In The White Boys, Elizabeth tells of her struggle to be comfortable with her own identity outside the boundaries of the racial norm. She tells of the normal awkward struggles of adolescent love with the addition of struggling to find acceptance of her own racial features.
Have any of you been asked “what” you are”? How did it make you feel?
Do you find people attractive based on their skin color? Do you think people do the same to you?
What do you find most unique or beautiful about your features?
When do you identify who you are as a person based on your racial makeup? When is it not a factor?
Beauty Begins: Making Peace with Your Reflection by Chris Shook The Beauty of Color by Imam
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking a Stand/Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Elizabeth Gomez. I must have been about 37 when he walked into my life. He was about 10 years my junior and built like a god. Actor Ryan Gosling is everything I ever wanted in a man. He was tall and blond and perfectly sculpted, and, not to mention, he was white.
So. So, white. Ryan Gosling represented, to me, everything I never thought I could have in a man. He was white. You see, white boys don’t kiss brown girls – not brown girls like me, brown haired, frizzy bo…, frizzy-haired, chunky bodied, acne scarred skin, totally obsessed with Ted McKinley because one day we were going to actually get married on the Love Boat. Girls like me! White boys liked white girls and this is the way of the world.
I realized this as I sat in my fourth-grade chair turning over my letter that was marked no. I spent the night before working on this letter so hard. I made sure my handwriting was festive and straightforward and, yet, feminine. I made sure that every box on the wo… note were straight lines, sharply angled, square boxes, so that you could mark yes or no, so that your potential new lover would be able to tell you that you could or could not put his name all over your notebook.
Tyler was the whitest boy in school. He was a kind of white that was almost transparent. Near summer re… near summertime when we went to recess, I always thought it was very irresponsible for the teachers to let him out because the moment he hit the sun, his face would turn a vivid, bright red. And his neck looked like it was just burning, but I would stand there and bathe in the radiance of Tyler’s strawberry glow.
As I sat turning this letter over and over in my hand and looking at that box marked no, I noticed these notes next to it, which said, “You’re ugly.” But I knew exactly what he meant. When he said I was ugly, he was talking about my broad nose and my crazy, dark, thick hair and the fact that I didn’t even have Adidas from, like, a real store. They’re the K-Mart kind with the two stripes. What Tyler Jackson didn’t realize that he had did was set me on a path of destroying all white men. I mean, not really destroying all white men, but I was definitely set to crumble some hearts.
A year later, my next potential bu… bo… boyfriend, when I was in the fifth grade, was a guy named Jason McCleary. That’s not his real name. Okay, it’s totally his real name! I think he should know that because, you know, I’ve grown into quite the lovely lady. My skin is cleared up and I’ve really pulled my stuff together. Jason was everything I wanted in a man. He was white. I watched him every day and I imagined myself looking at him and just spending hours and hours and hours looking into his oceanic blue eyes and just talking about Megadeath and doing our hair together with hair spray. And I knew he was going to be my next boyfriend.
I also knew that if my Korean mother found out that I had a white boyfriend that I would be like “top notch, gal.” For example, my mother said to me that she didn’t care who I ever dated as long as he wasn’t Puerto Rican because my father was Puerto Rican. Also, she wanted him to be white.
Growing up in a small town in Virginia, I was the token “what are you girl.” It was, basically, that I didn’t know very many people of color. So, everyone who looked at me was like, “She’s not white and she’s not black. So, what are you?”
As a kid, it never really bothered me but as I was growing up and as a well-rounded adult, I look back at that and I wonder if that was really kind of the core of my problems. What are you? What are you? Is that the reason that I felt this need to be, like, neatly labeled and categorized and put into this box. Like, if I could do that, would it make me somehow justified or my presence or my life a r… given, uh, validation.
So, a year later I’m sitting at the desk again, looking at another note that says “no” and Jason flirting with Kim Cullerton, a petite, blonde, long hair girl. Kim Cullerton is not her real name. It totally is because she should know that she ruined my life.
Anyways, years and years later, because I didn’t date anyone in high school, I was afraid of being rejected. I was standing in my dormitory, my college dorm, when I hear this, “Come on, Liz, Elizabeth. You know you got it like that.”
I was standing with Tyrone, my new boyfriend. He wasn’t white. He was dark, dark, dark, dark with like this beautiful body and this Barry White voice.
And he looked at me and he’s like, “You know, guys, they got a thing for Asians. Latin girls too. You got it all. You know, you’ve got that thing, Elizabeth. You know, you got that thing.”
“Thing. What thing are you talking about? Why have I had this thing and no one’s ever told me about it? Did I catch that when I was in the gym bathroom without my flip flops? What is this thing, Tyrone? I wanna know and I need to know now.”
Tyrone laughed at me, he laughed at me ’cause he thought I was funny. He thought I was charming. He said that my hair was great and that a big, fat, broad nose looks good on me. He told me that it didn’t matter what I looked like because I had so much other stuff. But I definitely had that thing, whatever that thing was. He kissed me, and everything was wonderful.
The next day, I kept thinking to myself, “What am I doing? Why is it that I’ve been wanting to be white this whole time? You know, white like my friends, like the Keatons on Family Ties, like Olivia Newton-John. What was white going to make me that I wasn’t already?”
At that moment, Ty opened a whole world for me, where I could realize that there are so many beautiful, colored people that I could love. And he did the best thing for me. He made me realize that it doesn’t matter what my color was or what I… my features were like.
But that I had that thing and I like that thing. And I would always have that thing. His warmth and his honesty made me feel accepted and made me understand a lot about what I was going through.
Look, I still like white guys, especially, if they look like Ryan Gosling – even if they look like Seth Rogen. But my insecurities are no longer about my race or my face. But really, it’s about me finding the way to love who I want, when I want.
In this story, Rives Collins, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, recalls his work directing plays for children. He shares the discoveries the young people helped him make regarding the importance of representation on our stages and the significance of role models for our children.
Rives says he has two important teachers in the story. Who were those teachers and what did they help Rives discover?
What do you think Rives means by a ‘ME TOO’ moment? Why do you think they are important? What can happen if someone never experiences a ‘ME TOO’ moment?
Tell us about a time you experienced a ‘ME TOO’ moment. Has there ever been a time when you wished for such a moment even when there didn’t seem to be one?
Rives says he remembers the two important teachers to this day, but neither of them was a teacher in the traditional sense of the word. Tell us about a time you learned something significant from someone who wasn’t exactly a teacher? (a friend, a grandparent, a coach, etc.)
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman Multicultural Scenes for Young Actors by Craig Slaight and Jack Sharrar
Education and Life Lessons
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name’s Rives Collins. I teach at Northwestern University in the Department of Theater, where my specialization is theater for young audiences. So, this story, it’s going to take us back a ways. Back to the early 90s or so.
I directed a play for kids. “Androcles and the Lion,” is a crowd pleaser, the comedy. Androcles is known for plucking the thorn out of the paw of a lion and the lion later on returns that kindness. It’s a good story. It’s a story about friendship. And we were working with an organization called Urban Gateways. Urban Gateways would bus kids from underserved neighborhoods to our campus to see a play. And this student matinee was going really well. Kids were having a ball. They were laughing and cheering. And I remember, I noticed that all the kids in the audience, they were people of color and all the actors they were white. I noticed it. I didn’t think much of it. And then, ah, I had this thought. I thought maybe we’re sending the message to the children in the audience that someday they can grow up and come to Northwestern and be a student and be in a play and bring laughter to a whole new generation of kids. And I remember, feeling (and this is awkward to share this), I remember feeling, kind of self-satisfied. Like we were doing some kind of good deed. After the play, all the actors headed out into the lobby, still in costume, to greet the kids on their way to the buses. And when I got to the lobby I saw a huge crowd of kids had gathered around one actor. And I’m thinking to myself, “OK, so, which one of my actors has the charisma to gather a crowd like that? I think it’s probably Androcles. He’s the hero of the story. Nope he’s over there. So maybe it’s the lion. The lion’s the funny guy. He’s over there.”
So I’m wondering which one of my actors has the star power to collect a crowd like that. And as I walk across the lobby, I see. It’s our custodian. And he’s standing with his vacuum cleaner. And I want to be sure you don’t misunderstand. There’s nothing wrong with being a custodian. I believe there’s dignity in all work and not only was our custodian great at what he did, he took real pride in the fact that he’d helped his daughter through law school.
But as I saw him with all the friendly handshakes and high fives, I realized he was the only person of color that kids had seen since arriving at the university. And I understood that maybe I wasn’t sending the message that someday they could grow up and be a student at Northwestern. Maybe I was sending the message that someday they could grow up and they could come to Northwestern University and they could vacuum the floors. I never intended to send that message. Never, ever. But sometimes the things we intend and the things we actually do, they’re not the same.
Ok, so, fast forward with me a few years. I directed another play, “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.’ It’s based on kids books by Kevin Henkes and Lilly is a mouse. She likes to wear red, cowboy boots, to carry her purple plastic purse, she’s got a big imagination and she gets in trouble at school a lot. And the actress playing Lilly was a wonderful student, a college student named Niha. And after the performance, we had a question and answer period with the audience. And a little girl raised her hand and said, “I would like to ask the person pretending to be Lilly where she is from.”
And Niha told the truth, “I’m from New Jersey.” And she saw the palpable disappointment in the eyes of the child. So she added, “But my family came to America from India.”
And that’s when the little girl jumped up on her chair and she cried out, “Me too! Me too!” And the whole audience applauded and cheered.
And from this stage, Niha was beaming. And I learned something that stayed with me. I’ve worked to create those, “Me too,” moments ever since. I believe those moments of identification, they matter. It’s not enough to invite young people to our spaces as if they are tourists. As if they’re outsiders seeing a place where they don’t really fit in. I think instead, we want to create those empowering “Me too” moments that allow young people to imagine themselves being successful in this place. And helping them understand, in their bones, that they belong.
I’m grateful to two important teachers. One, a much loved custodian, and the other a little girl who once jumped up on her chair and cried out, “Me too!”
A story about Elizabeth, an “Army brat”, who must navigate the world for her Korean immigrant mother. Through this process she learns to stop being embarrassed by her mother and shifts to fighting for her.
How many of you are recent immigrants or have immigrant parents?
What are the daily struggles you have or that you see your parents and other family members going through?
If you have immigrant parents, are there times you are embarrassed by them? Can you share examples and reflect on from where the embarrassment comes?
What steps can you take to make you and/or your parents’ transition in America easier?
What do people who have been here longer need to understand and how can they be a support to new immigrants?
Learning a New Land by Carola Suarez-Orozco Korean Immigrants and the Challenge of Adjustment by Moon H. Jo
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, I’m Elizabeth Gomez. It was 1983 in Virginia. I was laying in my room in the dark with the covers over my head listening. She was yelling and I was only nine years old so I wasn’t really sure what to do. My mother and I had been here before, just listening to her struggling and screaming. I pull the covers tighter over my head when I heard, “Risa, Risa, you come here. You come here now!”
As I walked out of my sanctuary, my eyes widen and I slumped into the kitchen. She stood there in a polyester robe with a brown phone dangling from her hand.
“Risa, you speakie to him. He no understanding me.”
I stood there flushed with embarrassment, and took the phone from my mother’s hand, “Hello.”
“Could you just help us get your mom’s account number. We’d really like to help her.”
“Mom. What’s your account number?”
“Oh, you terr him, you terr him, jero-jero-sex-sex-four-eight-sex.”
“It’s 0-0-4-8-6.” (0-0-6-6-4-8-6)
“As I talked to this man, my mom walked around in the kitchen. She was pacing back and forth, getting angrier and angrier. She didn’t understand why Americans didn’t understand her when she spoke to them, especially because she’d been in this country for over a decade. I watched her pace through the kitchen, back and forth, her small Asian frame just blowing in and out, and in and out until she was rounded out like one of those monsters from Where the Wild Things Are.
After I completed the phone call, I hung up. I looked at my mom. This lady demon who was slowly morphing back into this four-foot-something Asian lady.
“Why they don’t understanding? Why don’t understanding me? I speakie good Engrish.”
I watched my mom sit at the kitchen table and I put my hand over hers. I looked at her as her face was beginning to worry and her body started to fill with self-doubt. At that moment, I decided I have… I had to stop. I had to stop running away and hiding and I had to really commit to being her English (Engrish) to Engrish (English) translator for the rest of my life. And it was always like that.
My father was a Puerto Rican-American, U.S. citizen, who served in the military. He met my mother in Seoul, Korea. They married; they had kids. Most of my mom’s life, as a military wife, was traveling abroad and she spent very little time in America. While she was here, she did okay. But when my dad was gone on duty or training missions, my mom had to make her way through and I was rela… relegated to just, basically, being her translator.
I spent tons of time just, like, watching her try to talk to sales people and clerks and merchants, just trying to get what she needed. It was like watching a Charlie Brown episode where the teacher’s talking to Charlie Brown and all Charlie Brown can hear is this muffled sound of nothingness. And I would just stand and watch my mom wave her hands around, and gesticulate, and try to convey what she needed, without being able to tell them in the way that they needed to hear it.
And every time, I’d be broken up with this sound, “Risa, Risa, you terring him, you terring him right now, Risa. You terring him, ‘Me want to buy fridgey.’”
“She wants to buy a fridge.”
“You terring him we need to move to Browning Street.”
“She wants you to know that we live on Brown Street.”
“You terring him, ‘It’s too expenses’.”
“She means it’s too expensive.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, she named me Elizabeth. She doesn’t even know how to pronounce Elizabeth, so she started calling me Lisa, which she also does not know how to pronounce. In addition to that, my mom would have to go to conferences, like, parent-teacher conferences, and those were the most embarrassing, humiliating, and petrifying moments of my life. There they were, these well-articulated, ecedga… educated teachers looking at my mom with these plastered smiles, just nodding their heads, trying to understand what she was saying.
And my mom is basically screaming at them, trying to convey, “Oh, Risa, she so razy.”
In addition, I couldn’t have any friends. Anyone who came into my house, got pinched by my mother when she would say things like, “Oh, you so fat!” Or, “Oh, why your eyes so big?”
Every single friend I ever made, who came to my house, basically, never came back and I accepted that. That was my life. I was gonna be the town recluse and I always was gonna have this rude mother.
Late one night, I could hear my mom talking to someone on the phone and it was my dad’s new girlfriend. I dropped my blanket and I walked to the wall that separated my room from my mother’s. And I could hear her just softly begging this woman to let my father go. And I heard her say, “Prease, prease go way. We have kids.”
I listened for a long time, and my heart started pounding as I felt for her. And I just listened, as she kept begging and begging. And I didn’t even really like my father and, up ’til that point, I’m not sure I liked my mother that much either. But at this moment, I felt what was going on with her, and I understood that this was painful. And I pressed my head closer against the wall as I listened to her hang up the phone and sob and cry. And I wanted to go to her but I couldn’t. I could just listen. And I did. I listened until I fell asleep to the sounds of what pain was for her.
A few, a few weeks later, after months of not seeing my father, I was really surprised when he came to pick up me and my brother to go to New York and see my grandmother. Not only was I surprised to see him, I was surprised that I was allowed to leave with him.
“I don’t wanna go.”
“Risa, you take good care of Ab-e. You be good girl, okay?”
