be organized. Emerson talked with us, and laughed at his own jokes sometimes, and gave wisdom other times. Margie, Florence’s daughter, sat in her chair, carrying all her dolls and bags. Although she could not see, she heard everything. She also would speak in her crackly, gentle, sing song voice about everybody, about the history, about the family.

We had a lot of time to ourselves. Once the housework was done, Soon Sun and I would take walks outside with a bag to pick up the cans and litter. I said, “Let’s do this for Grandma Florence because one thing we do know is she did not drink the pop, and these are not her pop cans. It’s not easy for an elder to do all this bending work.” We also raked the shredded magazines which had been mown down with the grass and dispensed of them. According to Leona, Florence watched us through the window and remarked, “That woman works like a man.” My daughter and I felt warmed by the compliment. It’s still the compliment I treasure the most.

Grandma taught me how to cook while I was there. As a Japanese I didn’t learn to cook huge pieces of meat. But granny taught me how to cook enough meat to feed a crowd, good and tender. She taught me how to make Winnemem bread.

One morning, Grandma and I talked about Soon Sun. That afternoon she told Soon Sun, “Come in here with me,” and took her to the kitchen. She smoked her off with the root and put her hands on Soon Sun, particularly on her back, wiping as if to take something off of her, and gathered it into her hands and placed it on her spirit helper box. Florence shook with it, and as she closed her eyes, she still shook. When she finished she looked at my daughter and said, “I have never seen so much fear in anyone. What are you afraid of, little girl?” Soon Sun who was giggling throughout, trying to wriggle away, ticklish, just laughed.

I was surprised. Soon Sun seemed fearless in her behavior. Nothing seemed to faze her. But I was to learn ten years later, how filled with abuse her little life had been, and how her brave little spirit had to become detached to stay alive. Bravado became her personality, and her shell for so much of her life.

One morning Florence said, “I’m sending you back to your husband. But first, I’m taking you around the world.” I didn’t know what she meant, but it sounded exciting to me! I learned that going around the world was to go around the boundaries of the Winnemem world, exactly 100 miles as Grandma said. This was a spring tradition when her family gathered to help her gather all her medicinal herbs. I remember at the first stop I asked if I could put down tobacco as I learned from my doctor friend and I still remember Grandma Florence looking at me with teasing eyes, “What for? Plants don’t smoke!”

Along the way around the world we stopped at the spring where we filled up recycled jugs with the water that Grandma Florence and the others used every day. They did not drink tap water. The water tumbled from the roots of big sugar pine down the mountain side into a small pond. That place is still one of my favorite places.

The next day we were to return home to Oregon. Florence took my hands and told me, “You come down anytime you want.”

I'm sure my smile reached from ear to ear because I was thinking "Thank you, Creator, for a grandma, for elders, for a little farm with animals, for all that I no longer have from my childhood and can provide my daughter and that she needs so much” and that is still my prayer. “Thank you!”

I returned every month from that time. During the summer vacations, Soon Sun and later my foster daughter Margaret and I would come to stay a month. As Florence, whom by then we all called Grandma Florence, or Granny, would often remind us, “This is the University of Life!” This was the best place to teach the children how to grow up.

At the ranch, our daughters learned how to take care of animals, how to take care of home and land. At the ranch, our daughters and I sat at the feet of elders listening to life lessons. So many stories of life about the Winnemem before gold was found in the Sacramento River region and harsh stories of life afterwards. At the ranch, our daughters connected more than they have to any other place with a sense of belonging -- aunties, uncles, cousins, Granny’s big family. And the biggest gift, they found faith. I won’t exaggerate that either of my daughters kept faith. As each precious elder passed on, especially Granny, they may have been set adrift. But as Granny always told me, “they may get lost, but they know where to go when they need to.”

As for me, even after Margaret and Soon Sun moved to other places, I continued to go, every month. A few years ago, my beloved Winnemem mother passed on just a couple of years shy of 100 years old. As I sat in the prayer house around the Sacred Fire the day of her funeral, Mark, Head Man of the Winnemem and husband to Grandma Florence's successor, her niece Caleen came in and said, "Granny asked Caleen and me to take care of you and Mark Miyoshi. So we are offering you tribal membership. She was thinking about you guys." I still blush at my naive response which was to ask "would I still be Japanese?"

