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OBAACHAN FILLS THE THERMOS WITH COFFEE AND THEN we head to the beach to have breakfast and see the sunrise, to watch it color the water gold as it spills over the Atlantic. At this hour, all of Melbourne's banks and strip malls are still closed, and only a handful of cars sit in their parking lots. We drive over the wide Indian River, and I focus my eyes ahead, at the grass and trees, instead of peering out at the water's peaks and ripples. I've inherited my mother's unfortunate fear of bridges, and my palms grow clammy at the wheel as we cross the river. At last, we reach land, wait at a few stoplights, and pull into a public parking lot along the shore. It's overcast, and so there is no brilliant sunrise; there is only a long, deserted beach and burning wind and a wide, restless stretch of sea. Thermos and plastic bag in hand, we make our way to a worn wooden observation deck and settle on a bench. We take out the strawberry cobbler we made earlier in the week, which is soggy and too sweet, and which we've been eating incessantly, it seems, for three days now. My grandmother, clearly a product of the Great Depression, refuses to throw it away, even though she admits it's no good.
"Well, what exactly do you want to know?" she says slowly, opening the thermos and pouring herself a cup of steaming coffee. She replaces the lid and then turns to look out at the water. This bewildering straightforwardness, I am learning during my week with my grandmother, is one of her distinct characteristics, and it still catches me by surprise. She will keep quiet; she will not often press for details or demand that things go her way. She is perfectly content to listen without offering any advice. Yet at the same time, she seems to disapprove of tiptoeing around difficult issues once they present themselves. She believes in being direct, especially when she is ready to be direct.
Still, after three days of carefully probing and hinting at my desire to know about her past, I'm somehow unprepared for this sudden willingness to talk. Part of the problem is that I want to know everything. The sting of reading the signs that hung from storefronts and warned, in all capital letters, "JAPS KEEP OUT, YOU RATS!" The ingredients of the final meal the family shared before they left their home forever. The process of deciding which items to take with her, which possessions were important enough to carry all that way—or rather, which ones she could bear to leave behind. I want to know how she felt at this moment, and what she thought at another moment, and what she wore and heard and said and smelled and tasted. But we must begin somewhere, this mining of the memory, and now, after so much pleading for her to tell the story, I don't really know where to start.
Obaachan takes a bite of the strawberry cobbler and then places her plastic fork on a napkin beside her. Perhaps she senses the reasons behind my silence, or knows that I'm not sure what to say. Or perhaps it is sitting on the beach that stirs her, because as she looks out at the gray Atlantic, a memory comes to her, and with a hint of a smile, she begins. "When the four of us were young," she says, hesitating, "we spent Sunday afternoons at the beach."
Their beach, that is: the only one they were allowed on, Brighton Beach. They weren't permitted to go to Venice Beach, or to Santa Monica Beach or to any of the other beaches in Los Angeles. Those were hakujin beaches. Whites-only beaches.
Obaachan's Mama spent Saturday evenings preparing for the Sunday outing. She fried chicken in teriyaki sauce, and the strong scent of shoyu filled the house. She steamed rice and rolled it into tidy little spheres. She cut up cucumbers or some other fresh vegetable, and sometimes, on special occasions, she sliced watermelon. And then she packed all of it into her set of stackable square containers. They ate lunch right after arriving, and then they would swim or build sandcastles or play paddleball.
When night fell, Papa dug a pit and started a fire, and the family gathered around. The boys, Ren and Jack, found six sticks and shaved off the bark, then gave one to each person. Mama and Sachiko, Obaachan's older sister, unpacked the hot dogs they'd brought, and over the flames the meat would sizzle and spit. Papa told stories and the waves tumbled and snarled at their backs, and the salt dried in sinuous paths on their skin, and right there, in the balmy glow of the fire, Papa's face fell into a thousand lines of laughter.
This was long before the war, in the thirties. Long before Mama got sick and long before they lost everything and were forced out of Los Angeles. They were happy, the six of them. Never rich, but never hungry or in need. In that sense, they were better off than a lot of people during the Depression. Papa's job, at least to a degree, could be credited for this. He worked as a traffic director at a produce market and could bring home fresh vegetables and fruit each day. Obaachan's mother simply planned the family's meals around whatever he provided. At the market, farmers would drive their pickup trucks loaded with bushels of vegetables and fruit to the market and sell them to various vendors, who would then take the produce to grocery stores. Papa worked odd hours, getting up and leaving before three o'clock in the morning and working until lunchtime. He did this six days a week. Usually, he would use those precious hours while the children were still at school to sleep, and then he would spend evenings with the family.
