Featured in Colorado Review
The Missing PicturesFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Fall 2009
Winner of the 2008-09 AWP Intro Journals Project, selected by Barbara Hurd
Manzanar. In 1989, my grandma and I make a special stop at the mall, waiting in line at Waldenbooks just for Manzanar. We bring it home and look at it together. Well, not really together.
Grandma and I were each other’s weekend for many years, apart from the one weekend a month that my siblings and I went off to our dad’s. Grandma was alone and needed help with chores, my mom needed a break from being a single mom with three kids, and I needed to be around someone steady. Gardening, cooking, cleaning the house, I became part of her routine. Usually Grandma would take a new book straight to her bedroom and put it on her nightstand, waiting until bedtime to flip through it: something to look forward to once the day’s duties were done. Sometimes she enjoyed a book so much that she’d keep reading until she fell asleep with the book on her face. If I spent the night, we would both read in her bed until I’d heard her snoring; my job would be to pick up the book without disturbing her, mark the page with a bookmark, cover her with the blanket, shut out the light.
But the day we bring home Manzanar, she takes the book straight to the kitchen table, leaving it in the bookstore bag. She makes herself a pot of genmai cha, her favorite tea. She clears off the table of its everyday mess of stacked bills, fruit that needs eating, used grocery bags. She does not ask me if I want any tea. My cue to leave her alone.
Ansel Adams took all the photos in Manzanar, creating a photographic account of Japanese-American internment. He had published some of the photos before, in 1944, in a book called Born Free and Equal. That book didn’t go over so well. It was banned. Copies were burned in the streets. His photos portrayed the internees as humans and not just “Japs.” Americans weren’t ready for that in 1944.
But by 1989, Americans are driving Hondas and Toyotas with Sony sound systems; sushi has come to places like Nebraska and Oklahoma; two Karate Kids have come out and everyone loves that Mr. Miyagi. Wax on, wax off. Pop culture has paved the way for deeper truths. This is the year after Reagan’s national apology for the internment, after the news of the reparations. The government is sorry they had stuck all the Japanese people in prison, stripped them of their constitutional rights, led many to lose all of their possessions. The government would even offer token compensation for the losses suffered. Our family does not discuss the money, but we all think about it. Grandma’s age means that she would be among the first to receive compensation; the fact that my uncle K—— was born there means he would be among the youngest and the last. She is seventy-five years old. Uncle K—— is forty-six. I am fourteen. She was already pregnant with him when they got to Manzanar. That much of the story, I knew.
I move to the living room and sit on the worn, blue 1960s sofa, still watching her in the kitchen from the corners of my eyes, pretending to occupy myself with something from the pile of old-lady magazines in front of me. National Geographic. Family Circle. Woman’s Day. Her dog, Smokey, keeps me company on the couch, his head resting on my feet. I half-heartedly read an article that teaches me the best way to clean the bathroom grout (instead of throwing away that old toothbrush, use it on the grout!). I am unused to the expression on Grandma’s face. A tense one, a somber one. Blank face, otherwise. Nowadays, I think of this face as the one that some people mean when they call the Japanese “stoic.”
Grandma sits at the kitchen table with Manzanar. She sips her tea and spreads the book out flat so she can take in both halves in one glance. Her face creases as she turns the pages one at a time, using only her right thumb. Her pace suggests that she is not reading the articles and essays that go with Ansel Adams’s photographs. I guess she doesn’t need to.
After some time, she lifts the front cover of the book to close it carefully, as if the pages were fragile and shutting it too fast would muss them up. Smokey stretches and does an arthritic shuffle over to her.
She snorts to herself, under her breath, “Hmmph.” She pushes the book away to the center of the table, bending down from her chair to pet the dog.
“I’m going to go out there and see about the roses.” She motions toward the backyard. “They need pruning.”
With that, Grandma stands up, puts on her hat, and goes out back. Smokey gets up and follows her. I go to the table. It’s what she wants me to do. That’s why she has left me alone with the book. I am always a good girl at Grandma’s house. I am fourteen and up to all kinds of things that I’m not supposed to be doing when I’m elsewhere, but not at Grandma’s. I know what is expected. Good Japanese girls must fulfill expectations. The rule still applies even if you are only part Japanese.
The book regards me, asking me to take in its weight, advertised by the serious black and white photograph on the front. The English title in red, Japanese calligraphy in gray on the side, telling me what I am supposed to think. Oh, very grave, indeed.
I pass over the wordy articles. I’m not looking for that much gravity. I just want to see the pictures. Maybe there will be people I knew. Maybe I can find Grandma. I have never seen proof of her imprisonment. I am unearthing a secret.
