First to Go: The Story of the Kataoka Family

sf examinerThe Inspiration Behind the Award-Winning Documentary

Contributed by special guest writer, Mark Matsuno

One of life’s simple pleasures when I was a kid was leafing through old family photo albums. The weather was often grey and gloomy in San Francisco’s Richmond District, being close to the bay as the fog rolled in, so I would often grab a few albums and find a cozy spot on the living room carpet next to the fake log fire and transport myself to another time. I always loved seeing those old deckle-edged black and white photographs of my mom and dad, my relatives and especially my sister and brother caught in a candid moment or just clowning around. By then, there were color photos, but the years had given them an antiquated patina, adding a nostalgic effect, which your iPhone’s camera filters can only attempt to duplicate. In this digital age, I find it sad that kids these days won’t know the simple pleasure of gathering around old albums.

Photos that predate the ‘50s are particularly interesting to me. I often had no idea who these Japanese immigrants were, but they always looked so dignified in their stoic poses and they always seemed to be dressed in black three-piece suits like they were going somewhere important. They would often pose in front of a big black car, which I’m told was seldom their own. The suits could very well have been navy blue or Prince purple, but in black and white photos, your mind has to make the choice. I chose blacks and greys. I would ask my mom about them. “Who are these people?” Most of the time, she wouldn’t even know.

I must have been around fourteen when I came across an article neatly cut out of the San Francisco Examiner’s front page. I remember my mom telling me something about her father being “the first to be taken away,” but here was a yellowing piece of actual proof. In the masthead, it read, “Monday, December 8, 1941.” The headline read, “First S.F. Japanese Prisoner,” and there was a picture of my grandfather, Ichiro Kataoka, being escorted in handcuffs down the front steps of his hotel on Post Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Nihonmachi.

TUNNEL VISION 36” X 18” ACRYLIC ON CANVASAmong all the melancholic, endearing, funny photos was this dark piece of family history that would nag at me through the years. I had to know if my grandpa, who I barely remember since he passed away when I was three years old, was a criminal. You always want to believe that your country is fair and just and that the FBI would only go after the bad guys. My mom was a young girl of fourteen when the Japanese Imperial Air Force sent planes to destroy the US Naval Base in Honolulu at Pearl Harbor, so she had very little understanding of what was happening to her father, and eventually to her mother, herself and her five siblings. What she had to offer as an explanation was this: my grandfather was a businessman who was able to buy a hotel in the Japanese section of the city. In cornering that market, he would often drive out to the docks and greet incoming ships carrying passengers from Japan before the days of air travel. He would introduce himself as the owner of Aki Hotel and make them feel less like strangers in a strange land. It was partly an act of kindness, but it was mostly just smart. As a result of his frequent trips to the ships, bowing to greet new Japanese immigrants, along with his growing prominence in the Japanese community, he was secretly under surveillance.

METRO 20” X 20” ACRYLIC ON CANVASWhat I do remember about my grandpa was that he was a small, quiet man. He couldn’t speak English well, so we had little actual conversation. It’s a typical Sansei dilemma. When the FBI cuffed him, he went peacefully to meet whatever fate his new country would impose on him. I’m sure he was scared and had no idea of the magnitude of what would follow for his family and 150,000 other people of Japanese ancestry trying to make America their new home. He was taken first as an example of what would happen to the entire Japanese community in San Francisco.

SF VIEW 36” X 18” ACRYLIC ON CANVASFlash forward to the early ‘70s. I had moved to Los Angeles to start a career in advertising. My grandfather had been long gone and the days of flipping through photo albums were far behind me. I kept in touch with my family as much as I could and would take frequent trips to San Francisco. On one of those trips, I heard that my cousin, Marjorie, had gotten a job at The Examiner. I didn’t connect the dots until a couple of years later that she might be able to access the microfilm of that newspaper article. I thought it would be great to send it to a color lab, make large framed posters and give them to my relatives on my mother’s side. Marjorie came through for me and in turn, I surprised my family with theatrical poster-sized sepia-toned framed copies. For me, the importance of that piece of family history was mostly personal, a piece of the Kataoka legacy.

Little did I know that my son, Myles, would grow up to become an accomplished filmmaker and use his great-grandfather’s story to create a beautiful, heartfelt and poignant documentary using my mother, one of two surviving children, as the onscreen narrator. Myles had a vision surpassing my own and the ambition and talent to make it happen.

On a personal note, I am thrilled that my grandfather’s story is now immortalized, as well as my mother’s persona. On a more far-reaching note, Myles’ award-winning documentary, “First To Go: The Story of the Kataoka Family,” has been shown in many film festivals across the country this past year, opening the eyes of many Americans who had no idea this injustice had ever happened. Without getting into the ramifications of racial profiling and current immigration tensions, it’s my hope that, in some small way, my son’s film can bolster awareness and ultimately make a difference.

mark matsuno photoBio:  Mark Matsuno was born and raised in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles at the age of twenty to pursue a career in advertising. After a three-year stint at Young & Rubicam West, he started his own graphic design boutique specializing in movie advertising. Currently, he has his own design firm in Glendale, CA. Much of his time is spent on high-profile films such as Jurassic World, Minions and many others. He is the proud father of son, Myles, and daughter, Alyssa.

Mark is also a dedicated fine artist creating paintings of urban landscapes among other subject matter. You can view his art throughout this posting and at markmatsuno.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Cosmic Dating Experience

Contributed by special guest writer, Dan Chinn

imageWhen a guy has had bad luck with women for awhile, he begins to think that he is jinxed. It seemed that every woman I met that I was attracted to was either involved with someone or didn’t like my style. My style back then was Hippie. Never a fashionable high point in the history of style, but I was making a statement about materialism and being a Hippie was part of the idealism that ran through the collegiate universe at that time. It was 1971 and I was living just off campus in a house that I shared with three other loosely associated friends who were like-minded. We all wore our hair long and liked flannel shirts and blue jeans. That year, I wore the same flannel shirt and jeans every day and a lot of my friends would wear the same “outfit” most of the time. I could recognize my friends from a great distance just from their clothing. The comfort of cotton was more important than being fashionable. The more you washed flannel the softer it became. I really loved my blue, white and red plaid shirt. I would wash it once a week and I was good. After a year of wearing it and washing it, the fabric had lost some of its bulk and the colors had slowly washed out so it was getting thin. So thin was it that one of my roommates had put his finger into a small hole and ripped it in half. I went down to JC Penney’s and bought two new flannel shirts the same day.