“No! I don’t want to go.”
As we drove up to New York, my father stopped at a rest stop. He went to go use the phone booth. And as he was in the phone booth, I could tell that he was just being himself – super charming, and laughing, and flirtatious to someone on the phone. Eventually, he started walking toward our car, and I felt a little weird. And I wasn’t sure what was going on. So, he said for us to come over and, uh, talk to this person on the phone. And I pick up the phone and, huh, I hear this voice come over.
“And she says, “Hello, Elizabeth. It’s me, Jane, your dad’s friend. How are you?”
At that moment, all the anguish I had for my mother, the loss of my father, the not understanding of what had been going on with my whole family, this whole entire time came rushing at me. My heart pounded. My ears… like sounds of, like, waves came through my ears. And I felt nothing but anger when I replied, “I know you’re not my father’s friend. You’re his girlfriend! As a matter of fact, you keep calling my house, and I hate you for hurting my mother.”
And I hung up the pho… er, I dropped the phone and I ran back to the car. And I watched as my father, like, fumbled around with this phone and he’s spewing out apologies. And then he comes back to the car, he slams the door shut, and smacks me across my face. And he starts talking, just talking about something or another, and I have no idea what he’s saying because I don’t care. I just didn’t care.
All I knew was that, at that moment, I had been able to tell this woman the things that my mom wanted to say to her. And in some small way, this 9-year-old was able to score a big point for my mother.
After our trip was over, we came home. I could hear my mom and my dad arguing out in the front porch about this or that or what the kids knew or didn’t know. And I was pretty sure as I was standing in the kitchen, that when my mom came back, she was gonna spank me or discipline me for re… disrespecting my father. Instead, she walked in with these bloodshot eyes, mascara tears dried on her cheeks. She looked at me. She made me a bowl of hot ramen noodle soup. She smiled and then she went back into her bedroom.
I still translate for her to this very day, especially with my own family. I mean, huh, we’re still not used to the idea that when you get pinched, and to be told, “You’re fat,” that that actually means, “Hey, are you hungry?”
We’ve learned to communicate in ways of, like, laughter and shared experiences and gestures. And now, when my mom asks my husband and I if we’ve bought a condom, I know she means condo.
When in high school, Archy and his Thai family get into a fight about him dating a black girl. Years later, when Archy came out to his mother, he finds that his mother’s racial attitudes have conveniently changed.
What kind of discussions about race have you had with your family?
Have you ever dated outside of your “race” and how did your family feel about it?
How do you react when you feel like someone is being racist or spreading racist ideas?
Network TV Show: Fresh Off the Boat
The Namesake by Jumpia Lahiri The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
In this story, Ada Cheng explains the meanings of her Chinese name: Shu-Ju. She explains the connection between her name, her parents’ expectations for her as a daughter, and the cultural expectations for her as a daughter. She details why she chose to stay with the name Ada and what Ada means to her life and her identity.
Hi! I’m Ada Cheng. Ada Cheng. Let me start with my original name. I was born in Taipei, Taiwan and I was born Chen Shu-Ju. In Taiwanese culture and some of the Asian cultures, Cheng, we put our last name in the first place so Cheng is the family name. Shu-Ju, um, that’s my given name. In Taiwanese culture, when parents give children their names, uh, it represents, uh, their expectations in terms of what they want and what they hope for their future. It can be about their life; it can be about their career. Shu-Ju. Shu, the character means like a lady. Ju means good luck.
So, I can just imagine my mother going to a fortuneteller and trying to find the right characters for me. Um, and, eh, she would probably talk to my father. “I think it would be great if we give our daughter, uh, this wonderful name and we hope that she will be gentle and… and… and quiet and polite and respectful. Like a lady with a lot of good luck.
So, now imagine my being a little girl, like a tomboy. And then my parents’ expectation was that they wanted me to be respectful, polite, quiet and… and gentle like a lady and I didn’t like my name when I was growing up. Um, here’s the thing, this is what my mother’s… as I was growing up, this is what my mother would say, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! You got to wash dishes. You… you’re a girl; you have to help out in the kitchen. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! Close your legs! You’re a girl! Come on, you can’t do that anymore. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! You can’t beat up your brother. He’s a boy. You’re a girl! Ah, Shu-Ju, what’s going on with you? You can’t run around naked anymore. You’re a girl! Ah, you can’t play with boys. Please do not talk back!”
Let sink that, think, sink that, sinking for a while. I grew up like playing, running around, tomboy, climbing, liked to climb trees, climb things, fight with boys. And as I was growing up, I hated my name because how did you… could you convince me to love a name that I knew I was going to fail my parents’ expectations. That there was no way for me to fake it, right! Often time you fake it until you make it! There’s no way. For me to know I can fake it until I make it. And… and there’s no way for me to… when I was a little girl, I thought there… there’s no way for me to make it as a woman in this society.
And I rebelled; I refused to do anything required me as a girl. Um… which also very interesting is that I… my mother also gave me another nickname. Um, in Mandarin, it’s called Zhi Da Bien. In Taiwanese, it’s called Gay Sei. In… in English, it’s called Chicken Poop! That’s right! My mother called me Chicken Poop. Eh… and it was… so, um, I asked my mother, “Why would you call me such name?”
And she say, “Because you were so small; just like a chicken poop, right?” She thought it was very, very endearing to call me this. Um… ah, she didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. But the thing when… as I am older and think back, would she call my brother such a name?
So, I remember when I was 8 years old and I was playing with, uh, neighborhood children. And I was the smallest one in the neighborhood but I was the one, the strongest one with the strongest opinions. I liked to order people around and I would say, “Line up! Do this and do that!” So, often time, after school the children would just stand there and play. So I remember that day, that close to dinnertime, and I was gathering people and say, “Hey, hey, hey! Please, uh, gather up, we’re gonna play the game (whatever the game was). We’re gonna play again!”
And as I was ordering people around and, uh, I was the smallest one, my mother suddenly appear at the door and then she said, “Zhi Da Bien, Zhi Da Bien! Shi wăncān!” So, the English translation is “Chicken Poop, Chicken Poop, it’s time for dinner!”
And I just froze! And I turn around and I look at my mother and I was exasperated. I was being authority figure, standing in front of a group calling the shot and then, I say, “Five minutes, give me five minutes!” Ah! In my back, I heard children giggling, right! And when I turn around, the kids just started to laugh at me. “Ah, Zhi Da Bien, Zhi Da Bien, right! Your name is Chicken Poop, Chicken Poop! And then I was… I just… I was so mad! I was so frustrated! And I… I just left. I ran away. I said, “You know, I’m not going to play with you guys!” and left.
And when I went home, I finished dinner and I didn’t talk to my mother. And that was pretty much the day I kind of lost my status in the neighborhood. I mean, think about it, how many boys will want to play with a girl and to be ordered around by a girl whose name is Chicken Poop, right! Um, and I realize nobody wanted to play with me. Um, when my mother saw me this small or given me this small… um, and later on, uh, you know, my mother and I, ah, my family and I – we stopped talking with each other.
And, um, because I was trying to be my own person, um, wanted to search my own life, um… And it was actually October, 1976, I was in junior high school. We… everyone started to learn English and so one day when I’m home, we have this very small dictionary. And I thought if I started to learn English, I am going to have an English name so I can immerse myself in with… into the environment so I flipped through the dictionary. I found this name list and I looked through the names. In our textbooks, we have Mary, we have Susan, we have… have all these names. I thought I got to find a name that nobody has heard. So, I looked through it and I saw the name… I saw Ada, right! Ada is for the first place, the first name listed under the alphabet A. And I looked at it and I thought, “That’s it, Ada! That’s the name for me!”
Because at the age 12, the only thing I want to be was number one. So, I thought I wanted to pick the name Ada so I could be number one then and number one forever. So, I pick that name and I stick with it, uh, forever. And I started to introduce myself to everyone as Ada and that’s the important part is that when I picked that name, I also wrote a different story for myself. Thank you.
In this story, Ada Cheng explores her experience with the U.S. citizenship ceremony. She discusses the institutionalized vulnerability that immigrants are subject to during the process of becoming Americans. She also compares her experience as a naturalized citizen with that of one of her invited guests, an older African American man.
I’m Ada Chen. So, um, after being a green card holder for 10 years, I finally decided to apply for American citizenship last year. And two weeks after I did my citizenship interview, I received a notice from the Citizenship and Immigration Services of Homeland Security (and I have to say that clearly) and notifying me that my citizenship application was approved and my swear in ceremony was on May 27th, 2015. Um, and I was excited. I was very excited! Um, I have to say, though, my citizenship application was absolutely smooth.
Uh, the only problem I had was the way the USCIS staff handle the mail. They actually mailed it out without sealing the envelope. Um, so, the notice with my legal name, social security number, green card number, uh, and address was sticking out of, the… out of the envelope in the mailbox and I was just floored. I thought, you know, what if… what if this – one of the most important documents -was lost. Um, but, uh, you know I’m just excited. So, I invited my partner… and my then partner and the chair of my department at the university where I was a faculty member to, uh, join me for this important event. Um, and on May 27th, we arrived at the USCIS building right before 1:00 p.m. Um, we got through the security check, um, took off our shoes, went through it and I, actually had to throw away my, uh, camera and recorder because they would not allow any kind of recording, uh, devices. And we went up to the third floor and there was a open waiting area and a lot of people were waiting there. And so, after half an hour I was called to stand in line… all of the people who, uh, will be sworn in that day. So, we were standing in line, standing in line and moved to a bigger, uh, ceremony hall.
Uh, and so, as we walked toward, uh, the ceremony hall, there was a long desk, uh, right at the entrance of the ceremony hall and three agents were sitting there. Um, so, the first agent took my green card and my notice. And the second agent examined the documents and threw them into the big yellow envelope, and a third agent took my name off the list.
And then my heart sank when I turned in my green card. Uh, this was, actually the only legal documentation in my possession to prove that I was documented or shall we say the term legal in this country. And I didn’t bring my alien ID with me so I didn’t have any, uh, ID that day to prove where I was. But then the thing is that it really didn’t matter because any form of ID would not prove, uh, your legal status.
So, at that moment I was without legal documentation and I became illegal in a moment! So, I started to panic when I walking to the big hall. And you have hundreds of immigrants like me… had already been seated. None of us had any… none of us had any legal documentation. And I have to say, I was, uh… it was very, very scary to be with hundreds of people in that big room and it was as if we were waiting for our collective sentence. We’re just waiting for them to process people and, theoretically, um, without any documentation, we could be arrested. Um, locked up and deported. Right? Right there and then.
And then I started to think. Okay, deported back to where? I’m from Taiwan originally. I was born there 52 years ago. Um, I came to this country 25 years ago. The last time I went back was 17 years ago. So, my question I asked myself, “Where is home? Right?” Um, I still have family there and it hasn’t been home for more than two decades. Um, so, going back there, is not necessarily going home. It has been… I’ve been away for two decades. But then that’s what raise the question, “Then is Chicago home?”
Um, so, I was sitting there. And every time an agent walked toward me, I panic because I started to wonder, okay. “You have so many people that are undocumented in one room. Is this just a trap? Right? Is the Asian walking toward me and are they going to tell me, ‘Okay. There’s something wrong with your application. We change our mind about naturalizing you, right?’ ” is… I would… they are going to say and did not believe me when I indicated on the application form. I told him during the interview and the list of questions that he asked, for example. Um, well, I didn’t engage in genocide. I didn’t torture anybody. I was not a Communist… Communist. I was not a terrorist. I did not intend to overthrow U.S. government. I was not a gambler. Uh, I was not an alcoholic. Uh, I did not force anyone to have sex and I did not solicit sex.
And so, these are the list of questions that, uh, the immigration, um, officers will ask you when they… during the interview. And I just started to wonder, wow, are they not going to believe me and, uh, are they going to change their mind. So, then I was starting to think, well, if that happens, uh, what is going to happen. Uh, but then after a while, I saw my friends coming and, uh, they took their seat. And the USCIS director went up to the podium and say we will start, uh, the ceremony. So, we started the ceremony.
The ceremony included, uh, watching documentaries, uh, eh, and we have to pledge loyalty to the flag. Uh, listen to speeches and, uh, then we, uh, received our certificate of naturalization. One thing I have to say, though, during the ceremony, the documentary talked about how it was that we, like generations of immigrants… that we were so fortunate to come to this country and, uh, escaped war and poverty, uh, and political and religious repression and to receive American citizenship. I actually felt very terrible that I invited, uh, the chair of my department who was 70 year-old African-American man. Um, at that time, many people were protesting the police brutality in the United States, um, and his ancestors didn’t come to this country voluntarily. And when I was thinking about this, that war is not just out of the United States… it is right here in the United States. And so, for me when I was celebrating, um, he was not necessarily celebrating with me. Um, and I feel very ambivalent about that. Um, but eventually I received a certificate, um, of naturalization and when I got home, I immediately locked it up in the safe because that was now the only legal documentation to prove I was a legitimate American citizen. And, believe it or not, a few weeks ago when I applied for affordable care health insurance, they, actually asked for numbers from that documentation, um, when I identified myself as a naturalized citizen. So, this kind of thing never ends even after you become naturalized. Um, but, regardless, I have to say I’m very excited about the process and it has been a long journey to become American.
If a story plays a part in your identity – what is it and why do you use it to state who you are? Is there more than one story we can use to claim or identify who we are?
What is your family migration story? Does it matter or not?
What are some of the challenging moments in your life? How did you handle them? Could the challenges you faced and the solutions you created be a story that you tell?
Can you describe the story of a world you’d like to see and live in?
Idi Amin: Lion of Africa by Manzoor Moghal
Immigrants Settling in the City: Ugandan Asians in Leicester by Valerie Maret
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
So, my name is Kiran Singh Sirah. And this story is about my parents.
How do you eat a mango? You hold a mango in your hands, you caress it, you squeeze it, and you soften the pulp from the mango, and then you suck out the juice from the middle. I know how to eat mango because my parents told me how to eat a mango. They came to Britain in 1972 from Uganda as Ugandan refugees, and I was born in England. But they told me how to eat the mango because that’s what they did in Uganda. Mangoes flourished in their garden. And we eat mangos every day. But there are so many other stories from Uganda and Kenya.
There were stories about how my mother, when she grew up, she was sitting in an elementary classroom, and, she picked… a cobra, walked into, came into the classroom, and she picked up a hockey stick and killed the cobra. And still to this day, that cobra is in a jar and in the school museum with a label on it, “Killed by Pravina Korga Tora.” There were so many other stories from East Africa, from Kenya, and Uganda, where my family grew up. Stories about how they’d make popcorn and go to the drive-in cinema. Or stories of how they would pick food from the garden and make bugga or baquarda, bagia. Or how they make African food and combine that with Indian ingredients like ugali.
There was even a story once that my mother told me that the Bisaya people used to come on trains with vegetables and fruit and sell these vegetables to the houses. And one day, a young boy was knocking at the door to sell vegetables. And my grandma opened the door and invited this young boy in. And he became a friend of the family and as he grew up with my mother.
There was a story about my grandfather that one day, he looked out and he saw so many people walking past thirsty, they had no water. So, he went out with his own hands, he built a well so they could drink fresh clean water. There are many stories such as this and I know them because my parents told them to me and I had never been to Uganda.
