Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Letter to Cuba

My feelings for the Nikkei of Cuba is hard to express as a narrative. There is so much for me to digest. There is so much to unpack before I can tell the story, our trip to Cuba to meet, to share culture, to record the oral history with Cuban Nikkei. Actually, I can't seem to be even able to talk about it coherently until I wrote my first email to Mr. Miyasaka, Cuban Nikkei, Nisei, and the administrator of La Sociedad de la Colonia Japonesa de la Isla de la Juventud, and in a surprisingly short time, received his reply. Email is such a great thing. We are a "hit of the send button" away. I cannot explain the feeling when I read his email. It was all in Spanish, and I tried to pick out the words I might understand. "Siento mucho lo sucedido . . Mardre ..comprendo porque yo tambien . . . mi madre." He understands my feelings about my mother's death because he too experienced it and he is sorry.

My good friend is translating it for me but even without Spanish language it was there. He was talking of his mother "inculco . . .valores eticos y morales de respecto, solidaridad, . . . responsabilidad y la culyuta del detalle." Our mothers instilled in us everything that is important. our values, ethics, respect, sense of solidarity and responsibility for our culture. Maybe I am not perfectly right, but I do believe I have the gist of his message, reaching across distance and saying exactly the words I feel -- the great sense of "on" which is the heart of my grief, the unrepayable debt I owe my mother even separated by death -- as only another Nikkei friend could capture.

It is not easy being Nikkei in the USA, and I am speaking only for myself here. This is my perspective only. There is judgment we make toward each other which limits us. That is what I notice about us. Maybe judgment is not the perfect word but for now I'll give it that name, this feeling which was so inexpressible and omnipresent before the trip -- judgment. It is not mean spirited judgment. With insight I gained in Cuba where I that feeling was gone and all of its awkward side-effects, it seemed almost as if that something I now call judgment had nothing to do with being Nikkei but was just a weird survival skill we picked up in the US generation after generation which has outlived its use -- or has it ?

I am reminded of the youth circle at Cienfuegos. The Nikkei youth, Cuban and from the USA, sitting in a circle, shared with one another the difficulty of growing up Nikkei and their fondest dreams. The Cuban Nikkei talked in such matter of fact day to day terms. A job they felt passionate about. Travel. Family. The Nikkei with Tsukimi Kai spoke instead about pain -- pain of racism, witnessing victims of oppression, living on the brink because you will acquire a huge debt going to college and debt in the US is a dire thing, and their tearful hope for a just society.

Apparently, our youth, four or five generations later, live in a fearful place still.

Whatever the case, this thing I call judgment and as a weird survival skill is something which divides us and in dividing it provides a false sense of safety, of manageability in a somewhat hostile environment over which we have very little personal control. It has a lot to do with creating a sense of trust, perhaps of belonging in the thick of it.

When TK3 met for the first time after returning from Cuba, we out of towners over Skype, to share something from Cuba, I simply could not talk about this. Why? Not because of choice. It was so bunched out in my mind -- Cuba -- the Nikkei -- that it was too big and too full to express. Because I had no words to talk about the IT which had so profoundly shifted in me, I could only find the first narrative which embodied the feeling I came home with. So what is it -- this profound gift I brought across the border without declaring it from Cuba? FREEDOM. Freedom to be and to express me without caution, secret regret, apology -- for heaven sake. Nikkei know what I mean -- the apologetic stance. The Cuban Nikkei, especially in La Isla, probably because it was the one place I experienced the Nikkei completely on their own terms in their own element.

Some time I will write about that Freedom. For now, this sense of freedom opened another door into that conversation of identity, something which still interests me although there are many who have said they think the subject of identity is so yesterday. (Judgment survival tool?) but I reply "there's still racism, isn't there?" (false division between the two groups? What's another way I could have expressed this.)

Cuban youth talk of their problems, solvable day to day problems, their aspirations and hopes as achievable personal goals. Our youth, however, talk about hopeless crisis and a future which would require an outright revolution to fix. Nikkei identity in the USA carries with it this context, the USA legacy. There are many many ways we express it, some on different ends of the scale. Where do we identify ourselves on this scale -- and is that place which best suits us our identity -- and what does that identity serve and on how many levels -- to help us feel we belong, feel more in control in the midst of it all.

At this Cuba debrief, sharing an anecdote for what we came back from Cuba with, all I could come up with at the time without months more of 'unpacking" was the Jose Marti quote "I have lived in the monster and I have seen its belly." That phrase expresses the attitude all Cubans including the Nikkei exhibit and the freedom and self reliance, the confidence in themselves and in a revolution they build together. When I say "including the Nikkei" that is a big deal to me. Not on the fringe, not off the radar, not co-opted but included.

