Breathing

For the past four years, we have been led by those who want to build walls. To protect us, they say. To keep them out, they say. But with more and more incidents of “I can’t breathe,” it’s becoming harder to ignore the increasing restlessness born from the suspicion that maybe walls are being built to keep us in. In our places. It’s ironic that the virus we’re dealing with now also makes it difficult for its victims to breathe. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why we can empathize a little more with Eric Garner and George Floyd.

Certainly, the restlessness of 2020 is being caused by lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, working from home, travel restrictions, and other related pandemic measures. More than that, however, is the growing desire to breathe. Take for example our Election. The initial large number of Democratic candidates running for President might have been overwhelming to consider but I was encouraged by its diversity – even an Asian American! Yay Yang! And for the final Democratic candidate to commit to and follow-through with his pledge to pick a woman as his running mate was another surprise. Even though Biden had not been my first choice, his selection of a woman of color made me respect him more.

Still, our country is so divided that I didn’t want to hope too much. COVID exposed the many weaknesses in our American systems so that public health, the economy, and institutional racism became problems of contention rather than collaboration. It didn’t seem to matter that COVID was trying its best to point out to us that walls can’t protect us … that we, not the virus, can end up killing each other … unless we work together as Americans and Global Citizens to put sensible precautions in place to protect ourselves AND EACH OTHER, here in our country and beyond our permeable borders.

COVID also showed us that people are not treated equally in America. While our President and the wealthy in our country get the best healthcare, too many Americans don’t. Some die. Too many Americans are losing jobs and homes. They. Can’t. Breathe. Not everyone will recover. Protests happen when groups believe that the balance has shifted from “more to gain” to “less to lose.”

Big Disruptions like the ones we’re experiencing are humbling. They remind us to reflect on where we’ve come from, where we’re going, how we’re getting there. To make sure we’re on the right path. Getting there the right way. Because too often, we aren’t. We forget to remember we will all reach the same destination in the end, but it’s how we get there that really counts. We forget that reaching our destination matters less than how we get there. Losing our way matters less than how we deal with our losses. When this pandemic forced many of us to stay at home and drastically change our routines, it gave us the opportunity to pause and think more mindfully about our routines – about what we value and want from our lives. If we stopped breathing today, we would see our breaths passing before our eyes, showing us … what?

During this pause, I am having a hard time understanding why others don’t see the hurt and pain – the breathlessness – behind the Protests. Maybe most of us are like those blind men whose descriptions of an elephant depended on which part of the animal they had touched.

We argue and argue … but we can’t know what we don’t know. Non-Blacks haven’t driven while Black. Held a rifle and walked past police while Black. Taken a walk as a Black through a White neighborhood at night … maybe even during the day. Had a mental health episode while Black. Been on trial for murder while Black. We often find body swap movies funny but I think if a White American switched bodies with a Black (or non-White person), they would not find it funny at all. Sometimes I find myself wishing that those who claim they are not racist would swap bodies with a Black American or any non-white American and then tell me that institutional racism is a lie. I’m guessing that not many White Americans have been told to “go back where you came from”!

In a recent interview with Seneca Cayson, one of the leaders of the non-violent Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon, he said that the social justice message has been diffused by other competing and opposing interests and “… it’s right and wrong …  that’s the true agenda.”

We don’t live in isolation, we live in families, communities, and societies where our actions can affect others among whom we live as well as those who want to live among us. It may help us breathe more easily and calmly if we tempered our desire for individualism and exclusivity with a more generous caring and kindness to those around us … even when it means acting for the greater good rather than our own preferences. We can choose to build walls … or, as Yo-Yo Ma proposes, bridges:

I’ve lived my life at the borders. Between cultures. Between disciplines. Between musics. Between generations. And throughout my life I’ve learned that in culture, we build bridges, not walls. We believe that we are better together than alone. I am worried that we’ve lost sight of that belief in America.  –  Yo-Yo Ma is a cellist. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2010.

In a better world, we will be able to bridge the divide, tear down walls, problem-solve and accomplish wonderful things together, no matter our race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or political leanings. What we create will be meaningful more than expedient. Built without guns, bombs, tear-gas, batons, and knives. Shaped by kindness and caring for each other no matter how differently we look and think. Listening to each other. REALLY listening. Seeing deeply into each other’s hearts and souls, not just glancing at surfaces and assuming we know. And, in our Election cycles, it would be nice if seeing candidates who look like us was such a normal sight that it wouldn’t make us sit up, breathing accelerated; rather the focus would be on getting very excited about candidates who hope and dream with us no matter what they or we look like.

In a better world, we will all be able to breathe.

 

Bio:  Valerie Katagiri was co-editor of the community book project (available on Amazon.com): Where Are You From?: An Anthology of Asian American Writing. She coordinates the blog posts on the related Anthology website: AsianAmericanWriting.com

There are many cultural reasons why Asian Americans haven’t been more vocal in their attempts to be seen and heard but if we are to be visible, recognized, and counted in America, we will need to break down walls and speak up more, protest more … and yes, write more. We have to build more bridges and less walls. So people will see us as more than our faces. So that people will understand where we’re coming from … where we’re REALLY coming from.

Call for Submissions

BE VISIBLE.

* Tell YOUR STORY in your own words!

* Communicate perspectives that challenge or transcend mainstream stereotypes.

* Or simply write something uniquely personal as an Asian American.

Email your Asian American-related essay (500-1000 words) and short bio to info@asianamericanwriting.com

Anti-Blackness in Asian America

Contributed by special guest writer, Lauren Yanase

In early June, during protests following the atrocious murder of George Floyd, my Boomer-age Japanese American father expressed frustration about certain happenings in the news. He reiterated his general support for the demonstrations, then paused before saying, “You know, those people are horribly racist to us too.”