But in 1972, in the summertime, Idi Amin, the then dictator of Uganda, announced on public radio, that Ugandan Asians had to leave the country in three months or they be executed. Now, you can imagine the panic. People were scared. But they had no time to fuss around. They had to pack up what they could, put their possessions into bags, and then leave the country, or obtain the visas so they could leave the country. A sociologist once described my people as the thrice migrant community. A community of people that had migrated across three continents in one lifetime. Thousands fled the borders. Some moved back into Kenya or Malawi or Tanzania. Well, my family were kind of lucky because they were born as British citizens. Originally, my grandparents came from India to East Africa to build the railroads from Mombasa to Jinja, the source of the Nile. The British needed the British railroads to keep control of the British Empire. They needed an access from the sea to the source of the Nile, to keep control of the Suez Canal. So, they sent for migrant Indian skilled workers to do this. And when it became an independent country, both Kenya and Uganda, the Ugandan Asians, they stayed and they settled and made Uganda their home.
On route to Britain, though, in the winter of 1972, things weren’t all that rosy. When the plane tried to land at Luton Airport, the airport was stormed by far right fascist groups that tried to stop the immigrants from coming into the country. And this was spurred by Enoch Powell’s “The Rivers of Blood” speech. Enoch Powell was a politician that talked about the blood of migrants is going to ruin our country. Many of the refugees settled in refugee camps. But my father got word, because he was a young architect in Uganda, that sister branch in a town called Eastbourne, sent word that any Ugandan refugees that were going to come to England had a promise of a job. So, my parents moved to Eastbourne.
The front page of the headline of the Eastbourne Herald Newspaper read, Uga, “Eastbourne Welcomes Ugandan Refugees,” and there was a picture on it of my parents. A young, cool Indian couple. My father wore a bright red turban. My mum even, even bright red sari and they carried a little baby, my older brother.
Eastbourne was where they grew up. It was also where I was born. It was a town that welcomed my family in. There was so many stories about those early years. I remember, my dad told me once, when he was walking down the Eastbourne promenade, a young boy called out, “Look mum, aliens!” My dad loves to tell that story. I once asked my dad what was it like. You left Uganda at gunpoint. You came to England, you had, your plane had to reroute. You started a new life. You had no possessions, no houses, hardly any money. The only money they brought into the country was jew… wedding jewelry, stuffed into my brother’s diaper. They had to start life from scratch. Must’ve been really difficult.
And my dad was like, “No, Son, it was fun. It was an adventure. And you know why? Because we’re doing it together. We had a sense of community. We helped each other out.”
When they came to Britain, alls they had was minimal possessions but what they did have was the power of the stories that are passed on to them and the power of stories that they passed on to me. I’m so grateful for the stories that were passed on to me by my parents. And the strength and this belief that I believe. That to tell a story in this world is more than a human right. It’s actually an act of love that can change the world. And I’m grateful for the stories that have changed my world and made me realize the person I could be.
Kiran reveals the experiences of living between two worlds: on one hand, his experiences with racism being one of the few brown boys in his town contrasted with the kindness of strangers as well as the inspiration he received from his storyteller teacher, Mr. George.
My name is Kiran Singh Sirah. And this story is for my teacher Mr. George.
I was born in 1976, in a summer heat wave. In a town called Eastbourne. My mother called me Kiran. Kiran which means in Sanskrit, light from the sun. The town I was born in was on the south coast of England, about 80,000 people. I was the first person of color born in that town. On a clear day, you could look out to the sea and you could see France. “Bonjour,” I would say sometimes. And I imagine people back saying, “Hello.” There were so many stories about growing up. It was a good place to grow up. It was a nice town. There was good things that happened. We used to go out for ice cream. We would go down to the seaside. We used to go to and sit on blue and white deck chairs and listen to the bandstand. We would even eat a lot of the fish and the crab sticks. And we used to be a lot of family gatherings.
But then there was the bad side. There was a lot of racism going on at that time. Spurred by Enoch Powell and the far-right fascist groups. The skinhead punk, the green bomber jackets, the Dr. Martin boots. They used this word called “Paki.” It was a horrible word to use. It doesn’t matter what co… where we came from; we could be from Pakistan or India or just brown skinned. They just refer to all of us as Pakis and they’d go out Paki bashing. For us, it’s like the N-word. That’s how we felt. It wasn’t so much about when someone… I’d would leave the house and I’d feel like I have to be on my guard. And it wasn’t the hurt that came to me. It was when I heard someone use that word against my parents, my mother or my father or my brother.
One day when I was about five or six years old, and I remember this vividly, I woke up in the living room on the couch. I’d been knocked out. I didn’t know where I was. My memory just before that, as I was cycling around my BMX bike and a punk had knocked me out. He’d gone Paki bashing. But my mother told me that this old lady, old white lady, had seen what happened. And she picked me up and she took me home. Racism existed in our, in our community. As I said, there was good and there was bad. But sometimes, it was just very difficult to understand why I felt so different. Why was I being treated different? Some of these people called my people the smelly Curry people. The people that worship lots of gods. We’re somehow different and sometimes made to feel really different. I couldn’t concentrate in the school classrooms. I found it really hard to focus. But that was until my head teacher, in the classroom assemblies, started to tell stories.
Mr. George was an older white man. He wore a tweed jacket and always wore a kind face. He told us folk and traditional stories from all over the world. And one day, he told us story about a prince. This worldly prince that gave up all his worldly riches and went out into the world to explore the world and to meet the people of the world. We took two objects with him, a cup and a toothbrush. And one day, he looks out and he sees this man break a twig from a from, a tree and starts chewing it and release these juices that start to clean his teeth. And he realized, I don’t need my toothbrush. And he threw it away. And then, he looked out again and he saw someone bent double, by a river, and used their hands and they cup their hands together and poured out a scoop of water and then drink the water from their hands. So, he threw away his cup, realizing he don’t need that too.
But then one day, he tells us the story about someone that really inspired him throughout his lifetime and that man was called Nelson Mandela. He told us how he remembers him as a chubby man going into prison for his beliefs. But then, over the years, were the images that were coming from South Africa, was this man that had gotten thinner, he’d become wiser, he’d become calmer. And he was promoting messages of peace, of unity. Not just to unite the people of South Africa from all different backgrounds and races and ethnicities, but to unite the world. He was like the conscience of the world.
From Mr. George’s stories, he was connecting me to the wisdom of these folk and traditional tales to know that we can go anywhere in the world. We don’t need the objects. We just need our human bodies. And he’s also connecting us to the idea of social justice and equality and that we actually belong and we’re part of the world around us. I now live in Tennessee, in Jonesborough, Tennessee and I oversee the work of the international storytelling center. My job is to advocate for the power of stories to change people’s lives and to enrich people’s lives. But then I realized last year, now living in the States, I haven’t actually thanked the person that inspired me to tell stories and to think about life in this way. So, I contacted my old elementary school back in Eastbourne. I looked them up. Phoned up the school and I asked about Mr. George, where his whereabouts. They told me that he’s now retired. He’s doing well still. And, uh, but he’s there… in touch with his daughter Claire George.
A few months back, I got an email from Claire George. Never met Claire, his daughter. And Claire had said that she had printed out the articles. She’d Googled me. And she used these articles to speak to Mr…. her… Mr. George, her father. And all the articles I’d written about Mr. George and talked about what I’m up to. A few weeks back, I received a letter in the post addressed to me at the International storytelling center. And guess who it was from? It was from Mr. George. Mr. Len George. I’d never known his first name. In the letter, he talks about how he remembers me but not just me, he remembers my mother. He remembers the house that I grew up in. He remembers my character, and he remembers, and he’s so proud of me, he said in the letter, of what I’ve achieved and what I’m doing now. And he also studies, still telling stories.
It’s been 30 years since I’ve had any contact with Mr. George. But I know that I owe so much to this teacher, this great teacher, for inspiring me and make me think about the world and how it can also teach. Storytelling is such a powerful teaching tool to enrich other people’s lives. The fact that we don’t need any props or things or objects to experience the world just like that prince in that story. All we really need are the stories. And ultimately, the fact that, we can be the story that we want to see in the world. That was for Mr. George.
Searching for a resource for Japanese American experiences in World War II relocation camps? Alton Chung tells the true story of his journey and encounter with an 89 year old former internee who made her first visit after 66 years. This personal and challenging story is food for thought for all of us.
Alton Chung relates the true story of his journey to the Minidoka Relocation Camp site at Hunt, Idaho and of his encounter there with an 89 year old former internee. She was 23 years old when she left this Japanese American incarceration camp and this was her first visit back to the site after 66 years.
Touring the old camp evokes emotions and thoughts of loved ones and life at Minidoka during World War II. The internee shares personal memories of that time and how the internment affected her life. The story provides a view of relocation camps that allows us to experience the difficulties encountered and, hopefully, encourages us to think differently about others.
Create a webquest (an online scavenger hunt) for students to uncover information about incarceration camps
Visit a WWII museum
Write journal prompts for students to respond to daily.
Watch the video now
Explore our many other RaceBridges videos for
Asian American Month or any other time of the year.
A Short Video Story
by Anne Shimojima
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if the government had imprisoned your entire family? For Anne Shimojima, this was the experience of her grandparents and their children. In this touching story, Anne tells of what life was like behind the barbed wire fences and the inadequate housing. Looking past what is unspoken, Anne reveals details of life for Japanese Americans in incarceration camps during WWII.
Curious as to her family’s experiences in incarceration camps during WWII, storyteller Anne Shimojima explains how she uncovered details to her family’s past. For whatever reason, many Japanese Americans do no talk about their experiences during this time. Anne was able to dig into her family history and speak with relatives who then shared details of what life was like in these camps.
Armed with a deeper and more personal understanding of what her grandparents had endured in the incarceration camp, Anne reveals a hidden world when she is able to describe the camp itself. She explains how she was brought closer to her grandparents and better understands the indignities they suffered, the sacrifices they made, and the hopes they had for future generations.
Invite grandparents of students to come to class and share a story from their life
Explore geneology or create a family tree
Watch videos or read literature the helps students to better understand historical events..
Watch the video now
Explore our many other RaceBridges Studio videos and lessons
Immigrant Story: a Chinese Family in the US
A Short Video Story by Nancy Wang
RaceBridges pays tribute to the many Asian Americans who have helped build and enrich America. Nancy Wang paints a true life picture of her Chinese American immigrant family’s struggles and ingenuity in the Monterey, CA area. This story is a great resource for understanding the contributions of Asian American immigrants to America.
This story follows the journey of Nance Wang’s ancestors who arrived in California on a junk boat in 1850 and the adversities encountered along the way to America. Upon arriving, Nancy’s family started the fishing industry of the Monterey Peninsula, which proved to be lucrative but not without opposition. Both legal and illegal violence ensued against them for generations.
Although America was a land of opportunity, unfair regulations and restrictions caused great difficulties for the hard-working Chinese Americans. This story reveals how a group of immigrants rallied with resilience and ingenuity so that the 7th generation of Chinese Americans thrives today.
The unimaginable challenges faced by Nancy’s family in this true story are thought-provoking and provide insight for us to appreciate our differences as well as make changes in how we think of others. With understanding, we can feel their pain and change our world for the better.
The stories offered here—Immigrant History and Mom’s Story—come from Chinese American storyteller, Nancy Wangs longer story Bittersweet: A Chinese American Daughter’s Legacy. In this story, Wang explores the history of her own family, beginning with the immigration of her great-great-grandparents from China to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.
This lesson plan uses two stories by Nancy Wang, a dancer, storyteller, playwright, and practicing psychotherapist. Wang studies ethnic dance and has written plays focused on Asian American themes. The stories offered here—Immigrant History and Mom’s Story—come from her longer story Bittersweet: A Chinese American Daughter’s Legacy. In this story, Wang explores the history of her own family, beginning with the immigration of her great-great-grandparents from China to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Through this story of her own family history, Wang uncovers the generations of discrimination against Chinese immigrants—both stealth and legally sanctioned—as she explores the relationship in her family, including her own relationship with her mother.
This unit comes with a teacher guide, text of stories & audio-download of stories as well as student activities.
To expose students to the experience of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century.
To explore the little-known history of exclusion of and discrimination against Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries.
To examine the connections between family history and personal development.
By the end of this lesson, each student will:
Be familiar with the tension among immigrants in California in the 19th and early-20th century.
Understand why marginalized groups might exploit and oppress each other rather than working together to achieve their rights.
Need help to download the MP3 Story Excerpts? Click here for directions.
About Storyteller Nancy Wang
Nancy Wang, together with her storyteller husband Robert Kikuchi-Ynogo founded Eth-Noh-Tec in 1982. This is is a kinetic story theater company based in San Francisco, weaving [tec] together distinctive cultural elements of the East and West [eth] to create new possibilities [noh]. Eth-Noh-Tec produces and performs contemporary presentations of traditional folktales from the many countries and cultures of Asia through storytelling, theater, dance, and music. Nancy Wang is available for performances in schools and colleges solo, or with her husband as Eth-NohTec.
What is it like to be so immersed in a culture that a lady on the bus becomes your adopted “Aunt” and a bus driver your “Brother? While Arianna Ross travelled alone through Indonesia, she discovered that sometimes family is defined by a connection and not blood. Many days Arianna lived with only the support of total strangers. Witness the similarities and differences between Arianna’s culture and theirs.
How do the people in the island of Banda Aceh, Indonesia define family?
When the police stopped the bus that Arianna was on and searched people, what were they looking for and how did “strangers” protect Arianna?
Folk Tales From Bali and Lombok by Margaret Alibasah
Folk Tales from Indonesia by Dra Aman
Education and Life Lessons
Living and Traveling Abroad
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
My name is Arianna Ross and I am a storyteller who has lived all over the world. During this journey, this story, I was living in Indonesia. It was two o’clock in the morning and I was exhausted.
The police officers had been getting on our bus every 30 minutes on the dot. I was taking the bus from Banda Aceh all the way to Medan and every 30 minutes the bus would stop. The doors were open. A police officer would get on the bus. He would walk up the bus. He would walk down the bus with his AK 47 in his hands and then he would walk off the bus… and the bus would begin again.
Usually the bus driver, he would check the people on the bus to make sure that we were OK. He would smile. He would nod his head as if to say, “Are you ok?”
I always responded with a nod back, “I’m fine.”
At two o’clock in the morning, I pulled my sarong over my hand and I leaned up against the Plexiglas window and I fell asleep for one hour.
Suddenly I felt this stabbing sensation in my arm. I heard the sound of my name being shouted and I heard the sound of a man speaking to me in a language I didn’t understand Acehnese. (I spoke Indonesian). Then suddenly, a soft voice broke through the screams. It was the woman sitting in front of me; she was saying, “It’s ok, my child. He just wants to see your passport.”
I took the sarong off my head. I reached inside my money belt and I handed my passport to the man. He swung his AK 47 in front of my face and he reached out to grab my passport, flipping through it, reading out names of countries I’ve been to and then he threw my passport back at me and turned and walked off the bus.
The bus driver, before sticking keys in the engine, he turned and he looked at me. “Are you OK?”
And I responded, “I’m fine.”