Jose Marti's quote captured what I felt was what I brought back from the Nikkei of La Isla best without my ability to express anything specific yet because it had everything to do with so many thingsn -- their embracing welcome, deep sharing and generosity -- free to be completely who they are -- and it includes my own internal feelings, I felt that I freely belonged -- Nikkei someplace in this world. Whereas being part of a multigenrational family on an Idaho farm was enough for me as a child, as an adult, an island country in the Caribbean gave me the sense of safety that Japanese aspire to give to their children, to their descendants when they can. How do Nikkei in the US carrying our history pass that on? Yes, there are problems in Cuba too to be Japanese. But, I'm just talking about me and my own change and what I gained in Cuba, and what shifted in me AS A NIKKEI.

Because I haven't completely let go of the It which is hard for me to explain -- I do think "can I really share this with anyone else who is Nikkei. Is it woo woo beyond belief? Will they judge me?" We must all bear the burden of that line of thinking often. Hence the shared loneliness because we are wired for clans and groups not "the me kind of independance." The burden of this survival skill I call judgment, a survival skill one picked up in a desert surrounded by barbed wire, or moving away from the farm, years after the issei are gone, outside the clan does not serve the purpose anymore and I discard it. It's not that things changed here -- it's just that I've been to Cuba and met Cubans who are Nikkei. And that is enough for me.

So, you will find this letter is some of that unpacking. It is a thank you which must be said first before the stories flow. To our friend, Noboru Miyazawa, who with Steve Wake and Barb Morita created the friendship which opened the door for all the rest of us to belonging and also opened doors to our own internal history and let in the light, this is dedicated to them:

Dear Noboru-san,
Thank you so much for your quick response to my email and your kind thoughts.

I have talked with Mike Takahashi, the President of JAA. He may have missed your email. But I shared mine with him as well as your address and he is very happy to be in contact. Mike is a Japanese citizen and can travel to Cuba freely. And he speaks Japanese. I know you will meet someday.

I have a dream. My dream is that JAA is able to build a friendship between our Obon Festival here with the Nikkei of La Isla. My dream is to return to La Isla for the opening of the Nikkei history museum at the Presidio with some of the Japanese Americans from here. Most in the Japanese American Association will probably hesitate going unless they can return legally, so we have to seek information about sponsorship so that can happen. Please keep us notified about the opening as well as the progress. My biggest dream is that someday you will dance with us in the Obon and Taiko Drum Festival in Eugene, Oregon. We are a very simple group and have a very simple festival in a city park, the last Saturday of each July. But we have fun together, and many of our friends and neighbors come out to our festival each year to dance with us.

I was raised in an even smaller farming community of Nikkei in Idaho. My family were never put in camp because only Nikkei from the Pacific coast states were uprooted from their homes and put in camps. In fact, we lived in such an isolated area, we literally lived only 40 minutes from a Nikkei concentration camp (Minadoka) built out in the desert and sagebrush.

My Grandpa and Uncle would take 'yasaemono" to camp. They would tell our family of what they witnessed and our family felt very strongly how wrong it was. We Nikkei who lived outside of camps may have suffered because all our neighbors and the whole country seemed to have branded us "enemy aliens" and hated our presence in the community, but at least we had our intact families. At least Obachan and Ojichan still were the head of family, and we sat together to eat each meal as a family, and we all spoke Nihongo because otherwise we could not communicate with our precious elders. (In fact that is all we spoke until we entered school and learned English.) We can withstand any cruelty if we have our family.

Even though we did not go to camp, I go to these pilgrimages for the families and descendants who were part of the concentration camps because I feel strongly about what it is they truly lost by the disintegration of the family structure in camp. Yes, in camp people had to endure horrible living conditions, the loss of freedom, death. But the worst thing for Nikkei is with the breaking of the family structure in camps, which negatively affected the ability to pass down the language with which to communicate with grandparents and the family centered traditions in a normal way. The Nikkei in the USA cannot help but experience this indescribable feeling of loss. We discovered at these pilgrimages, in the inter-generational talking circles, that we pass this feeling down to the next generation. So, our Nikkei families in the United States are not ok, Miyazawa-san. I cannot put my finger on what it is, but after experiencing the Nikkei Cuban hospitality, I do think that we do not have the community joy together that we experienced at La Isla.

I may be somewhat lucky that we were poor farmers in Idaho who had to live crammed together in one small house, aunties, uncles, Obachan, Ojichan, and two little girls. We owned no property because of the Alien Land Law which did not allow any further purchasing of land by Japanese. The region we lived was outside the War relocation zone and we were spared from going to camp. The earlier immigrants in California, Washington and Oregon did have land, and worked hard to make it good land. Greedy speculators took advantage of war hysteria to support the Executive Order 9066 to steal the Japanese land, in my opinion. The forced mass evacuation into concentration camps of 120,000 or more Nikkei made many non-Japanese people in California, Washington and Oregon rich.

