May is Asian American Heritage Month. Usually I take some time to reflect on my heritage, community, and personal experiences but failed to do so this year. In fact, May just flew by. Between school and a mini identity crisis (WTF AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE???) I didn’t even realize it was the end of May until my good friend Sean posted a touching Facebook status to commemorate the end of Asian American History Month.
He shared a story about his family and urged others (including myself) to do the same. I’m definitely not as eloquent or as engaging a storyteller as Sean, but I’ll try my best. After all, it’s not about the narrator’s storytelling skills…it’s about the story itself. And every story — short, long, detailed, or hazy — defines and infuses life into our community’s history.
So, here we go…
A few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor my Grandpa left Japan to join his brother in Hawaii. Soon after December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — he was sent to one of many concentration camps the government created to “protect” people of Japanese ancestry. Most Japanese Americans in Hawaii were spared (for economic reasons) unless they were fishermen, community leaders, or recent immigrants. My Grandpa fell in all three categories. He ended up spending his first four years in America jumping from camp to camp (Honouliuli –> Jerome –> Heart Mountain). He picked up new skills (such as baking) and helped build many structures in the camps.
Soon after the camps, he returned to Japan (I totally don’t blame him for this) and met my Grandma. She had been in Japan during the war, knew nothing of these “concentration camps”, and could barely comprehend the few experiences my Grandpa shared with her. They usually avoided the topic (like most other internees) and adopted the “shikata ga nai” mentality. But any mention of the camps cast a spell of silence and sadness upon my Grandpa.
They soon married and had their first child. But everything wasn’t as perfect as it seemed. A disapproving Mother-in-Law made life in Japan difficult so they decided to move to Hawaii.
For them, this move represented a chance for happiness, freedom (more for my Grandma), and opportunity (again, more for my Grandma) but for me it means so much more. Had they not moved to Hawaii I would never have joined organizations that made me interested in my family’s story. The camps, the reason for my Grandparents’ move to Hawaii, and my Grandpa’s odd talent for baking cakes and pies…I wouldn’t know any of this. They definitely had their struggles raising a family in a foreign land, but looking at our family’s accomplishments and the person I have become, I’m sure they would say, without hesitation, that it was all worth it in the end.
I never met my Grandpa but I can tell you a few specific things about him:
1. He was an artist — I used to flip through an old photo album full of photographs and illustrations documenting his travels.
2. He was not only an awesome baker…he could decorate cakes as well — After I started asking questions about my Grandpa, my Grandma pulled out a ziploc bag full of rusty cake decorating tips from under the stove. They had belonged to my Grandpa. And who knows, they might be the decorating tips he used while in the camps…
3. He was a great gardener and carpenter — He built four levels in our backyard for all of his orchids, which he grew and sold at the flea market. My grandma took over the job after his death and I would always help her unload the empty wooden boxes (that my Grandpa had made) from the car after a successful day at the market.
Even though it’s already a few days into the month of June, take some time to reflect on your heritage and share it with others. And if you find yourself drawing a blank during the process, start asking questions. Listen to the stories your family members have to share.