All of the people on the bus, they all seemed to be looking at me asking me with their eyes and their smiles, “Are you OK?”
And I responded, “I’m fine.”
The woman sitting in front of me, she was in full burka, black from head to toe. She smiled, her eyes peeking through her face, masked by the black. “It’s ok, my child, your Indonesian family is here to protect you.”
I reached inside my money belt and I took out a tiny turtle, one that was made out of seashell and coconut shell and I held it in my hand. I closed my fingers around it and I took a deep breath in… and I let it out…
I remembered what my adopted brother had told me. You see, I had been living on the island of Pulau Weh, just north of the city of Banda Aceh. I had been living in a home right next to my adopted little brother. He became my adopted little brother because his mother used to feed me on a daily basis. She invited me to their home for breakfast, lunch or dinner and the last night I was there, she cooked all of my favorite foods.
She made coconut soup, pumpkin curry and a special sticky rice dessert. And at the end of the meal, he took me out to the beach and he handed me that turtle. “Look down! What do you see?”
“Uh, uh. Family! A connection! If you ever need anything at all, just think of us. Hold that turtle in your hand and take a deep breath in and let it out.”
I held that turtle in my hand all night long as I packed, even as I walked the next day to the docks where I was taking the boat to Banda Aceh to catch the bus. I sat down in my seat and I thought to myself, “Saya mau sendirian. I wish to be alone.”
I managed to be alone for approximately 30 seconds before I felt this soft tapping sensation on my arm. I turned and I looked. It was this woman, she was in full burka, head to toe, in black. She held in her hand a dragon’s egg. Not a real dragon’s egg. It’s a type of fruit from Indonesia. The outside is a thick, hot pink leather and the inside, a delicious white fruit. “kau mau mau makan,” she said to me.
“No. Saya mau sendirian. I wish to be alone.”
“Kau mau mau makan. you wish to eat!” I realized that there was no arguing with her so I began to share her fruit. And before I knew it, we were talking. And then she looked at me. “You look exactly like my daughter.”
Huh! I was wearing khaki pants and a tie-dyed T-shirt. “How did I look like her daughter?”
“My daughter, she’s the first one in her family, in my family to go to Banda Aceh University. She is now an English teacher.” Before I knew it, we had actually reached the city of Banda Aceh.
We stepped off of the boat and I reached down to grab my bags and say goodbye. When I felt this hand on my arm, this grip on my wrist. “Come, I take you to the bus stop!”
“No, it’s okay. I can go by myself.”
“T, t, t, t, t, t, t, t, I take you!”
I followed her down this long maze of roads through the marketplace. We stopped in a sarong shop. She needed to buy something for her daughter. In the end, she just bought one item… for me. It was a beautiful sarong with flowers all over it and then she handed it to me. She told me, “It’s for your daughter.”
“I don’t have a daughter, Auntie!”
“You will; one day you will have a daughter! This sarong is blessed by the imam, the highest of holy men in the mosque. He does not care that your child is not Muslim. He blesses all children.”
I packed that sarong neatly in my backpack and I followed her out the marketplace to the big bus stop to the ticket shop where I bought my ticket. The woman, Auntie, she explained to the man selling the tickets that I was her daughter and it was his responsibility to sell me the correct bus ticket. He explained to me that for his sister, he would do anything. He also explained that the bus wasn’t leaving for another four hours and if I so desired, I could sit next to him and wait. I didn’t have an opportunity to respond.
Auntie, she grabbed my hand and said, “Come, you eat dinner with me!”
Huh?” I found myself being dragged onto a little bus. I found myself getting off the little bus in what seemed like the middle of nowhere and there appeared to be a group of houses to the right and jungle to the left. The houses didn’t even look like they were complete. Auntie, she explained to me that her husband’s job was security. He watched all of the houses and when they were finished, they would move to a new location where he would protect the rest of the unfinished houses in Banda Aceh.
I had to duck in order to enter her house.
I noticed that there were no pictures on the walls. Just one poster in Arabic. I asked her what it said and she smiled. “It is a phrase about family, that strangers should be family and always welcome in your home.”
I asked her where exactly all the photographs were. I was used to my mother’s house where there are photographs everywhere. She pointed underneath the bed. There was a box. I took the box out and I started looking through the photographs and I found one of her daughter at her daughter’s graduation.
I asked her how her daughter was doing today and she grinned. “My daughter is perfect. You keep that photo.”
“Why would I keep this photo, it’s yours?”
“T, t, t, t, t, t! You keep the photo. I have the memory.”
I put that photo in my money belt. Before I knew it was time to catch the small bus back to the big bus stop.
She waved down a small bus and she explained to the small bus driver that I was her daughter. He nodded his head and said for his niece he would do anything and he did. He, actually stopped his bus at the big bus stop, something I never seen before. He got off the bus explaining to all the passengers that they would have to wait as he escorted me to the big bus stop.
He explained to my bus driver that I was his niece and that he, my new bus driver, was to make certain I arrived in Medan safely. The big bus driver nodded his head and explained to me that for his grandchild, he would do anything. Just before the bus leaved, just before he stuck the keys in the engine, he turned and… me… looked at me. Without any words, he seemed to ask me, “Are you okay?”
And I responded, “I’m fine.”
About three years later, I was sitting on my grandparents’ bed in Florida – Tampa, Florida, to be exact, when a news flash came on the television. News flash – tsunami hit Banda Aceh. I wrote down immediately the phone number at the bottom of the news flash.
I ran to the telephone and I began to call and call and call and call until, finally, I made it through. And when I did, the woman’s response was, “We have no idea if the island of Pulau Weh (that tiny island I lived on just north of Banda Aceh), if it even existed anymore.” And in terms of Auntie and Uncle, unless I had their address, there was no way that she could help me. I simply had to wait.
I couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to know what happened to Auntie. I didn’t have any way of communicating with her. No cell phone number, no nothing. But I did send an e-mail to my friends at Pulau Weh and I waited.
I finally received an email one month later. When the ground began to shake, the people in Pulau Weh ran up to the highest point on their island. Only one man died. He was trying to rescue his fishing boat. The rest survived. I went into my keepsake box and I found the turtle and the photograph. I put them together in my hands. I took a deep breath in… and I remembered and I had hope that Auntie was okay.
“Ranger Linda” describes her encounter with a group of well-intentioned Chinese Americans bearing bullfrogs. This surprising incident illustrates how cultural differences can have unintended consequences and how cultural awareness can lead to greater understanding and a better outcome for all.
Hi, I’m Linda Yemoto. And for many years I worked as a park naturalist at a nature center in the hills of Berkeley, California. And I want to share with you an incident that happened and that brought home to me how cultural differences and beliefs and practices can have unintended environmental consequences. But first I begin with a very brief folktale.
Long, long ago in China, a Buddhist monk was traveling from temple to temple. One day, his travels took him deep into the forest where he came upon a small, wild pig that had been captured in a hunter’s trap. Now, the pig was squealing and squealing with fear. And the monk felt compassion for the pig and so, he released it. Now, according to the laws of the time, that monk was guilty of theft. Now, when the matter was brought to the attention of the Buddha, the Buddha pondered for a bit and then said, “According to the Dharma, the teachings, the monk is not guilty for he acted out of compassion.” And that simple act of releasing the pig over hundreds and hundreds of years became a Buddhist practice called fang sheng. The releasing into the wild of an animal that would otherwise be eaten.
Now, fast forward about 2,000 years, a Saturday, in February 1994, five minutes until closing time. As the naturalist on duty at the Nature Center that day, it had been pretty busy. Lots of nature walks and snake talks and puppet shows. And we were ready for the day to be over. We were just about ready to lock the glass doors of the nature center, when a visitor came rushing in from outside rather out of breath saying, “There’s a big group of Asian-Americans walking down the road to Jewel Lake.”
“OK,” I thought.
“They’re carrying two big, cardboard boxes.”
“OK,” I thought.
“Full of bullfrogs.”
“Oh, no,” I thought.
“And they’re going to release them into the lake.”
“Oh, no!” So, I asked Lauren, one of our interpretive student aides to lock up the building. Eveline, the other one, and I jumped into the park truck, drove down to the lake as quickly as we could. And all the time I’m thinking, “What the heck do they think they’re doing? Don’t they know bullfrogs are not native to California? Don’t they know what’s going to happen when they release them? Oh, I hope I can get here on time.”
So, we parked the truck and strode up to the lake and sure enough there were probably 20 or more Chinese Americans standing around the edge of the lake. They were chanting; they were singing. They were looking very happy for all these bullfrogs that were hopping around their feet and swimming away across the lake.
“Who’s in charge here?” I asked.
“Ah, I guess, I am,” a middle-aged man approached me. “Ah, why?”
“Ah, well,” I said. “I guess you didn’t realize that bullfrogs are not native to California and when you release them into an environment like this, they can completely decimate our little native Pacific Chorus frog population. You see, bullfrogs can get as big as dinner plates. And they will swallow anything they can get their mouths around. So, there go our frogs, our snake, our fish.”
“Oh, no!” said the man. “We didn’t know! We had no idea. But,” he said, “we didn’t release the turtles that we bought.”
“Oh, good,” I said. “What do you mean, ‘turtles that you bought?’”
“Well, we went down to Oakland, Chinatown, to two different markets.” And they bought as many bullfrogs as they could possibly afford. And then they brought them down to Jewel Lake to release, in celebration of Chinese New Year. They were practicing fang sheng.”
“Oh,” I said. “How many bullfrogs do you think you bought?”
“Oh, maybe two hundred,” he said.
With much apologies, they said they would take their turtles and they would leave the park. They didn’t look like they wanted to touch the bullfrogs, much less help us recapture them. But Eveline and I looked at each other and looked at all these frogs hopping about and some of them did not look too good. They’re kind of hopping sideways and flipping over. And you can capture some of them pretty easily. So, she and I decided that the best thing to do would be, we had to recapture as many bullfrogs as we could that night before they had a chance to recover.
Now, luckily, Eveline’s family lived close to the park and they owned two kayaks. So, she rushed home to get the kayaks. I went back to the office and called my family, told my husband what had happened. He turned to our two boys, their ages 7 and 4 at the time, and said “Hey, do you want to help your mom catch bullfrogs tonight?”
“Yeah!” they said. So, they came on down.
I think we spent six hours on the lake that night. Eveline and Lauren were in the kayaks. They were each holding a flashlight in their teeth. And they were paddling slowly around the lake When they’d spot a bullfrog they’d shine the light in its eyes, which stuns it. They’d put down the paddle, pick up a long-handled net and scoop the bullfrog out of the water. And then they’d stick it in a garbage bag, which was at their feet inside the kayak.
Now, that worked pretty well until I saw the bullfrogs started getting loose. And I could hear them across the lake, “Ooo, aaah, ooof!” I was in a small flat bottom row boat with my two boys. They had their flashlights. I had the net and their father was very slowly rowing us around the lake. Well, about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, we decided we had to quit. We had recaptured 98 of the 200 bullfrogs. We put them in two large, five-gallon tubs with lids, put the lids into a storage room in the nature center, and we went home for the night.
Now, unfortunately, during the night those bullfrogs were hopping so vigorously against the lids they popped them open. So, when I opened the storage door there were those bullfrogs all over the place. We had to recapture them, put them in their tubs, put on the lids a little more tightly, and we took them down to the East Bay Vivarium, which is a store that raises and sells amphibians and reptiles. Now, they knew they couldn’t sell the bullfrogs but they were thrilled to have them because they were going to freeze them, which is actually a humane way of killing the frogs. And then, over time they were going to feed them to a large South American snake that they owned.
Now, as Chinese New Year’s rolled around again the next year, we knew we had to do something. We couldn’t let this happen again. So, we posted some signs that said, “We honor your practice of fang sheng but releasing of any animals into our regional parks is strictly prohibited. And we appreciate your cooperation.” But we also got in contact with some of the larger Chinese Buddhist churches in the area. And we had a really good discussion with them about their Chinese New Year’s practices and what happens when you release non-native animals into the environment. And I think, in the end, we had a much better understanding of each other’s perspective. However, it did take us over 10 years to get rid of those Chinese New Year’s bullfrogs and all their generations and generations of offspring.
Now, you may wonder, “Well how do you know you got rid of all those frogs?” Well, bullfrogs sound like, Ba-rump! Ba-rump! Ba-rump! And our little native chorus frog, they have that more classic ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribet. So, for years you go down to the lake and you would hear mostly Ba-rump! with a little bit of ribbet. But now if you go down to Jewel Lake on a spring or summer evening, you’ll hear not a single Ba-rump! But just ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet, ribbet.
Motoko tells a story about her own experience of sexual harassment in Japan, how she was trapped into silence imposed by her culture, and how storytelling helped her break the silence and heal herself.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:My-Long-Hair
As a teenager in Japan, Motoko had times when she did not feel safe. What kept her from feeling safe?
Do you feel safe? What precautions do you take for your own safety?
What can each of us do to help others feel safe and live safely?
Like a Lotus Flower: Girlhood Tales from Japan by Motoko. (Audio CD,www.folktales.net; 2009)
Unbroken Thread: An Anthology of Plays by Asian American Women edited by Roberto Uno
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Motoko. As a teenager growing up in Osaka, Japan, I was not pretty or popular but my hair was. Yes. I used to have this long, shiny, silky, black hair, straight down to my waist. So much of it I would obsessively brush it to an arresting sign. During the school day, the rules dictated that I had to keep it in a single long braid. As soon as the school let out, I would untie my braid and the shake it loose into a simmering cascade. What a glorious feeling!
I was a good, studious, student. By the time I was in the 10th grade, I was attending what we call, juku, a cram school. After the regular high school, three nights a week, for extra math and English lessons to prepare myself for the college entrance exams. On those days, I did not get to let my hair down until much later because those classes did not finish until 9 o’clock at night. Then I would take the commuter train home, get home about 10 o’clock, eat dinner, and do my homework. One night I was on my way home, as usual the commuter train was jam packed with business men and laborers, some drunken and boisterous, others tired and sullen. A few of them leered at me, a girl in the school uniform with long hair in a single braid. I sat with my knees together with a heavy book bag on my lap.
By the time I finally got off the train, the crowd had thinned a little. I walked toward the bicycle lot at the back of the station away from the blaring music and the neon signs of karaoke bars and pachinko parlors. I found my bike and dropped my heavy bag in the red wire basket attached in front of me. With relief, I untied my braid and swung my head letting the spring breeze cool down my scalp. “Nice hair,” a man’s guttural voice from right behind, startled me. I spun around into reeky fumes, so hot, drunk breath. A stranger’s sneering too close, sallow cheeks and a stubby chin, a dark green shirt. The next thing he was grabbing my waist pulling me hard against him. No, I did not scream. I was too stunned to even make a sound. The whole thing seemed somehow not so real, like a scene from a silent movie. I struggled to free myself and the man suddenly let loose. I staggered back and bumped into my bike. The bike fell and I fell on top of it, scraping my leg against the pedal. My books are scattered everywhere. Then the man suddenly started to laugh hysterically as if he had never seen anything so funny. I ride at my bike and without looking back pedaled as fast as I could. When I finally reached my house, I realized that I had not breathed the whole time. I got off my bike and bent down to breath as if I had just sprinted a mile. My heart was beating so fast, in my head, I could not hear anything else. No, the man did not follow me. I only had two bruises and a long scratch on my leg. My blouse had come untucked, so I tucked it in.