Even if our family did not go to camp and understood it was wrong, and lived in an intact family with Issei grandparents as the family center, speaking Japanese and feeling comfort and strength from being Japanese, we all still are part of a community, with 120,000 families affected by the camp experience and, therefore, the whole community is affected. When our family finally moved and were legally able to buy land in early 1950, we moved to homestead in the Snake River area of the state which had just opened up and all our neighbors were Nikkei from Minadoka Camp who decided to stay and farm in Idaho rather than to return to their hostile communities in the western states.

When we hear the stories of what happened to the Issei and Nisei during WWII in Cuba it is very much the same. We are moved to tears of what happened to the parents, to the women and children of Nikkei in Cuba. But for USA Nikkei, the response of the Cuban neighbors is an unimaginable thing for us. I learned from that why Cuban Nikkei have a different sense of themselves, especially after the revolution, of their place in their country. I understand the difference of Cuban descendants sense of self as it differs from Japanese Americans who feel less American than other Americans and have made that a proud stance of strength (seeking justice), joining other historical struggles of Latino, African and Native Americans in this country. I understand that if I lived in Cuba I would be puzzled by the question -- do you feel more Japanese or Cuban. The question simply makes no historical sense there, where it is completely understandable in the USA.

Cuban neighbors and friends being supportive of the Nikkei women and children is very special. However, I must say there were also some good neighbors in most Nikkei's life here in the US who were courageous enough not to lose their neighborly feelings. There are rare instances which when we hear the story, we burst into tears. I remember a Nisei sharing how he felt as a school child when Pearl Harbor happened, and how he felt when he was seen as the enemy as a little American boy of Japanese descent. He remembers the day his family assembled to be taken away from their home to a destination unknown to them, all their property lost and keeping only what they could carry with them. He said he heard his name being called as they stood on the platform waiting for the train, and turned. There stood his second grade teacher and she had brought all his classmates there to say goodbye. When he shared that story, we all dissolved into tears. What a special teacher to have taught such a lesson to her students and to have shown her little Nikkei student such love. I cry still in the retelling of it.

What a difference it might have made for Nikkei in the US and how we feel about being ourselves if, as a rule rather than the exception, our neighbors would have remained neighbors.

There is such a freedom in Cuba, and for me as a Nikkei, especially in La Isla among you and your neighbors. If I may state it, it is as if Cuban Nikkei are "free from shame" free from the hesitancy to express happiness, generosity, friendliness fully across generational lines, cultural lines. There are no lines. Just one family, just as we sit at dinner as intact families -- not the young ones there, the old ones back at the barracks, the children over there, the really traditional ones another place, the 150 percent Americans at another, and the pro-Japanese "bullies" scaring everyone else. That's the American concentration camp model of Nikkei life in America, the unease, the hesitancy, the awkwardness of how it is to be fully "who we are" simply and comfortably with each other, even within our own community. I felt free to be me in Cuba.

In La Isla, I was quite literally filled to the top with happiness, and often my eyes filled with tears with the beauty I felt there of being Nikkei. In Cuba, my deepest feelings about my heritage could come completely to the surface. I realized at that moment in La Isla, at the Obon and afterwards that my loneliness was gone. I lived with it so long from the time I moved away from home I didn't even recognize loneliness was there in the first place. I sought out Nikkei wherever I moved and became involved, I'd go home as much as I could, but La Isla was the first place that I was around Nikkei who so freely expressed their deep feelings and so freely shared with people. even those they met for first time at such a deep level. Even as I write this and confess this, my emotions well up.

I find myself homesick for Cuba. I believe a big part of it is because I feel more at home as a Nikkei there than I ever have since leaving my hometown, my childhood life with Obachan and Ojichan and our three generation family, my sister and I sleeping on either side of mother (no one had their own bed or bedroom) eating together, speaking Nihongo, Obachan and Ojichan at the center their whole life. Despite the fact I do not know Spanish, I felt like I was Home.

It is true the United States does not allow their citizens to bring back gifts from Cuba. However, I walked across the border with priceless treasures in my heart -- your story about your father, Julieta's story about her grandmother, and Ms. Aoyagi's sharing of her feelings for her brother who still grieves for his father even after several decades have passed since his father died. It is so hard for us to live with the knowledge that our issei died with such sadness. His father was never able to return to see his homeland, Nihon, once last time and his son still has such regret on behalf of his father. His sister nodded toward her brother and said she was glad we came to visit especially for him. Then she gestured to the sky and said, "He's happy today."

