What’s your book about?”
It’s a question I’ve always dreaded for various reasons, mostly because I find it hard to compress into a sentence or two what it took me years to write and hundreds of pages to cover. But also because I’m of the mindset that a decent book is really about many things, and usually, the person posing the question is looking for a quick, straightforward answer.
This time, though, I floundered for very different reasons. It was bedtime, the end of a long day, and the question came from my son, who just turned seven. I squirmed next to him on the bed. That book chronicles my Japanese American grandparents’ experience of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath: their swift removal from California, their weeks at Pomona Fairgrounds, their years in the internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. I guess I could’ve just told him all of that, but instead, I held back. “It’s about your great-grandmother, Sobo.”
“What about her?”
I should’ve known that answer wouldn’t satisfy him—and deep down, did I want it to? I was happy he was interested. I was willing to tell him. The trouble was: how? “It’s about when she was younger. And how she met Ojichan. My grandfather.”
“Where did they meet?”
“Well.” I shifted again, folded my legs. “They met in a place called an internment camp.” This term, I knew, would ring no bell, but it sounded so innocuous, so boring, that I secretly hoped he might drop the topic.
“It was a place where they had to go. Had to stay. Live, for a while.” I took a deep breath. “Basically, buddy, it was a prison.”
“Sobo was in prison?”
I knew what he was picturing: his great-grandmother, ninety-five in both years and pounds and helpless without her walker. Also, I suspect, the State Correctional Institute that we pass on our way to her apartment, an object of great fear and fascination for him, a place with a watchtower, a place enclosed by tall chain-linked fence and coils of barbed wire at the top, a place I’ve assured him he does not wish to go. A place, actually, that wasn’t all that different from where my grandparents were detained for three years.
“Why was she in prison?”
I realized then that there might not be any going back from this. No changing the subject or sugar-coating. But there was so much to try to explain, and I had no idea what to tell and what to leave out.
“Well, you know that Sobo is Japanese. That Obaachan is Japanese.”
“I’m half Japanese. You’re a quarter Japanese.”
He nodded, his blue eyes bright with interest now. His head, blonde hair buzzed short for summer, bobbed up and down.
“And what I mean by that is that our ancestors are from the country of Japan. Sobo’s family was from Japan. They moved here before she was born. Can you picture Japan on a map? It’s in Asia . . .” My voice trailed off.
He has grown up in a biracial family. He’s never asked why one side of his family looks different from the other, and my husband and I have never gone out of our way to point out the physical features that, for most of the world, would delineate his Caucasian relatives from the Japanese ones. Nor have we ever used race as a descriptor for his white or nonwhite friends. Though he knows, in the sense that he’s familiar with the word, that he’s Japanese, I’m not sure he really grasps what that means.
We’d thought all of this was okay, but there, in the darkness of his bedroom, as I struggled to give words to his question, my heart flooded with self-doubt. Maybe we’d gone about this all wrong. Maybe we’d been misguided. Naïve. Maybe it would’ve been better to lay it all out ahead of time, so that when the questions arose, we would be prepared. Our children would be prepared. Because it’s difficult—painful, even—to try and explain racism to a child who lacks a concept of race, who lacks an appropriate lexicon for such a discussion.
From my own childhood, though, I knew that the alternative—growing up with a heightened awareness of race—wasn’t exactly a good alternative. I grew up in the eighties and nineties in an old Pennsylvania town, sleepy and still and ever so white. I’m half-white, but I don’t look white, which, as those who happen to be in the same boat will understand, meant one thing: I wasn’t white enough. My brother and I were two of a handful of nonwhite kids in the entire school district—in case I failed to notice my otherness on my own, my schoolmates made such differences clear to me early on. (For the record, sensitive and self-aware kid that I was, I didn’t need their help with that.)
Maybe even more significant than the treatment from my peers was the fact that for my mother’s side of the family—the Japanese side—race was always an issue. Early on, my grandfather told me that I needed to bear in mind that I might be the only Japanese person someone might meet, and that their conception of the entire race could be based on their interactions with me. Given the context—I really was the only Japanese kid on my gymnastics team, in my class, at my church—the possibility that this could be true didn’t feel unrealistic. Moreover, raised in what may have been an equally-racist Japan, my grandfather also explained that people there would be able to tell that I wasn’t fully Japanese and disapprove of me for it. I wasn’t pure—that was how he put it. My own childhood, then, often felt saturated with notions of race, to the point where I felt not only confused about it, but also burdened. Afraid, too. I carried my half-Japaneseness around like a stolen piece of chocolate: haunted, self-conscious, sure it would lead to trouble.
Three decades later, in the era of my own parenting, we’ve chosen a different route. We’ve explained, simply, that God made people of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and every one of us is equally valuable. (For the record, this concept hasn’t been remotely difficult for our children to accept.) The specific topic of race has not yet come up for our kids, and though we’ve never made a decision to avoid the topic, we have made a distinct choice not to be the ones to raise it. What would be the point of highlighting that one side of our family looks different from the other, that unfortunately to some people in the world, differences of background and appearance matter deeply—deeply enough, in fact, to fight and ban and spit names and burn and lock up and even kill? What would we hope to achieve in presenting all of that? After all, if our children, who are generally observant and full of questions, hadn’t ever inquired, why bring it up? In fact, wasn’t it possible that we would be making an issue of something that perhaps, for children in today’s day and age, isn’t an issue? Wasn’t the fact that our children seemed to be unconcerned with racial difference a sign of familial—even human—evolvement? Wasn’t that a sort of victory?
“Were they born in Japan?” my son asked, fiddling with the ear of his favorite stuffed animal. “Your grandparents?”
“Sobo’s parents were. She was born in the United States. She was an American citizen. But then one day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.” (Better to start on December 7, 1941, I decided, as opposed to attempting to explain the decades of vitriol toward the Japanese—and the Chinese, too—that preceded that event.)