‘Those people’ were understood to be Black Americans, while ‘us’ was Asian immigrants and their Asian American children.

When pressed for his reasoning, he replied, “You know, they hate us ‘model minorities.’ They ‘ching-chonged’ me as much as any White kid growing up in the Sixties.”

Therein lies the answer to my unasked question: what formative encounter had he experienced to codify such views? How could my progressive, sensitive father believe that the long history of violent racism inflicted by White people on Black people is comparable to conflict between BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities?

Of course, this was not my first or only experience with casual anti-Black sentiment in my Asian American family and community.

As a Japanese American, family is everything – and nothing is more important than the sacred act of being together. My father’s extended family, numbering over fifty people, has come together for each holiday, big or small, for the past half-century. The most significant loss during the Coronavirus pandemic has been the inability to celebrate together; to break bread together; to simply be together.

Like many American families, ideologies within my dad’s family range from deeply conservative to extremely liberal and everything in between. And, like many families, there are strong opinions and emotions that vary wildly on race issues in America. It was counter-intuitive to me that anyone who had been discriminated against on the basis of race could be Anti-Black. How could those who lived through one of the worst violations of Asian American human and civil rights (the Japanese American incarceration camps) believe the worst of a group whose existence is a continued testament to their push for acceptance in a nation they helped build?

Ironically, there are deep, old roots of Anti-Black sentiment in my dad’s non-White family that lead to an attitude remarkably similar to the unforgiving racism carried by my mom’s White, old-genteel-Southern family.

Like most American families, my father and I come from a legacy of immigrants. His grandparents came from Japan in the late 19th century. The early history of Asian immigrants on the West Coast is notably marked by the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But my great-grandparents held tight to their American Dream even though their new home was actively hostile against them.

Because of their radical pilgrimage and establishment, my father’s late grandparents are revered legends in my family and their American legacy weighs on our shoulders decades after their passing. An underappreciated fact of my family’s patriarch and matriarch was their unswayable, documentable anti-Black ideology in a time when they, too, were the targets of gross racial discrimination. My father grew up hearing his grandparents using English and Japanese slurs against Black people and their perceived offenses against our family. His father, my late grandfather, a state prosecutor, was convinced that Black people were intellectually inferior.

Anti-Blackness is embedded in my Japanese family’s roots, immigration story, and consequently our political identity. The racial obstacle my family faces now is acknowledging and confronting the anti-Black sentiment that has persisted for over a century in our heritage and our identity. Whenever this is mentioned in my family, I hear the uncomfortable “they were a product of their time” explanations … and more. Their intent is clear: don’t dishonor your great-grandparents’ memory by asking about their shortcomings.

It can be hard, then, to feel empowered to confront my family members’ views since setting aside individuality for the sake of deference to elders is doctrinal.

About a month prior to the killing of George Floyd, PBS released a fabulous five-hour film series, “Asian Americans,” on the history of Asian Americans starting from the first migrants. Particularly galling to me was a historian’s tongue-in-cheek summation of the plight of non-European immigrants and migrants: “each immigrant group is striving to be as far from ‘Black’ as possible.” In a gross generalization of the immigrant experience, this quip reveals the fundamental foundation behind assimilation culture: the systemic, institutionalized racism Black people face in America is so pervasive around the world that non-Black immigrants and Americans must distance themselves as far from Blackness as possible.

As a non-Black person, qualifying Blackness is impossible and inappropriate, so I will not attempt to try. I will say, however, that the non-Black perception of Blackness is often derived from stereotypes and pop culture. The tropes we consume from those media inform the unwritten non-Black POC (People of Color) handbook on achieving acceptance and admittance to White America.

And so is the paradox of Blackness for non-Black POC; we must shun and distance ourselves from the most egregiously ‘Black’ behaviors up until the point they are co-opted by White American pop culture.

With the quiet time that quarantine has afforded me, I realized that there is nothing more reverential to my family’s legacy than using the voice given to me.

The lived history of Asian Americans is radical: existing, struggling, learning to thrive in a space that has tried to exclude them from the beginning. In that way, Asian America is more similar than it is different from Black America. As a 21st century Asian American, I stand on the shoulders of Black abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights leaders, and advocates. The object now is to demonstrate these fundamental affinities in our communities and broaden a coalition of support for Black empowerment.

I am not the first nor the last of my background to opine on and decry the apparent disconnect of my community to the plight of Black people in America and the bastardization of ‘Blackness.’ From outrage over skin-lightening creams to collaboration in the Civil Rights movement there is a through-line in history, however narrow, of Asian Americans as allies to Black lives. Unfortunately, as a whole, Asian Americans have not tied our empowerment to a synchronous Black liberation.

As poor White Southerners were intentionally turned against their Black peers in the Reconstruction Period and beyond, Asian Americans have tried to distinguish themselves as far from Blackness as possible. It must be my intention as a fourth-generation Asian American to promote breaking down the systemic walls that isolate minority groups from one another. We must be willing to risk the discomfort and offense of our Asian American families and be advocates because it is incumbent on the partnership of Black and Asian Americans to secure equality and dignity for both.

 

BIO:  Lauren Yanase is a recent graduate of St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Oregon. An avid storyteller, Lauren has previously written creative fiction and nonfiction accounts of Japanese American internment and has been recognized regionally and nationally for her writing. In 2019, she earned the Girl Scout Gold Award for her documentary about the Japanese American internment (see description of Shikata Ga Nai below). This is a prestigious honor, with fewer than six percent of Girl Scouts worldwide earning this award.