I was OK. Nothing happened. I opened the door. The glaring fluorescent light and the smell of the dinner and the loud noise from the TV in the living room overwhelmed me. “Tadaima, I’m home,” I said softly, suddenly realizing that my throat was tight.
My mother came out of the kitchen and said, “What happened to you?!”
I suddenly realized that, I remembered that, I had left all my books scattered around in the bicycle lot. With trembling voice, I said, “Oh, some weird guy tried to grab me and I ran away. I’m ok,” as nonchalantly I could.
My mother looked on me and said, “Look at your leg! You are bleeding! Otōsan, please come here.” Now Otōsan literally means, father, but that’s how my mother used to address her husband.
My father came hurrying out of the living room. “What happened?”
“Some man attacked her on the way home,” my mother explained.
“Yeah, but I’m ok. Nothing happened. I just have a scratch. See!” And as I was showing him, tears came to my eyes. I hastily wiped them away.
My mother looked anxious, “Should we call the police?”
“No, we don’t call the police,” my father said with a grim expression on his face.
“But why not? He might have followed her. It’s very dangerous.”
“No. She’s ok. If you call the police, people will talk.” He looked angry. Was he angry at me? He looked at me and said, “Motoko, you should have been more careful. It’s your fault, coming home this late, swinging your long hair.” I blinked. Was he saying that I was to blame? My father scuffled back into the living room and turned the volume up on TV. My mother sighed, fussed over me, gave me some bandages to put on my leg. Then I went upstairs to the bathroom and I wrenched. No one ever spoke of this incident again.
The next day I went and got a haircut. I never wore my hair long again. I never forgave my father either until a few years ago when I started telling this story. After that incident, there was a long period of time when he and I just did not talk much. Then I moved away to go to college and eventually immigrated to the United States. When I became a storyteller and started sharing my life stories, I discovered that many women in the United States have had a similar experience to mine. By listening to those women, I learned how sharing helps us heal. And it takes honesty, courage, and wisdom to speak up for ourselves and not be cowed into silence. Telling this story also made me realize that, my father’s gruff voice directed at me, was actually his way of acting out his anger at the man in the green shirt. And his frustration for not being able to protect me. In any culture, storytelling is what breaks the silence.
Diaspora without Homeland: Being Korean in Japan edited by Sonia Ryang (University of California Press; 2009)
Education and Life Lessons
Family and Childhood
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Motoko. My son, Charlie was born in 1987. As I raised him in western Massachusetts, I have always spoken to him only in Japanese. It is important to me that my son speaks my native language. When you think about it, you realize that parents have great power and responsibility to shape their children’s world by teaching them meanings of words. For example, I once took my son to his friend’s birthday party and on the way home, I said, Sore wa tanoshikatta, that was fun, wasn’t it?”
And my son would say, “Yeah, that was fun.” You see, that way I was teaching him the meaning of the word fun. Or when his best friend at the daycare moved to another city, I said, “Now don’t be sad; we can visit him over the summer and stay in touch.” See that way, I was teaching him what it meant to be sad and I was glad to be there to make him feel better. But as my son grew older, there were naturally fewer and fewer occasions for me to define his feelings and experiences. And that started me worrying. Maybe some of you have a mother or father who worries too much. Maybe some of you are parents who worry too much.
All my son’s life, I have tried hard to teach him not just Japanese language, but also Japanese ways of life. By saying things like, “Don’t forget to take off your shoes in the house because we’re Japanese.” Or, “Always bow to your grandparents because we are Japanese.” Or, “Eat this rice with pickled seaweed and fermented soybeans and stop complaining because that’s the Japanese way.” But whenever I said things like that, my son would giggle and, to my consternation, answer in English.
“No, I’m an American. I was born here.” Actually, he had turned out to be quite contrary to most of my expectations. I know next to nothing about sports but my son turned out to be a jock. He loved playing soccer. When he was in second grade, he came to me with this revelation mom, “Soccer is life. The rest is details.”
I said, “What about your homework?”
So, when my son was in fifth grade he applied to and was accepted to participate in a week long advanced boys soccer camp at the University of Massachusetts. Now, my son had never stayed away from home for an entire week before this. And all the other boys will be sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Never mind I live only two miles away from the campus. I was beside myself with worry. So, when my son finally came home that Saturday afternoon, I was waiting in the doorway to welcome him home and to ask him all the motherly questions. “How did it go?”
“Did you have a good time?”
“Did you play well?”
“Sure.” And as I followed my son into the dining room, I even marveled at his monosyllabic responses to female questioning. A true sign of a Japanese manhood. But wait… something seemed to be bothering him. I looked at him, his short-cropped black hair and his beautiful face, tanned to perfect brown. His usually dreamy eyes were cast down as he sat at my dining room table.
I said, “Is there something wrong?”
Reluctantly my son said, “Well, some kids at that camp from South River made weird noises and laughed at me.”
“What weird noises?”
“Ching-cho, Japanese. Hi-a Ussel.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know, Mom, they were making fun of me because I’m Japanese.” In a flash, all my blood boiled up to my face. Words I did not know I had in my English vocabulary, exploded in my head. Then suddenly, I realized that what shocked me the most was not the fact that those boys made fun of my son, but the fact that it was my very first time to hear my son identify himself as Japanese. Then, I had an experience that I had never had before. A flashback, I was engulfed by a childhood memory, back in Osaka, Japan, in the 1970s.
In my third-grade class, there was a boy named Akita. He was tall and strong and fast, really good at baseball. I had the biggest crush on him. One winter day, Akita missed school. So when the teacher asked for someone to bring him the math homework, I volunteered. I had never been to Akita’s house before. So, the teacher drew a little map for me and wrote down his address. Akita lived in the section in the city that I had never been to. So, I went home first to drop off my bag, I told my grandma where I was going, and I headed out. I had to cross a big metal bridge with lots of traffic. And coming to an old dilapidated section of the city, all the houses were made of dark wood predating the World War II. The houses were built without any space in between. So, it was hard for me to tell where one house ended and another started. I got turned around a, bit. It took me about an hour to find Akita’s home. By then early dusk was failing. I rang the doorbell but nobody answered. I tried again, maybe Akita was sick and his mother had taken him to the doctor. Maybe I should leave the math homework in between the two sliding front doors. Just then I heard light footsteps behind me and turned around and saw a little boy standing there. This little boy was about 5 years old, maybe in kindergarten. But his face was so much like Akita’s that it was obvious to me that he was Akita’s bl, brother.
I said, “Hi, I’m Akita’s classmate. I brought him his homework.” But the boy looked at me as if he had not heard me. So, I looked at him and I realized that the boy had been crying. His face was dirty with tears and grim. His shirt was rumpled and I saw some mud on his pants. Maybe he had been in a fight. Maybe some older kids had been picking on him. I said, “Are you all right? Did you have a fight? Where is your mom?”
And I reached out to touch his shoulder when suddenly the boy glared, shoved my hand away and yelled, “Go away, you stupid Korean!” I actually did not know what he meant but he felt as if he had slapped me across the face. I dropped my math homework and ran, tears blurring my sight.
When I finally got home my grandma said, “What happened to you?”
“Grandma, this little boy called me a stupid Korean. Why? Am I Korean?” And I told her the whole story between sobs. My grandma listened quietly and she looked thoughtful.
Finally, she said, “No, Motoko you are not Korean but that little boy is and his family. But that little boy does not know what the word means. People are prejudiced around here. And kids make fun of him. So, he thinks Korean is a bad word. He’s angry at everyone. He thought he was calling you a name.”
“Mom, are you ok?” My son was staring at me strangely as I came out of this momentary reverie.
And I looked on my son and thought about saying something like, “You know we live in this college town where people tend to be more diverse and open minded. But in a little surrounding town like South River, people can be ignorant and full of prejudice.” I also thought about saying something like, “Just tell me those kids names and I’ll find out where they live. Rip them to pieces.” But what I really wanted to say was, “Don’t internalize the hurt you feel, the way that little boy did. Just know in your heart that you are as good as any and better than many. If I can come with you every time you leave my house to protect you, I would.” But I didn’t say any of those things. I just said, “Do you want me to write a letter of complaint to your coach?”
“Nah, that’s OK,” my son said. “I can handle it. Me and my buddies beat those guys at scrimmage, anyway.” He had the biggest grin on his face and said, “You know, Mom, though what you could do to make me feel a lot better?”
“What? I’ll do anything. Oh, I know. Let me give you a hug.”
“No,” he laughed as he ducked out of my embrace and said, “You know, there’s these new Gameboy games that just came out in Japan. No one in the United States has them yet. So, if you could call Uncle Minoru,” (that’s my brother in Japan) “Uncle Minoru, and give him some money so he will send them to me, that would make me the coolest kid among my friends.”
I said, “How much are they?”
“$50 a seat and there are three I want.”
“That’s $150!” I scream in my head. Then I just said, “I’ll call him right now.” All I can say is, it is expensive to fight racism.
A Goddess inspired story of the adversities faced and overcome by Archana’s family as they move form India to America. This is a story of identity, assimilation and race relations that ultimately honors different paths of healing and different religions. Overcoming health issues and life and death challenges, from Darkness to Light describes the embodiment of the Indian festival of Lights/Diwali that welcomes in the “new” in each and every one of us in a beautiful way.
Hi, my name is Archana Lal-Tabak. My family is from the Pakistan side of India before the partition in 1947. In fact, my father was born in Burma and my mother was born in Kashmir and yet they had to flee again when they were young children. Burma is right by China on the east side of India, and near Tibet is Kashmir, which is in the northern state of India. They were persecuted there by the Muslims and the Communists and so they had to flee again in their young adolescent years. And they went to central India, north central India, a place called Kanpur. This is where they eventually met.
My father was there teaching medical school and my mother was a student at the medical school. And the patients all around were noticing that this gentleman was following my mom around and they said, “See that doctor who is looking at you?” And she had not noticed that he was looking at her. But, finally, he asked her out for an ice cream, which she could not really, even have because her stomach had been upset for many years and this is what had taken her into medicine. It turned out that later on, my father diagnosed that she had a retrocecal appendix many years later. And it must have been a sign of true love that he kind of knew what was going on and she was struggling. For two people who loved medicine, this was a true love story.
Actually, theirs was a love marriage. Back in those days, people in India did not cross over into different social castes or social hierarchy. They found that they were in north central India, however, and here people of different castes and different social status would, actually talk with each other and there were many faiths present. Finally, in this part of India they were able to practice their Hinduism without oppression and persecution. It turned out that my father, being rather poor in India, moved several times and I, myself, moved ten times by the time I was 13 years old. I was in Vietnam, in India, in America and back in India again.
And it so happens that one of those times when I was in India, I was about nine years old in 1972, staying with my favorite auntie and uncle and it was my favorite festival. This whole oppression of darkness to light, of… that my parents had been through reminded me of this festival Diwali, the Indian New Year, the Festival of Lights. And this festival was going on at the time that I was visiting India with my aunt and uncle. And at this beautiful festival, it turns out everyone decorates all of their houses with little tiny diyas – little tiny lights. They’re little ceramic pots that are decorated and they’re decorated with ghee or clarified butter inside with a little cotton wick coming out. Beautiful, beautiful lights and the whole house is decorated – inside and outside.
I was just totally amazed and intrigued by this beautiful festival. And I was playing with all the diyas, all the candles, all the wax, all the… all the little tiny tea lights and then, all of a sudden unbeknownst to me, I had been lit aflame. My uncle came over and put out my dress. I had, apparently, set myself on fire. And if I had not been careful or mindful and my uncle had not been watching, I would have been a burning girl somewhat like those women in India that used to throw themselves in their husband’s funeral pyre, back in the old days. Something I cannot even imagine. Now it turns out that this beautiful festival of Diwali, with the whole house is decorated, it’s cleaned, you’re wearing new clothes and eating delicious foods – complete multisensory experience – comes after these nine days of darkness. This nine days of the dark goddess Durga. And the goddess Durga is nine days of honoring how we ourselves transform internally from darkness to light. And there’s actually a ceremony where this huge statue that’s wooden and paper mâché of the evil god Raman, it’s burnt. This demon is burnt, publicly, like a huge burning man. And it, it’s amazing to me how many people were involved in all this when I was growing up. Pretty amazing!
Now when I was in India, I went to many different schools. Mostly, I went to the rector convent and different convents like Catholic schools run by nuns, that were English medium. But there was one time that I was in an Indian boarding school and in this school, the matron was a Sikh woman. It turns out that my father’s oldest brother was a Sikh as well. Apparently, in India, the oldest Hindu brother becomes a Sikh to protect the border because Hindus are mostly pacifists. Even though they have four castes and one of them is a warrior caste, they still have more pacifist tendency. So, the Sikhs protect the border. And I would sit with my matron in my boarding school and meditate with her and pray with her, with her Punjabi texts, just the way I used to sit and pray and meditate with my grandmother, Mummy Ji. Ji is a sign of respect in India, so often we’ll have names after a Ji. Mummy Ji and I would meditate and pray and so did I with this beautiful Sikh matron.
I loved looking at different cultures and religions. I went to the synagogues with my Jewish friends. I went to churches with my Christian friends and, of course, beautiful temples that were 5000 years old in India itself.
Now eventually my family moved to the states and we came here when I was 13 in 1977. When we came here, I went to a public school, which was a very interesting experience, culturally, as well. And I dated a few, maybe just a few Christian and Jewish men, you know, because Indian girls were supposed to have arranged marriages and not date. But I did. And I, actually married my first husband, who was Jewish, and then later on I met my current husband Jim. And although Jim was Greek and Slovakian, he had been doing yoga and meditation for several decades and we had a lot in common. We were meant to be together. He, actually, prepared an ayurvedic meal for me on one of our first dates. Now how many American men cook ayurvedic meals? Not many. Ayurveda, actually, is the knowledge or science of life in India. It is 5000 years old and I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.
But, basically, what I found was that through the oppression and the persecution that many, many generations and cultures have gone through, often that is transmitted in the families. And my own family, I found, had suffered a lot of adversity and several had died way too young. In fact, in my 20s, I, myself, suffered from debilitating illnesses including a serious autoimmune illness. And, at that time, I was led to studying Indian medicine and the western field of psycho neuro immunology. My family is all physicians. They’re all trained in western medicine and I found that I was able to completely heal myself through the psycho neuro immunology using some natural lifestyle factors, which I later learned were present in ayurveda.
And when I did workshops and this, my mom would come and say, “Well, that’s how we live. We eat this way, we dress this way, we behave this way, we walk like this.”
And it’s, basically, so much a part of the Indian culture. This knowledge or science of life is a part of the whole Indian culture, part of the Hindu religion so that the people would do it. So, they have fasts for detoxification during Navaratri, which was that… the goddess Ji I told you about. And then they have celebrations like Diwali with the multisensory experience of eating. In fact, my mom always said, “Make sure there’s every color of the rainbow in every meal.”
And it turns out, holistically, that is the best way to eat to get all your anti-oxidants, to get all your nutrition. Now I hope that as I’ve raised my son who is now 17 years old and (his name is Anand, which means bliss) that I can teach him some of these things that I have learned.