“Did people get hurt?”
“Yes. People died.”
He fluttered his legs beneath the sheets. “And then what?”
“Then the United States declared war on Japan. They decided to fight.”
I felt like a nervous teenager, confessing. Yes, confessing: heart pounding, palms sweating. It wasn’t shame I felt, but it was something not so far from it.
My son began to gnaw on the corner of his sheet.
“Meanwhile, the United States government rounded up all the people whose families were Japanese and sent them to live in prisons for the war. That’s where Sobo met my grandfather. It’s where your great uncle was born.” I don’t tell him that, had our family of four lived through that time, in that place, we would’ve been imprisoned, too: the cutoff was anyone with as little as one sixteenth Japanese ancestry. Of course back then my white father couldn’t have legally married my mother, nor could I have married my husband, so maybe that’s irrelevant, anyway.
“Why did they do that? Why did they send them to prison?”
“Well, I think they worried that there were spies. People of Japanese descent who were here in America and who might hurt the country.”
“Were there spies?”
I pulled him close. “I don’t think so.”
For a few minutes we lay in silence, the glow-in-the-dark star stickers hovering over us on the ceiling, his night light glowing in the corner. “It was wrong,” I told him. “What they—we—did.” (The trouble with pronouns in such moments.)
What I wanted to tell him was this: it was a long time ago. Seventy-eight years. It wouldn’t happen now because we learned from that mistake. We don’t treat people with hatred or mistrust because the shade of their skin, or the shape of their eyes, is different from ours. We’ve grown. Evolved.
I wanted him not to worry. I wanted to give him some assurance, some comfort. But I couldn’t, because though my husband and I may strive to shelter our children, we don’t lie to them. And if there’s anything recent years in America have taught us, it’s that unfortunately those things aren’t true. In fact, seventy-eight years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s hard not to contemplate America then versus America now. That America featured an article in Life magazine titled “How to Tell Japs from Chinese” a few weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed. That America arrested seven thousand community leaders—priests, teachers—and hauled them off without explanation. That America ran articles calling Japanese people “vipers” and had at its helm General John L. DeWitt, the Western Defense Commander, who said, “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether he’s an American citizen or not.” And that America rounded up one hundred and twelve thousand people of Japanese descent and shipped them off to prisons for the duration of the war.
For so many years we’ve looked back on that chapter as one of the most shameful in American history, but at times, it’s hard not to question whether that period is really one we’ve moved beyond, whether, decades later, America has changed. The possibility that we haven’t—that maybe currents of racism and hatred have just tunneled underground for a while, like streams that disappear and then bubble back up—haunts many of us.
That night, I prayed with my son, kissed him on the forehead, and told him I loved him. He went to bed without trouble and didn’t wake up with nightmares about his great-grandmother trapped in a barbed wire enclosure. He hasn’t asked any more questions about his background or our family’s history.
And yet for me, the exchange has continued. As I worked to unpack that conversation, to make sense of it, I travelled inward and backward, sifting through my own past and ongoing anxieties, and I couldn’t help but worry whether there was more at play than my desire to raise tolerant kids. What gnawed at me was the possibility that deep down, I was somehow relieved that unlike me my children look white. And because they look white, they won’t have to be called racial slurs in middle school, or be referred to by well-meaning Sunday school teachers as “the Pearl of the Orient.” They won’t have to navigate the awkwardness that I did. And still do. Just yesterday a man kindly offered to help the boys and I fix a snagged line on a fishing pole. In our few minutes together, he asked, “Are you Korean?” And then when I told him no, I was half-Japanese, he explained, “Your eyes. I could tell, something different. Not that there’s anything wrong with your eyes . . .”
Is it wrong of me to feel relieved that my sons don’t have to deal with such things? That they won’t have to steer through those conversations, or be called names at school? Is it wrong of me to feel grateful that they won’t be saddled with the untenable weight of representing an entire race?
I don’t know. But my inability to field what could’ve been a simple question from my son has led me to confront the ugly and unsettling possibility that maybe I’ve hunkered down behind the safety of my boys’ light hair and big, blue and green eyes. Maybe I’ve made a terrible mistake Maybe I’ve chosen to consider my parenting as progressive when in truth I’ve been a coward.
I’m not sure where to go from here. I’m not sure that I can ever truly know the thing or things that prompted me not to talk about race to my kids. I’m not sure that ultimately my motives really matter. What I do know is this: I don’t want to feel remorse for any of it. Not for sheltering my children, not for deciding to let discussions of race bloom on their own, not for being naively optimistic, not for secretly wanting them to exist in a sphere that I don’t and can’t know, not for being American and Japanese.
And in the thick of all the ugly things that continue to unfold in our world, I’m choosing to hold onto this: Seventy-eight years ago, the media encouraged and disseminated America’s anxiety about a group of people who looked and ate and lived differently from the majority. Seventy-eight years ago, America stood by and watched as one hundred and twelve thousand people (many of whom, like my grandparents, were American citizens) were removed from their homes on the basis of their race. With the exception of a small handful of people, nobody said a word in protest. In fact, they hung signs on their porches encouraging the removal. But today, thousands—millions—stand against prejudice. People are vocal and unafraid. People march and tweet and kneel. Though it’s certainly not enough, it’s at least a move in the right direction.
And I think, at the end of the day, I can be at peace with knowing that we parented more with a sense of optimism and hope than with a sense of apprehension and fear. Hope that it is indeed possible to grow up in America and not embrace certain assumptions about people who are different. Hope that, in another seventy-eight years, when my children have children of their own, they really will be able to say, “It wouldn’t happen now. We’ve grown. Evolved.”
Cover image by Pavel Nekoranec