During that year of grieving I would think back on that moment many times feeling so stupid. One morning, as I was remembering, Grandma's voice filled me "Where do you go when your children need help? Where do you go when you're sick? Where do you go to pray?" That gave me the courage and words I needed to talk to Mark and Caleen correcting the perception. Of course. I was Winnemem. I may have been born Japanese, but I knew in my heart that my issei grandparents put me on this path in response to my private loneliness being Japanese in America. I am not turning my back on family. Family is with me all the time. I am not erasing my personal history. That forgetfulness is encouraged in America, but not in Winnemem. The Winnemem people accept me wholly for who I am. I am not discarding my upbringing. I am embracing it -- my gentle grandfather Shichiro Kawai who taught me all I believe about nature in the farmlands of Idaho, from Misao Kawai who taught me right from wrong, from my mother and uncles and aunts who modeled every day family clans and extended ties. Because of Grandma Florence's compassion for us and her desire for us to be taken care of even after she had gone, because of Caleen and Mark's compassion, I have the opportunity to belong where I belong. The embarrassment which tied up my tongue was gone.

I went back to the ranch and broached the subject with both Mark and Caleen. I told them that I felt Granny had visited me and what she told me. They each laughed and said "We were wondering when you were going to come around." Caleen explained you can be born Winnemem and not be Winnemem. It's the path of life you live. Spiritual ties were significant as are blood ties.

I am Winnemem, rather than American. It is of great comfort to me that my leader is Caleen, not GWB or any other president trapped in a political reality which makes moral leadership impossible. While presidents prosper, Caleen gives everything up for her responsibilities to the land and for the ceremonies as well as caring for her people. Winnemem leaders are not materially rich but they are wealthy in responsibility. (Caleen joked once as we all worked hard on our outfits getting ready for ceremony, "We're all working for Winnemem wage" which is -- at zero -- a whole lot less than minimum wage.) My leader is responsible for 100's of active sacred lands. My leader leaves people in awe with her wisdom gained from personal (not textbook) knowledge of every aspect of Nature. My leader prioritizes elders and children as issues of greatest significance. My leader looks into the future generations. When my leader goes to war, it is far from being a war of destruction and hate. She follows the spirit not the ego and listens to the Creator for direction rather than put words in god's mouth. My leader understands that global warming is really a global “warning.” The work must be for all of nature, not discrete pieces. The work includes a transformation of lifestyle as we know it. We cannot remain outside of the solution. My leader knows this because at the same time that the salmon knew and the rivers knew and the Earth itself knew, she also knew that we are in the last days of crisis, not at the beginning.

I am thankful to my immigrant grandparents for teaching me well. I am thankful for the hard life my mother lived, forcing her to bring her babies home and sacrifice personal goals to live under her parents' roof for our sake. I am thankful to my family for all they endured so I could be brought up influenced in the old way so much so that I became homesick away from them. I am thankful to have been led by our daughter Soon Sun from Korea to the loving help, the family and sacred places of the Winnemem people.

As a sansei, I feel I've come exactly where I am meant to be . . .side by side with the Winnemem to carry on the good work.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pan Asian Rites of Passage

Will Lu is a film director based in Los Angeles, California. But he flies out to work with Pan Asian youth in Oregon to teach film, all afternoon, four days a week in July. Why would a person leave in July for any place far from a beach?

Middle schoolers, high schoolers show up at 8:45 in the morning to the Lane Community College campus for an orientation. Why do students newly freed from the halls of schools, voluntarily come to spend four days a week for a whole month of their precious summer? What about the teachers for whom summer is just as precious, or those who have retired. Why come back?

Rites of Passage was formed by Greg Evans, LCC employee, his brainchild. The African American Rites of Passage Summer Academy was first. Then his friend Yungsoona Geil Walker suggested a Pan Asian Rites Summer Academy quickly followed by Puertas Abuertas led by Jim Garcia and Umista who is now headed by James Florendo. Both Florendo and Garcia are LCC employees. The main function for the ROP academies is as a recruitment tool for the community college nestled into the southeast hills, an attractive campus of buildings, which almost look like a small mountain with paths zigzagging among them. The ROP summer academies bring young students of color to campus, giving them free bus tickets and free lunch cards, paying for all their books and hosting them for many experiences. The hope is that the students will become so familiar with the campus and the idea of going to college that they, even if college may have seemed economically unattainable, will return to LCC after they graduate from high school. They would be familiar with the counseling centers and many adults who will be ready to serve their needs. Under Evans' leadership, each ROP is allowed to go its own way as each cadre of teachers decide on their own what it is needed for their community's youth to support their academic success when they return to school in the fall.