I have no idea how many internees were at Manzanar. I bother looking only for the nine people I might recognize. The Hiras. My grandma. Her son, my uncle K——. Her youngest sister, my auntie M——. Auntie M——’s boyfriend, who later became her husband: my uncle Masahiro. My grandma’s cousin, Uncle Joe. Uncle Joe’s mom, dad, sister, brother.
One by one, I examine the people. All Japanese, of course. Or Japanese-American, if you want to be technical about it. It didn’t matter to the government that most of them were Americans. They had been nothing but a “yellow peril” on the West Coast for decades.
Most everyone in the photos is smiling. Or else working industriously, establishing order, taming the desert with their productivity. Ansel Adams recorded the worn, sinewy hands of a lathe worker. People picking potatoes in neat little rows, wide-brimmed hats and bandanas to fight off the sun. A chicken farm. A Christmas tree. Smiling Mr. Richard Kobayashi, cradling two cabbages in his arms like a proud father. For pictures like this, Adams’s first book was burned?
They go on. He shows internees singing in a church choir, dressed in slacks and sweaters, hands resting contemplatively on the knees. Japanese-Americans posed in nurse uniforms and army uniforms and school uniforms. There are two pictures of the camp’s Catholic chapel, or maybe there were two different Catholic chapels. A Sunday school teacher. A volleyball team. A baseball team. The Pleasure Park, with its Japanese garden, looking very Zen. Power lines and trucks. Someone fixing the power lines. Mrs. Dennis Shimizu crocheting a lace doily; her husband lounging on the double bed, reading Burma Surgeon.
There is one purposely somber man. This is the opening photograph of the section “Enemies of the Nation?” on page 137. It’s a picture of another Mr. Kobayashi. Maybe the doppelganger of the smiling-with-cabbages man. This Kobayashi’s face is straining, as if the oppression of his people were pulling down his face. It is a face my immature mind normally associates with constipation. The photograph stands out, but it does not do their ordeal any justice. Constipated Mr. Kobayashi, very stern in his contemplation of the corn.
Rummaging through the junk drawer to find the magnifying glass, I put it right up to the book to reexamine the faces that cannot be easily discerned. I still can’t find anyone I knew. My grandma had taught at one of the camp schools. No picture of this. Auntie M—— graduated from high school there. No evidence.
Everyone in the pictures is smiling. Smile for the picture.
She is not in the book. They are not in the book. Maybe the Hiras weren’t happy enough.
Adams wanted to show that they made all this from nothing but hard work and plundered rights. But in his earnestness to capture the positive resistance, there are omissions. Missed experiences. Grandma and her siblings still never talk about the camps, even decades after it happened. He forgot them. He forgot their pain.
I decide at that moment: Ansel Adams sucks. I take the book personally.
I am young and think I know why Grandma is acting funny. She should have been in the book; she is displeased with the portrayal. This book has hurt her feelings. This book has made her so upset she gets up and doesn’t finish her tea and goes outside to be alone and cut up some rose bushes.
In the far-off future, I do actually read the text of the book and change my mind about Adams. But that won’t happen for a while. Teenage rage, misplaced angst, my impulses rule.
I grab the book and run outside to Grandma, shaking it in my fist at her.
“Grandma, where are you in this book?”
“What book?” She is at the largest rose bush, that one that is taller than her. I don’t know the names of the roses, like she does. It is one of the ones that turns bright pink when it blooms.
“This book!” I punch it up toward the sky.
She doesn’t look up. Nor does she pause her pruning.
“Well, I wasn’t in those pictures.”
“Why not?” She infuriates me with her refusal to be infuriated.
“There were a lot of people there. I’m nobody important.” She shrugs.
“Everyone was smiling!”
Her face is calm as she wrangles with an overgrown, tangled branch. She moves her arms and hands steadily, her clips and snips smoothly paced. She gestures at me using the clippers in her hands, but her eyes are focused on the stems before her while she continues to talk.
“Did your mother ever show you how to prune the rose bushes? A lot of people don’t do it right. They cut them all cockeyed and then they wonder why they don’t bloom again next year. You cut it wrong and next year all you’ll get is a little empty stub. Ugly little stub. Brown, with no flower. Did you know that?”
She knows I don’t know what to say.
“Go inside and put some gloves on. Come help me. This dog is no help.” Her clippers point to Smokey. He lifts his head up from his napping position and grunts.
This means for me to calm down, stop talking, put the book away, and come back out and help her with the bushes. So I do. We clip, talking about what stupid people don’t know about pruning roses and how to make the blooms larger and more plentiful. We don’t talk about Manzanar, or the book. Grandma has her ways. We are to focus on what is in front of us, the things we have control over fixing, not trouble others with our insides, our pasts. This is where the energy should go.