My persona restored to its former un-capitalistic glory, I was back on the hunt for my Hippie Chick and some of that “free love” that Hippies were supposed to be getting. I was 22 years old at the time and still taking classes at Portland State University. It was summer and the campus was sparsely populated. PSU is a city college with most students living off campus, some at home with their families and some living in student housing. Summer term was lonely for unpaired singles.

I had not outgrown my love for comic books and found that the new generation of “Head Comic books ” was a great source of amusement. Zap Comics, The Furry Freak Brothers and Dr. Atomic comics were a laugh a minute and the exaggerated artwork was accompanied by witty situations and Hippie philosophy. Some of which became quoted by the general college pot-smoking “Heads.” Sayings like “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.” And common terms and sayings would get mutated by comedians and friends. Second and third generation slang like “Right on” became “Rat on” to be funny. And phrases became contracted like instead of “I got to go home” became ” I gotta.” This counter-cultural shift in English was mirrored in the new comics and a lot of my friends would follow the misadventures of the Furry Freak Brothers as each monthly issue showed up at the local bookstores.

Back to my story. I was looking at the rack for Head Comics at Looking Glass Bookstore when a saw this beautiful woman looking at a copy of R. Crumb’s “Big Ass Comics.” Our eyes met and we smiled at each other briefly. I said “Hi” and she said “Hi” back. Both of us went back to our comics. I would look up occasionally and look at her and she was doing the same. I found a purchase and went to pay for it. I had lost sight of her until I saw her unlocking her bike on the street just outside the side door.

I don’t usually try to meet someone in such a setting but I thought of the old saw “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” and asked her if she’d like to get a snack and she said yes, so we had a bite to eat and got acquainted. She was a Native American from the Warm Springs Tribe. We hit it off like a dream and she told me to come visit her at the Warm Springs Reservation. She had four roommates, but they had a spare bedroom I could stay in. She was so beautiful and I thought to myself that she could pass for an Asian and that would make my family happier (heretofore, I’d been pretty much pairing up with fair-haired women). I wasn’t into astrology but I knew my sign and it was something we could talk about as we were making polite conversation. Then came the stunning discovery that she and I had the same birthday. I had never met anyone that shared the same birthday before, let alone the same birth year. And forty years later I can still say the same thing. The same birthday and year. Her name was Patti. I thought this was a sign – or at least, wanted it to be a sign.

Patti gave me her phone number and address and I told her I would come visit. I had a part-time job and scheduled a week of vacation two weeks out.

I did not have a car back then, so I took a Greyhound bus to Warm Springs and was planning on walking the few miles to Kahneeta, the resort famous for its natural hot springs and campgrounds. This was before all of the casinos at Indian Reservations. As I was walking down the road to the resort, I found that the local people that worked at the resort or lived on the reservation would slow down and ask me if I wanted a ride and even offered to feed me, too. I politely refused them all for the first couple of miles because I hadn’t hitchhiked before and I was uncertain about being picked up by strangers.

Then, a pickup truck with the resort logo on the side stopped and offered, and I accepted the ride. It was August and the heat of the day was getting to me. I mentioned Patti’s name to the driver, and he said he knew her and the “dorm” she shared with four other women. She was the dorm mom it turns out even though she was just a year or two older than her roommates.

Now comes the beginning of the best part of my visit. If this was a movie, this is where the romantically-themed music motif playing in the background suddenly swells and the camera does a close-up shot of two lovers that embrace and kiss for the first time. In reality it was even better than in the movies. As I approached the front door of the house that was called the dorm – I had just walked maybe ten of the forty-foot walkway – the screen door swings open and out shoots Patti running barefoot. And like a woman greeting her soldier-boyfriend who has returned from war, she leaps into my arms and gives me a big kiss right on the mouth. I held on tightly and she held on tightly as I carried her the twenty feet back through the door. I was taken with her beautiful face and slim athletic body. She was very beautiful. A beauty queen.

Our meeting was but an hour total back in Portland, and my memory of her was just a couple of flashbacks in the bookstore and riding away on her bike and looping around me once and saying goodbye. We had talked twice for a bit on the phone just before I got on the bus. I had kept the conversation short cause long distance rates were high for a student. I just wanted to make sure she was still interested in having me visit. The greeting told me that she did. Wow! Even though she had come through the door running, it all seemed like slow motion.

For the next four days we were inseparable. Eating, sleeping, exploring the reservation and visiting her friends. We went everywhere holding hands. All of her friends noted our closeness, and we were happily received by everyone. It was a dream visit with nonstop affection and fellowship with this Native American beauty. I could see a future with her. I was young enough to be adaptable to the idea of living at the “Res” after I finished my last five semesters of college. I had to leave but promised to come back as soon as I could.

When I got back to Portland, I was able to schedule a four-day visit two weeks later. I could hardly wait to see her again. I took the early bus to Madras and got off at the Warm Springs Junction and got a ride right away from an old “Caddy” convertible with two women in the front bench seat. It was just after noon when I arrived at the dorm. I knocked and one of the girls answered the door and said that Patti had left a couple of hours ago, but they were expecting her back soon. I was hungry. Hadn’t had breakfast so I went down to the cafeteria for a snack while I waited. Just as I got to the parking lot, I saw her walking out of the cafeteria with this other guy. A scruffy unshaven fellow wearing a leather range-rider type jacket. She was close by his side as they walked over to a Porsche 911 sports car. As he got behind the wheel, Patti came over to greet me by giving me a hug and said, “This is not a good time.” Then, gets into the passenger seat of the Porsche and off they go.  Damn … the curse had struck again. After I ate a cheeseburger basket in the cafeteria, I went back to Portland the same day.

Back in Portland, Patti and I talked briefly on the phone. By the hushed tone of her voice, I guessed her boyfriend was in the next room. He was her ex-lover and he wanted another chance, and she was going to give him one more. I thought to myself, Porsche 911 vs Strawberry Racing Cycle Professional racing bicycle. I didn’t need my three terms of Calculus to do the math … .