And we have raised him with yoga and meditation and some new thoughts, Christian traditions and other traditions. And, in fact, since we are cross-cultural couple and interfaith, we really honor all paths. And at our son’s school, we’ve often tried to take in the Hindu culture and the foods and the multisensory experience but often met resistance, at times, because people didn’t understand that the Indian Diwali, Festival of Lights, the Indian New Year was similar to Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, and even similar to Christmas and the winter solstice. It was a winter festival of light.
I imagine that someday, perhaps, people would understand this more and they would be a little tiny stamp just like those other stamps for the New Years and the festivals of light, that there would be a Diwali stamp, as well, a stamp that would have a little tiny diya, beautifully decorated with a little cotton wick in the ghee coming out to celebrate the Indian New Year and the Festival of Light.
I often find that when I need some help, I turn to the goddesses because in India, people have many gods and goddesses. It’s polytheistic, pantheistic. There’s a god and goddess for everyone. And even as I was developing this beautiful story for you, I found that I was stuck at times and I needed some prosperity, abundance, inspiration, creativity. So, I called in the goddesses. I had goddess Durga helping me from the inaction and darkness and paralysis of the trauma that my family went through to the light. I had goddess Lakshmi with prosperity and abundance that is celebrated during Diwali. And I had goddess Saraswati and she was the one with the creativity and the arts, came in to help me with the story. So, in India we embody all these gods and goddesses and thank goodness for Ganesh, the elephant god, who removes the obstacles along the way. And I’m so grateful to be here with these gods and goddesses today, embodying them and honoring the divine in all of us. Thank you.
Susan O’Halloran attends a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through violence. Being at the Memorial sparks a high school memory for Susan of going to a youth conference in 1965 and meeting Cecil, an African American teenager, who became Sue’s friend. One evening, in 1967, Sue receives a phone call that changes everything.
Being at a Chicago Memorial service in November of 2011 for children who have died through gun violence sparks memories for Susan O’Halloran of people she has lost. At the end of the service, the congregation moves into the streets to plead for peace as everyone asks the continuing questions: Will the violent deaths of young lives end? When? And what is our part in ending violence?
What are the causes of violent deaths in America? People are always responsible for their own actions, but how does America’s legacy of segregation and discrimination play into violence?
Are you for more restrictions on guns? More policing? How would greater educational and job opportunities affect violence?
If you could be Mayor of a large U.S. city, what would you do to curb violence?
Do you believe as Sue says that “these are all our children”? Why would someone in one part of a town be concerned with what happens in another part? How are we connected to one another? How does violence affect even the more “peaceful” parts of town?
Sue remembers that she was directly touched by violence. What affect has a young person’s death had on you?
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Cornell West
Youth Violence: Theory, Prevention and Intervention by Kathryn Seifert, PhD
African American/Black History
Family and Childhood
First Nations/Native Americans
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Susan O’Halloran. Do you ever watch the news sometimes and you’re like, enough already! But then every so often, something happens, not things that are just happening to other people anymore. I want to share a story with you about a memorial service I went to in Chicago, November 2011. And a memory was triggered by that memorial, something that had happened long, long ago.
The first thing I noticed was the checkmarks. They had asked us to sign in with our name and then to check “yes” if we had lost a family member or close friend to violence. When I arrived, the memorial service had already begun. I made the long trek from my Evanston, Illinois home, down Lakeshore Dr, across the Dan Ryan Expressway, to the Southside of Chicago and the gothic style church of St. Sabinas. When I walked into that vestibule I heard an orchestra playing inside and I walked up to the sign-in book and I went to add my name. I couldn’t check the box. I was fortunate, my life hadn’t been touched by that kind of tragedy. But what I saw was hundreds of checkmarks already made. Each check said, “Yes, I’ve lost a loved one to violence.” Well, an usher came up to me, an African-American woman with a wide smile, wearing a black pillbox hat, a black suit, white gloves. She handed me a program, an unlit candle, and directed me to follow her. She walked me past rows of mourners and them she offered me a seat at the end of a pew. I was there. I was at the Urban Dolorosa memorial. Urban Dolorosa means “the city of sorrow,” and our city was deep in sorrow.
In those previous three school years, from September 2008 to August 2011, four thousand children had been shot in Chicago. Two hundred sixty-three kids were dead because of violence. Four thousand shot and 263 dead. Congregations of all faiths and other non-profits had gathered together to form Urban Dolorosa to say we had to stop the denial, the ignorance, the indifference, the hopelessness. They were calling for a comprehensive, coordinated plan to end the blood bath.
Now, I walked in there expecting I would hear community leaders rage about, you know, how decades of injustice and marginalizing whole communities, was a recipe for violence. I thought they would remind us that the very victims of the carnage are the people who are getting blamed. I thought I’d hear politicians who would make speeches about how unemployment, inferior education, and pouring resources into youth and community development, this would benefit all of us. But that’s not what I had walked into at all. No, instead, this memorial was a, kind of, sacred musical cane. A mix of opera and choral music, sung in English and Spanish with strains of the blues and African-American spirituals, punctuated by a poetic libretto with an art installation and candlelight and photographs projected images of those left behind. Tear stained faces wide in disbelief or pinched tight in pain. Pictures of people holding each other up – their grief too much to bear alone. My surprise of what this memorial was, quickly melted into a feeling that, yes, this was exactly right. This was how to remember children who would never grow up to be young men and young women.
I remember a poem I read in college, it stayed with me all these years, by the poet Bill Knott; just three simple lines.
The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead
And then youth performers walked the aisles and took photographs from people. Photographs of their slain loved ones. And they brought those photographs to the altar and began to build this tall sculpture of smiling children’s faces – a mound of grief growing before us. And then they scattered all about as the names were read. “Rahim Washington, Eva Henry, Jose Corona…” Each name pierced the air!
And those youth performers, one of them came right by me. A 16-year-old girl with a round face, a very solemn face, so close her hand was brushing my shoulder and she lit her candle and she leaned over and lit mine and then gestured with her head for me to light the candle, the man beside me. And all of a sudden, candlelight was swimming up and down the pews of St. Sabinas as more names were read. “Alanzo Jones, Kabauro Ottowani, Arianna Gibson…” It was as if I could hear a drumbeat underscoring every name, every life. And then, this teenager blew out her flame, and poof, poof, poof, all of the sanctuary, flames gone, blown out. And she handed me her extinguished candle and left. It took me a moment to look into the aisle beside me and see her shoes were still there. All up and down the aisles of St. Sabinas. No more teens, just their empty shoes. My heart collapsed, gave way to the sound of a beating drum, and the memory flooded in.
Nineteen sixty-five. The first time I saw him, he was playing the drums or I should say an upside-down waste basket. I had met Cecil 46 years before. We were both 15 years old and we were at the YCS regional conference. YCS. Young Christian Students. I had met, I had joined the local group at my school that year and I decided to go to the regional conference. It was held at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana just about an hour and a half outside of Chicago. Oh, it was a whole week at the end of summer. Seminars and speakers and panel discussions. It was such great fun. And most of all it meant friendships with kids from all over the city and neighboring states. And since things were completely segregated in the 1960s, that meant for most of us it would be our first interracial experience.
Now the night I met Cecil, we girls decided to sneak out of our dorm. We were going to sneak out of our dorm and go to the boys’ dorm after curfew. For someone like me who rarely broke the rules, this was high adventure. We dressed in dark turtlenecks and long pants. I could almost hear the theme music from the I Spy TV show. Wah wah wah wah. We actually crawled on our bellies, like, pulled ourselves with our elbows across this long empty field that separated us from the boys. And when we got to the boys’ dorm, those boys were in ecstasy… And not at all interested in us. Cecil, of slight build and wearing glasses and his friend tall, thin Joe, had instructed the other boys, who were white, and how to turn their metal wastebaskets into drums. And they’d given them the steady pulse that most of the boys could handle. And then Cecil and Joe, they played on top of their beat. Now Joe was like the master of ceremonies. He’d tipped back in his chair and drum between his legs and the call out to the boys and encourage them. “That’s right. You’re doing it. That’s right. That’s right.” Master of ceremonies.
Cecil was the serious one. He would cock his head to one side always an ear down to the drum. Monitoring if the intent and effect were one in the same. His rhythm seemed to come from the base of his spine, crawl up his back, push his arms from behind so fast that his hands would blur. These boys looked so blissed out, their faces seemed to say, “Yes. What you’re playing goes with what I’m playing, goes with what he’s playing. Yes, yes, yes. We’re in this together. Yes.”
Well, after that regional conference, at the end of the week. We had small group discussions throughout the week. Oh, Cecil was in my group so I saw him every day. And we talked about group leadership and school spirit and racial stereotyping. And sometimes after that seminar Cecil and I just weren’t done; we had to keep talking, piggybacking off of each other’s ideas. We walked the cinder running track back behind the classrooms.
Cecil’d say things like, “They should have a UN for kids!” And I go, “Yeah!” I’d agree. “Yeah! I wish we could meet kids from China and Africa and France!” Having just met kids from the other side of the city, the other side of the color line, we were ready to take on the world. And then by the end of that week was Friday night dance. Now in my neighborhood the thought of dancing with a boy who was black, it would have been unheard of. An impossibility, but by the end of the week, hey, Cecil was my pal. Of course, I would dance with Cecil.
And when Cecil came towards me. He was shorter than me. He looked tall and elegant. And he took my hand like it was a jewel. And he walked me out to an empty space on the dance floor and we began to slow dance. Now in my neighborhood, slow dancing meant the boys and girls would fall on each other and kind of move sideways, swaying like zombies. But with Cecil slow dancing meant walking coolly, purposefully, covering that dance floor three, four times with space between your bodies to twist and dip. Cecil would duck under my arm, he would twirl me in light circles. He would graze his hand across my waist as he circled me. I looked great just standing there.
Well, after that regional conference, I joined citywide YCS. And so did Cecil. We had meetings. We had more dances. We had picnics at the lakefront. We had press conferences to announce our newest initiatives but, most of all, what we did was plan study days, kind of like the regional conference. We bring kids together from all over the city and we would study, look at some kind of social justice issue. And once Cecil and I co-chaired a study day examining the black power movement. Ah, the day was exciting and contentious and scary and thrilling. We got people thinking and some people really upset and angry. And I just remember afterwards sharing a Coke with Cecil and the two of us sitting there saying, “We did it! We did it!” Though, I don’t think either of us quite knew what we had done.
I remember that last leadership meeting in 1967, we were juniors in high school. It was the last meeting that Cecil attended. One of our adult mentors suggested an icebreaker for the beginning of the meeting. He said, “Why don’t you go ‘round and everybody say how they want to be remembered. You tell us what you would want written on your gravestone.”
Well, Katie went first and she said, “I want my gravestone to say she was alive.” And I went next and I joked I want my gravestone to say she IS alive. And everybody started laughing. And then Cecil said. Cecil said. Cecil said, “What?” See, he’s after me and I thought this mixture of pride and self-consciousness because I made everybody laugh so I don’t remember what Cecil said. I mean he was the good listener not me. What did Cecil want on his gravestone. It became so important to remember.
The first thing we heard was that he’d been shot. I stayed on the phone with YCS friends long into the night. It was as if we held a phone vigil. Maybe we could pull him through. Cecil and Joe had been to a dance in their neighborhood that night and they were walking home and this other kid, older a little bit. They didn’t know him. Walked up to them and said, “Where are you from?” And Cecil, just as any good, Catholic, Chicago kid would, he answered, his parish, Sacred Heart. “BOOM!” Just like that. The kid took out a gun and shot him. Cecil’s chest lay open to the moonless sky. We didn’t know many details, we just heard that Joe didn’t know what to do. I mean stay with this friend or go run for help. There were no cell phones back then. And I just keep picturing Joe with Cecil, then running to get help and then like a film thrown into reverse, running back. And then, “No, no! We should get help.” And running, just not knowing what to do.
I’d never been to the wake of a young person, a teenager, somebody my age. When we got to the funeral home, women with hats and powdery cheeks and older women smelling of perfume were milling about. And I was in grief before I even walked into that main room because I realized that Cecil had grown up much as I did. Leaned into the body of mothers and aunties and grandmas. The soft flesh of women’s arms wrapped around him, falling asleep in the heat of their bodies. And I knew with surety that the dividing line, that color line, in our city separated me not only from my black friends but from the familiness of my black friends. And then I saw, uh, Joe and as high as his face could lift and a smile was how far it fell. His skin hung loose over his jaw. “Thanks for coming,” he said. Still the master of ceremonies, we YCS kids, white, black and brown walked to the casket together.
We stared at Cecil’s body of brackish dust. Part death, part Cecil, still. He looked like a jewel floating on the white, pleated linen below him. He looked so young, like a child. Way too young to be dead. I saw that dead people looked a lot like. White people may be a little more pasty, chalky, white. Black people may be more ashy gray. But both as far away as the deepest stone at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
The adults, they knew the manners of death. They held out holy cards to people. They, they prayed their Hail Marys and Our Fathers. But we kids were lucky, we were young, we didn’t have to say things like, “Oh, he looks good.” No, we just stood there silent…shattered. Maybe it was me, I don’t know, who broke first. I don’t know who fell on me and who I fell where my body began or where it ended. I just know the room melted away as we cradled each other in front of Cecil McClure’s casket.
It’s as if we just wanted to crawl into each other’s comfort. To hold each other as we felt the truth of it. Our friend is dead. Our friend dead. Our friend is dead. The truth beat against our hearts like a drum.
“Terence Hollands, Delvonta Porter, Devon Varner…” the reading, the memorial reading of the names continues. Four thousand children shot, 263 children dead. The only response to a child’s grave is to lie down before it and play dead. The same youth performers came out into the sanctuary again. My same teen, my sentinel, at my side, appeared and she gestured for me to stand up. And all over the sanctuary, the teens were leading us outside for a profession, procession, a procession through our neighborhood to reclaim our streets. To put an end to violence.
A musician, one of the violinists, led that procession. Playing a song, now a refrain, we had heard often in the service, so everybody began to sing. “Pour out your heart like water for the lives of our children. Let justice roll like an ever-flowing stream.” We turned a corner and television cameras appeared. It felt like an obstruction, kind of obscene. You know, we’ve been in the quiet of the sanctuary, then the quiet of the night and then, boom, these bright white lights. Like a self-conscious kind of spectacle. But also, you know, lending a kind of layer extra layer of importance to the ritual. I mean we did want people to know. To know so that maybe we could believe that the denial was over. People were coming together because it was in our power to change things.
When their procession was over, I hugged my teen goodbye. I thanked her. And I went to walk to the parking lot to get my car but I thought, “No, I’ll go in the church and a look. I’ll just see.” I went into the church and I found it. The sign-in book was still there. I found my name and I checked yes. Yes, I had lost a loved one to violence. Yes, I will work for peace. Have to commit to peace. For all the children still living, growing and dreaming in every neighborhood across this nation.
The true story of a Vietnamese teenager who makes it to America after a harrowing boat journey and refugee camp. At a commemorative storytelling event honoring Vietnamese Americans, Sue witnesses the transformative power of story as this young man shares his American immigrant story. The community of listeners that storytelling creates makes a new country feel like home.