Lauren is attending Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, following a gap year of working in outdoor education and community organizing. She is an enthusiast of mid-priced coffee and semi-athletic endeavors in the mountains.

Shikata Ga Nai: An Inconvenient American follows the story of the Kato family during World War II as Japanese Americans along the West Coast were being forcefully relocated into incarceration camps. John Golden, a TOSA in Portland Public Schools, says that this film, “sheds a light on a forgotten and shameful chapter in American history… and presents a story that is compelling and should be essential viewing for all high school students.”

Discussion Circles

Contributed by special guest writer, Anne Hawkins

As we sat in the circle, I asked them to share about a holiday or tradition they celebrate in their family. They spoke about Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah – as others in the circle nodded along. And finally, one spoke about a holiday when he dressed in red and ate noodles to represent long life. Where he danced in a line led by a big lion’s head. And when, he smiled, he “gets lots of red envelopes with money.” The others asked questions – they’d heard of this holiday in school and maybe even gone to an event – but they had never listened to someone who celebrated it describe it in such a meaningful way.

And when he was done, I asked everyone to close their eyes and think about the holidays others had just shared, and the ones they themselves had shared, and I asked them how they felt hearing and sharing their stories. They said they felt proud. They felt happy. They liked talking about times with their families that made them feel happy. They felt sad, missing family they normally celebrated with, but haven’t seen because of the coronavirus. They felt excited to learn more about their friends and their families – the things their families did that might not be like their own. They had allowed themselves to be vulnerable, and as a result, they felt connected.

As the parent of a nine-year-old boy, I think often about the kind of person I hope he will grow up to be. I hope he will be kind and fair. I hope he will be able to think about his feelings and manage them before his actions harm others. I hope he will understand the history of this country and his place and relative privilege in it. This summer, following the murder of George Floyd, and in the wake of the protests that followed, it became impossible for me to believe that my own children would grow up to be all the things I hope they will be without putting in a great deal of work.

And so I found myself speaking to close friends – also parents of nine-year-old boys –  with an increasing sense of urgency. We all wanted to engage in deeper more difficult and uncomfortable conversations with our sons, but we didn’t always know how. We read books and some of us took our children to the protests. We believe they are good kids and are grateful that they share friendships with other good kids – but that didn’t seem like quite enough. Certainly many “good” kids grow up to perpetuate racism and violence. And so my son and I invited five other boys to join us in our backyard for a discussion circle. And, as I always do, I found a book to help me out.

Tiffany Jewell’s This Book is Anti-Racist asks the questions and provides the background to generate critical discussions about identity, racism, and how to do the work to be anti-racist. I used this book as a jumping off point – to get these boys thinking about their own identities, how they see themselves and how the world sees them. And while they may not have a comprehensive understanding of the legal and social systems that have gotten us to this point, they certainly understand the ideas of fundamental fairness and what it means to feel left out or mistreated. They also know what it means to be treated better than others because of certain talents or immutable attributes and recognize moments where they have used that treatment to their own advantage.

With each circle we have leaned forward, and sometimes we have had to step back. We have talked about gratitude and what it means to set goals and work hard toward them. We have explored the difference between dignity and respect and why that matters. We have talked about celebrating our own backgrounds, and the boys have done research and presented on traditions they had never previously heard about. They bring up stories they have heard in the news. They wonder together why things happen and how we might prevent such things in the future. They see that solutions are more than just “being nice” or believing that all people are created equal.

For so long I have just worried and asked the questions in my head. How can I be doing more to better educate myself and my children? How do we understand history to improve the future? How do I reconcile my own feelings about the discrimination against our own Asian/Asian American communities with our need to be an ally to Black and Brown communities? I think about the boy describing his celebration of Lunar New Year and why that matters. In this life, we come together often because we share some common ground. But, we grow and learn because we value the sharing and celebration of our differences.

Through this circle, these boys have shown me that I certainly don’t have all the answers, but that we will engage in the process of learning and growing together. A nine-year-old child holds a lot of power – to act in ways that promote equality and inclusion in their own circles, as well as to hold their parents accountable to do the same.

BIO:  Anne Hawkins is the mother of three elementary-aged children and a criminal defense attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area. When she isn’t leading discussion circles for nine-year-old boys, she can be found reading or pacing on the sidelines of her children’s baseball and soccer games.

 

 

 

 

 

Unexpected Nuance

Contributed by one of our Anthology authors, Simon Tam

Recently, I had an impactful (and surprising) discussion around race. Here’s how it went …

Them: “… I grew up here in the South in an Irish and Catholic family; it was really bad.”

Me: “Indeed, Irish immigrants were treated very poorly.”

Them: “Yes, we were treated just as bad as Black families.”

Me: “Well, I wouldn’t say that …”

(at this point, I thought, “Here we go …”)

Them: “And I don’t know where all this hate comes from, that’s not how we bring people up in this country.”

Me: “It’s complex, we’re taught a lot that reinforces inequality. We’re also not taught many things that would show us other experiences other than White dominant culture, at least in any real sense.”

Them: “I had a Black friend so I learned about some things.”

(Inner nervousness about what comes next)

Them: “Well, I don’t know how to put it right but it was like I realized that my experience as an Irish was different because I could hide behind it. My friend couldn’t hide. When we were in public, my friend was only seen as Black. People didn’t know I was Irish so they didn’t treat me like they would if they actually knew.”

In one fell swoop, this person inadvertently described one of the benefits of this thing we talk about called “White privilege,” the ability to hide, to blend. To not be a target.

Based on many conversations I’ve had before, I was expecting a different trajectory. And because it changed course, I got less tense. I talked about my own experiences, we shared culture, approached things with compassion.

