Where I Came From

Contributed by Anthology artist and writer, Roberta May Wong

The day was sunny and bright. I was moving briskly through downtown Portland, Oregon. “GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM!” said a low, gruff voice as I walked past the bus stop next to Portland’s Art Museum. I stopped mid-stride, immobile. Multiple thoughts and emotions dashed through my mind before I spun around and faced the fortyish, disheveled man. I looked him in the eyes and asked, “Are you talking to me?”

He would not look at me. Could only mutter under his breath.

I asked him, “And what ocean did your ancestor cross to be here?”

Mumble mumble was all I heard, followed by more indistinguishable replies.

I told him if he knew his history he would know that we all come from somewhere else, and, by his criteria, only indigenous people really belong in the United States.

This was not yesterday. This was over thirty years ago, in the early ‘80s. But whether then or now, how can anyone have an intelligent conversation when ignorance prevails? To what degree must I consider the mental health, intellect, prejudices or biases that skew the validity of contrary opinions?

One can only know one’s own truth. As a First Generation, American-Born Chinese I know my history. I know who I am. In the ‘60s, Ethnic Studies programs developed in the academic communities of San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkely. But Asian American Studies had yet to be offered in Oregon when I attended Portland State University in the ‘70s. To learn about the Chinese experience in early America required independent research. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Asian-American scholars were producing publications documenting the social and political realities of Chinese immigrants. My growing collection of Asian American books began to fill the void, providing an historical context to my ancestors’ lives. I never asked my parents about their experience as immigrants, and I never met my grandfather who died in 1947. This made me more attentive to family conversations and stories of the past. I came to appreciate and value family connections and collaborations as I witnessed my family’s strong work ethic and honest labor in manifesting their American Dream.

My Parent's Wedding Day Mah Yook Fong (Helen Wong) and Wong Gang Foon (Francis Wong) April 27, 1931

My Parent’s Wedding Day
Mah Yook Fong (Helen Wong) and Wong Gang Foon (Francis Wong)
April 27, 1931

My parents’ immigration stories differ from those of my paternal grandfather, Wong Soon Yook. Between 1882 and 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Acts prohibited or restricted Chinese immigration to America. However, as a merchant, my grandfather was exempted and allowed entry in 1926. By 1930, he established his grocery store, Tuck Lung Company (Prosperity with Integrity) in Portland’s Chinatown and arranged for his two sons to join him. Arriving as teenagers, the sons attended Atkinson Grade School through the fifth grade in NW Portland. They learned their basics: reading, writing and arithmetic. They worked hard, stocking shelves and delivering groceries, and learned to operate the business as they acclimated to a new life. I heard tales of how they carried 50-pound bags of rice up the long flight of stairs to the kitchen of Hung Far Low and how they learned to cook from the chefs at the Republic Café and Hung Far Low. They gained life skills and learned the social norms of Portland’s lively Chinese community, once the second largest on the west coast in the 1900s. The brothers returned to China in 1934 when my grandmother arranged brides for each of her sons. This was a common practice, but their time as newlyweds was limited. They returned to the States without their wives because a 1904 immigration law prohibited merchant wives from entering the U.S. Twelve years would pass before my parents would reunite. As a World War II serviceman, my father became a new citizen, allowing his young family to immigrate after the war. My mother had given birth to twins in China, so she arrived at Angel Island with her sons. In 1947, they each became Resident Aliens with “green cards.”

My Grandfather and his Children: Right to left: my mother, my father (#2 son), #2 Aunt, #1 Aunt with daughter, #3 Uncle, Grandfather, #1 Uncle and his wife

My Grandfather and his Children:
Right to left: my mother, my father (#2 son), #2 Aunt, #1 Aunt with daughter, #3 Uncle, Grandfather, #1 Uncle and his wife

My grandfather, a resident of the American Hotel on NW 2nd & Flanders, had already settled my uncle with his family in 1941. My father’s family followed six years later, settling in a second floor apartment above them. Within the year, my grandfather passed away, my uncle and his family moved to North Dakota, and my parents bought a house in Southeast Portland. By this time, many Chinese were allowed to purchase property and live beyond Chinatown. Southeast Portland was home to many immigrant families, veterans with new wives from European and Asian nations, as well as returning Japanese Issei, Nisei, and Sansei families who had been victims of the WW II Japanese Incarceration. Chinese families with similar immigration paths as my family’s and many African American families completed our neighborhood.