Right now, this means the rose bushes. Manzanar is over. Tame the roses.
In 1991, my high school history teacher, Mr. Walsh, asks me if I am part Japanese. Because he saw on the class roster that my middle name is Mieko. He tells me that we are about to do the unit on WWII, and he used to have this woman come in and tell the class about life in the internment camp. Her name was Mieko, too. She died over the summer. Do I know anyone, any relative, who might be interested in talking to the class about internment?
I volunteer Grandma. I tell him of course she will, without asking her first. Because I know she will if it’s for school and if I ask her nicely. She would not want to disappoint my teacher. That is the way things are for her, for us. It is the Japanese way.
Mr. Walsh asks me if I have read the Manzanar book. The one with the Ansel Adams photos, he says. I lie and tell him yes, I read the whole thing, my grandma has that book. He asks if my grandma has talked about camp to others before, meaning someone besides family members. Of course she has, I reassure him. Then I excuse myself to go to my next class. I do not want to disappoint my teacher.
I break the news to her while we cook dinner the next night. Grandma comes to the house with groceries to make dinner for us three to four nights a week. She brings groceries every time, because it is better to buy things at the market when they are fresh, rather than buy a whole bunch of things that sit and dry out in the refrigerator all week. Mom is usually working. Or lying on her bed with the TV on, exhausted from working. Or lying on her bed with the TV and the lights off, having a meltdown from working and raising three kids alone. She comes out only for meals, in various stages of mental fog. When Grandma doesn’t come, the expectation is that my sister and I will take care of things. Grandma is the reprieve we all need.
We are flouring fish together. Red snapper. She picked it because it is firm and doesn’t smell fishy. Its eye is healthy. It has clear, smooth skin. Never buy the one that feels slimy. Or is not on ice. We buy only whole fish that comes fresh and where she knows the fishmonger or if the butcher can tell her where the fish came from. This is the way it is done.
“Grandma. My teacher needs you to come to class next week. We’re learning about World War II.”
“Oh?” She pats the fish pieces dry with paper towels before I dust them with flour and seasonings.
“Yes. He doesn’t know any Japanese people who can tell the class about the camps. You are the only one.”
“Oh?” She puts a little oil in the cast-iron skillet, the one that has taken her years to season and we are never supposed to wash it with soap. Nor dry it with a towel. To dry, it goes onto the burner on low heat and gets watched until all of the water disappears. Grandma gave it to Mom many years ago when she married my dad, which was a time when having things like a good cast-iron skillet felt important. Now what is important is being able to put some sort of dinner on the table, period. Mom buys lots of easy-to-cook fillers: spaghetti, rice, potatoes, macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles. Things that she can afford. Things that we kids can cook before she gets home. It doesn’t matter anymore what kind of pot we cook in, nor how it gets cleaned and dried. As long as it happens.
Grandma fries the fish in silence, and turns it a little too slowly. I see it getting a little flaky, overdone. She is considering the idea of speaking to the class. She lifts each piece out of the oil and puts it on a plate that’s lined with paper towels to catch the dripping grease. She uses the cooking chopsticks, the wooden ones that are not pretty enough to eat with, unless it is just a family dinner. I set the table. I finish the salad. She returns from thought to supervise my activities.
“Let me show you a trick with that avocado.” She corrects the way I score it with the knife. Take the knife and score it lengthwise into quarters. Then gently peel back the top. Push your finger against the seed and pry one quarter loose. The avocado will bruise less this way. I thank her for showing me. She returns to the fish.
“Well. When does he need me to come in?”
I make up a day. “Wednesday? At two o’clock.”
“Thank you, Grandma. I will tell my teacher. He will be so happy.”
The food goes on the table. Mom emerges from her haze, sniffing the air like an animal coming out of hibernation. “That smells good.” She got home late again, took some pills prescribed by Dr. Chen down the street. He gives her whatever she asks for, so she can conk out. We don’t know if working at the post office is making her crazy, or if the conditions are such that they just exacerbate her predisposition for mental instability. Grandma sighs and says she acts just like her father, but without the booze. He was a crazy, drunk Irishman. Prone to manic-depression. A genius at chess. That summarizes pretty much all we know about him.
Mom slides into her chair at the table, fills her plate, sighs, and exhales. My younger brother and sister come in from playing outside. Together, we eat fish, rice, and salad, using the cooking chopsticks.
On Tuesday night, the night before the talk, Grandma brings milk, a pot roast, tomatoes, lettuce, and berries from the farmer’s market.
“Grandma, Mr. Walsh wants you to tell about what camp was like. And then they will want to ask you questions.”