… and yes, addressed some of the misconceptions/differences in how the Irish experience differed from the African slave trade. But I’m not sure that would have happened without listening first. If I’d jumped in with counterpoint arguments, they’d probably have just gotten defensive and derailed it all.

It reminded me once more of Dr. West’s words, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Sometimes that just means listening, something I’m trying to better learn myself, every day.

 

BIO:  Simon Tam is an author, musician, activist, and troublemaker. He is best known as the founder and bassist of The Slants, the world’s first and only all-Asian American dance rock band. He is the founder of The Slants Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing scholarships and mentorship to artist-activists of color.

Simon has been a keynote speaker, performer, and presenter at TEDx, SXSW, Comic-Con, The Department of Defense, Stanford University, and over 1,200 events across four continents. He has set a world record by appearing on the TEDx stage 13 times. His work has been highlighted in over 3,000 media features across 150 countries including The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, NPR, BBC, New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

In 2016, Simon joined President Barack Obama, George Takei, Jeremy Lin, and other celebrities in the #ActToChange campaign to fight bullying. He recently helped expand civil liberties through winning a unanimous victory at the Supreme Court of the United States for the landmark case, Matal v. Tam in 2017.

He has received many accolades for his work, including: “The Mark T. Banner” award from the American Bar Association, the “Hugh M Hefner First Amendment Award,” “Milestone Case of the Year” from Managing IP Magazine, the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Ovation Gala, and “Distinguished Alum Award” from Marylhurst University.

In 2019, he published his memoir, Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court. You can purchase it wherever books are sold and read excerpts at www.slantedbook.com

Camp Star Lake

Contributed by special guest writer, Yongsoo Park

Sending my brother and me to camp was my mother’s idea. She had grand notions about how children should spend their summers to become adults of distinction and believed that summer camp would help us develop American independence. My mother’s desire to send us to camp was also fueled by guilt for having moved our family from Seoul to the United States. We hadn’t been well-to-do in Korea. But we’d definitely been middle-class. My mother had been a middle school teacher, and she and my father had run a cram school out of our house, a spacious home with a yard. In contrast, our home in America was a one-bedroom apartment in Elmhurst, an immigrant enclave in Queens with very little that evoked the pastoral glory that had lured my parents to leave their homeland.

The only problem was money. At the time, my father ran a small shoe repair shop and my mother worked as a secretary for a fly-by-night Korean businessman. My brother and I ate free lunch at school and wore hand-me-downs my mother scrounged up from other mothers at church. A TV commercial that we happened to see one night made camp a reality for us. In it, a dozen robust white children with rosy cheeks hiked in unison to the summit of an impossibly-picturesque mountaintop while a narrator urged parents to send their children to camp to experience the joys of nature.

My mother called the number that flashed on the screen and  explained our situation as best as she could in her stilted English. When she learned that sending two boys to camp would only cost $50, she wasn’t at all alarmed. Quite the opposite, the low price fit neatly with the vision she’d had of the U.S. as a munificent country that willingly shared its bounty with newcomers and those in need.

On the designated day, we went to the address in Manhattan where the lady on the phone had told my mother that campers would be ferried by bus to the camp in New Jersey. The address turned out to be a Salvation Army office in the heart of Harlem. We’d only been in the U.S. for two years, but we’d heard many horror stories about Harlem from other Korean families.

We stepped into a large gymnasium, which was filled with about five hundred African-American kids who turned and stared at us in unison, wondering what the heck we were doing there. My parents looked shell-shocked. The scene was nothing like the TV commercial. My parents were so startled by what they’d unknowingly signed us up for that they pulled me aside and offered me the option to skip the camp and stay home. But I declined their offer. I’d talked up the camp to my friends back home. I couldn’t possibly face them and report that I’d chickened out of going to the camp.

I was teased a lot and got called all sorts of names, especially at the start of camp, but overall, I had fun because it was still summer camp and we campers were all little kids. I also won some status at camp for being one of just a handful of kids who could swim and for being the only kid who could do the Rubik’s Cube.

I don’t attribute my parents’ decision to let us get on that bus that day to some inner nobility or exceptional ability to transcend their prejudices. They must have had some sleepless nights. I’m not sure I could have done the same had I been in their shoes, but I’m glad that they sent us. Had they not sent us, I probably would have held it against them, especially during my prickly adolescence.

As fate would have it, I live today just five blocks away from where the bus picked my brother and me up to take us to Camp Star Lake nearly 40 years ago. Gone are the boarded-up buildings and the vacant lots. Such lots have been bought up by developers who are building condos on them. But the Salvation Army is still there, and Camp Star Lake is still in operation.

With the passage of time, I’ve gained greater appreciation for my fish-out-of-water experience. When I was younger, my going to Star Lake highlighted my parents’ cluelessness and bumbling in their attempt to navigate American life. Now that I’m older and have children of my own, my perception has changed.

My parents took a leap of faith. They knew that their children would likely experience discomfort and unease, but they trusted the world and let us go off on our own with the belief that such trials would only make us stronger. I’m not sure that I could have mustered the courage to trust the world the way they did with my own children, but I gained so much from going to Star Lake and rubbing elbows with African-American kids whose lives were even more messed up than mine. It was a pivotal experience that helped shed many of the misguided notions I’d held about life in America and opened my eyes to the stark inequities of racism. To this day, I thank my mother for always thinking about her children’s future and for sending me to Camp Star Lake.

BIO: Yongsoo Park is the author of the novels BOY GENIUS and LAS CUCARACHAS, the memoir RATED R BOY, and the essay collection THE ART OF EATING BITTER about his losing battle to give his children an analog childhood. He lives in Harlem and gets around on an old bicycle.