America and Canada represent a moral ideal for some people in other parts of the world. What is that ideal?
Even in miserable surroundings people seek friendship; what does this say about our human need for connection? Neal and Tom were friends, yet Neal had no idea of his friend’s torment. How do we choose what to share and what to keep private from our friends?
Why had Neal had not told Tom’s story before the storytelling workshop? How did it help him to share his story?
The Vietnamese 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight and New Beginnings by Sucheng Chan
Family and Childhood
Living and Traveling Abroad
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Suzanne O’Halloran and I started to learn what home could mean to people on a whole other level when I was involved in an oral history project in 2005. April, 2005 was the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam War. And I was hired by the Society of the Divine Word to collect stories from some of their brothers and priests… about 25 folks who had escaped from Vietnam after the war. Well, the story gathering was gonna happen in the day and then in the evening, we were gonna have a public concert… part of our Just Stories-Storytelling Festival. Now, the first man I interviewed, his name was Neil. When Neil was 16 years old, his family helped him escape from Vietnam. But, unfortunately, he wound up, he ended up, in a not so nice refugee camp that wasn’t run by the U.N. Neil said that the guards were mean. I mean, they could just throw you in the blockade, no due process whatsoever. Neil, every night in a platform tent with 27 other people, like, lined up like sardines. And they would just get a little bit of food… like a bowl of rice, maybe a little fish, couple of vegetables and that had to last for several days. And most of all, you had to be really careful that nobody stole your food. But Neil made a friend, a boy a couple years older than him named Tom.
Tom had escaped Vietnam when he was 14 years old. And Tom and Neil met in a Bible study class. And as they got to know each other, Tom slowly told his story to Neil. Now, Tom escaped as well, in the bottom of a boat; 64 people hiding at the bottom of a boat. And this captain put fishing tackle, you can imagine all the smelly things, on top of them to hide ‘em. And they motored out this channel and they stopped. And everybody was so scared. They figured they must have paid off some guards, ‘cause they kept on going. Now, they got out to sea and things were going pretty well. It was just a day or two trip over to Thailand. And then the motor died. And there they sat for two days. Now they hadn’t brought food. People escaped with what they had on their backs. Now luckily the captain was bringing some hot sauce to a friend of his in Thailand. And they had that case of hot sauce. So each day, a couple a times a day, they’d lined up to get just one little dollop of this hot sauce to lick and that was it. No water, nothing!
Well, finally, they saw a ship. They were so excited! “We’re over here! We’re over here!” But when that ship came closer, they discovered it was pirates. We think of pirates like, you know, Peter Pan or something. It just means pirates at sea. And those men just hopped on board and they took… if people have watches, if they had any money on them, any food, and they even took that motor in case they could fix it. But worse than that, they stabbed all the people so there would be no witnesses and threw them overboard. So Tom found himself in the middle of the ocean. Now, he had the presence of mind, there he was stabbed and bleeding, to take off his pants; kind of like these pajama kind of pants so they had cloth to them. So he blew air in either and tied a knot in either end of the legs and used it like an inner tube to hang on. Now, he doesn’t know for sure ’cause he was in and out of consciousness but he knows he went through a night so he was probably hanging there for a day.
And then another day went by and he was having to fight off fish. And finally he thought, “This is it. I’m giving up.” And he let go, he started sinking down to the bottom. And he heard this voice inside him say, “No. It’s not your time.” So he kind of bobbed back up just as he saw this big, red, plastic gas can floating by. So Tom climbed up on that and he hung there for a whole other day. And then another ship came by and this time, thank God, it wasn’t pirates. It was Thai fisherman. But Thai fisherman had been told that if they picked up any more Vietnamese refugees, they would be in some big trouble. They would lose their license.
But what are you going to do if you see a kid hanging on a gas can in the middle of the ocean? Thank God, they did the right thing. They stopped and picked up Neil. (Tom) Now, he had hypothermia by then. They tried to warm him up and he were trying to tell them there were 63 other people. And they went around, they motored around, they couldn’t find. It seemed Neil (Tom) was the only survivor. So they got him as close to shore as they dare because they didn’t want to lose their license. They put him back in the water and Tom, I’m saying Tom, swam back to land. And all kinds of stories but he finally made his way to the same horrible refugee camp.
Now, when they got there, they’d be questioned. “Are you a Communist? Are you a spy?” Because, of course, he showed up with no ID on him. And how you got sponsored if you got out to another country, depended on how you answered these questions and, of course, with this kinda refugee camp, if you had a little money to grease the wheels. And Tom had neither so he had been there for 4 years already when Neil met him.
There’s this one day, right before Bible study and they were sitting there talking. And, well, Tom was really down but that wasn’t unusual. You can imagine, in this kinda refugee camp, people got very depressed. And Tom excused himself to go to the bathroom. Now the bathroom at this refugee camp was just a hole in the ground with little trees around it for a little bit of privacy. Well, Bible study started. Tom didn’t show up. Neil got worried. He went looking for his friend. And he found him. Tom had hung himself. He just despaired of ever getting out of that refugee camp.
And Neil said to me, “Well, they burned his body and sent his ashes back to Vietnam. He finally made it back home. He was caught in limbo all those years; he couldn’t go home, he couldn’t go forward. And Neil said to me, “When Tom died, it was like a part of me died.” And then he looked right at me and said, “I’ve never told anybody that story before. I have never spoken of Tom before!”
Now, this was my first interview, and like 25 more to go! And I heard these incredible stories of escape and family sacrifice, and idealism and loss. So we got an idea. That night was supposed to be the professional storytelling concert. So I asked some of these brothers and priests if they would be willing to share their stories. So that night the professional tellers did their marvelous, usual wonderful job and then these brothers got up and shared their stories. And I’m telling ya, they stole the show! There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. They got a standing ovation. And afterwards, Neil came up to me and said, “You know, it was very painful to share these stories today but important. I have been here for almost 20 years but because of the way this audience, these people, listened to our stories, I feel like I’ve finally arrived in America. I feel like I’m finally home.” And that is the power of sharing and listening to each other’s stories.
Storyteller, Kate Dudding, tells the story of Iqbal Masih, a 12-year-old boy in Pakistan who led thousands of children to freedom from 1993-1995. Even after his death, Iqbal went on to inspire other children and show that even the youngest among us can make a difference.
Hi, I’m Kate Dudding. Some people say children can’t make a real difference in this world. I’m going to tell you a story about one who did. His name is Iqbal Masih of Pakistan. By the time he was 12, he had led thousands of children to freedom. He talked to them at meetings. He told them his story.
I was born into a poor family. My father was a laborer, my mother a house cleaner. When I was two, my father deserted us. Later, when my older brother was getting married, my father knew he had to help pay for the festivities but he didn’t have the money. He couldn’t borrow from a bank so he borrowed from a carpet factory owner the six hundred rupees, ($12) that he needed. I was the collateral. I would work at the carpet factory until the debt was paid off. I was four years old when this happened, when I became a bonded laborer. This is a modern story. This happened in 1987.
I left home every morning at four o’clock and returned at 7:00 in the evening, six days a week. I only had energy to play on my day off. I worked in a small, airless room. The windows were sealed to keep the insects out that might harm the fac… the carpet. There was one light bulb hanging from the ceiling. There were 20 looms in this little, this little room. We were not allowed to speak. The factory owner said, “Children who are talking are not paying their full attention to their work and could make mistakes.”
Sometimes I ran away and when I came back, I was always beaten and sometimes chained to my loom. Once, I ran away to the police station to tell them of the horrible conditions and the beatings and the threats. But all policemen did was return me to the factory where I was severely beaten. And the carpet factory owner told me, “You are a working boy. You are a carpet weaver. You will be a carpet weaver for the rest of your life.”
Members of my family kept on borrowing money from the factory owner. The debt grew from the original $12 to $260. Far more than I would ever be able to pay off. But wonderful things started happening after six years, when I was 10 years old, in 1993. A law was passed making it illegal to have bonded labor and cancelling all the debts. But I didn’t read. No one in my family could read. We didn’t know about the law. Luckily, a man called Ehsan Ulah Khan and others founded the Bonded Labor Liberation Front. They went from village to village telling people about the new law.
They came to my village. The factory owner said to all of his boys, “Do not go to this meeting. It would be bad for you.” But I thought if he said it was going to be bad it must be good. So, I ran away again. I learned of the new law cancelling my family’s debt at this meeting. Ehsan Ulah Khan noticed me, and called me up on stage, asking me to tell my story. When I said I was 10, I could see people looking startled. And, and I heard some of them saying, “I thought he was six.” You see, I’m rather short because I’ve never had enough food to eat.
After the meeting, I insisted that a freedom letter be written to terminate the contract bond, the bonded contract. You had to give a freedom letter to the factory owner. So, I insisted that a lawyer there write me one. And then I insisted on delivering it because I wanted to tell the boys I worked with, “Come with me and be free.”
The factory owner was furious but he could do nothing. I started going to school for the first time and traveling to meetings like this, telling people my story.
Iqbal always ended his talks by saying, “Come with me and be free.” Thousands did.
When Iqbal was 12, two years after he had been free, he received Reebok’s first Youth in Action Human Rights Award. As part of the award, he traveled to Boston at the end of 1994. While there he visited the Broad Meadows Middle School. All the children were so excited to meet him. They talked to him. They listened to his presentations. His interpreter was exhausted by the end of the day.
Later that week, when he received his award, he said, “Children, in my country use this tool.” Holding up his carpet weaver tool. “They should be using this tool.” And he held up a pen. He also called on President Clinton to invoke sanctions against countries that had bonded child labor. At the end of the presentation, he was asked many questions by reporters. One of them, that so many children are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Iqbal said, “A lawyer to fight for the rights of my people. But first I must finish school.”
Unfortunately, Iqbal will never get a chance to finish school. Four months after he received the Reebok award, he was shot dead in the street. There have been many investigations. No one has ever been arrested. Some of the investigations blame a villager who was tired of screaming children and took a pot shot at them, that accidentally hit Iqbal. Other investigations say it was a member of the carpet mafia in Pakistan. But amazingly, Iqbal’s story does not end with his death. The students of Broad Meadows Middle School decided to collect money in Iqbal’s honor. They contacted schools and youth groups around the world suggesting a donation of $12. Symbolic of both Iqbal’s death, age when he died, and the size of the original debt. They collected $127,000 from children and another $19,000 from Reebok and other adults.
With this money, they built a school in Pakistan, in Iqbal’s honor, In Canada, twelve-year-old Craig Kielburger read of Iqbal’s story. With friends, he started the organization Free the Children. In the 17 years since Iqbal’s death, Free the Children has built over 650 schools and donated $16 million dollars in medical supplies, among other achievements. Two and a half years after President Clinton’s… 2 ½ years after Iqbal’s death, President Clinton signed a law making it illegal to import goods made by bonded child labor.
Some people say children can’t make a real difference in this world. Clearly, they have never heard of Iqbal Masih, the students at Broad Meadows Middle School or Craig Kielburger.
This is a true story written by Mako Nakagawa and told by Alton with her permission. A young girl wonders about the difference between “hakujin” (white people) and “nihonjin” (Japanese people) while in an internment camp in WWII. She speculates as to why hakujin do not onara (a euphemism for “passing gas”).
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:Onara
You have been ordered to move out of your house in two weeks and can only take one suitcase weighing 50 pounds. You will be gone for an unknown period of time for an unknown destination. There are no stores where you are going, no Internet or cell phone or cable service, and very little electricity. What will you take with you?
Meals in the camps were served in large mess halls like the cafeteria in your school. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of serving meals in this way? How would you feel about eating in a cafeteria for all of your meals for the next year?
The incarceration (internment) camps were surrounded by guard towers, barbed wire fences, and soldiers with rifles. Do you think such measures were necessary? Why were they implemented? How would you feel if you had to live under those conditions? How do you think it would change you?
Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki
Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps by Michi Weglyn.
Education and Life Lessons
Hello. My name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. The story I have for you is called “Onara.” It was written by a woman by the name of Mako Nakagawa. It is with her permission that I can tell it. It’s in a collection of stories that I call “Kodomo No Tame Ni.” (For the Sake of the Children) Now, “Onara.”
For the first five years of my life, I grew up in Seattle and I was surrounded by friends and family, mostly Japanese people. See, we were Nipponjin, Japanese people, and I didn’t know much about white people or know very many of them. We called them Hakujin. And I knew there were differences between us Nipponjin and the Hakujin. I mean, they were foreign, “strange,” and very large!
Most of what I knew about Hakujins came from magazines or movies. I mean, they were filled with Hakujin people. But even as a child I knew that the Hakujins were the ones with the power. That became very evident when they came and took my dad and threw him in jail, after Pearl Harbor. And again when they took me and the rest of my family and put us in Camp Harmony in Puyallup, Washington in 1942. Later in Minidoka, Idaho and Crystal City, Texas.
All the teachers and all the guards were all Hakujins. We learned to be wary of them. One day about a dozen of us second graders were all gathered together making a sound of onara. Oh, we were having a wonderful time, making all these wonderful sounds using our hands and our fingers and our lips. We knew if the adults caught us, we would be in big trouble, but it was so much fun being naughty.
Each kid had a different sound and we critiqued each sound. we tried to imagine what kind of person would make that kind of sound. And then, Akira made what we considered to be, hands down, the best onara sound ever. We fell on the ground laughing, our sides were hurting. You know, “onara?” (Sound made through blowing in hands that sounds like gas.) “Onara!” And then one kid said, “How come the Hakujin don’t onara? Huh?”
Hmm. Half of us thought they did. Half of us thought they didn’t. I always wondered what it would be like, not to onara. One person said, “No no, no, they have to, they are human beings!”
“Oh yeah, if they did, wouldn’t they have an English word for it?”
“Yeah . . Hmm.” Since none of us could come up with an English word for onara, we concluded the Hakujins didn’t do it. Then my friend Janet said she thought she heard one coming from her teacher, but she wasn’t sure because her teacher moved her chair at the same time. Hmm, inconclusive. I mean, who could we ask?
The only Hakujins we knew were our teachers and the guards, and we didn’t think it was a really good idea to ask them anything. It seemed strange to me that they wouldn’t have an English word for onara. I knew there were differences between us, but we weren’t that different. I decided to ask my mom, see what she thought. My mom, she looked at me, and then she smiled and said she had no idea. I don’t think she wanted to know the Hakujins that well.
Anyway, one day, again, I was playing with my best friend Janet, and the whole idea came up again. We finally concluded that onara was the result of what you ate. Logical! And we knew that the Hakujins ate differently than us. Therefore, the Hakujin food must not produce onara. But when I was in camp, I ate a lot of Hakujin food and I still onara. I never discovered the non-onara-producing Hakujin diet, but I did discover the meanings for certain key phrases, such as “angel whispers,” “breaking wind,” and “cutting the cheese!” Hakujins did do it! That’s when I realized, maybe we’re not so different after all.
Solly Ganor, a Lithuanian Jew, was a boy when Germany invaded his country in1940. He was eventually sent to Dachau and was rescued by members of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-Japanese American unit. Fifty years later he once again meets the man who saved him.
What if an environmental disaster occurred in Canada and forced millions of Canadians south across the border into the US. Would you open your house to take in some refugees who have nothing? What would you give up to share with them?