“Who will want to ask me questions?”
“Oh.” She reminds me how to cut the stem off the strawberries with the least waste. “Too many people just cut the whole top off, eee yaw,” she complains. “They waste perfectly good strawberry parts.” I think this mattered more back then, when she was a girl and strawberries were only an inch big, ungenetically modified trinkets of a fruit.
“Do you know what you are going to say to them? About camp?”
“Eh. What do they want to know?”
I don’t know where she should start. I tell her that the beginning is as good as any.
“You could tell them what you were doing before they sent you to camp. Then tell them what happened when they made you go. Then tell them what it was like. Then how you left.”
I have heard these things discussed before. Not always between her and me. The stories have mostly come from my mom, piecemeal, over the years. How Grandma’s mother had died when she was twelve, and how she and all her five siblings were farmed out to different relatives or boarded with her dad’s Japanese friends to go to school in the city. That’s why she lived in San Francisco before camp. She went to college at San Francisco State, to be a teacher. She taught at the Chinese school in Chinatown, because that’s who hired “Orientals” back then. There was nowhere else that would let her teach their kids. It was okay, she reasoned, at least she had a job. Those were the Depression years, after all. When she had enough money, she sent for her sister, my auntie M——, who was twelve years her junior. They both boarded together with an older Japanese couple, the Nakas.
Seventy-four days after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. For Grandma, this meant she and Auntie M—— each packed government-approved belongings into one suitcase for an indeterminable prison term. Every Japanese person she knew did the same. The Nakas were not their parents, so they would be in a different camp. Her scattered siblings were split up into different camps. The Nakas’ white neighbor said she would take care of their things; they stored everything they could take in her house.
First the government put them in the horse stables at the Tanforan racetrack, while the camps were being built. For months. She and M—— were slated to be sent to the Tule Lake camp, not Manzanar. But Grandma wrote a special letter to the government, requesting a transfer for Manzanar. This letter is in her fbi file, of which we got a copy after the Freedom of Information Act allowed us access to her past. Grandma wanted to be at the same camp as her aunt Ayako and her family, who would help take care of her and M——. Because Grandma was somehow single and pregnant. My mom once said this was never to be discussed. But I told her that I had already asked about it. Mom wanted to know what Grandma told me. But all Grandma had said was that they “made do.” That Uncle K—— was born in camp, that she had gotten married to this Japanese man before camp, and that he had died in the war. His last name was Naka.
We both knew these stories were created to save face, but we did not acknowledge this to one another for many years.
She left camp in 1943. To Chicago. To work as a bookkeeper. They let her and M—— out once they took loyalty oaths swearing allegiance to the only government they had ever followed, even after it imprisoned them—a single, twenty-nine-year-old pregnant woman and her eighteen-year-old sister. In Chicago, M—— married Uncle Masahiro, and Grandma and Uncle K—— lived with them. Chicago is where Grandma started going by “Sue” instead of her name “Shizue.” Because the hakajins at work could not say her name right. Or they would not say it right. All those white men called her Shit-zoo, she said. So she changed it to a name they couldn’t be as clever about. She is still Sue today.
None of these things she tells Mr. Walsh’s history class.
Instead she stands up and tells them what she had been doing in college, leading up to camp. She tells them that they sent her to Tanforan, but doesn’t say what Tanforan was, that they lived in stables covered with manure like animals. She tells them they went to Manzanar, and it wasn’t that bad. They made do. There were meals, houses, they created divisions in the barracks by stringing up blankets. She doesn’t tell them about being pregnant, about her younger sister, about being able to bring only one suitcase and leaving everything else behind and not getting anything back later from the neighbor, who refused to let them back into the house to claim their belongings after the war.
“What was it like at Manzanar?” asked Gemma from the back of the room.
The mountains, they were snow-covered, she says. The desert, it was cold and hot, but the desert could be pretty sometimes, especially in the spring when it bloomed. The streets were dusty, but they tried to keep them clean. They still had a baseball team. The high school had a yearbook.
Then she tells them about Chicago in the 1940s. The mundane, everyday things that old people like to talk about. How much it cost to ride the streetcar. How cold it was in the winter. What kind of clothes people wore. How much a dollar could buy. How one day she was trying to run and catch the streetcar and she fell into an icy cold puddle, right onto her bottom!
She doesn’t tell them that all the draft-eligible men were allowed to leave their camp if they were willing to join the military of the government that had just imprisoned them, many dying for the country while their parents and younger siblings were still in camp. That others could leave only if they took war jobs and uprooted again to the Midwest, staying away from the coasts, where they might sabotage the war effort. She doesn’t tell them that after the war, they had to apply for special permission to return to their California home before they were allowed to leave Chicago. She doesn’t mention that when they finally got back to San Francisco, they were welcome only in African-American and Mexican neighborhoods. In the whole entire city, there was only one neighborhood that would rent to a single Japanese mother and her son. So they lived in Hunter’s Point.
