Thursday, January 03, 2008

Japanese American

Sometimes people ask me, "If you're not gay yourself, why are you so interested in their cause?" I used to think to myself, As a Christian why wouldn't I be? It's a clear case of social injustice, and much of the blame falls upon the Christian community. Naturally as a Christian I'd want to do everything possible to help salvage the credibility of my faith and of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But lately I've been thinking along different lines. Maybe this cause hits home with me because I'm also a fourth generation Japanese American. I often discount my ethnic background as having anything to do with "me." Aside from going to family gatherings, I don't hang with other JA's. I'm not involved in the JA community and I have no JA friends. But even in my free-floating, culturally-detached state, I wonder if I've been more affected by my community and family history than I realize.

My grandfather was a 30 year-old American-born citizen living in Los Angeles when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Grandpa had been born, raised and educated in Los Angeles, California. His ambition was to go to UCLA and become a doctor. But money was tight, his own father was a useless alcoholic, so Grandpa become the main provider for his three younger brothers, even succeeding in putting one of them through med school instead. Having given up his own college education, he never left celery farming. He was married to a young Japanese wife and raising two young children of his own (my aunt and my dad) when America went to war against Japan.

As a Japanese-American farmer, Grandpa soon received a government notice assuring him that if he supported the war effort by stepping up farm production, the U.S. government would acknowledge his loyalty. So he bought a new tractor, even though he couldn't afford it. Probably sunk all his savings into it. Then a mere two months later he received another notice telling him he and his family would be bussed off to Manzanar Relocation Center. So much for getting a chance to prove his loyalty.

I don't know what he and Grandma did with all their stuff. They only had two weeks to prepare for relocation. Many JA's sold their belongings dirt cheap while neighbors descended like vultures for a bargain. I'm sure it was no different for my grandparents. Grandpa locked up the new tractor in a storage barn and asked a neighbor watch over it until they returned. He didn't know how long they'd be in Manzanar. Maybe one month? By the time Grandpa and his family returned from camp, three and a half years later, the barn had been broken into and the tractor ripped off.

They stayed in army barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards. They were among the first to arrive, allowed to bring only what they could carry on their backs. Manzanar is a windy, dusty wasteland, rolling with tumbleweeds and banked by a mountain range at the far end of the camp grounds. My grandmother later told me that dust constantly blew up into the barracks through one-inch spaces between the floorboards. Three families were squeezed into the one-room barrack and they all had to hang up bedsheets for privacy. The toilets in the women's bathroom had no partitions for privacy either. They stuck up in the middle of the floor so that everyone could watch you do your business.

After the war was over, the government dumped Grandpa and his family off in L.A. so that he and Grandma could start over again in bitter poverty. Celery farming doesn't exactly rake in the bucks. And when you've had everything taken from you, and you have to start from scratch with everyone else sneering at you as one of those "Japs" fresh out of camp, you don't exactly get the breaks.

I don't know all this stuff because I grew up hearing about it. Grandpa never said a word about it, and Grandma wasn't understandable since she spoke in Japanese. I did gather from my dad's childhood stories that Grandpa stewed in a silent, sometimes violent rage for a couple of decades, though I wasn't clear on the reason. Only when I reached college and interviewed my grandparents for a paper I did for an Asian American Studies class did I learn the details of what they went through. Otherwise, the matter wasn't spoken of.

Maybe Grandpa's pride wouldn't allow him to speak of the injustice. Sometimes words seem to cheapen the suffering you've been through when you try to explain it to others. And when you know your words will only be received with sneers and disdain, you don't even want to bother. The last thing you want to hear people say is, "It was justified," "You deserved it," or, "Why are you complaining? It could have been worse."

Even though times have changed, I see how the older members in my family, particularly my grandpa's and my dad's generations, still operate with the sub-conscious awareness that some people might think being Japanese American makes you lesser. It is important, in my family's view, to do well in life, get an education, be successful, and behave appropriately. Whatever you do, you must not be an embarrassment. If you do draw attention to yourself, let it be because of excellence and not because you are acting like an idiot. It is also important to integrate yourself into the mainstream and contribute something positive to society. Because you aren't a threat to society, you never were, you are an asset to America if only people would give you a chance, and they were wrong, so very wrong to have treated us otherwise. But we won't say it, we won't have to if our lives and our conduct prove it.

Nobody said these things out loud, but I now realize all the vibes were in the atmosphere I grew up in. I guess it's no surprise, then, that I naturally recognize these feelings in others when I see them grappling with similar situations. Some gays and lesbians are very vocal about the injustice they suffer, but many are not. Certainly in the conservative church most gay people remain silent, hoping that if they are found out, their conduct and contribution would prove they are not a threat, and that they don't deserve to be treated as such. I'm afraid I know all too well what that struggle is all about.