What if an environmental disaster occurred in Mexico and forced millions of Mexicans across the border into the US, would you open your house to some refugees who had nothing? Would your behavior be different than your reaction to the Canadian refugees? Why?
People who lived through WWII are passing away. In a few years, there will no longer be any eyewitnesses to the events of recent history. How do we know what happened in Civil War, in Medieval Europe, at the building of the Pyramids in Egypt? How is history preserved? How does the past affect our present and future?
If you and your family were sent to an incarceration camp, would you volunteer to fight for the U.S.? Would you serve, if drafted into the Military? Would you remained loyal to the U.S.?
Light One Candle: A Survivor’s Tale by Solly Ganor
Visas and Virtue, Visual Communications, Cedar Grove Production, 26 minutes, 1997, (1997 Academy Award, Best Live Action Short Film)
Okage Sama De (I am what I am because of you.) A DVD by Alton Chung
Stereotypes and Discrimination
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello. My name is Alton Takiyama-Chung. The story I am going to tell you right now is called, “A Twice Saved Life.” It’s from a large collection of stories which I created and called, “Okage Sama De.” (“I Am What I Am Because Of You”) and now, “A Twice Saved Life.”
We, Jews, have a saying, “To save one life, is if to save the entire world.” Kaunas, Lithuania. Just a dot on a map for most Americans. But for me, it is where I grew up. I was 11 years old when Hitler invaded Poland from the West in September of 1939. Two weeks later, Russia invaded Poland from the east. And over the next several months, Polish Jews began streaming across the border into Lithuania. In December of that year, like many other Jewish children in Lithuania, I decided to give my Hanukkah gelt, my Hanukkah money, to the refugees who had nothing. And then, ah, wouldn’t you know it, the new Laurel and Hardy film came in town and I just had to see it!
I decided to go see my aunt who ran a gourmet grocery store in downtown Kaunas. When I walked into the store, there was an elegantly dressed man with strange, slanted eyes. I had never seen a Japanese man before! Well, I told my aunt what I needed. And the man laughed and reached into his pocket, and said, “Here, here. Take it. Take the money. Take, take it.”
I said, “Oh no, no, no! You a stranger. You’re not family. I cannot take money from you.”
“Well, for the holidays, why don’t you consider me to be your uncle?”
I took the coin. “Uh…Uncle…uh…my name is Solly Ganor.”
“And my name is Chiune Sugihara.” Chiune Sugihara. He was the Consul for the Empire of Japan to Kaunas.
Well, time went on. In June 1941, Germany invaded Lithuania. Eventually, my family was split up and I was sent to Bavaria, southern Germany, to a little town outside of Munich, called Dachau. I witnessed many…horrible,…terrible things… But I survived.
In 1945, the SS guards wrestled us out of our barracks and made us march off into the frozen night. And we marched…And we marched…And we marched. For six days and nights we marched. I was weak. I was exhausted and I collapsed into a snow bank by the side of the road where the guards just left me to die. I was drifting away and then I felt someone grab hold of me and pull me out of the snow bank. And I opened my eyes and stared into this face with strange, slanted eyes. And I remembered Sugihara had strange, slanted eyes. There were four of them. They were dressed in khaki uniforms and they were tired and unshaven and dirty. And although they were speaking English, I knew that they were Japanese. I thought to myself, “Oh, these Japanese soldiers are now here to kill me.” By then, I didn’t care. “Go ahead! Kill me! Just get it over with!”
They looked at me and said, “No! We’re not going to kill you! We are Americans.”
“Oh, no, no, no! You are Japanese! You’re here to kill me!” We went back and forth.
And finally, this Japanese man, fell down on his knees, weeping. “You’re free, boy! We are Japanese Americans. You’re free!” I stared into this Japanese man’s eyes. They were kind and gentle like Sugihara’s. It was only then that I believed.
His name was Clarence Matsumura and he was attached to the 522nd Artillery Battalion, which was part of 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The all Japanese American unit. They were amongst the first to discover and begin liberating the complex of camps around Dachau. I found it ironic that Clarence and his kinsmen had volunteered to fight and die for the United States for many of them had their families locked up in “American Relocation” centers.
Well, after the war, I moved to Israel. I didn’t talk very much about my experiences except to other people who were survivors of the camps. Ever since my liberation, I had not been able to cry. Psychiatrists told me that the trauma of the holocaust had just dried up all my tears. That I was now an emotional amputee; I would never cry again.
In 1992, I received a phone call from a man by the name of Eric Saul. He was a historian from San Francisco. He said that he was here in Israel with a group of Japanese American men who were there at the liberation of Dachau. They had come from Hawaii and California to Israel to be honored by the Knesset. Would I meet them?
Well, I arrived at the hotel and there was this group of old Japanese men. They were all gray haired, in their 70’s. They asked me to read an account that I had written when I had first met the members of their battalion. And as I began reading my account, we were joined by another Japanese man – gray hair, glasses. And when I got to the point where these Japanese men were pulling me out of the snow bank, I looked up at the newcomer. And there were tears in his eyes. I stopped reading. I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t speak. After years of suppressing the insuppressible, this tidal wave of emotion is erupted through me. And I began to weep. The little boy that I had hidden away all those years had come out of hiding. And it was he who was weeping.
All these old men gathered around me to comfort me. “Uh…Don’t be ashamed. You are among friends now.” It was the voice of the newcomer. “Solly, this is Clarence Matsumura.” I looked at this man, the newcomer, – gray hair, glasses. How could this be? I couldn’t tell. And then he smiled. Oh… Nothing could change that smile! We fell into each other’s arms and the years melted away. I was weak and he held me up…just as he had done 47 years ago on the road to Waakirchen just south of a little town called Dachau.
An American family gathers for a reunion with laughter, memories, and good ol’ corn beef and cabbage. Suddenly, the father kneels before his family and sobs apologetically, “Your country has betrayed you.” With the launch of Executive Order 9066, the unconstitutional mass incarceration of over 110,00 citizens of Japanese ancestry begins. Now this American family, deemed the “enemy race”, must ask, “What will happen next?”
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:Grandpas-Story
What did it mean that the Japanese boy was the second son and there was “nothing for him in Japan?”
Robert’s Grandfather aligned himself with the U.S. Navy as a cook and received an honorable discharge. Later, he cries before his family and apologizes that he has left them with “No country.” Is that true? Why or why not?
What sort of values and biases does America show towards its citizens during WWII? What does the redress movement signify?
Okay, so the great story about my grandfather. Well, my father has told me stories about his family, and I never knew my grandparents or my grandfather that well. In fact, I didn’t know my grandfather at all. So he told me one night that they were having the family come over. They haven’t seen all the younger brothers and sisters in a long time, and Jack, my father, is waiting, watching the clock kind of nervously. He’s got to get there before 8’o clock, because there is a curfew. And so the family is coming up the stairs, he’s grabbing the suitcase, the one suitcase they are allowed to bring, and his father—“Pops” he called him—is chugging up the stairs and grandma, she is of course coming up the stairs, too, and we’re helping everyone up. All of a sudden, all the family is there. The older brothers and sisters: Mari and Alice and Charlie, Emmy and Betty, Tom and Margie’s there, and everyone is there. Jack’s greeting them, he has been waiting, watching the clock, and he’s got the favorite dish there, the favorite meal that Pops Nakajiro my grandfather loved, it’s corned beef and cabbage, a real American meal. And here this Japanese-American family is sitting down together and all the sudden all the stories started coming out.
They grew up in a ghetto. They grew up in a waterfront, navy town ghetto of Vallejo, California where grandpa had his barber shop, and so the family is recounting playing as kids, playing baseball in the open field and swimming in that dirty old sewage of the bay, and they’re just reminiscing because they haven’t been together in so many years. And they are really very happy just to be together as a family and they don’t know what’s going to be happening next because well it’s a very difficult time and, in fact, they’ve been given notice that they’re going to be locked up in these concentration camps because they are Americans, but they happen to be the wrong race at the wrong time: Japanese-Americans. So, here they are celebrating as this family, the stew is ready to be served, and there is laughter filling the air, and little Tommy turns and says “Where’s Pops?” and they see grandpa, Pops, there sitting on the floor and he is kneeling there, his head is down and they say “Pops is crying? Why is he crying?” They all gather around, he finally lifts his head up and he’s sobbing. And here’s a man who came to this country as a teenager, he worked the whaling ships in Alaska, he went turtle hunting in Galapagos, an immigrant working his way up. He was a cook in the US navy on the USS Bennington and, in fact, he told his kids he was a hero because he saved the captain’s life when the boiler room blew up. So, he was honorably discharged, a US navy cook.
And when this small Japanese man, at that time he was sixty years old, a white haired man, lifted up his face was streaming with tears, he said, “You know, I came in to this country, I’m a good citizen, I wish all of you to be good citizens. You are Americans, when I came here to give you a country, but I am Japan, I am Japanese, and I always will be Japanese. But you, your country has betrayed you, and now you have no family, you have no country, and for this I apologize,” and he bowed to his family in apology, and it was just dead silent. And they’d seen this man who had been a stern authority figure for the family for all their lives suddenly break down in tears. For the rest of the evening it was very quiet, the curfew was in place, and for the days that followed, they were preparing to be shipped off to these concentration camps in America. So what followed after that period was being transferred on trains and going in to the camps, of course with the stress of having lost everything and Pops, grandpa, he lost his barber shop, had to sell all his equipment and Shizuko had to pack up everything in only one suitcase, and so that’s all they had. This is very stressful for this old man, who also had diabetes, and so when they’re in these hot trains with thousands and thousands of Japanese Americans, all sealed up, it’s hot and they’re going down the valley in this spring time heat. So, Nakajiro, my grandfather, gets a stroke; it’s too much stress, he is in a coma. So the officials say, “Okay, drop him off in the next city.” So, they stop and they take him off, the elders ask if they want to go with him to be with him, see how he fares. But the officials say, “Sorry, you guys get back on to the train. We got to leave him here.”
So, he was abandoned there in this hospital, they don’t know where or what city it was, the windows are all boarded up, and off they go off to the deserts of Arizona. And for the weeks that followed they had no clue where he was, didn’t know if he lived. In fact they heard where he was, and they were trying to write letters to him, no word back. Finally, he did make it back to the camp and he was half paralyzed and can hardly speak, but of course he thought the family had abandoned him. The letters they had written, no one had delivered them to him. They were by his bed side, but here’s a man who had suffered a stroke, who was half paralyzed, and all his family letters are right there bundled up, but no one had bothered to take care of him that way. So, he ends up living just a few more months and then, eventually from all the trauma and the stroke, he dies, and he is cremated and Shizuko my grandmother takes the ashes and places them in a small cigar box and places them under his bed.
The story goes, “Oyasumi nasai” “Good night.” every night she’d say that to this box of ashes that was once my grandfather and places them under his bed. So they’re there for a few more years. Eventually the older ones actually got out, the West Coast restriction allowed them not to be in the West Coast, but they can leave the concentration camp by going to Chicago and going to the East Coast. So they set up, establish themselves, and slowly they are able to get the family out of the camps. The years pass by and people have their own way of surviving and carrying on, and it’s 48 years later. Jack, my father, has become a doctor. He was really proud of his college years before it got interrupted, he was a boxer at the time, and so he thought maybe I’ll go down to the library and look at the year book. So, Dolores and he went down to the library of the college, and there’s no evidence. Of course, there’s no evidence because it’s the spring of 1942, and Jack was hauled off to the concentration camp, so he never got his leather jacket. Well, the librarian happened to overhear this and she said, “Let’s see what we can do about this.”
So, that spring in the year of 1990 at the San Francisco State sports award banquet they said, “Forty-eight years later and an unjust constitutional law that locked up Americans of Japanese ancestry should not be a deterrent for a man to receive his just award. So, Jack Kikuchi come up and receive your letter jacket.” So here’s this man, 78 years old goes up, the oldest man ever to receive his varsity jacket. So with standing applause, here it is San Francisco State, all the students and faculty, all the many races, giving him a standing ovation. And I always hold that picture in combination with what happened 48 years before that where Nakajiro is bowing before his family, apologizing and saying, “Sorry, I didn’t give you a future. I am sorry I didn’t give you a country,” but here it is 48 years later and you know he is successful, Uncle Charlie ends up writing a book, the first book about the experience in the concentration camps. Auntie Alice ends up working for Japan Airlines, which played a very important role in healing the relationship between Japan and America. So, in my mind I paint this pantheon of uncles and aunties in the face of that man who felt so ashamed, then bowing to their father and saying, “You did give us a country, you did give us a future. Arigato gozaimasu. Thank you.”
Bangladeshi-American Muslim storyteller, Arif Choudhury, shares stories about growing up as the only “brown-skinned boy” in the neighborhood and how 9-11 changed how others might perceive him and his family.
What’s the difference between an interrogation and a conversation? How do we be curious about one another but not pressure someone to represent their whole group or feel that they’re being examined and objectified?
Did you ever wonder about your own identity? How did you resolve your questions and confusion?
Has your understanding or behavior towards Muslims changed over the years? In what ways?
History leaves us all with prejudices. For 2000 years, the Jews have been chased from country to country. They’ve always been the “other.”
“Well, my family, they fled Russia about a hundred years ago. The Czar of Russia had encouraged his subjects and his soldiers to kill Jews. One day, the Cossacks, the Czar’s horsemen, were riding into my little village the Zubkova.
My cousin heard the horse’s hooves in the street, and she ran out to get the children inside. But she wasn’t quick enough. There was the Cossack, sword drawn, coming down the street. She threw herself on the baby, and the sharp blade came down, right across her back.
And that night, my grandmother said, “Enough! We’re going to America!”
And so, we came to America, where we could be safe, where we could live with other Jews. But memories like that, they don’t go away. They’re in our culture. They’re inside our genes.
One day, when I was about five years old, I was sitting on the steps. My sister and my cousin were with me. We were playing, when suddenly I saw them. I’d never seen anything like that before, but I, I knew that they were dangerous. I knew it, in my DNA.
They were big, and they were black. And they seemed to be flying down the street, with big white wings that came out of their head. My sister, my cousin, they saw the look on my face. And then they looked, and then we three were all frozen in fear, as the monsters came, closer and closer.
“Where they going to kidnap us? Or maybe even worse?”
They reached us. They started to reach out their hands towards us.
“Good morning, children.”
Aah, aah, aah, aah, aah! And we ran inside. Escaping from the nuns.
What if the U.S. went to war with your country of origin? Anne Shimojima tells of the difficult days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, when her Japanese-American family were forced to evacuate their home. Could it happen to you?
Imagine that your family had to leave its home in ten days. You can only take what you can carry. You may never return. What will you take and why? What will you have to leave behind that will break your heart to leave?
What can we learn from the experience of the Japanese-Americans at this time when Muslim-Americans face so much prejudice?
Being an American citizen gives us certain rights. If you lost your rights as the Japanese-Americans did in World War II, what are some of the actions you could take in response?
Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project – The Densho Digital Archive contains 400 videotaped histories (fully transcribed, indexed, and searchable by keyword) and over 10,700 historic photos, documents, and newspapers. www.densho.org/
Personal Justice Denied; Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and University of Washington Press, 1997. Available at: books.google.com and