My parents grew their family, adding five girls in order to have one more boy. Decades later I learned that our elder twin, at age four, had died in China of pneumonia. His papers had been given to another village boy to become a “paper son.” My “paper brother,” a veteran of the Korean War and later a career postal worker, eventually disclosed and corrected his status so he could sponsor his own mother and brother to America. My “blood” brother, upon finishing high school, enrolled in college. When charged tuition as a foreign student, he quickly realized he needed to change his status and took his citizenship test. Two years into his studies, his path took a detour. He quit school to help run the grocery store while our father recuperated from an injury. In time he took over the business, moving it to a larger space down the street, adding a café for our father to manage, and with my mother and siblings’ participation, the family business became central to our lives. Everyday after school we would take the Rose City bus (now Tri-Met) into Chinatown.

In the ‘60s, diversity was not commonly used to reference the racial composition of a community, but our SE Portland neighborhood was considerably diverse for that time, and Asian students were well represented. However, being one of four persons of color in my fifth-grade classroom did not shield me from racism. My first experience of an overt racist attack was while playing a map game. Standing before the class with my opponent, our teacher called out the names of cities around the world and the first to point out its location on the map was the winner. My opponent lost and exclaimed: “CHINK!” My teacher, Mr. Howard, was visibly angry and quick to react, removing the boy from the classroom while classmates gasped at the offense. I stood silent at the blackboard. Even at that young age, I knew I was not at fault for his ignorance.

* Self-portrait 2018 Ap_2058Roberta May Wong is a conceptual/installation artist from Portland, Oregon. Recent exhibitions include: Friends of Lin Bo, a Three-Person Exhibit at Artist Repertory Theatre (2017); We the People, Group show at Blackfish Gallery (2017) and I-Ching Revolution: 101, an Installation at Indivisible (2016). Past exhibitions: Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, Portland, OR; The Wing Luke Asian Museum’s touring exhibition “Beyond Talk: Redrawing Race” at The Wing Luke Asian Museum, South Seattle Community College of Art and Phinney Center Art Gallery (2005), Seattle, WA; Evergreen State College, WA; Portland Community College, Sylvania Campus, Portland, OR; Autzen Gallery, Portland State University, Portland, OR; New Zone Gallery, Eugene, OR; Hillsboro Cultural Center, Hillsboro, OR; and NW Artists’ Workshop, Portland, Oregon.

Wong’s artwork is published in Where Are You From? An Anthology of Asian American Writing, Thymos, Portland, OR, 2012; Myth and Ideology Study Guide: Surviving Myths, Deakin University, Australia, 1990 & 2000 and The Forbidden Stitch: An Anthology of Asian American Women Artists, published by Calyx, Corvallis, Oregon (American Book Award, 1990).

A native of Portland, Oregon, Wong was Gallery Director at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center (1985-1988 and 1995-2004), a multicultural, multidisciplinary, nonprofit art organization in Portland, OR. Independently and professionally, Wong promoted, exhibited and advocated for the visibility and economic opportunity of ethnic and cultural artists. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sculpture from Portland State University, 1983.


Being American

Contributed by special guest author, Anne Hawkins

Anne's grandparents: Takeo & Haruko Fuji

Anne’s grandparents: Takeo & Haruko Fuji

Growing up, I spent my summers with my grandparents. Most afternoons, after lunch, my grandfather took a break from his gardening to watch the Atlanta Braves play baseball on television. He would get up from the couch when the National Anthem played, and he watched the game with a can of Pepsi in hand. From Hawaii, my grandfather didn’t have a local team to cheer for, and it only made sense to him that he should root for the players who had been nicknamed, “America’s Team.” It made sense to me too. After all, everything about my grandfather was just so “American.” He drove a Buick. He watched John Wayne movies. He even claimed his favorite dessert was apple pie. And yet, I know that if my grandfather, the son of Japanese immigrants, walked down the street in almost any city in the United States, people would wonder where he was from. And if he’d said, “America,” they would have responded, “No, but where are you really from?”