Mom’s Gifts

Contributed by special guest author/writer/lecturer, Linda Tamura

 

Gifts from my mom have recently emerged in surprising ways and at unexpected times.

Cooking more frequently now while quarantined, I’m reminded when I flick on the rice cooker how Mom painstakingly steamed rice in a foaming pot on the stove, keeping an eye on the temperature and time – and chiding herself when pearls of rice emerged a bit scorched. How did she manage to cook rice the “old fashioned way” while juggling her other chores?

When I harangue officials appearing on TV news after they spout put-downs and falsehoods, I hear her voice reminding me, “Now, now, don’t say anything you’ll regret later.” How did Mom keep her cool even when she recognized outright wrongs?

While downsizing and rearranging our home, I’ve taken a second look at remembrances from Mom. And I wonder: How did she balance nine-hour work days hoeing trees or thinning pears with Dad in our orchard or hammering boards into boxes (even with a big bandage from misjudging her finger placement) with cooking, cleaning, doing laundry with a wring-washer and clothes-line while still managing to raise three daughters? And how did she find time to crochet delicate doilies and tablecloths, embroider pillowcases, sew dresses and outfits for all of us – and then find joy in gardening, too? How did she manage to multitask before that concept even became vogue?

I recently found the baby book that Mom lovingly compiled 70 years ago. Tucked inside the cover in a plain envelope were two yellowed Hood River News articles. The first, labeled June 18, Parkdale, Oregon, had a simple title: “Baby shower.” It detailed an event hosted by “Miss Jessie Akiyama” three days before I was born. Not only did it list the 17 “mesdames” (listed by their spouses’ names) who attended, but it included the eight who sent gifts but were unable to attend. Notably among the guests were the spouses of two Euro-American men who’d been supportive of my grandparents’ family both before and after the war, despite a caustic community campaign to prevent the return of Japanese Americans after their wartime incarceration. This was a ruthless drive supported by “No Japs Wanted” ads signed by more than 1,800 locals that brought national notoriety to my hometown. So, in a way, after the scourge of wartime exclusion and the fear about how they’d be accepted in their own community, this article represented more than just a celebration of life, albeit mine. It was also an exemplar of friendships and reunions that crossed racist borders, maybe even an oblique call for unity. Could it be that Mom is speaking into my ear again, this time urging our efforts toward the equity and balance that were amiss when she was growing up – and that challenge us in new ways today?

Oh, and the second article I found? A short clip entitled “Births” listed newborns for the previous week. Mine was the last of thirteen entries, announcing the birth “to Mr. and Mrs. Harry M. Tamura, a son, Daniel James, June 21.”  Now my sisters tease me that they had always wanted a big brother …

 

Bio:  Linda Tamura is a third-generation Japanese American, an orchard kid raised in Hood River, Oregon and the daughter of a World War II veteran. A Professor Emerita of Education at Willamette University, she is the author of two books on Japanese Americans:  Nisei Soldiers Break Their Silence:  Coming Home to Hood River and The Hood River Issei:  An Oral History of Japanese Settlers in Oregon’s Hood River Valley. Linda is a co-editor-in-chief of The Oregon Encyclopedia (www.oregonencyclopedia.org) and is involved in other projects and programs, including the upcoming exhibit on Japanese American women for the Japanese American Museum of Oregon (JAMO).

Fear the Racism Pandemic Uncovers in Our Communities

Contributed by special guest writer Summer Tan

Bio:  Summer Tan is a high school sophomore who lives in West Linn. She enjoys mock trial, and her team won first place in the 2020 Oregon State Championship. She loves competing in debate tournaments, participating in Model United Nations, and playing golf with the high school team. She is also currently Vice-Chair of the City of West Linn Youth Advisory Council and has volunteered for various non-profit organizations with the National Charity League.

 

I have lived in the Portland area my entire life. As such, I have been privileged in how I have had, for the most part, nothing but positivity directed towards the subject of my race. In fact, on that day in late January when a stranger accosted me at the mall, I’d been commenting how happy I was to see Chinese New Year decorations everywhere.

“Are you worried about the coronavirus?” this woman asked, out of nowhere in the middle of a store in Washington Square Mall. Was I what? Confused, I had tried to get out of her way. I’d panicked for a few seconds as I tried to identify her, even as I responded that, no, I wasn’t worried about the coronavirus — as far as I knew, there had been no cases in Oregon. “Oh,” she’d responded, almost disappointed. “I was just wondering because your people are spreading it everywhere.” I wish I had asked, “What do you mean, ‘your people’?” I wish I could have gathered myself enough to ask her what could have possibly possessed her to walk up to a girl distracted by shiny bracelets and accuse “her people” of spreading some disease. Selfishly, I wish I had made a scene.

I did none of those things. Instead, I’d looked at her, smiled, and replied, “Well, there have been no cases in Oregon,” and then fake-coughed, making only superficial efforts to cover the cough as she cringed away from me. While I felt some satisfaction from her discomfort, I still mostly felt like crying as I walked back to my friends.

I wonder, now, if she even realized that what she’d done — what she’d said — was wrong. After all, if she had been bold enough to approach a 15-year-old with a baby face and accuse “my people” of “spreading around” a virus, who could say what else she was willing to accuse other people of? Maybe she had thought that her comments were a lead-up to appropriate conversations, though I cannot imagine any circumstance where those comments were appropriate. Maybe she had been intentionally rude. Maybe she just didn’t think, and spent the rest of the day regretting her words, even as I tried to forget she’d said them.

I knew that I’d done nothing wrong — and yet, I felt “dirty” throughout the rest of the day, carrying around the baggage of her words as if something was undeniably my fault. Besides those two minutes of my life, nothing eventful happened at the mall that day.