Dr. Anselmo Villanueva, retired administrator, first encouraged me to become part of Rites of Passage and I have never regretted it. That decision meant my last three years of teaching had no revitalizing summer vacation, but ROP energized me more than I could imagine. It was refreshing working with the young students who were so much more comfortable with parent involvement than most. I enjoyed the kinship formed with all the students, the freedom with which they expressed affection for their teachers and one another. Being PanAsian became the norm.

We believed that the best thing ROP could give Asian Pacific youth were experiences which would help them be comfortable in their own skin, encourage their Voice, and help create a support network of friends. Asian youth are spread all over three districts, and may even be the only Asian in their school. Anselmo, Multicultural Coordinator Bettie Sing Luke and I brainstormed in his office and assembled a staff that included two important strands. I told Anselmo, I wanted the students to learn Asian movement, like Lion Dance. I told him how much that meant to some of my students at Jefferson when they formed the Lion Dance team that goes on today. No longer was being Asian considered quiet and “nerdy” when the dramatic, colorful lion made acrobatic moves to the beat of cymbals and drums.

And Anselmo suggested young Jason Mak just returned from UCLA’s film school. As a middle school teacher I had already learned the power of putting a camera into a young person’s hands.
In the beginning we taught a class on Asian American literature and Asian American social studies. However, over the four years of the summer institute we have adjusted giving more time to Jason. Making film is not only time consuming but with less time it becomes stressful and deadline becomes as deadly as any experience. During deadline editing week, all the morning class time gets sucked into the student film projects.

The Pan Asian Rites of Passage program has now evolved into my morning class which is responsible of gathering everything together forour capstone performance. We do some writing in that class, writing to be shared publically. We listen to role models and elders and learn the history of Asian Pacific Asians. This we learn to pass on to others at capstone. We may make art, music. We design the t-shirt. And we discuss many issues.

The Asian movement activities have grown. One year, talented choreographers Boon Tran and Chau Nguyen organized a fan dance troupe. This year we offered Fan Dance, Chinese Lion Dance and Hip Hop taught by dancer Chris Peyreya. The “America’s Top Dance Crew” on MTV with heavy representation by Filipino, Korean, Chinese and Japanese hip hop artists, both men and women motivated ROP students to also learn.

Like every other year, this year has its stories. This year, only a couple of students came excited about the program. With so many graduates there were only about four returning students. Everyone else was new. Angela didn’t want to come. Being a junior she wanted one summer to relax. She had come to ROP from the beginning as a middle schooler. But she wanted to make a film and meet Will Lu so she was a good sport about it. Richard was visibly angry, arms folded in front of him, scowling. Only Tri and Eugenia came excited. But within a week ROP had bonded!

Anselmo shared the story about stopping by Tracey and Jazmin's house the second week, and the girls running out the door yelling, "We are so proud to be Filipina!!" Richard's mother shared that Richard was angry at first but within a week he enjoyed himself. Richard was on the drumline at his high school, and for us, his exciting beats kept raised all our excitement in the Lion Dance. Emilie wow'd her lion dance coach, Matt Lee. He was so pleased to have a young woman capable of dancing the head of the lion. Tracey's Buddha had such personality!
Jazmin and Tri became uncoomplished hip hop dancers. No physical challenge ever fazes them. Eugenia, Tri and Keegan made sure no one, no matter how shy, was left out. Alan may have held back for a bit, but soon he was involved in all aspects. He is known, whether in dance, in filmmaking, in preparing for interviewing elders, or writing to be prepared and ready to go no matter what. Justin who was quiet in the beginning, became known for his accomplishments in speaking and in lion dancing. Andrew may have worried us by getting lost on the first day and not arriving home on time. But he was not last ever again in any way of speaking. We relied upon him. Kimmie put shyness aside and became everyone's friend. d Accolades for Angela for sticking with it. Thumi and Angela never let a moment slow down.