It is time for more questions.
“Was life hard there?” they ask.
“In camp? Hmmm. Well, I got to meet lots of Japanese people. I taught school. I could save money and order clothes. We got everything we needed from the Sears catalog. It wasn’t so bad,” she said.
My horror at her responses, at what she isn’t saying, can only manifest itself in my downcast eyes, my shifting in my seat, my regarding of my fingernails. Grandma looks at my class, my teacher. I don’t know if she notices that I can no longer look her in the eye.
Tom Fernandez raises his hand and asks why they went along with it. Why she didn’t hide, or fight back, or sue the government. He says that if he was alive back then, his family would have done something about it.
Grandma looks at him intensely, like this boy needs a lesson. Her look makes the normally cocky Tom Fernandez stop fiddling with his pen and sit up straight. She teaches him shikata ga nai. It can’t be helped, she says. You have no choice. Accept it. Make do. Nothing can be done. You might as well go to camp and make the best of it. Hold your head up high.
Then she is done. She shakes hands with Mr. Walsh. He thanks her for sharing her story. The class mumbles to themselves.
Grandma was Ansel Adams that day. She meant to portray strength, through her normalcy in the face of persecution. That’s how I think of it now. They made the best of it, like she said. The class learned about patient resignation in the face of adversity.
But back then, I didn’t get it. I learned only that my grandmother accepted racial injustice with a disturbing complacency. That she wouldn’t pass along the horror of her experience to others so that the next generation might empathize with her oppression. That she wouldn’t set history right by illuminating past wrongs.
There were requests in the future. My siblings’ history teachers, my college professors, my own teaching colleagues, my students. Can your Grandma come to our classroom? No, I said. She doesn’t talk about it. It’s too painful.
I would never ask her to speak about it again.
Enryo. Restrain. Defer to others. Don’t inconvenience or make other people feel stress on your behalf. This is not just for women, but for all Japanese people. But in the case of a Japanese man versus a Japanese woman, the woman must defer to the man. Japanese women born in America are no exception.
In 1994, Mom tells me who Uncle K——’s father was. And why Grandma was in camp pregnant, alone. I am to tell no one because Uncle K—— still doesn’t know, and it wouldn’t be fair for him to find out that we all know and he doesn’t. This is how our family works. The secrets are under layers that are peeled back only when absolutely necessary. Uncle K—— has asked about his father. Grandma has told him the same story we all know. He knows she lies.
This is the year that Mom decides she doesn’t just have stress; she has a serious medical condition. Dr. Chen, keeping her happy on Prozac, surmises that she must have chronic fatigue syndrome. He switches her to Zoloft. To Mom, with her typical flair for melodrama, this news means she will die soon. She’d better tell me, her eldest child, the one who is expected to bear the weight, the truth about the family. Not all the truths. Just this one. Just in case. It would be a shame for this truth to die with her.
Mom calls me to her room. “Come here and bring me a diet Coke.”
I sigh. I am twenty and home from college for the summer. We have gotten past the three-day, “I’m-back” honeymoon. Meaning, I have come home and had three days of “Oh-I-miss-you-guys-and-it’s-so-nice-to-be-home-again” before the annoying habits and unresolved tensions resurface. Mini arguments. Then bigger ones. The same old shit. s.o.s. takes on double meaning. Save Our Souls from this Same Old Shit. After the three-day hump, you remember why you left in the first place.
“I need to tell you something.”
“What?” I am impatient. Busy. Jobs to do, people to see, must get out of the house soon or will go crazy. It can’t be that important. Mom is still watching tv out of the corner of her eye.
“I want to tell you something about Uncle K——. Don’t be upset.” Coming from her, of course this means I will be upset. It is serious: she turns the volume down on the tv and tells me to shut the door, even though my brother and sister are not home.
Over the years, the story of Uncle K——’s dad has been embellished. The story has grown even further from when I was a teenager, as if adding more details makes it more true. Uncle K——’s dad was a Japanese-American pilot. Air Force. He and Grandma met in San Francisco. He was in the 442nd, one of the Japanese-American men who fought for the government in wwii. The all-Japanese regiment, the most highly decorated regiment in u.s. history. He died in the war, in combat. Won some medals. Grandma has them all put away, won’t take them out because it’s too sad. That’s all. The lack of further detail means that questions should not be asked. It is expected that we all know that.
The stories of my family are always darker, the truer they get.