Here’s the thing: I know that there has been much fear over the coronavirus pandemic. The event at the mall, as well as reading accounts of increased racism towards Asians, however, have made me realize that, while fear of a deadly disease is understandable, those fears have allowed people to abandon civility in favor of stark racism and xenophobia.

Perhaps I was naive in not considering that people would turn against each other in fear and that their fear would bring out the worst versions of themselves. I still believe, though, that we ought to try harder to not let this fear cripple ourselves or our empathy. As Oregon schools close, events are cancelled, and people self-quarantine, we must choose kindness. We owe it to each other to try.

 

Summer’s essay was originally printed on March 16, 2020 in the WestLinnTidings, published by the Pamplin Media Group.

Oregon Public Broadcasting followed up with Summer on their Think Out Loud program. You may listen to it here, if interested.


And then there is … music that transcends borders during this global pandemic …

Portland cellist brings peace during epidemic

Kira Wang of Portland is one of 24 cellists acknowledging difficult times but giving hope through ‘The Swan Project.’

 

 

An Open Letter to My “Eomma” (Mother)

Contributed by special guest writer, Michelle Hicks, as part of our collaboration with APANO (see organization description at end of this blog).

“Aga” (Korean for “baby”), why should we fill out the census?

When has it ever mattered to us?”

For my mom’s generation, this sentiment reflects their experiences coming to America, being here, and living under this government. In her life, she has lived through wars, corruption, and global calamity. In her time in the U.S., she has experienced the failures and successes of various government-funded programs. She has seen the Immigration and Naturalization Service expand into Immigration and Customs Enforcement and continually target our Korean community and many other immigrants. She has seen the prisons expand and our community separated.

Why should she fill out the census? I try to tell her why.

Eomma (“Mother”), we should fill out the census because we have the power to change the story of our community and this country. When people think of a state like Oregon as a White place, they overlook our community and the power that we have when we come together. By being counted, the data tells our histories of migration, of family. It tells the rest of the country that this is our home. Eomma, you came here because of the promise that we are all equal. Under the census, that is finally true. We fill out the census the same as Kate Brown or Timothy Boyle or Phil Knight, and each of our data is weighted the same. We are equal — if we are counted.

Eomma, we should fill out the census because it shows the government how much funding we need for programs our community uses every day. The census lets them know how many kids will go to school so that our classrooms won’t be crowded. It lets them know how many people might go to college so they can allocate money for Pell Grants. It lets them know how many people need SNAP so that our families can be fed. It lets them know how many people might need Medicare and Medicaid so that they can actually see the doctor and get care. If any one of us isn’t counted, it doesn’t mean that we’ll have less need. It means our communities will not get enough resources to support that need over the next 10 years.

Eomma, we should fill out the census because it amplifies our political power. To me, this is one of the most important things about the census. Census data is how the government figures out how many representatives we have at the federal and state level. States like Oregon could gain another seat in the House of Representatives and this increases our community’s chances of being represented and more visible.

Eomma, when our community doesn’t fill out the census, we miss out on billions of dollars over the next 10 years. We don’t get a chance to get it right again until 2030.

Eomma, you came here to give us a better life. This is why I care so much about the census because it helps give our community a better life with access to resources that we deserve. I learned this from you and your example. Now, I want to make sure our family and our community is counted.

As for filling it out, it’s pretty easy. 10 questions in 10 minutes. Online, by phone, or by mail. Call me, we can talk through it.

Sarangheo Eomeoni (“I love you, Mom”),

Michelle

Note: There is no consistent way to romanize Korean words because many letters are between two sounds in English. For example, eomma makes the sound of eo+aw+uh all at once but it can be romanized as eomma or ahmma or umma. The romanization in this piece was provided by the author.

 

Bio:  Michelle Hicks is a Field Organizer at APANO. She was raised in San Jose, CA by her mother, a Korean immigrant, and two incredible older sisters. Her upbringing influenced her to study Politics with minors in American Ethnic Studies and Spanish at Willamette University. Michelle is passionate about political engagement, civil rights, and human rights and is committed to cultivating a more equitable Oregon.

 


How to Fill Out the 2020 Census

You can fill out your census online here in 10 minutes: https://my2020census.gov/

You can also give your responses by phone by calling 844-330-2020.

If you live in a more rural area, or you don’t respond online or by phone, the Census Bureau may send you a paper copy of the survey, that you can fill out and mail back in.

You can respond in 12 non-English languages when you fill out the form online or over the phone. Those languages include Spanish, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese.

The census is safe. Your personal information won’t be shared with other government agencies or anyone else and will only be used for statistical purposes. The census will not ask you for your social security number, money or donations, your citizenship status, your political affiliation, or bank/credit card numbers.

Did you happen to receive two surveys? In addition to the 2020 census, the Census Bureau is conducting another survey called the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS samples a segment of people living in the U.S. (the 2020 census counts EVERY person) and also provides important information for local leaders to understand their community. If you fill out the ACS, you still need to fill out the 2020 census separately.

Do you have other questions? The 2020census.gov site has more information, or you can call one of these national organizations who can answer your questions in English and other languages:

  • Asian Americans Advancing Justice
    • (844) 2020-API or (844) 202-0274
    • Available in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Urdu and Bengali/Bangla
    • Live from 8:30am – 8:30pm Eastern Standard Time
  • Arab American Institute
    • (833) 333-6864 or (833)-3DDOUNI (“Count me” in Arabic)
    • Available in English, Arabic
    • Live from 9am-9pm Eastern Standard Time
  • NALEO Educational Fund
    • (877)-EL-CENSO or (877)-352-3676
    • Available in English/Spanish
    • Live from 8:30am – 8:30pm Eastern Standard Time

 

APANO is a statewide, grassroots organization uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. We use our collective strengths to advance equity through empowering, organizing and advocating with our communities. APANO’s strategic direction prioritizes four key areas: cultural work, leadership development, community organizing, and policy advocacy and civic engagement. Through APANO’s arts and cultural work, we create a vibrant space where artists and communities can envision an equitable world through the tool of creative expression. We strive to impact beliefs, center the voices of those most impacted and silenced, and use arts and cultural work to foster unity and vitality within our communities. Learn more about APANO on our website and read more writings by APANO members on Medium.

