On Christmas Eve 2019, we continue our series of reflections written by the students who participated in the 2019 edition of Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive.
In this installment, we feature the thoughts of a student who attended the Katari trip at the Manzanar National Historic Site for a second time. He described the much deeper impact this year’s trip had on him.
Today, you wake up and feel like you want to get something to eat, so you go to your refrigerator, take out some peanut butter, jelly, and grab a loaf of white bread. Or maybe, you don’t deserve such a paltry meal, so you put back all the ingredients and look something up on Yelp. You decide to go to the closest McDonald’s. You drive there in your car to settle your annoyed stomach. Once there, you are presented with a plethora of choices, limited only by the size of your wallet. Testing the patience of the cashier, you eventually order a ten-piece chicken nugget combo and wait for them to call your number. Finally, you receive your order, and you quickly find a seat to enjoy your meal.
Now imagine this…
You wake up, shaking off the invading dust that finds its place anywhere, both appropriate and inappropriate. You know you’re hungry, but it is not yet time to eat, so you fix your bed to fill the time you wait. Finally, it arrives, so you put on your boots and begin walking the craggy dirt road towards the mess hall. On the way, you can’t help but notice the large guard towers with soldiers aiming their rifles at you as you walk.
Once at the mess hall, you are greeted by a line that extends far past its entrance. You patiently wait in line, eventually receiving a bowl of rice and cold jello. With your meal in hand, you venture out into the mass of bodies occupying the seating area. Finally, you squeeze into a spot and eat in the company of an arguing couple and a disheartened mother trying to control her children.
The ability to choose is a privilege that many take for granted, myself included. Going to this year’s Katari trip to the Manzanar National Historic Site definitely opened my eyes to that fact. This realization was inspired by former World War II incarceree Min Tonai. His stories involved his experiences at the Amache camp, explaining all of them with detailed clarity. From all of the stories he told, I realized that he didn’t have a choice when it came to his childhood. In order to take care of his family, Min had to accept the heavy burden of suddenly becoming the head of the family, despite his young age. He had to mature quickly, doing his best to maintain stability in his family.
I went to the Katari trip last year, but for whatever reason, my mindset, at the time, was immature about Manzanar and its significance. Even though I listened to Min’s stories during last year’s trip, I failed to realize the weight of his presence and his words. But this year was different.
This year, I immersed myself in the lives of the Japanese American internment survivors. I chose to care about another culture despite it not being my own. I realized that their American right to choose was taken from them. They didn’t get to choose where to relocate, or to sell their property for a fair price, and they couldn’t even choose where to eat. They were prisoners in their own country.
Those of us who enjoy this right to choose must not take it for granted, especially for the sake of those who could not, because if the government can take away the rights of one minority group, that threat can be extended to others. Thus, we must choose to stay united, practice empathy and advocate for justice, in order to ensure a place like Manzanar can never be erected again.
A 21-year-old native of Temple City, California, Brent Lew is a fourth-year senior at California State University, Fullerton, where he is majoring in Child Adolescent Studies. Brent is a member of the CSUF Nikkei Student Union and serves on the 2020 Manzanar At Dusk organizing committee.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: Brent Lew (center) is shown here with fellow students during an exercise about racist laws and anti-Asian sentiment that led to the unjust incarceration of Japanese/Japanese Americans during World War II. November 2, 2019, at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
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