DanChinn blog photo

Bio: Dan Chinn was born to Suey Q. and Faye K. Chinn, Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Benson Polytechnic High School (Pre-Engineering, Electronics) and attended PCC and PSU (Electronic Engineering, Poetry, Film Making, and Marketing). He worked at Bell Telephone, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Portland Branch, Tektronix Inc., and Intel Corporation before retiring in 1998. Dan is now a writer, poet, photographer, artist, and musician.

 

The Girl Who Folds Paper

blue-origami-paper-crane-stock-photo-picture-and-royalty-free-paper-crane-origami-instructions-pdf-paper-crane-origami-instructionsContributed by special guest writer, Lindsey Shibata

 

During the middle of 5th grade, my family picked up everything and moved to Kansas City, Missouri. It’s a place I’ll always remember because it was the first time I ever felt ashamed of being Japanese American.

Within the first week of my new school I was sitting in front of an overly excited ESL teacher who constantly shook with excitement whenever I did something correct. She handed me Kindergarten level storybooks and screeched after I read simple sentences. I was awarded condescending claps and candy; the candy didn’t taste as sweet after being praised for knowing something that I’d known since grade school. I began to believe that there was something wrong with the way I spoke. My self-confidence hit rock bottom, and I managed total silence for the entire week.

I was in constant conflict with myself; I started to blame my culture and ethnicity for my feelings. I started to throw away the “Japanese” part of myself by making sure people only knew the “American” part of me by telling kids I was from California. I believed that because of my Asian roots, people assumed I couldn’t speak proper English.

12977201354_4b2b57f505_bI despised the way I was choosing to live; I hated being known as “the girl who couldn’t talk.” I loathed saying that I was born in California and tossing aside my Japanese culture. I knew I needed to change. Speaking out loud wasn’t an option yet, so I started to think of ways that I could express myself without using words: Japanese Origami. I brought in some origami one day and began to construct different things. As I started to build cranes and irises, people were lighting up with interest. I was spreading this Japanese art form throughout my class, and by the end, they were starting to make things too; I was able to leave them with a little part of my culture in the form of a small iris.

I am a Japanese American, and right now, I embrace this identity. I love being different from everyone else; I enjoy telling people that I was born in Japan. I don’t let this fear and feeling of degradation get in the way of being proud of who I am. Through this experience, I’ve gained self-pride in my identity and continue to cherish my Japanese culture by expressing it without shame. Today, I don’t let anything make me feel ashamed of what it means to be a Japanese American girl.

Lindsey ShibataBio: Lindsey Hikari Shibata is college student who was born in Okinawa, Japan. Her father is a third-generation Japanese American. Her mother is a native Okinawan. Lindsey moved to the US when she was 2-years-old and has lived in California, in Missouri, and currently resides in Portland, Oregon. She visits Okinawa every other year to maintain ties with her family and relatives, and she has traveled extensively in Japan to continue to learn and experience her native culture.

Speaking Japanese as an Act of Resistance

Weston Koyama

Contributed by special guest writer, Weston Koyama

 

I am going to make an argument that you may not agree with. My family certainly doesn’t agree with me. But I feel I must make this argument nonetheless. The argument goes something like this: To speak your heritage language is an act of resistance. Moreover, the topic of the conversation matters little. I can speak in Japanese about the weather in Portland and yet by speaking in Japanese I am resisting decades of forced assimilation that stripped my family of its culture and, by extension, its language. Speaking one’s heritage language is thusly an act of radical self-determination to define one’s identity outside of the confines of the hegemonic English-speaking culture present in America and in the developed world-at-large. In order to arrive at this argument, we must step back and examine certain truths about the Japanese American experience and about the power of language to transform one’s psyche.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I hear from people in my own family who resist learning the Japanese language is that third generation German Americans are not expected to learn German. This is true, but this is also tragic. When German Americans dissolve their culture in the Great American Melting Pot, they lose a significant part of their cultural identity—namely their language and all that the language embodies. The solubility of white European Americans in this melting pot confers the benefit of not experiencing oppression at the intersection of ethnicity, but this solubility means that most German Americans lose their culture. We should not envy German Americans for their solubility in a melting pot that dissolves their roots in a murky stew. The path forward lies in taking pride in our unique culture, not in becoming white.

The next objection I often hear from my family about why their heritage language is unimportant is that culture can be learned without learning the language. This is only true to an extent. While one can preserve cultural traditions in the absence of the language that gave birth to these traditions, to embody the culture requires at least a basic understanding of the language. This is true because languages profoundly affect how we experience the world. One might understand from a textbook that English is a low context language where specificity, precision, and certainty are privileged in the diction, vocabulary, and grammar of the language. By contrast Japanese is a high context language where loose associations, implication, and softness are privileged in the diction, vocabulary, and grammar of the language. But to know these things from a textbook and to embody them by speaking the language are two different things. The embodiment of these cultural differences allows the speaker to learn nuance in culture that is inevitably lost in translation. This nuance is important. This nuance is a part of what was taken from us over the past century due to assimilation.

I can imagine at this point that there are people in my family reading this who are getting annoyed. Maybe if you are a third or fourth of fifth generation Japanese American who has sworn off the idea of learning Japanese, you are getting annoyed too. Who am I to tell you what was taken from you? I imagine some people might think, “But it’s my choice to decide whether I want to know my culture in that way or not.” To which I say, that’s true. I agree. But let’s be real here. Our choices are influenced by society. English became hegemonic in this society because of oppression. To speak any language other than English in the U.S. is to say, “I know I am supposed to speak English here, but I choose to express my agency and to experience the world in a way precluded by the English language.” That is a choice that you do not have to make. But to make that choice is an act of empowerment in the context of English’s hegemony.

Whether or not you decide to take back agency over your cultural identity is a complicated choice. There are people in my family who read about the oppressive elements of Japanese society such as the continued discrimination against Koreans and Chinese or the relative disempowerment of women compared to western countries. They read these things and they say, “well that is not my culture.” It isn’t my culture either. I am Japanese American not Japanese. But in being Japanese American, I’ve found that learning the Japanese language helped me to decide for myself which aspects of Japanese culture I keep and which aspects I jettison. I made these decisions for myself; I did not arrive there by default as the consequence of simply accepting the status quo. To make these decisions about what parts of your heritage culture to own and what parts to jettison is complicated, but also empowering. And while for some, the language might be one of those parts to jettison, I would hope that the decision was truly a decision born of free agency, not one made by the American assimilation regime.