Postscript: Arts Activism 50 Years Apart

Contributed by special guest author/editor Shawn Wong

Shawn Wong is the author of two novels, Homebase and American Knees, and editor or co-editor of six anthologies of Asian American or American multicultural literature. He is a professor of English and Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His website is: ShawnWongWrites.com

 

Last summer I waged a social media war against Penguin Classics for what I believed to be their piracy of John Okada’s No-No Boy, trampling on a valid copyright by claiming that the book was in the public domain because I filled out the copyright form incorrectly when the co-editors of Aiiieeeee!, Jeffery Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Inada, and I, used our own money to republish the novel in 1976 as a CARP publication (Combined Asian-America Resources Project). In addition, the original publication by Charles Tuttle Co. was in 1957, which meant that both copyrights were still in force. Later, in 1979, I transferred the rights to the University of Washington Press. Penguin Classics had made no attempt to contact the Okada family or the UW Press prior to releasing their edition. They were essentially, in my opinion, making a stand on commerce over decency.

During my public campaign against Penguin Classics and its Vice-President and Publisher, Elda Rotor, many people and organizations joined in the battle, supporting my stand. Some of the first to stand with me were Viet Thanh Nguyen, David Henry Hwang, Asian American professors and teachers, and independent bookstores from all over the country who returned copies of the Penguin edition, refusing to sell it. That support, combined with the mainstream media picking up on the “David vs. Goliath” story and the work of intellectual property attorneys, actually brought the battle to a quick end. The teamwork was textbook Asian American activism at its best. The only difference between the activism of 50 years ago and now is the power of social media. I should know, I was there at the beginning.

My co-editors and I discovered Okada’s novel 50 years ago in a used bookstore for 50 cents and following the publication of Aiiieeeee! in 1974, we made it our mission to bring No-No Boy and other canonical works of Asian America back into print. Many literary scholars have critiqued our anthology over the years and pointed out its failings or its tone or its dated definition of Asia America (we even included in the new edition of the anthology a foreward by Tara Fickle in which she documents that criticism), but many did not realize that the anthology was the production of activism more than literary scholarship. The book made a stand that Asian American literature deserved a seat at the table of American Literature. We often pushed back against the publishing companies and editors who rejected our manuscript with often demeaning and dismissive letters of rejection. It was no surprise when the only publisher to find us a legitimate literary voice was Howard University Press.

We never met John Okada before he died in 1971, but we vowed that his achievement be recognized and that his place in American literature be secure. What Penguin Classics didn’t realize when they went to market, is that the publishing history of the novel and the people behind it were as important as the book, which is why the UW Press edition of the novel contains three supporting essays about the literary history.

Under the pressure of all of this social media activism, Penguin Classics chose to withdraw their edition of No-No Boy from all distribution in the US in an arrangement with the UW Press and only distribute their version abroad. They also agreed to pay the Okada family and estate royalties for all copies sold—something they avoided when they released their version of the novel. The UW Press version of the novel continues to be published as it has been for the last 40 years here in the US and worldwide. The current sales of the UW Press is 160,000 copies sold.  That number combined with the CARP sales of 6,000 copies far exceeds the original Tuttle printing of 1500 copies.

This last January, I found out that Elda Rotor was attending the Modern Language Association conference in Seattle at the same time the UW Press was doing a book launch for the new edition of Aiiieeeee! on the occasion of its 45th anniversary. The agreement between Penguin Classics and the UW Press and the Okada family had been signed. I invited Elda to come to the book launch and she agreed. When we shook hands, I told her that I supported her efforts to publish Asian American literature and offered my advice should she ever need it. I didn’t enter into the campaign against Penguin Classics to shame them or disgrace them. I’m a teacher and I thought there was a lesson in the history of Okada’s book that everyone should know.

There’s no monetary incentive for me to defend No-No Boy and its publishing history or an author I never met, rather I’m defending my own history with the book and my voice in urging people to read this novel I found in a used bookstore when I was an unpublished undergraduate student trying to be a writer myself.

To buy copies of No-No Boy, click here. For Aiiieeeee, click here.

Breaking the Bubblegum Code

Contributed by special guest writer, Lauren Yanase

(Also, see the announcement from Linda Tamura that follows Lauren’s essay: The Journal of Ben Uchida, first commissioned by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, will be presented by OCTC in Portland, OR)

 

At 87 years old, there are few things my paternal grandmother does not have an opinion on; fewer still that she is not ready to share. From skirt lengths to savings bonds, rest assured that Bobbie has something to say about that. One topic spared from commentary from my no-nonsense grandma? Her four-year stint in an internment camp as a young teen (photo to left is Bobbie at age 12-13 at Heart Mt, WY).

Eleven-year-old Bobbie Kato, daughter of Japanese immigrants, native of Merced, California, existed separately from the wartime Japanese Americans in history books. She had grown up in a universe parallel to that of Executive Order 9066, never in my mind affected by the horror of internment. Barbara Shirota, Mom to two, Grandma to three and Auntie Bobbie to many more, did little to dissuade me of my fantasy of her bubblegum youth.