What really happened, says my mom, in between commercials: Grandma worked for the family she boarded with in San Francisco. The Nakas. She was their au pair and cleaned the house in exchange for rent. She lived with them when she was in high school and through college. After she finished college and was teaching at the Chinese school, she sent for her younger sister, Auntie M——. Auntie M—— would go to high school, and my grandma would take care of her.
The husband was interested in Auntie M——, who was just a girl. Grandma sacrificed herself for her sister. Uncle K—— has the Nakas’ last name. This is what my mom tells me.
“What do you mean, she sacrificed herself?” I know what she means. It is a rhetorical question.
Grandma was pregnant, and no one knew. And then, they went to camp.
“You know the saddest thing?” says my mom, still watching what I have now identified as Married . . . With Children.
“Uncle K—— asked Grandma last time she visited him in Los Angeles, ‘Who is my father?’ She won’t tell him. He asks her, oh, every ten years or so. That’s why she hardly goes to L.A. by herself. She knows he will ask. She told him the same story as before. She is going to take this to her grave. And then, I will have to tell him.” Mom makes her voice sound tragic and concerned. She lights a cigarette so she can puff away in deep thought and consideration, as if the weight of this secret consumes her. But I know her true expectation.
She will take it to her grave, with her Prozac. I have inherited obligations to skeletons that are not mine.
The pictures, they only show the smiles. Ansel Adams leaves out the truth, I know.
In 1996, my women’s history class demands an oral history. Preferably with a family member. About the Great Depression. Professor Freedman tells us that time is of the essence with the Depression. In a few years, there will be no one left to give us a first-hand account. Ask now, record now. Before it is too late.
Grandma comes over and meets me at Mom’s house. She brings a whole chicken because you don’t want to buy the packages that have a bunch of singular cut-up chicken parts. “Who knows how many different chickens all those wings came from?” she asks. Disgusting, in concept, really.
I am armed with questions on a legal pad. What jobs did she have? How did the Depression affect her socioeconomic status? Does she feel she had a different experience of the Depression being a woman? Or a woman of color?
She doesn’t really answer my questions. She says, “Oh, things were hard. They were always hard. But what can you do? I was always working. There are always things to do.” She tells me how too many people sat around and felt sorry for themselves. Not her. That’s what I need to know. We start washing the chicken.
“So what kind of jobs did you do?”
“Oh, I did odd jobs. I was an au pair. I kept the books at a couple places. I was going to college to be a teacher. I got my masters at San Francisco State. The Teachers College. Before the war. Did I tell you how I always wanted to be a teacher?”
“Grandma. You were a teacher. In Chinatown.”
We will not be discussing the Great Depression any further. Instead, she will tell me the story of how she wanted to be a teacher.
“That was before the war. Not after. After, those hakajins wanted me up in the office keeping the books, where no one could see me. They didn’t want me teaching their kids.”
For the first time, I hear a tinge of anger in her voice. She said hakajins the way it was meant to be used in Japanese: venomous, xenophobic, full of disgust and distaste. I usually hear her use it only playfully, lightly, like when she makes fun of the kinds of sushi that white people order. California rolls, Philly rolls, those rolls that hide the seaweed and are full of cream cheese and mayonnaise and have no raw fish inside. Hakajin sushi.
“I had an interview for a teaching job once. When we moved here to San Jose from San Francisco.”
She is skipping the Great Depression, the war, and moves on to the 1950s. But that’s OK. Because this is a story I have never heard before. And she is telling me the story directly, rather than filtering it down through my mom. I am twenty-one now. Living on my own. Grandma is eighty-two. My mom is in too much trouble with life, repeating the funk of her father. Pills, mid-life crisis, lots of yelling. With my brother going off to college, we are all out of the house, all of us siblings away from her miasma, breathing in deeply the relief of the outside world. We are enjoying our escape, and we celebrate in that, rather than confront, empathize with, or help her. She stops going to work. She sits in her bed all day and drinks diet Cokes and smokes. She has become too unreliable. With this story, I am now the keeper of Grandma’s history.
“The secretary called me and said they would interview me. The Piney Woods School District. Where you went to school. They called me because they thought my name was Sue O’Malley.”
“Your name is Sue O’Malley.” O’Malley was my grandpa’s last name. They married after the war. She was willing to overlook his crazy Irish drunkenness for the moments when he was sober, witty, and charming. Really, his last name was once McMurphy, but that is another story.
“Yes, but you know what? They thought I would be a white lady. You should have seen the secretary’s face when I walked in there. She ignored me for ten minutes. Then I told her I had an appointment. She said there must be some mistake.”
“What did you do?”