To be clear, I do not mean to say that every Japanese American ought to learn the Japanese language fluently. But for those that do choose the arduous journey of learning the Japanese language proficiently or fluently, they should know that their decision is an act of resistance against English hegemony and the oppressive forces of assimilation. Not everyone in my family agrees with me and you can feel free to disagree, too. But for me, my heritage language is not just another language. My heritage language is an embodiment of culture. My heritage language serves as a psychic link to the minds of my ancestors. My heritage language has become an integral part of my identity. Perhaps it can become a part of your identity too.

 

Weston Koyama
小山ヱストン

Bio: Weston Koyama, a fourth generation Oregonian and Japanese American, seeks to articulate the nuances of the human experience through the written word. Weston’s writing touches on his experiences living and studying in Oregon as he explores the many different ways of being Asian American in contemporary society. His current project involves articulating how the trauma caused by Japanese American incarceration during World War II continues to affect present generations. Weston hopes to someday publish his work for a larger audience. Currently, Weston studies at the University of Oregon School of Law where he is a J.D. candidate in the class of 2019. Weston is the first Minoru Yasui Fellow at the University of Oregon in addition to serving as a Wayne Morse Fellow. He also currently serves as co-president of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association at the University of Oregon. His other interests include disability activism, piano, and computer technology.

Asian Not Asian

Contributed by Anthology author, Beth Haworth-Kaufka

I remember my naturalization day. I was just 5-years-old, and I did not understand the significance of the moment. Rather, the momentousness wholly resided in the special cookie my mom got me to celebrate, a treat the size of my face and covered with frosting. I needed two hands to hold it. As a child, I could not predict how that piece of paper would validate my access to resources and invariably shape my life.

Now, as an adult, I’m struck with understanding. I was born in South Korea. I am an immigrant. I am Korean-American. I am a hyphenated-American. I am forever dissected and reapportioned by forces outside of my control: perilous-docile, alluring-repulsive, outsider-insider, immigrant-citizen.

Just a few months ago, I asked my mother in Michigan to send me my naturalization papers. Just in case. I am nearing my 41st birthday, and I have been in the U.S. for 40 years; never before has this been a concern. I am no historian, but I know enough of history to worry.

Ironically, until this year, until this past election cycle and the subsequent administration, I did not identify as an immigrant, though my entire life I’ve heard the classic lines hurled from the mouths of the ignorant: “Where are you from?” “Go back to where you come from.” “You speak such good English for an Oriental.”

Perhaps it is because my adoptive parents are working-class, white, middle-Americans that I did not identify as an immigrant. I was just six-months-old when I was adopted and had no memories of life in South Korea. I didn’t grow up in the context of immigration: learning a new language to survive, to attain work for healthcare, food, and housing; the tension between preserving old ways while adopting the new; parents helping children navigate an unfair world with hope while being humiliated by a society that promises freedom — if only you look the right way.

Perhaps it is because, as a brown child growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit, I rejected the identity of immigrant. The boy who sat in front of me in math class turned around every single day to insult me, teaching me words like chink and gook, instructing me on the difference and which one, technically, applied to me, how white people tried to kill gooks like me in war, how much he hated me. I so badly wanted to fit in, to blend into the commonality and be a regular, normal person like everyone else — or at least to be separated out from the throng for qualities other than the shape of my eyes, the composition of my hair and tone of my skin. Me, an immigrant? Nah. I’m just like you, nice white people. Aren’t I? Can’t I be?

Of course, there must have been other immigrants in my city, but in my isolation, I only knew a handful at best. I remember an elderly trio from Malta who went to my church, a woman with her sister and her husband, big-hearted, stout and round, old folks who made amazing pastries that I’d eat until I got sick. I remember a man from Mexico, my mom’s good friend with whom she played music for their prayer group, who would sing songs in Spanish and try to teach me the words.

Then, when I was in middle school, a family from China moved in across the street — and I wanted nothing to do with them. In my mind, they were the real Asian Others that people saw me as, despite how far from them I was. Sometimes, I babysat their young daughter. I cringed at feeding her dinner. Fish heads in plastic bags kept me from digging around in their refrigerator for her snacks, and their house smelled so strongly of their cooking that passersby inhaled the pungent scents of foreign foods while simply walking their dogs by their house in the evening. They wore socks with sandals, sweatpants with blouses. They were the real immigrants — not me. I talked about these people with no one, for fear of guilt by association.

When the child went to sleep at night, and I waited on the couch for her parents to come home, I poured over stacks of beauty periodicals from China. Advertisements for women’s products covered cheap newsprint pages. What I remember the most — beautiful Chinese women. This was the 80s. I had never seen Asian models before. The only Asian in the media was Connie Chung. I cannot count how many times people told me, when I was just a small girl, that I looked just like her.

So, when in eighth grade, a friend made me a copy of Fear of A Black Planet by Public Enemy, a cassette with a photocopy of the real cover that he cut to fit the case, I played it over and over again, flipping the tape and playing the second side, and then flipping it again and again. Here were people who spoke boldly about racism and fought back with the power of art: words, music, dance, and style. “Revolutionary Generation” — a song that intersected race and gender politics — became my favorite song. I wrote down all the words in a notebook and memorized it. Hip hop helped me understand what it meant to be racialized, to be oppressed, to be socially constructed, to fight back, and I attached my identity to black politics. With hip hop, I wasn’t so alone.

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I was nearly 20-years-old and a community college drop-out when I got a job as a barista in a coffee shop in East Lansing, the home of Michigan State University. It was one of the only cafes in town that allowed smoking, so English majors spent hours there drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and reading books. They were cool and smart and interesting and funny. They talked about books and specific authors, theories about the nature of power, political economies, and capitalist bullshit. To them, reading was a political act. I didn’t care about books until then, because I cared about feeling stupid. (I have few memories of reading as a child or being read to. Who would want to sit inside the house for hours alone when life was lonely enough as it was?)