Her reluctance to speak about her adolescence made it all the more romantic to me. I envisioned shiny saddle shoes, first kisses over chocolate malts, and glass bottle sodas with nickel movies. The reality, I later learned, was not necessarily devoid of those Americana stereotypes, but warped through the lens of shame and fear, behind barbed wire fences and guard towers.

A fifth-grade project on my pre-war immigration legacy made me an involuntary expert on internment. My classmates’ interest revealed my naive understanding, and, embarrassed, I started to push for answers to the unasked questions in my family. With the doggedness of an investigative journalist and the precociousness of a nine-year-old, I set out for The Truth. So began the nearly decade-long journey of relearning Bobbie Shirota (nee Kato)’s past. After avoiding the topic for half a century, she and her siblings were more susceptible to a granddaughter or a great-niece’s curiosity. Still, even that fell short of convincing them to talk openly about their experience. Their careful, coded recollections compel me to remember their story, and their silence commands that I not let it be forgotten by time.

I cannot and will not fault Bobbie’s resistance to see her youth as a cautionary tale from the past. The liability of her lost childhood now mirrored in the fate of others lies not only in the hands that directed it but also in those who did not protest it.

Last year, news broke that the federal government was holding immigrant children in detention centers built on the bones of a Japanese ‘relocation center’ used during World War II. I asked Grandma what she thought of the report. No response. Finally, she briefly opined on the general horrors of family separation and locking up kids. Then she asked if I had found a job yet.

This year, the Japanese American Citizens’ League was among the first to speak out when Iranian Americans were detained and interrogated at the Canadian border. I know if I ask Grandma, she will say what she always says: that it’s not right what is happening, that they are Americans, Lauren, and more importantly, people. Then she will ask if I am seeing anyone.

I can and should be savvy to my grandma and her peers’ quiet pleadings to our generation. She asks if I’m registered to vote (then advises me to double- and triple-check). She tells me to read today’s paper and notes that the headline is “kind of interesting, hmm?” She sends books and documentaries and notable names who wrote or performed or talked on the internment camps, the Asian American experience, the plight of immigrants.

If I let myself listen, I find that she has a lot to say, after all.

 

Lauren Yanase is a recent graduate of St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Oregon. An avid storyteller, Lauren has previously written creative fiction and nonfiction accounts of Japanese American internment and has been recognized regionally and nationally for her writing. In 2019, she earned the Girl Scout Gold Award for her documentary about the Japanese American internment. This is a prestigious honor, with fewer than six percent of Girl Scouts worldwide earning this award.

Lauren will be attending Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, in the fall of 2020 following a gap year of working in outdoor education and community organizing. She is an enthusiast of mid-priced coffee and semi-athletic endeavors in the mountains.

Excerpted from the documentary’s press release, written by Maddy P.

Shikata Ga Nai: An Inconvenient American follows the story of the Kato family during World War II as Japanese Americans along the West Coast were being forcefully relocated into internment camps. John Golden, a TOSA in Portland Public Schools, says that this film, “sheds a light on a forgotten and shameful chapter in American history… and presents a story that is compelling and should be essential viewing for all high school students.”

Bobbie Shirota features as Yanase’s protagonist and narrator, recalling her family’s story of forced relocation in 1942 to their return to Los Angeles almost a decade later. Shikata Ga Nai is interwoven with footage from an exclusive tour of the Santa Anita Racetrack, and a haunting, authentic soundtrack by the Minidoka Swing Band and Portland Taiko music groups. Yanase juxtaposes sobering U.S. propaganda footage with personal photos to emphasize how the Kato’s story is not an anecdotal anomaly, but a reflection of the nearly 120,000 displaced Japanese and Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Yanase illustrates the economic and sociological impacts on the Japanese American communities through her own family’s journey and struggles to define and maintain their American identity. It is ultimately a universal story about family and building the American Dream. Jodi Walder, an independent college counselor concludes “Shikata Ga Nai is a powerful story that every middle and high school student should see. Young filmmaker Lauren Yanase has masterfully captured her family’s experience in the Japanese internment camps… and forcefully asks us to reckon with the fear that caused those in power to unfairly treat our Japanese-American neighbors.”


Announcement from Linda Tamura:

An upcoming play will be performed by the Oregon Children’s Theatre at the Winningstad Theatre in Portland, OR in late February and March. “The Journal of Ben Uchida,” first commissioned by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, is about a young Nisei boy and his family who were incarcerated during World War II. Dmae Roberts directs the play. Ken Yoshikawa, Jenna Yokoyama and David Loftus (son of Mitzi Asai Loftus) are key cast members. Chisao Hata is choreographer and cultural consultant. Linda Tamura is dramaturg (historical) and education consultant. On Friday, March 6 and/or 13, the performance will be followed by a panel that includes former incarcerees. This is an especially appropriate time to remember the past and connect it to current events.

Summary: In 1942, 12-year-old Ben Uchida and his family are forcibly removed from their home in San Francisco and imprisoned at Mirror Lake, an American concentration camp, along with hundreds of thousands of other Japanese-American families. In this unfamiliar place, removed from everything he once knew, Ben’s emotional journey is even more upsetting than his physical one. The play details—with anger, despair, sadness, and hope—a dark chapter in this country’s history. Join Oregon Children’s Theatre as we tell this ambitious story at a time when families need to hear its message more than ever.

Content Advisory: This show uses historically accurate language (from the 1940s/WWII), including racial slurs, and bias-motivated violence. Additionally, the play contains visual imagery and indirect references to suicide in the concentration camp (note: the word suicide is not used in the play, nor is the act dramatized or seen on stage).

For more information and tickets : octc.org; 503-228-9571