Papa had come to America around 1910, and Mama, a "picture bride" whose parents had arranged the marriage back in Japan, arrived a few years later. Both of them were from Wakayama, a rural province known for its hot springs and temples. They wed in December of 1915, and eventually they saved up enough money to buy a house on a double lot in Los Angeles. They were from Japan, so they could not become citizens. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalized citizenship to "free whites," and although in 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment extended this to African Americans, it was not until 1954 that Asian immigrants could become naturalized citizens. California's 1913 Alien Land Law prohibited noncitizens from owning land, but Papa and Mama, like many Japanese families, sidestepped the stipulations of this law by deeding the house in the names of their children, who had been born in the United States and were therefore rightful citizens.
The house on Pico Street, a small frame house with a large covered front porch, sat on the back half of the lot. Papa transformed the front half of it into a botanical oasis, a haven in the midst of so much pavement. He poured himself into that garden, planting and watering, weeding and pruning. At the time of the evacuation, he had over thirty varieties of plants. Bamboo, camellias, wisteria, oleanders—all of them were, like so many other pieces of their life, left behind.
Obaachan shrugs, wrapping her fingers around the metal cup from the thermos and resting it on her knees. She takes a deep breath. "Hakabanohana is the name for oleander in Japanese. Hakabano means 'burial ground' and hana means 'flower.' So the actual word means 'burial flower.' Most Japanese consider them bad luck. But Papa liked them and planted them anyway." She smiles a little. "We were only superstitious sometimes."
In one of my grandmother's photographs, her father is standing in his garden, in front of a forsythia heavy with blossoms. He is wearing a dark three-piece suit, and he is holding his fedora hat suspended above his head, as though greeting the person taking the picture. It's not an ostentatious gesture; it's more one of deference. Although he does not smile, his mouth is turned slightly upward, and his eyes are tranquil and kind. Even the black-and-white image captures a distinct air of dignity and composure. It is the only picture Obaachan has of her father in middle age, as she would have known him.
"We used to catch bees," she says, kicking her legs back and forth. On the wooden bench, her feet do not touch the ground. She watches a pair of gulls swing toward the water. "There were always so many of them, buzzing and swirling in the garden, and we'd wait with our glass jars and then scoop them right in, like this." She imitates the motion. "And fireflies, too."
She tells me that one of their neighbors, the tall man with strong black arms, grew tomato plants once, and that when he showed them to her from across the fence, she couldn't believe those full red fruits could grow on such spindly limbs. And that one year, Papa let her till up a spot of his garden to grow sweet corn. That her mouth watered every day when she inspected the tall plants, waiting for them to be ready, and that Papa had to tell her again and again, wait. From the way she talks about him, I can tell that Obaachan respected her father immensely, that she recalls him as fearless, strong, and wise. In another one of her photographs, Papa is seated beside his own father, and he stares indifferently, somberly, outward. And in a third photograph, Papa has the same serious expression, only in that one, he is standing beside his new wife, who looks equally somber. They have probably just met.
"My father only had an eighth-grade education," Obaachan says, pulling her navy cardigan more tightly over her shoulders as the wind picks up, "but he knew so much. He could fix almost anything, and, well, he just seemed to understand how things worked."
Like many Issei, or first-generation, men, Papa had initially found work in America as a gardener for the wealthy. Before he was hired to direct trucks at the produce place, he simply walked from door to door, knocking and asking owners if they were in need of someone to help with the gardening. Many hakujin were interested in hiring Japanese gardeners, for people quickly realized that most of them were knowledgeable, hardworking, good with the land, and, most importantly, that their labor could be had at a low price. In fact, it did not take long for the Japanese to develop quite a reputation all along the West Coast for being capable farmers.
Their success with the land, however, came at a cost: many of their hakujin neighbors began to begrudge these accomplishments, and eventually, this bitterness blossomed into a general dislike of the Japanese as a race. In a March 9, 1905, article titled "The Yellow Peril: How the Japanese Crowd out the White Race," one San Francisco Chronicle journalist wrote:
The market gardening industry has to some extent been occupied by the Chinese, but in the main it has been held by white men, mostly Europeans ... In some places this is rapidly passing to the Japanese, because their living expenses are nominal. With no idle mouths to feed they herd in old shacks, and can exist and lay up money where any white man will starve ...