I grew up feeling angry, both at this knowledge and because my grandfather himself seemed to harbor no animosity about the situation. After everything that had happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II, I felt like his behavior made him an apologist for our government. But, whenever I told him that eating apple pie wasn’t going to save him, he simply reminded me that he ate apple pie because he loved it.

When I was in high school, Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal in figure skating. I had no interest in figure skating, but seeing her photograph on magazine covers mattered. After all, there was nothing more American than winning an Olympic gold medal. Then one day while at a friend’s house, I spied one of those magazines on a coffee table. Another classmate looked over and wondered aloud, “Why would they put her on the cover?” I exclaimed, “Because she won the gold medal!” My classmate responded, “But why do they care if someone who isn’t from the US team wins a gold medal?” I realized that it never occurred to her that someone who looked like Kristi Yamaguchi could actually be an American. Recent comments about Asian-American athletes during the Sochi Winter Games revealed the same prejudice — over two decades later. These incidents served to reinforce the point I’d been trying to make to my grandfather; it doesn’t matter how truly American you are, if you look a certain way, you’ll never belong.

9780545690980_mresThis past week, I read the book Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss to my seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughters, all of whom have recently become very interested in America’s Pastime. Barbed Wire Baseball tells the story of Kenichi “Zeni” Zenmura, a Japanese-American baseball player. Zeni played baseball in the Fresno Nisei League and the Fresno Twilight League. He played exhibition games alongside Babe Ruth. But none of this saved him from being interned at Gila River in Arizona during the war. The desolate conditions of the prison camp made Zeni feel, “as if he were shrinking into a tiny hard ball.” In an effort to make the camp feel more like home, Zeni took on the arduous task of building a baseball field. He organized daily games, bringing happiness and hope to people whose lives had otherwise been turned upside down.

This book sparked great conversations between me and my children about the camps —  why people were sent to them, what people lost by going to them, and why in the face of issues as serious as racism it might be important to hold onto the love of a game. We talked about how angry people in the camps must have felt about the injustices perpetrated upon them and how it would have been very easy to allow that anger to fester. I wondered if Zeni ever hated baseball or felt like it had betrayed him. We marveled at the incredible resilience ordinary people exhibit under extraordinary circumstances.

Like seeing Kristi Yamaguchi’s face on the cover of Time Magazine, Zeni’s story ignited a sense of pride in me. Sports are a metaphor for the human spirit. They’re about triumph over adversity and attaining success based entirely on hard-work and merit. On the field it doesn’t matter what we look like; all that matters is how we play the game. Zeni was only five feet tall, but he built a baseball field in the desert, and he brought hope to thousands of people. At the end of the book, he’s playing in a game at the camp, and the author writes, “He felt ten feet tall, playing the game he loved so much. Nothing would ever make him feel small again.”

Zeni worked hard to build his field, but in the end he played the game because he loved it. As the author wrote, “When Zeni had a ball or bat in his hand he felt like a giant.” When he hit a homerun, “he felt completely free, as airy and light as the ball he had sent flying.” While who we are necessarily includes how others have viewed and treated us, ultimately it is how we view and treat ourselves that matters the most. You have to do what you love in order to save your own spirit. And while there are days that I allow my anger to fester —  when I do think that fighting and speaking out are the answer — I know that to survive I also have to do what my grandfather told me to do so many years ago: simply enjoy that piece of apple pie.

Anne HawkinsBio:  Anne Hawkins is a criminal defense attorney in San Francisco, California. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. Her happiest childhood memories are of time spent with her grandparents, and her favorite moments now are watching her own children build the same kinds of memories with their grandparents. She is always on the look-out for children’s books featuring Asian-American characters. Recommendations welcome: annehawk@yahoo.com.