Here is another reflection written by the students who participated in the 2019 edition of Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive. In this installment, a student who is not Japanese Americam shares his thoughts about the important connections he made between the experience of Japanese Americans and those of his family and his community.
Having grown up in a primarily white community, I have not had much exposure to Asian American culture before college. Joining the UCSD Nikkei Student Union has allowed me to learn more about Japanese/Japanese American culture, which I had been interested in. The Katari trip to the Manzanar National Historic Site was a very meaningful experience for me because even though I am not Japanese American, nor did I know anyone in the internment camps, I was able to learn a great deal from the program and was able to connect the stories and ideas to my own family history.
Walking around Manzanar, I felt like I was really able to place myself in that time period, which led to a really immersive learning experience, and having former internees Min Tonai and Yoshie Okimoto Hayashi there to tell us stories from their experiences in the camps was invaluable—the trip would not have been the same without them.
Through Min’s storytelling—from the fun topics, like his experience with girls at the Amache camp, to the personal topics, like his mother’s embarrassment in the latrines, and to the serious topics, like the mess hall familial conflicts—I was able to learn that life in the internment camps was more than just suffering. In the camps, every person interned was experiencing the same injustice. They had to work together to make life as normal as possible. It wasn’t the government that made their gardens, or their orphanage, or even their toilet stall dividers; it was all a collective effort by the community. This sense of community was so touching and stands as a testament for the kindness of human nature.
Hearing Min and Yoshie’s stories made me realize how important it is to learn about and pass down the stories of our elders. The Katari program would not have had nearly the same impact without those stories and it would be a shame if there was no one remaining to share those stories once the internees are gone. I think back to how my mother tried to tell me about how my grandparents left Vietnam following the fall of Saigon, and at the time, I could not fully appreciate it. I realize now that I have to be proactive and learn these stories from them directly because I might not be able to in the future.
There is something very different between hearing a story from someone else and hearing it from the source. The stories get twisted and information gets lost as they are passed on. This trip made me realize how much more there is to history than what is written in a textbook. The small blurb that will appear when talking about World War II about Japanese American internment cannot possibly transmit any of the experiences or emotions of the more than 120,000 internees.
The Katari program taught me a great deal and was an invaluable experience. I am very grateful I was able to participate in such a wonderful trip.
A 20-year-old Vietnamese American from Westchester, New York, Ben Hofflich is in his second year at the University of California, San Diego, where he is studying Bioengineering. He currently serves as the Cultural Chair for the UCSD Nikkei Student Union and 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: Ben Hofflich (left) is shown here with fellow students during a presentation at the Block 14 demonstration barracks by former Manzanar incarceree and Manzanar Committee member Pat Sakamoto about how the infamous loyalty questionnaire tore her family apart. November 2, 2019, at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
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