It took very little time for such sour resentment to surface and, looking back at the history of Asians in the United States, it makes sense that the hostility with which the Japanese were received was merely a continuation of the anti-Asian sentiments that had existed for years. After all, the Japanese were not the first to experience such antipathy. The Chinese had come to America decades earlier, during the 1849 gold rush. Then, in the 1860s, more of them had followed, knowing they could find employment in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Working at much cheaper rates than their white counterparts, the Chinese were viewed with antagonism. They were stealing jobs from white men. They "work[ed] cheap and smell[ed] bad" and were subhuman, as Professor Elmer Sandmeyer, attempting to describe how white Americans perceived Chinese immigrants, wrote in his 1939 study titled The Anti-Chinese Movement in California. They were—as the 1879 California Constitution itself stated—"dangerous and detrimental to the well-being or peace of the state."
This hostile mind-set toward the Chinese transferred easily to the Japanese. In 1884, after centuries of strictly closed borders, the emperor of Japan finally began allowing emigration to the United States, and the Japanese came to America quickly, in great sweeps. By 1892, only a couple thousand Japanese had settled on the mainland, but Californian Denis Kearney, leader of the Workingman's Party, ended a speech with this statement: "The Japs must go!" While Kearney's call resonated with many Californians, it did little to curb immigration. Despite their poor reception, the Japanese continued pouring into California. By 1900, there were around twenty-five thousand Japanese living on the West Coast. That year, J. D. Phelan, the mayor of San Francisco, claimed, "The Chinese and Japanese are not bona fide citizens. They are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made ..."
Obaachan folds her hands and places them in her lap. "We certainly had our own separate spaces," she says quietly. On the beach below, a jogger passes and nods to us in greeting. Obaachan slides a finger along the edge of the bench, tracing the grain of the wood. "At the movie theatres, there were two levels: the first floor, and a balcony. Mama used to take us to matinees, before she got sick. I don't know if it was a law or if the studios just had a policy, but I know that I was always seated in the balcony, with the blacks and Mexicans, and other Japanese and Chinese, and that I never once sat on the first floor. Only the hakujin sat down there."
There were similar rules with other public areas. The roller-skating rink was only open to Japanese on Sunday nights; they could not go any other day of the week. They were only permitted to use public tennis courts on Sundays as well. And they were not allowed to swim in public pools. "I remember that the Rafu Shimpo, the Japanese newspaper in LA, would have a large sports section on Mondays," Obaachan says. "Only one day of the week because all the Japanese sporting events were held on Sundays. It was the only day we were allowed to use public areas for things like tennis." She pauses, frowning, tapping her index finger on the wooden bench. "And we mostly shopped in Little Tokyo, or at very large department stores. We didn't go in the smaller hakujin stores."
As I listen to my grandmother talk, I cannot help noticing the contradiction—the odd and complicated problem of what preceded what. Japanese immigrants were not legally allowed to become citizens. They were not hired by white employers. They were not permitted to integrate in social spheres. And yet they were criticized by the public and the media for just that: for not fitting in, for keeping to themselves, for not being "bona fide citizens," for not being American.
Perhaps not surprisingly, both the government and the media played a role in developing the notion of "the yellow peril." In 1901, the United States Industrial Commission released a statement claiming that the Japanese were "... as a class tricky, unreliable, and dishonest." The San Francisco Chronicle, arguably the most influential newspaper on the West Coast at the time, began a lengthy anti-Japanese campaign in February of 1903, seven years before my grandmother's family had arrived in America. The campaign opened with this front-page streamer: "The Japanese Invasion, The Problem of the Hour." The paper asserted that Japanese men were a danger to American women, and claimed that "every one of these immigrants ... is a Japanese spy."
Obaachan looks at me, squinting a little as the wind blows more violently. Grains of sand tumble across the boardwalk, hissing against the wood. "But, you see, Mama and Papa worked very hard to instill a positive attitude in us children," she says. "No matter what happened." You didn't complain about unfairness or inequality. You didn't resent the hurtful or negative things that happened to you. You followed the rules. You didn't resist. "There's a word for it," Obaachan says, "shikataganai."
There are things that cannot be changed, and you don't try to change them.
Excerpted from Silver Like Dust by Kimi Cunningham Grant. Copyright © 2011 Kimi Cunningham Grant. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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Posted March 12, 2012
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