They decided the adults who were in the beginning of talking about doing the Capstone together, Latino, African American an Pan Asian, that that was not soon enough. They met with Greg Evans and got everything going in the 11th hour. No one cared about the awkwardness of last minute melding. No one complained about the length of the program. Every person witnessed pride and confidence from future leaders.

Michael and Jordon Klindt had had the students work with August William plays. The students were inspired to write their own play and at Capstone presented the play, skillfully using the Little Theatre, even spilling into the audience to bring them into the drama of African American students passionately advocating for inclusion in the curriculum in part of the schoolboard. Standing ovation. I remembered their teacher Michael Klindt as a young eighth grader on the African American History Project, already becoming a leader then. It moved me to see his own shining example for the youth, his commanding presence as he not only introduced the performance, but also lifted his students up and taught the audience at the same time, with the passionate conviction that both he and Jordon have for what they do.

For our part, of course, the Lion led the procession of our school to the theater followed by our parents and supporters. They and the fan dancers, both men and women, put on a dance, a flurry of color, expressive of the beauty and power of nature. Hip Hop, a new dance form to us was to be performed, but the only two students who had the confidence to perform looked at the expanded audience decided they weren't ready for this venue. It's one thing to perform in front of parents but not here, not hip hop. When Jazmin had the courage to say the hip hop performance would be cancelled she was greet with good natured laughter that felt like the audience had reached over and patted her reassuringly on the back.

The PanAsian Rites of Passage then went to the student-produced films. Some were comedic like “5 Minute to Showtime” by Keegan Tran, or Emilie Christoffels’ film poking fun at stereotypes, “Rice Aide.” All the students acted in their films and in one another’s. Emily made great use of JiHo who joined in the last week and acted every part, even the “exotic Asian woman” at the end who gets an uncomfortable pinch on her behind. I sat in the darkened theater cringing and was so relieved when his mother who also sat in the audience said she would try to make sure that JiHo could attend the whole program next summer. “Coo Coo for Hurricanes was Angela Ngo’s comedic film with a memorable toilet scene which challenges Roger Fan’s in “The Trouble with Romance.” (Angela did win the award for best comedy at an academy award reunion ).

Justin Cheung wrote and directed “Bitter Sweet.” He wanted the experience of a second language student entering our public school system. Justin picked Kimmie Davis to play the lead. Kimmie was extremely shy. Her parent let me know that Kimmie may not be willing to do a lot of things. But part of ROP is to open the respectful conversation to encourage participation in many activities which team up students with one another, and give each time to make themselves known, their thoughts, their aspirations, to work and play together. Kimmie’s mother was already surprised when her daughter went up to read the few words of her poems. I learned later that was the first time Kimmie ever got up in front of a class.

If Kimmie’s mom was surprised about the poem, I can imagine how it must have been for her when “Bitter Sweet” began and she saw her daughter, perfectly cast, but also acting her heart out, dragging something from deep within herself to express Justin's story. The audience felt the movie. We felt the anxiety of that first day of school, the interminable boredom of being put in the library by yourself watching the clock tick the day by, sitting with a pile of books you cannot read. We felt Kimmie’s isolation when she carried her lunch tray into the cafeteria and a whole table of students turned and just stared at her. Jazmin hit the perfect note wearing Emilie’s dragon fly sunglasses. And we were all with Kimmie when she took her food tray into the bathroom stall. The whole audience reacted with sympathetic sound. Kimmie throws down her food tray and attracts the attention of a young Latina student in the restroom who comes to her rescue, and from there a friendship blossoms.

The student takes the time to work with her on reading, introduces her to other activities which American kids do, introduces her to friends, and as she does that Kimmie brightens, walks with confidence, laughs and smiles her beautiful smiles. We all think of this as Kimmie’s crowning moment for the ROP. At the academy awards get together just after school began, Jason awarded “Bitter Sweet” the Will Lu Award for Best Drama to director Justin Cheung and actor Kimmie Davis, the Justin Lin Award for Best Director for Justin Cheung, and Kimmie Davis was awarded the Kal Penn Best Actor Award. A sweep!