And so I started reading, and I couldn’t stop. I re-enrolled in community college and took English classes from an instructor who changed my life with her hilarious dry wit and calm passion. She found out I was interested in black politics, and she introduced me to Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison. When my English major friends were taking courses in Shakespeare and Chaucer, delving into Blake and swooning over the Brontes, I read W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright. I was surrounded by white people. They were good, interesting and interested people. They appreciated “minority” literatures, but as extras — outside the canon.

*

I just finished teaching my seventh year at Portland Community College (PCC) where I am an English teacher in a program with many students of color, many African Americans, a community to which I deeply relate. Before PCC, I coordinated a first-year writing program at North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black university, where I felt more at home racially than any other institution to which I’ve belonged. Ever. Moving to an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) after a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) felt like crawling into a warm bed, under a warm blanket in the middle of cold winter; finally, I could settle down, relax, and take rest. Sure, I was Asian American, but surrounded by all black students, I ironically, finally felt at home in my skin.

Once, waiting for class to start, one of my particularly fashionable, always-put-together students asked:

“Ms. Beth — do you flat iron your hair every day?!”

The other students burst into laughter. “She’s Asian! She just has straight hair!”

The student threw her hand over her mouth, as if to stuff the words back in. “Oh my God! I forgot!”

This is not to give evidence to so-called “color-blindness” but to say that my familiarity with black culture, history, literature, and oppression — over my own Asian American identity — has dominated my life until recently. Growing up isolated in the Midwest, I was often the only Asian American, and my racial identity, for the broad entirety of my life, has been more aligned with black politics than Asian American politics.

*

If there is one positive thing that has come out of the current administration’s anti-immigrant position, it is my strengthened connection to my own immigrant status and subsequently my own Asian American identity. I am a person of South Korean lineage. The energetic connection to my ancestry echoes in my physical body, a body which has been literally embedded into two generations of other women’s bodies: I was an egg in my mother’s body when she was still in utero in my maternal grandmother’s body, as human female babies are born with all the egg cells they will ever have.

In the same way I learned about identity politics through reading African American literature, I am now exploring my Asian American identity. This past February was the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which sent over 120,000 Japanese Americans to incarceration camps. To learn more about the tragedy, I read Lisa See’s novel China Dolls, set against the San Francisco Chinese American nightclubs scene, that is about racism towards Chinese and Japanese Americans during the 30s and 40s. One of the characters is incarcerated.

This spring, I helped plan and coordinate the third annual Asian Pacific American Writers Series at the PCC southeast campus in Portland’s Jade District, an event two of my non-Asian PCC colleagues started because they are incredible allies to POC (People of Color) and especially committed to their students, many who are Asian American. They wanted to showcase the work of a marginalized group of writers, reach a community who may never attend a literary reading otherwise, and provide a point of access to an important literary tradition. This year, we brought in the brilliant poet, thinker, critic, educator, and artist Kenji C. Liu.

Being a part of organizing this year’s event was personal for me. Literature has immense power. Of course I’ve read some Asian American literature and dabbled in API (Asian and Pacific Islander) politics, but not with the ferocity that I’d jumped into black politics and literature. Until now.

It is in the light of my own post-election identity exploration that Kenji Liu’s work changed me, in his capacity to articulate the complexities of modern identities in the hard-earned, yet magical way literature can change us. His book Map of an Onion deeply affected me as an Asian American immigrant — to see my experience reflected in art. In the forward to Liu’s book, Timothy Yu writes of Liu’s “Poetry of Interruption”:

Birth certificates, passports, citizenship papers: these are the documents that define our official identities, that make us legible to the apparatus of the state. For Asian Americans, such documents are often central to our family narratives, marking a history of migration, departure and arrival, rejection and belonging. Yet we are also well aware of what such official documents erase, enforce, or repress. Our ‘arrival’ as Americans marked by a naturalization certificate may be predicated upon the erasure, willed or not, of our histories and even our names, as well as the exclusion of others — including our own ancestors. And no document can protect Asian Americans from the presumption that we do not belong in a nation that continues to equate Americanness with whiteness …

As writers, we create our own documents. We write our own narratives and define our own identities, and in telling our stories, we refuse to “equate Americanness with whiteness.” We are here, and we are shaping the world around us through our physical presence, through our actions, and through our writing.

I’ve built my summer reading list, and my stack of books keeps growing: novels, books on transnational adoption, Asian American Studies readers, and anthologies of Asian American literature that have collected dust on my shelves since my undergrad years. The thrill of these books makes my heart beat harder, just imagining all I will learn from all these brave writers who have dared to put themselves on the page, who have dared to have something to say. My dear fellow API writers, make your mark upon the pages of my life. I am ready.

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Beth Haworth-Kaufka was born in Seoul, South Korea, grew up in the Detroit area, and now lives in Portland, OR with her husband, three daughters, three cats, and crazy shelter dog. She teaches English at Portland Community College and does coaching and contract work for local small businesses on the side. Her writing has been in The Portland ReviewMid-American ReviewPoets & WritersColorado Review971 MenuKartikaWomenArts QuarterlyWhere Are You From: An Anthology of Asian American Writing and other academic journals.

 

 

… a thousand words

Contributed by special guest artist, Ellie Kwak

A celebration of uniqueness in a town full of jejune.

Rainbow Hair Photoshop 18” x 24”

Rainbow Hair
Photoshop 18” x 24”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_5802Artist bio: Ellie is in the sixth grade and likes to read books, even at midnight. Her hobbies include sampling new foods, four square (the recess game), playing devil’s advocate, and thinking up dilemmas. She dreams of peace, fun, a stressless life, and rainbow hair.

 

 

 

 

 


Call for Submissions

BE VISIBLE.

* Tell YOUR STORY in your own words (or pictures)!

* Communicate Asian American perspectives that challenge or transcend mainstream stereotypes.

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

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

Magic of Memories

Contributed by special guest author, Adrianne Katagiri

Our lives are finite. There is so much love to share, so many things to accomplish, so many philosophical puzzles to solve before our time is up. But eventually, for every individual, life does end.

