In the Family Gathering, Lise Yasui was looking for her family history. The film focused on her grandfather and his experience at the internment camps. Her uncle does not want to talk about that time. He seemed to have the attitude that; It’s in the past, so it doesn’t need to be talked about, leave it in the past. Yasui looked at how the internment and the reluctance to talk about it affected her life as she explored the memories and silences in her family history. With this film she breaks the silence as she looks for her place in the family history. There is an underlying theme of –what defines an American and what does it takes to become an American after emigration.
In My America or Honk of You Love Buddha, Renee Tajima-Pena went out looking for Asian –America in the 1990’s. This film explores also has the underlying theme of – defining what an American is and again asks what it takes to belong here. She talks about the idea that anyone who is Asian is perceived as “foreign” or “an enemy”. When she met Victor Wong in S.F. China town he said “What is an Asian American, I’m I an Asian or an American? Do we all look alike?” He also talked about the Civil Rights Movement and described this time as one where, “I could become part of America.” Even though he was born and raised in San Francisco’s China Town.
During the film there was a segment where someone was asking, “Why can’t I call them Japs? Then the question was raised: Will we ever truly belong in America? Then it is answered by the Filipina Burtanog sisters, well maybe: “After 200 years or so you start to feel like home.” That is after 8 generations.
Wong also said, “This face is Chinese-American, they couldn’t tell the difference… The war with Japan, with Korea, with Vietnam, was one huge war with Asia. Most Americans think of this face (even unconsciously) as their enemy.
Towards the end of the film, Pena says, “Traveling through America can take your breath away, and could break your heart. Americans just don’t know who other Americans are.”
Victory Wong reminded me of my husband. With his silliness, chasing birds in the park and his seriousness about the racial inequalities he had encountered. My husband also sometimes has the attitude of “It’s in the past, leave it there.” He says that the past is often too painful to discuss, but then something happens to make him feel that he is not a true American. Or he hears something on the news that makes him think that it could happen all over again. Such as the talk about building internment camps for the Iraq people living in the United States. Then he starts telling some of his stories and hopes that someone listens.
After viewing My America with me, he decided to tell a number of stories demonstrating just how hard it was to be considered a Jap, and not an American. Here is one story. To give you fair warning, this is not a humorous or light hearted story of being Japanese-American. It is a story that many of his generation would not tell, because it is in the past and too painful.
One of my first memories was the day I first learned that I was a “Jap”. My brothers and I were out picking coffee on our farm. All of a sudden a squadron of planes flew overhead. We ran to the house yelling for mom to come see. As she came out of the house, the explosions started. More planes flew over and we were rushed inside to hide. It seemed that it went on forever. Finally, just after it got quiet, dad walked in. He looked wrong to me, defeated somehow, as he said: “They did it, I can’t believe they did it. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor”.
We were just kids and would soon learn what this attack would mean to us. The next day at school, the teachers divided us by race, taking all the Japanese kids and separating us from everyone else. The other kids were yelling: “traitor”, “Killer”, “spy”, and worse of all “Jap”.
This term came to define the rest of my early life, we “japs” needed to prove that we were American. It didn’t matter how many generations our families had been in the United States, if you looked like Japanese, you were not fully American.
Dad soon went to war. Our aunts and cousins who lived in the states (mainland U.S.) lost everything and were sent to the camps. They were busy proving that they were American and this was the price.
August 15, the streets filled with people celebrating, newspapers announced “Japan Surrenders”. The war was over, and the celebrations began. We, the United States, had bombed Japan right out of the war. We had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Almost 150,000 people died that day.
At home, in private, it was a whole different story. We were quietly mourning. My mom’s sister and her parents lived in Hiroshima. Because of the war, we hadn’t heard from them for a couple of years. We didn’t dare write: that would be enough to send us to prison for being spies. We had to choose: American or Family; American or Japanese. We chose American; we just had to prove it. It was hard though, with the bomb on Hiroshima, it felt as if our family history had been wiped out along with most of the family.
As soon as I was old enough, 17, well almost 17, I enlisted in the Army. I supported the United States, I was American, and I was proving it. I got sent to Korea- to war. Then I was sent to Vietnam. I was infantry, and the radio man. The radio men were the most targeted men in the U.S. forces. I was lucky in Vietnam. I kept almost getting killed. Walking out of my tent and having a mortar hit it before I had gone more than a few steps. Walking with my best friend to mess and having him fall into my arms dead, hit by a sniper. There were unbelievable horrors to witness and survive. I won’t tell you much more now, this isn’t the story I want to tell. We were there fighting a war, it didn’t matter why, except that many of us were there proving that we were American.
After my first tour, (I was there twice) I was sent back to the States. My wife and 3 kids met me at Fort Benning in Georgia. I had R&R time and wanted to spend it getting to know them again. We decided that since we had never seen the South, we would go on a car tour and show the kids what a great country we lived in and what being American meant.
We piled into the car and started out to see our country. After a few hours everyone was hungry. “Denny’s” the kids shouted, it was one of their favorite places to eat in Hawaii. We stopped for lunch. The kids ran in and my wife and I followed as they piled into a booth.
I noticed that the other diners were staring at us. I was in my dress uniform, a requirement at the time; we were not allowed to wear civilian clothes in public. I thought proudly that maybe they were noticing my uniform, that I was an American soldier.
The waitress came to the table “We don’t serve people like you”. The kids got quiet. Tears started running down my wife’s face. “What do you mean”, I asked. “We don’t serve colored people like you, baby killers, Japs! – Get Out!”
I stood up, “Let’s go”. My daughter said quietly,” I have to go potty”. My wife took her hand and started walking towards the bathroom. She didn’t get far as a man stepped in front of her and shoved her towards the door. Everything went crazy, the boys ran to defend their mother, screaming, pushing, a punch or two and my family was shoved out the door.
We encountered similar situations over and over during our shortened trip. Grocery stores wouldn’t sell to us. Gas stations refused to pump our gas. I had to resort to vending machines filled with candy and chips to feed the kids. We weren’t even allowed to use the bathrooms.
We were on this trip to discover America, to show our children what a great country we lived in, to give them pride in their Americaness. What we showed them was what it is like to be an outsider, a “Jap”.
It was only a few years ago that the feeling of not being fully American began to change. Someone came up to me and said “Thank You for your Service”
I may not be able to show it, but you should know just how much this means to us old veterans, who have given our whole lives to our country, especially those of us who had to prove that we belong here, prove that we are American.
——- James S. Harai