The Yuri Kochiyama Award for Courage is the most prestigious award and it was awarded to Jazmin Joseph. I remember two weeks before Capstone, Jazmin came early while I was setting up for class. It gave me a chance to ask how she was because I was noticing that she seemed distracted, and set apart from the other students. Jazmin answered that she’d been very stressed and that yesterday she had taken a long walk in the orchard by herself and thought about a lot of things. “This film thing has really been stressing me out!”

I sympathized. This was an especially hard week because Jason was at a weeklong conference and although he had put in place mentors, the students must have still missed his confident presence.

“So I decided that I need to change my film project,” Jazmin continued.

WHAAAAAT! Next week was the last week of ROP! What is Jason going to say. No one changes films at the end during editing time. But I kept my mouth shut. I did stop what I was doing, and looked up a bit stunned.

“Don’t worry,” Jazmin read my mind. “It’s almost finished.”

(Whew!) “Good! I’m glad you did the film you want to do, Jazmin!” I said as the room started to fill up with students and Jazmin rose to greet them, happy, and her old self again.

Jason returned that day and when Jazmin came in early the next morning she announced, “Jason and I came up with a name for my film! It’s My Life in Brown & Pink.”

“But being Asian and Native would be more like Brown and Red or Yellow, wouldn’t it?” I asked as Jazmin looked at me with a crooked smile.

She started to say “Welllllllll . . .” when the late light bulb went off. “OH! I get it!”

What guts! Jazmin had decided "to come out" the summer before she became a freshman in high school to her family and friends and she used the power of film to do it during the Rites of Passage.

That afternoon she showed me her film in progress, her mother driving, looking over at her, “So, your sister says 'Jazmin likes girls!' Why didn’t you tell me?” and the heart to heart that followed, her step father explaining why he believed being lesbian was part of nature’s way, her uncle saying he thought it would be cool if Jazmin were to bring her girlfriend home to meet them.

Jazmin, off camera, asks her sister Tracey, “What would you do if someone teased me?” and Tracey answers with her brows furrowed, “I’d be there for you, of course. You’re my sister. And besides that, it’s wrong.” Tracey’s characteristic smile lights the screen “It’s a beautiful thing!”

Jazmin, in her film, looks like she has been rung through a wringer. When I commented on that, she explained to me that it was because she shooting it at 4 am. and she was really tired and so glad it was finally over. In the film Jazmin expresses her relief that her family, her friends, everyone she cares about support her.

“I love this! Jazmin, I am so proud of you. This is going to help a lot of people!" I went on to tell her that she must do whatever it takes to submit it to DisOrient Asian American Film Festivals and other festivals. "People have to see your film, Jazmin!"

The night of Capstone, when “My Life in Brown & Pink” premiered before its first big audience, and Jazmin came on screen saying, “I’m under a lot of stress. You see, not only am I Asian American but I’m also . . . Lesbian, ” from those opening words to the end during the credit roll when her mother, driving, turns to her daughter, smiles big and says “I heart my Lesbian daughter” and makes a face and funny noise, the audience can feel something. Being Gay stops being an issue and becomes relationship. Jazmin’s film and her family will help a lot of people. Some will gather courage from this little film. Others will confront their own hate and fear and perhaps make the right choice. I want to send Yuri Kochiyama one of these DVD’s. She will also be so proud of Jazmin.

I’m posting this on the blog without editing because I don’t have a lot of time today, but I wanted to get this up for Will Lu because he couldn’t be with us that evening for Capstone and tell him that he was very much with us in spirit. Please try to catch Will Lu’s film. I loved “Spy Moms.” We all know a spy mom, and some of us are related to one. Last year he directed and produced “ATF: Asian Task Force” which was shown at our DisOrient Asian American Film Festival. Check them out!

BTW, DVD's of the Rites of Passage films can be ordered through me with a donation of $10 more more. Just let me know on my email how many, and address and I'll send them out. The cool thing about this year's DVD is that it includes the two other year's student films, a documentary of the Eugene Japanese American Memorial with orignal music by Richard Choi (for which he was awarded the HP Mendoza Best Score Award) and this year's Shoot Out Challenge films on Asian Super Heroes. Will Lu's short with ROP film assistants Rose Pergament and Matt Lee is also included.

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.

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

from Outside the Monster's Belly

from Outside the Monster's Belly
. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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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.