Even more daunting than our own eventual demise, is the idea that our loved ones may die before us. This can be a frightening prospect, especially for a child. How does a child cope when he is not ready to prevail on his own?

imagesThis complicated question is explored with thoughtful grace in Kubo and the Two Strings.

The set-up is this: Kubo is empowered by the great love of his mother and father and is searching for the further strength he needs to protect himself from his vengeful grandfather and his mother’s villainous sisters.

latestThe character development is given just the right amount of detail to make us care about Kubo’s journey. The cold stone masks and bone-chilling voices of Kubo’s aunts as well as the utter lack of humanity of Kubo’s grandfather make them memorable antagonists.

Each character in the movie has believable motivations. Dialogue is deftly interspersed with humor to simultaneously drive the plot and entertain. The narrative is written with not so much of a heavy-handed message as compelling, interwoven themes and motifs throughout.

My favorite theme in the movie is the idea that memories are the most powerful kind of magic there is. Without our memories, who are we? Conversely, if those we leave behind carry our memories with them, do we live on?

Please allow me to pose that this possibility is legitimate, based on the relationship I shared with my late grandmother.

My grandma was someone who did grand jetés in the sprinklers with me, regularly stocked her cookie jar with homemade treats, played double solitaire and pretended not to notice when I cheated, brought out the Boggle set and taught me words like “snit” (because I was always in one, although she never seemed to mind), brought me Get Well cards when I was sick, told me I made the best cakes, always had an amusing story to share, and, without exception, made me feel seen and heard. In other words, wherever she was, I wanted to be too.

I was devastated when she unexpectedly died of a heart attack. I would see strangers on the street who mildly resembled her and wish that they were her, that she was still walking around. I thought of her constantly. It didn’t seem right that she was gone. It didn’t seem fair.

115_1549Fast forward twelve years later to the birth of my first child. It’s a girl, and I have given her my grandmother’s Japanese name. I lay my new daughter down in our living room for the first time and am so struck with the feeling that she has the same serenity as my late grandmother that I have to take a picture of her.

As my daughter grows, my grandmother visits me in my dreams. I tell Grandma what’s new. She beams with pride. I wake up in tears.

I share stories of my grandmother with my daughters. At times, I struggle with how to handle situations with them and find comfort when I ask myself, “What would Grandma have done?”

Sometimes their obstinate behavior seems like karma for my own past insolences. But theirs is not as audacious as mine. My eldest has the even temper and patience of my grandma. Is it weird, I wonder, if one day I tell her that I see a lot of my grandma in her?

Whether or not this is valid, the idea that my grandma lives on in the stories I tell about her makes sense to me. I didn’t have kids simply to repopulate the earth, but because it is my hope that a small part of me will live on in them as well. Similarly, Kubo and the Two Strings is not simply a movie to sell tickets. The movie is Kubo’s story of his family. He is sharing their story and keeping their memory alive. In this way, they, too, will live on.

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Adrianne Katagiri has two daughters. She is trying her best to raise them with humor and humanity. Despite evidence to the contrary, she does have other hobbies in addition to watching kids’ movies and writing stories about her grandmothers in response to them. As Kubo would say, “That really is the least of it.”

 

 

 

 


Announcement:

Portland Community College’s Asian Pacific American Writers series is hosting a reading, Q&A, and book-signing with poet and artist Kenji Liu on it’s Southeast 82nd campus.
PCC writers series

More Series Information and Schedule

For questions, contact Beth Haworth-Kaufka: beth.kaufka@pcc.edu

 

 

 

A Bit of Family History

Contributed by special guest writer, Dan Chinn

17103314_714697865370315_5245734875041334241_nHere I am with my parents.

Fast forward many years to now. Thinking about my dad and the time we drove to Ellensburg, WA. It was the first time that my dad and I went anywhere out of town together. Dad was around 80 and I was 48. It was one of my most satisfying trips ever. Dad was easy-going and loved to eat food with salt in it. Which was forbidden him by my mom. We would talk about whatever was on our minds. Sometimes we would talk about family history. Especially his side of the family. Things he told me never ceased to surprise me.

My dad came to the U.S. in 1930. Right after the Stock Market Crash. He was 12-years-old and came with an uncle to Ellensburg where he lived like most Chinese men did in the 1920s and 1930s, in a bachelors boarding house/hotel. He went to American school during the day and worked part-time after school at both the Chinese laundry and the Chinese restaurant. Sometimes sleeping in a backroom on a table. 
Here is where my dad told me something surprising. He told me that he couldn’t remember what his dad looked like. My dad had a decent memory for things. So I started thinking. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese laborers from coming into the U.S. and his father was able to come here and stay because of his Merchant Visa. Which entitled him to come to the U.S. and stay for 4 or 5 years before having to return to China for one year before reapplying. That was why my dad had trouble remembering what his dad looked like. He had spent little time with him. A year when he was 7 and part of a year when he was 11. His father was getting too old to travel back to the U.S. So he expected his son to take over for him and earn money and send it to China to support the family. His father had lost his wife to disease after having four girls and an adopted son. He remarried and my dad was the first-born in the second family. His arrival caused his adopted brother to lose status, further increasing his responsibilities. Adopted brother went to NYC and loosened his ties with the family. The day my father got on the boat, his father told him that “the future of the family rests with you.”

12806258_968546099848096_7553953110220328528_nDad was a great patriot. He went to the war due to the draft but he could have just as easily gone back to China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was still in place. He jokingly said, “It’s just my luck, they bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7 and by January 21, I was in the Army!” Like a lot of Chinese men of his generation, being in America was extremely important not only for their own futures but for their families living in China. They were transplants, but they were willing to fight to earn their right to stay. So I chuckle when I see this picture of Dad posing as the Statue of Liberty because I know it was no joke to him. Like the old cigarette ads for Tareyton, he’d rather fight than switch.