“I waited for my appointment. She pretended she was busy typing and kept ignoring me. She wanted me to go away.” She pauses to point out the fine feathers still on the chicken that need pulling, and the yellow hard bits of skin near the joint that need to be scrubbed off. You don’t want someone to see that when you serve it, she says.
“Did you wait?”
“I sat there until Mr. Smith came out of his office and asked if his next appointment was in. And I said yes and walked up to him.”
I am surprised at this. It is not what I would expect.
She does not recount the interview. She just says, “Mr. Smith. He was the superintendent. He was a very nice man.” She says this fondly, as if he were someone she had known for a very long time, an old friend now passed.
“But . . . he didn’t hire you.” I know how the story will end. Only because I know she was never a teacher, at least not since the Chinese school.
“He told me that he thought I was very well-qualified. That I had excellent recommendations. But he couldn’t hire me because white folks don’t want a Jap teaching their kids.” She finishes washing the chicken and reminds me why we need to squeeze the veins to push the blood out of the meat before cooking it. “This way, when you eat, the inside meat is not stained purple and brown from the blood. Who wants to see that when they bite into it?” Appearances are important.
I squeeze veins. Hard. “What? You had rights! You should have sued them! You could have done something.” I am always angry enough for the two of us.
“Eeee-yaw. What for?” She has scorn in her voice, but she is not angry. At them or me. She arranges the chicken in the baking dish. We season it together, fresh rosemary from the garden that she planted for us, while she thinks of what else to say about this.
The chicken goes in the oven, and I slice shitake mushrooms while she washes rice. “You know what our people say?” She corrects my hand position on the knife, to slice the mushrooms at an angle so they look pretty.
“Gomeiwaku wo kakemashita. I am sorry I made trouble for you. We don’t go around making problems, our people.”
I finish slicing the mushrooms according to her directions. I expect to hear more of the story. But then again, really, I don’t.
I don’t want to know any more. Shikata ga nai. Enryo. Gomeiwaku wo kakemashita. The lessons teach me the same thing. Let them do wrong to you, then deal with it. Images of my grandma in pain are now coupled with these phrases that tear at my conscience. Silent fury pulses through my veins. Even though I wasn’t there, even though she takes it all in stride, even without seeing any photographs.
In 2006, Mom visits the newly created Manzanar historic site. The camp itself was razed after the war. The entrance spot had previously been marked by only a stone. The new memorial spot is fancy now, infused by federal guilt money. It boasts an educational center. u.s. government historic status. Its own web site. A brochure in the style the national parks get. Mom rode by it on a trip with her latest club, the Red Riders. Meaning her baby-boomers-who-ride-Harleys-because-they-watched-Easy-Rider-too-much-when-they-were-young-and-now-they-are-worried-about-death-and-missing-out club. My siblings and I poke fun at the pictures she sends us-—like the one of her posing with a bunch of leather-clad geriatrics in front an enormous, gaudy, inflatable Paul Bunyan off the highway-—but really, we are glad to see her finally enjoying life, finding ways to be in the world that make her happy.
Mom obtains the first proof I have ever seen of our family in the camp. No pictures of our family are there, but she requested a copy of the Manzanar roster. They photocopy pages as a service for anyone who had a relative there. She calls me when it comes in the mail. They send two pages of it together, containing the nine names we know. At the top of the first page, we find the first three, numbered and identified in type. It makes my skin crawl, the space behind my eyes feel empty. Mom usually has a lot to say. Instead we just look at the names in silence.
Grandma had a special case. Someone had to handwrite in “Sep.” for her marital status. It was a revised designation, along with an added last name for her. Naka. The keeper of the roster was either a sensitive Japanese woman or an empathetic white lady. Someone lied for her. Collaborated, helped her fix it up. Whoever added these annotations understood the idea of saving face. My mom showed Grandma later, when I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they said to each other about it. I don’t ask Grandma anything when I see her the next day.
When I return, I bring my laptop. Because there is something I can do about this, something that Adams wasn’t able to do, something that my grandma’s nature will not allow.
I scan the roster. I crop. I enlarge. The document goes into a PowerPoint lecture I will show my u.s. history students. I am a teacher now.
My class will spend three days on the topic, more than the typical one-shot deal my colleagues’ syllabi plan for. I show them maps of the camps. We read first-hand accounts of the “evacuation” in San Francisco and Los Angeles. They read Earl Warren’s statement that there was no threat of sabotage by Japanese-Americans in California. They read the loyalty pledge and discuss whether the internees had a real choice to take it or not. They compare and contrast the Japanese-American internment experience with the Japanese-Canadian one. They list what Constitutional rights were violated by Executive Order 9066 and examine the Supreme Court’s upholding of it in the Korematsu case. I ask my students to make lists of what they would pack from home if they could bring only one suitcase to prison and didn’t know how long they would be there. They are wildly practical with a hint of the sentimental: toilet paper, deodorant, granola bars, and family pictures.
