MY ISSEI grandfather came to this country when he was 14 years old, in search of the American dream ("issei" is the Japanese word for the first to arrive in America; "nisei" means the first generation born here). He spoke no English and had an eighth-grade education. He worked on the railroads, and then in hotels, until he finally saved enough money to open his own general store. In 1941, heíd been living in the US for 24 years as a legal immigrant, but was prevented by race-based laws from obtaining citizenship. He was a father of four.
The day after Pearl Harbor, my grandfather was taken into custody as a "dangerous alien." The primary allegations against him? Membership in a Japanese fencing association (he taught kendo, a stick-wielding martial art) and friendship with a former Japanese Navy officer. My grandmother was left by herself to round up her kids, pack up and abandon the store and their house, and take only one suitcase per person to Minidoka. My grandfather, who had to await parole, wasnít allowed to join his family there until 1943.
Throughout it all, my family remained staunchly American. In the camp, my father tells me, "we celebrated all the usual American holidays, such as Christmas, New Yearís, and Thanksgiving. We listened to the radio and heard all the pop songs (that you know so well). Saw American movies when we could. We played American sports ó football, baseball. In short, camp was not a breeding ground for turning us into citizens of Japan."
My uncle tells me that my grandmother dressed up my youngest uncle, only four at the time, in a tiny generalís uniform. "The amused issei women referred to him as ĎMa Ca Sa,í " my uncle says, "for General MacArthur ó who was leading the US campaign against the Japanese."
"There was the feeling in the camp that we would all be representatives someday of Japanese-Americans," my father says. At the end of the war, when other families were hesitant to return to American society, my grandfather was one of the first to take his family out of Minidoka. Many Japanese were wary of a society that had rejected them and (legitimately, in some cases) worried about hate crimes. Not my grandfather. "I suspect that he thought we should leave because he believed that his children would be better off in the outside world," my father says.
The family landed in Spokane, Washington. "We were the only Japanese family in the parish," my father says. "I donít know how I might have turned out if I had been shunned by everyone in my class as an enemy, but as it turned out, the kids were great. I was accepted as a classmate by everyone. I played on the football team for two years, I went camping with my classmates, and in general had great times there. I even went to dances. The nuns treated me as they did every other student. In such a milieu, it is no wonder that I felt I was an American."
Score one for Spokane, and for all-American acceptance.
Before and after the injustice of the camps, the US managed to do enough right not to alienate the Japanese-American community. Despite racist laws preventing Asian resident aliens from gaining citizenship, despite laws forbidding Asian legal aliens to own land, the American system provided enough opportunity to allow hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans to make good lives for themselves before the camps. After the war, despite everything they had lost and how much they had been betrayed, Japanese-Americans loved this country enough to want to reintegrate with it. And American society proved open and tolerant enough to allow that to happen.
During the war, many Japanese-Americans went to any length to prove their loyalty to this country. When the American army came calling, 10,000 Japanese-Americans volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; many volunteered from inside the camps. The 442nd went on to become the most decorated combat unit in US military history. More than 800 of them died in one mission to save a stranded Texas battalion of 221 soldiers. They became known as the "Purple Heart Battalion."
My father, who was only 10 years old at Minidoka, has always been proud of the 442nd.
Immigrants now make up a sizable portion of the recruits showing up at Army offices across the US. Some are hard up for jobs, others are trying to speed up the citizenship process (the wait drops two years for members of the military). Many of them, like the men of the 442nd, probably feel they have something to prove. Most are patriots. Like converts to a new religion, immigrants are often the most zealous believers in the American way. They cherish American opportunities and liberties because they have firsthand experience with the alternatives.
WE HAVE even more to cherish today than in the days of the 442nd. Many battles have been won against racism and for civil rights. There will be no internment camps for Arab-Americans. Itís been heartening to see Japanese-American organizations around the country throw their support behind the Arab-American community, organizing town meetings and talks. For every hate crime we hear about in the papers, we hear another story about people doing their best to make their Arab or Sikh or Muslim neighbors feel at ease. Lone American nut-jobs have thrown Molotov cocktails at gas stations owned or run by Arab-Americans, and in response, scores of American neighbors have turned out with flowers and cakes and support.
But if we let down our guard, if we donít do everything in our power to keep our government in line, if we allow todayís FBI and CIA to run roughshod over immigrantsí and everyone elseís civil liberties, then we cannot call ourselves patriots. The president (and I reserve the right to continue ragging on him) tells us the terrorists hate our freedom. And that, apparently, justifies employing the same arguments once made for Executive Order 9066 to defend the USA Patriot Act and the detention of over a thousand immigrants. In the face of this recurrence, to my way of thinking, the patriotic thing to do is to make sure we Americans maintain our freedoms ó to keep a close watch over the detention process and to make sure no oneís constitutional rights are trampled.
American patriotism means loyalty to a beautiful set of principles ó to American rights, a brilliant Constitution, and a messy reality. Iíve always been tempted to identify with other more cohesive, more homogenous cultures. Maybe French patriotism, for some, means pride in French food and wine, in French high culture, in the way French women pout. But Iím not French, nor am I Japanese, and I canít locate national pride in my blood. Iím American, and American patriotism lives in the head and heart.
My Japanese grandfather is a myth to me. I never knew him, and my family doesnít often speak of him and all that they went through. I imagine that he would probably find me strangely foreign, with my weird clothes and weird music. Plus, Iím Jewish. My grandparents on my motherís side, born in this country, were Jews of Eastern European descent. When my parents announced their engagement, my Jewish grandparents were shocked and upset (primarily because my father is a goy). But they came around. I was raised celebrating both Passover and Christmas, the child of a union unlikely anywhere else in the world. I know that everything I am, everything I have, everything I may have accomplished, is based on the road paved by my ancestors, both Jewish and Japanese. All of my grandparents loved America, and while I claim their old worlds as influences on my own, I can only understand myself as an American.
On September 11, my generationís innocence came to an end. But though my patriotism has been renewed, it hasnít changed. I criticized my country before September 11, and Iíll continue carping until I feel America is not in danger of forgetting what it stands for.
Because if I donít, I would be letting down my grandparents, my father, and everyone who ever fought or died for liberty and the American way of life.
Michelle Chihara, a former staff writer for the Boston Phoenix, is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com. This piece was originally published on Alternet.org.
Comment on this article in the Phoenix Forum.
Issue Date: November 29 - December 6, 2001