17103336_715109695329132_8657785881691799562_nThis a picture of my mom working at the Moreland Presbyterian Church cafeteria where The Loaves and Fishes program feeds seniors. They serve food to shut-ins, too; meals are delivered by Meals on Wheels’ volunteers. When my mom worked there in the kitchen, she and supervisor Thelma Skelton received a citation for having one of the most efficient Loaves and Fishes kitchens in the whole U.S.! Less wasted food and good use of resources. They sent an observer to see what they did differently from other kitchens. They found my mom chopping up the leftovers to make hearty soups which were favorites of the large group of seniors that ate there. Mom hates to throw good food out. Way to go Mom and Thelma. When the Loaves and Fishes program moved to its new kitchen at the Sacred Heart Retirement complex at SE Milwaukie Ave and Center St., it was named after Thelma Skelton. She had run the non-profit for most of the years it was at the Presbyterian Church and my mom worked part-time with one other server for most of the years at the new kitchen, too. They were a good team.

16999220_714697948703640_4576065508546242712_nPictures of my mom through the years. This black-and-white picture of my mom is when she was back in China as a 17- or 18-year-old. She was dubbed “The Atomic Bride” by her friends. She was considered to be more modern than others in their village. My dad met my mom due to the War Brides Act of 1946, which allowed American GIs to go to a foreign country and bring home a wife without having to go through normal immigration procedures and detainment. He had gone to China to see his family and to do what people in his generation did – “go bride shopping” – in the villages adjacent to his own. All of the mothers would bring their unwed daughters to the Dim Sum house in hopes of meeting a husband. My dad told me my mother was taller than average for that part of China. 5’4″ where the average was 5’1″ judging by the height of a lot of her friends and relatives. Most of the population was malnourished in southern China due to the drought and war with Japan. My mom told me people were eating wild grass roots and if it hadn’t been for the bamboo blooming, many people would have died. Bamboo blooms every 25-40 years. My cousins who had lived through the communist take-over and stayed in China until the 1980’s, told me that they only ate twice a day. When I went to China in 1985, I was much taller than the average 20-year-old male. The tallest guys I saw in Guang Dong were 6 feet. Thirty years later, I revisited the city and noticed the height of people had increased 2 to 3 inches! I was still taller but not so much as before. That area of China was eating three meals a day. I had good nutrition and never missed a meal until I went to college.

16939603_714698045370297_6834968678974625225_nThis color photo of my mom was taken last year. We think she’s 88 or 89. Not sure how accurate her birth certificate is. I did a rough calculation, and she has cooked me 14,304 meals!! And still counting, because for the past 45 years, she is still cooking for me once a week! Love ya Mom!

 

 

 

 

DanChinn blog photoBio: Dan Chinn was born to Suey Q. and Faye K. Chinn, Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Benson Polytechnic High School (Pre-Engineering, Electronics) and attended PCC and PSU (Electronic Engineering, Poetry, Film Making, and Marketing). He worked at Bell Telephone, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Portland Branch, Tektronix Inc., and Intel Corporation before retiring in 1998. Dan is now a writer, poet, photographer, artist, and musician.

 

Moana: A Culturally Significant Inspiration

MV5BMjI4MzU5NTExNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY1MTEwMDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Contributed by special guest author, Adrianne Kwak

I took my daughters to see Moana a couple days before Christmas. It was my hope that the movie would spark a light inside my eleven-year-old to begin thinking about what her own significance in the world may be.

As the questions I asked her post-viewing became more and more leading, I began to see that she wasn’t ready to think in terms of family values and aspirations yet. She enjoyed the details in the animation, the character development, and the music, but when I headed into the territory of personal revelation, she looked at me in quiet discomfort.

It’s fine. She isn’t ready for that. It was less complicated for me growing up because both my parents are Japanese and have accordant traditional values. I grew up on the island of Maui, Hawaii, where the majority of my classmates were Japanese, like me. We learned stories about the demigod Maui in school in the same way that my kids are learning about Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus.

It’s not as simple for my daughters. My husband and I come from two extremely different backgrounds. I am fourth-generation Japanese, was born in Hawaii, speak English, identify as American. Their dad was born in Korea, spoke Korean at home, lived most of his life in America, but identifies as Korean. Sometimes, my daughters and I discuss the ways in which Japan and Korea have a history of clashing, and my daughters, somewhat alarmed, watch their dad and I closely to see what conflicts of ours they can blame on our differing cultural backgrounds.

My daughters are very sensitive to having discussions about race and often comment on (what I intend to be) a neutral explanation: “That’s racist, Mom.” Which leads to further discussion about what it is to be racist and what it is to discuss race to understand the world around us.

thIn any case, watching Moana was a good introduction for my daughters to notice such cultural details as Maui’s personally meaningful tattoos, his haka performance, and his exuberant exclamations of “Che-hooooo!!” There is a nicely illustrated idea about one of the character’s belief that she would return to the earth after she died, as her spirit animal. One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when the spirit animal arrives to encourage Moana in her darkest hour.

A few days after seeing Moana, on Christmas morning, I woke up to a recording of my late grandma singing my favorite Christmas carol on my iPod. I may have written it off as coincidence, but that night before going to sleep, I reshuffled the 2000 songs on my playlist, and once again, what played was my grandma singing that same Christmas song, as if directly to me.

th-1Hearing my grandma singing a seasonally appropriate song was both a gift and a sign for me. Likewise, watching Moana was a timely inspiration for my girls to begin learning about their cultural backgrounds more deeply. Moana has been a starting point for them to entertain stories about the sun god Maui and the volcano goddess Pele. My daughters see Moana as an excellent role model for practicing bravery, kindness, and finding purpose in the world. I would like them to comprehend how Moana took her heritage into consideration when making life decisions.

Furthermore, I intend to support them when they listen to that voice inside them. As Moana did in the movie, I hope that my daughters will find friends to accompany them along the way. Most of all, I hope they know that I will always be with them, the way my parents and grandparents are always with me.

AK Moana Photo

Author Bio: Adrianne Katagiri Kwak is a thinker and dreamer who wishes she could be wide awake in the morning. She is a fan of parents who listen to their children and vice versa.

How Harmless is Ignorant Stereotyping?