I also brought back the priceless gift of being at the Obon and the dedication, creativity, pride, patience, deep friendship and commitment and positive spirit and faith it represented. I have never seen such a wonderful portrayal of our culture and so many generations as well as the whole community participating. I have never been treated with such generosity at an Obon. The shi shi mai was the proudest shi shi mai I've seen. Everything was beautifully made, beautifully done and displayed. Everyone embraced us like I have never been embraced by Nikkei, except by family at home with Obachan and Ojichan as part of the circle. My Ojichan would have loved to be Cuban. I know that in my heart! I believe I shared that truth with you when we spoke at the Presidio.

I came to Cuba to try to understand a little more what was essentially Japanese by being able to see what we Nikkei of two very different countries share. I remember when I asked you about the Japanese fit in Cuba, you answered that Cubans and Japanese have a similar feeling for family. That the Cubans were also very generous and friendly like Japanese. And that insight you shared is also a gift I brought home with me across the US border. I will hang on to that thought of Nikkei being friendly, generous, family-centered. And from what I witnessed at Obon at La Isla, there was also the work ethic and resourceful creativity the same values I saw in my Ojichan who could make a "fue" out of an old fishing pole, a beautiful container out of hollowed "kampyo" gourds, could fix anything so it works a few years longer and invented something which lured fish better than something bought at a store. I learned at the La Isla Obon what was Nihonjin, the beautiful shi shi mai, the samisen made out of recycled materials, the beautiful regalia sewn with expertise, the style in which the Obon was organized. And with these gifts of experience in La Isla and in your beautiful friendship, it also illuminated for me what we Nikkei do in the USA which might simply be a reaction to group trauma rather than something traditional. Granted, we probably reacted to group trauma in a Japanese way, but to keep it long past its usefulness is a burden and the challenge may be to let it go.

Miyazawa-san, I thank you so much for the work you do in the community to bring people together. I dream of returning someday with some of the JAA Nikkei or even just Will and I or with TK if it works out. It must be very difficult for the TK group to include "out of state people" like us especially those who don't have the skill of language (me). The project requires language facility, and the frequent meetings and high level organizing it takes to put a trip like the one Steve Wake and Barb Morita put together demands much more from participants than any out of state person can satisfactorily give. But they brought Will and me to Cuba anyway because that's the way they are, spreading the goodness. Will and I are eternally grateful for having been included in TK3, eternally grateful, and we definitely gained more than we would ever be able to give. I will be TK no matter what -- part of the support group, at least, and a member, if possible -- for as long as I can!

Finally my big dream is that you will come to Obon someday or to Tule Lake Pilgrimage. Someday we friends may travel freely to see one another. I am going to lay the foundation for my dream to be at the opening of the Nikkei Historical Museum at the Presideo. Please educate me when you know the circumstances of the museum. If we can be of any help (JAA or Misa and Will), please let us know. We would be so honored!!!! With Mike, our President, being free to travel, it will not be so difficult.

I am excited with those dreams! I apologize for the length of this email.
Always your friend, Misa

My Cuba reflections will be here and there. Although I think of Cuba every day, every day I think of the people and the land, writing about it is a stretch. I remember Ryan and Alan on TK3 suggested more down time to reflect. It's like that. It seems I need a LOT of down time. It is a journey into another world. We live in a world where capital is fundamental, innovation, competition is key. We must also adjust to its side effect of waste and consuming not to mention billboards and neon advertising as a landscape. At the same time, we also live in a world where we are simply running out of natural resources (which rationalizes wars which progressively are becoming upfront wars of aggression with no apology) and face a very grim apocolyptic future of a dying planet. Here everything is a business including healthcare, housing, food, education, and some people can afford it and others can't. That is the world we live in. So to explain the experience of a country where our brothers and sisters helped build a revolution rather than the role we as Nikkei serve here all over the board, where human rights dominate corporate rights, where the priority globally is to earn allies rather than chance enemies, where everyone is a descendant, not just the DAR or the old South aristocracy, it gets complicated and hard to talk about. As a top scientist of the nation in Cuba said to us in his lecture on the nation's Hurricane Prediction and Response System, "We are a materially poor nation. Because of that our most valuable treasures are human life and the earth. In that situation, our priority becomes very clear. In other more highly developed countries, there are competing priorities, and that makes it somewhat complicated." So gracefully said and generous, his differentiation.

And listen to the young Nikkei woman in Cienfuegos who answered "What do you want to tell the youth in the United States?"

"Turn off the television. (laughter) The situation is in more highly developed countries, we would want to see way beyond our boundaries. But to sit under a tree, to breathe the fresh air, to see the beautiful flowers, and to think about our lives and blessings, that is something we can do."

See what I mean? All the thoughts want to come out all at once in any particular order. I'll be back again about Cuba after more unpacking. Perhaps preparing for some of the talks at UO or LCC will help.

But let it be said, Cuba has doubled the truth that at 64, I am still very much a work in progress.

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

from Outside the Monster's Belly

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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.