Usually I let my students form their own opinions on historical issues. We look at everything from multiple perspectives. Try to develop historical empathy for each side, figure out the “why,” hone their critical thinking skills as we work through documents. I let them come to their own researched conclusions, even if they differ from mine. Not in this case.
I tell them that what happened was inexcusable, hurtful, and a national shame. I show them my grandmother’s name, evidence of her and her family in prison. Sure, I give them the view of my grandma and Adams: the Japanese took lemons and made lemonade. But I want them to know that they have a responsibility to fight for justice. Actively. They must always speak out. They must always fight. They must never sit back and accept the wrongs of history, even if it feels as if there is nothing else they can do.
My lessons don’t change anything in my family. I don’t even know if, over time, saying it to decades’ worth of students will make me feel better. All I know is that it’s what Adams doesn’t photograph, and what Grandma won’t say.
In 2007, Aunt Bonnie sends me a cd. Aunt Bonnie has retired and goes around the country, visiting all of the relatives, getting all the stories, gathering all the pictures, doing the genealogy. Halfway through her project, she mails out cds to all the cousins for Christmas. I am surprised she mails one to me, because I have met her only once, at Uncle Masahiro’s funeral.
The CD contains a bunch of old-timey photos, mostly of Auntie M——’s family, as Bonnie is her daughter-in-law. So it’s pictures of Auntie M—— and Uncle Masahiro in front of their house in Oakland. Some pictures from his funeral, of all the relatives together. And pictures of the immigrant Hiras from Japan, the Issei: my grandma’s mom and dad. The one taken on the pier in San Francisco, when my great-grandfather met my great-grandmother, his picture bride.
And there are two photos just of my grandma.
One shows her standing in front of a car. She smiles without showing her teeth. She wears a new dress with a matching hat. Her hair is curled, maybe a little bit like Shirley Temple, but not as springy. She looks young, maybe in her twenties, but this picture was from Chicago so she is well into her thirties by then. I have never seen her stand like this. Like a model, at least how I imagine one back then. Her shoulders are self-consciously rolled back. Chest out. One knee slightly bent to push the hip forward. Lips pursed together, but corners turned up into a smile. She is quite a dish. She was going to Auntie M——’s wedding, my mom tells me later. This was after camp. She must have left Uncle K—— at home. Or else he is hidden, in the back of the car. There is possibility in this photo. There is serenity. There is hope.
The second picture is from Manzanar. It is a picture of her with Uncle K——. The photo is spare. It is unclear whether they are outside or inside; I know that dirt served as ground cover for both. Mostly what the picture captures is a barren wall and wood-string apparatus attached to it. Uncle K—— is swaddled in a blanket, looking a bit out of sorts, like most infants do. Maybe he didn’t like the camera. K——’s little fingers touch her hand, her arms strong around him. The top of her head hints at her loving gaze as she looks down at him, regarding him, while she tries to hold him up for the picture. They are alone. They are together.
Grandma’s face is missing. Someone either cut her out of the picture by hand, or with the lens, perhaps unsure what to do about capturing the shame she should have as an unwed mother. Regardless, I know it is her. I recognize her arm. Strong and meaty. A farming arm, a working arm. Fingers that elegantly grip garden clippers, fresh chickens, my uncle, my hands. The edge of her hair always black and upright, done up with rollers the night before to give it body, so she can comb it into a pouf that is maintained with hairspray. The hint of a profile of a woman with a big forehead and chubby cheeks, like mine.
I print out copies of the pictures and consider calling Grandma to ask her about them. She could answer my questions. Who took those pictures? Where were you? Was that your barracks? How old was Uncle K——? By now, she knows that everyone in the family has a copy.
But I never do. I know what she will say. She will tell me how much her hat cost, and who Uncle Masahiro borrowed that car from. She will say that the wedding was nice, and what kind of cake they had afterward. She will have a story about the camp doctor who delivered my Uncle, and what a nice man he was. She will remember how many weeks it took Sears to deliver Uncle K——’s swaddling blanket, and how grateful she was when it finally arrived.
I print out the pictures, tack them up on my wall, and make a note to put them in my lecture. I will fill in the blanks of history, with or without help from her or Ansel Adams. And maybe one day she will tell me about it, when she is ready.
Sarah Fang recently received her MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland, where she was named a prizewinner in the AWP Intro to Journals Project, and also awarded the Katherine Ann Porter prize for fiction. She currently teaches in Buenos Aires, Argentina.