NEWWritten by Special Contributor, Artist Mark Matsuno

   Growing up Asian American, I have seen and felt the effects of being looked upon as “different.” But rarely have I felt excluded. I grew up in San Francisco and my public schools were a mix of all races. So were my friends. A lot of second and third generation Chinese, Jews, Hispanics, Blacks, Whites, you name it, attended my schools. Well-integrated. Name-calling among kids was commonplace back then. For the most part, I was unfazed. Political correctness was not in our social consciousness yet. “You lost the war!” What? I’m 10. I wasn’t even in the war. “Chinaman!” I’m not even Chinese. The intended insults didn’t really bother me. Maybe because I knew they were just assholes. Not to mention, I’ve always been a firm believer in the laws of karma. The Japanese call it bachi.

For some reason, it was the tamer “ignorant stereotyping” comments that bothered me more. “You must be good at math.” “What does your family eat for dinner?” “How do you say this in Japanese?” How the hell do I know? Here’s a good one: “Oh, you’re Japanese. Do you know the Yamashita family?” Hmm, I don’t know. Where do they live? “In Idaho.” Ugh. Does bachi apply here? Please say yes.

Illustrated Haiku: Elephants can't fly without a magic feather. I need one of those.

Illustrated Haiku:
Elephants can’t fly
without a magic feather.
I need one of those.

When I was twenty, I moved to Los Angeles where I remain today. Being an artist, I tend to look artsy, so I’ve been told. I don’t think anyone has ever thought that I was an accountant. I haven’t tried to break any stereotypes, but I think, by nature, I have. That thought gives me a sense of pleasure. If people can judge others by who they are rather than what their ancestry is, the world would be a better place. I knew I wanted to be recognized as an accomplished graphic designer and artist, because that’s how I saw myself. I neither embraced nor dismissed my heritage. It was a non-factor.

I began my career as an art director for Young & Rubicam in a high rise on Wilshire Blvd. At 20-years-old, I had no idea what I was doing, so I was subsequently fired after just three years. Then I had the good fortune of creating movie posters for the film industry. We’re talking about a business dominated by Jews and gentiles. At that time, there were very few Asian minorities involved in movie marketing in the film studios or elsewhere. My graphic design boutique thrived despite this glaring deficiency. In fact, almost forty years later, I am still busy whereas all my contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. Why? I never saw my Asian-ness as a determining factor. I put my faith in my talent and passion and hoped others would, too. I have always believed that people should be judged from the inside out because that’s how I always want to be judged.

Illustrated Haiku: It's hard to believe that miracles can happen. And yet, here we are.

Illustrated Haiku:
It’s hard to believe
that miracles can happen.
And yet, here we are.

I ended up marrying a Hispanic girl and had two hapa kids. I wasn’t trying to marry out of my race. It just happened that way. I still have many Asian American friends, many who I grew up with in San Francisco, but the commonality isn’t our ancestry, it’s everything else: sports, work, family, our interests. Most of my friends in LA are not AAs. Again, it’s not a conscious decision. It just happened that way.

Some think ignorant stereotyping is harmless. But, it can create a stigma that unconsciously influences others, including AAs. It bothers me that Asian American men are still sometimes looked upon as little, geeky gardeners or discreet coroners with thick glasses. We’re not all Bruce Lee, and we’re definitely not how the media often portrays us. The media, TV shows and movies can do a lot to change this perception. I see minor strides, but I don’t see it happening with enough regularity to make a measurable difference.

Illustrated Haiku: Morally secure until we stand in line at Heaven's registrar.

Illustrated Haiku:
Morally secure
until we stand in line at
Heaven’s registrar.

An example: I was in my mid-twenties when a girlfriend, her uncle and I went to dinner at Benihana, a Japanese restaurant on La Cienega. We were up front waiting for a table when a white family strutted in. I remember the dad had a boyish expression of glee on his face, as if Japanese cuisine would be a novel treat for his family and he couldn’t wait to tell the Yamashitas all about it when they got back to Idaho. He waltzed right up to me and said, “Smith, party of five!” Keep in mind, I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and looked nothing like someone who might be a host at this posh restaurant. There was an awkward moment as my girlfriend and her uncle turned their heads to me in disbelief. Rather than explain to him that I didn’t work there, I went up to the reservation list at the podium and saw that his “Smith, party of five” was indeed on it. So I then walked them deep into the restaurant, found a table, sat them and said a waiter would be with them shortly. When I went back to join my friends, they were practically rolling on the floor.

Another time, I was waiting curbside for a valet to fetch my car when a car pulls up. The driver gets out and hands me his keys. Rather than steal his car, I explained that I wasn’t the valet.

Illustrated Haiku: Listening closely before first speaking your mind proves that you have one.

Illustrated Haiku:
Listening closely
before first speaking your mind
proves that you have one.

One more: I was once hired as a freelance art director to work on the Kleenex account in Kansas City, Missouri for a day. The agency had arranged a big dinner party to welcome me. Mid-western hospitality. At dinner, I mostly sat quietly listening to what they all had to say before I pitched my thoughts. As we were all getting up to leave, a woman came up to me with an astonished look and said I spoke English very well. So how do you respond to that? I know it was an intended compliment, but seriously, do you call her out on her ignorance or let it slide?

Are people guilty of negative stereotyping if they don’t even know that they are? Ok, it may not be blatant bigotry, but it still sucks. Which brings me back to my original question. How harmful is ignorant stereotyping? Sometimes it’s merely an annoyance, like someone cutting you off on the freeway, but it is always an injustice to the person being stereotyped because we don’t see the real person underneath the stereotype. I’d like to see all of us being empowered to be our unique selves and not categorized into our stereotyped selves.

Illustrated Haiku: They gently nod out after dragons have been slain and the world is right.

Illustrated Haiku:
They gently nod out
after dragons have been slain
and the world is right.

Bio: Mark Matsuno is the owner of Matsuno Design, Inc., a graphic design studio located in Glendale, CA, and works mostly for the film industry. Mark is also a fine artist. You can see his work at markmatsuno.com. He was born and raised a sansei in San Francisco and currently lives in Glendale, CA. Mark says, “I have created posters for high visibility movies such as Mississippi Burning, High Fidelity and Dances with Wolves, but also suspiciously chosen for films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Come See The Paradise.”

Mark was also recently invited to showcase his illustrated haiku (a few examples of these have been added to this post for your viewing pleasure) at a silent auction fundraiser for Haven Hills, a charity for victims of domestic violence. He was one of about a dozen artists there and his entire display sold, raising much needed resources for Haven Hills.