My Chinese Grandfather

by Storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki

Story Summary

As a child, Brenda visits her Grandfather who collects, dries and sells seaweed along the coast of California. When she is older, she helps him with his work. Brenda finds his ways strange and the work hard, but the two find unique ways of talking and enjoying each other’s company.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  My Chinese Grandfather

Discussion Questions:

  1. What service did Brenda’s Grandfather provide? Why do you think he lived the simple life he did?
  2. Do you have any relatives whose language, cultural customs or ways of making a living are very different from yours?
  3. Do you have any relatives you wish you had spent more time with? If you had an extra few days with them right now, what would you ask them? How would you want to spend your time with them?

Resources:

  • Chinese Americans: The Immigrant Experience by Peter Kwong and Dusanka Miscevic
  • Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present by Judy Yung and Gordon H. Chang
  • Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pflaezer
  • The Chinese in America: From Gold Mountain to the New Millenium edited by Susie Lan Casel You can read an excerpt from the book and on page 161, you can see a photo of Brenda (the teen with the glasses), her younger sister, her aunts and her Grandmother with her Grandpa, George Lum, drying seaweed. There is a picture of How Long on page 163. In the actual book, on page 167, the little boys in the photo are Brenda’s uncles. Excerpt and photos at: http://bit.ly/SeaweedGatherers

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

I’m Brenda Wong Aoki. And when I was a little girl, I used to wish that I could trade in my grandpa because I felt like I got cheated ’cause I know what grandpas were supposed to look like. You know they have, like, white hair and twinkly eyes and you go to their house for, like, Thanksgiving or Christmas or something. Except my grandpa wasn’t like that. My grandpa didn’t have any hair, and he didn’t even have a house. So, I, I, ss… he was Chinese. But now that I’m older, I wish that I spent less time thinking about trading in grandpa, and more time getting to know him.

My grandpa lived in an old, tin roof shack. It was built out of tar paper and pieces of wood he’d just find on the beach. He had no electricity, no running water. He never really learned English, and his strange gruff ways used to scare me.

I can remember my first trip to Grandpa’s was 1959. I was six years old. We were in our old Chevy station wagon, and along the way I saw a sign that said, “How Wong” ’cause I just learned how to read. How Wong. That confused me. But my mother explained that How Wong was Grandpa’s best friend. They had come together from Canton, China when they were only 18 years old.

And then I saw a dwarf, right out of Snow White. It was Grumpy. No, it was Grandpa. Inside his shack, he had frogs big as my head, living in his sink and they were ribbiting. (Ribbit! Ribbit!) My mother gave me some flowers to give to Grandpa, a bouquet of flowers. He wouldn’t take it (giggle). “Moano zhu tou! Zhu tou! Stupid bamboo head!”

It turns out, bamboo head, that’s what you call ABCs. American-born Chinese, because we’re hard on the outside and hollow in the inside and Grandpa thought I must be a stupid ABC if I didn’t know that cut flowers are an omen of death. He thought I was trying to kill him or somethin. That summer, that night, Grandpa laid down blankets on bales of seaweed and blew out the kerosene lamp (whooo). We are at the edge of the ocean. There are no streetlights. Nothing. You can’t even see your hand in front of your face. And I didn’t remember seeing a bathroom. Mom hands me a metal pail. “What’s this for?”

“You know.”

“You mean?”

“Um huh! We call it a thunder bucket.”

When we left, our car was covered with pigeon droppings like icing on a cake. I had never seen anything like it. And that’s what I remember from my first trip to Grandpa’s. And after that, we would return to Grandpa’s every summer, and help him gather seaweed ’cause this is how Grandpa made a living. He would gather seaweed, spread ’em out to dry. Then later on, cut ’em into little pieces, put ’em in packages and sell ’em to Chinatowns throughout California, and even over to China.

When I was 16 years old, we returned to Grandpa’s. This time the sign said, “How Wong is the Chinaman.”

My mother explained, “Somebody must have written that because they were being racist.”

That summer I found myself wearing men’s galoshes, Grandpa’s overalls and this big coolie hat. I looked totally f.o.b. (fresh off the boat). And after they left me at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, whatever time the tide was low, his little green flashlight leading the way, we climbed down the cliffs on these little steps my grandpa had hewn out of the rock. Now I was slippin’ and sliding trying to keep up with Grandpa’s short, stocky legs. He was just like buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh! Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, buh, and down. And I was hangin on for dear life. When we finally get down to the bottom, there was tidepools but tidepools like you can’t see anymore. Tidepools that were like jewels with pink and green sea anemones, orange starfish, little baby crabs,
golden fish, eh, gorgeous! But there was no time to look.

Grandpa would say, “Fai Dee! Fai Dee! Hurry up!”

Oh, the tide would not wait. So, twist and pull and throw in the basket. We gathered seaweed. Twist and pull and throw in the basket. Not the green one, not the brown one, just the black one for sushi. That kind. Twist and pull and throw in the basket, twist and pull and throw in the basket. This was terrible on my fingernails! Twist and pull and throw in the basket. This was not the way I was supposed to spend my summer. I have a new, brand-new bikini with white polka dots. And I was supposed to be on the beach, listening to the Beach Boys with my transistor radio instead of here with him. And he can’t even understand English. Twist and pull and throw in the basket! Twist and pull and…

“Watch waves.”
“What are you talking about? Watch waves.”

“Watch waves!”

Ah! This was really dangerous work. There’s no lifeguards out here. Ah, huh! When we were done, the beach was covered with all these big baskets full of wet seaweed. My grandpa would take this big pole and he’d put the baskets on either side, and he’d just climb up the cliffs. Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh! Buh, buh, buh, buh! Uuh! Buh, buh, buh! Uuh! Buh, buh, buh, buh, buh! Uuh! They must have weighed about 200 pounds easy, those two wet baskets. And when he was finished, I was up there spreading ’em out, spreading ’em out, spreading ’em out ’til we had, like, I dunno… seemed to me like a football field full of thick seaweed. Then when we’re finished, Grandpa would go into the shed, into his shack. He’d light a fire in the stove. (Shhhh!) Shoo the frogs out the sink. “Go now. Go. Go!” and they’d hop away.

He’d take a great big wok and make dinner. (Shh, hhh, hhh!) Sometimes on special occasions, Grandpa would bring out a Chinese delicacy, pickled chicken feet. Little toenails clicking, he’d walk them across the table towards me. Eeheeheeheeh! He loved to do that. Heh, heh, heh, heh! After supper, Grandpa would take 180 proof Chinese whiskey, pour it in a teacup, and in another, he’d pour me tea.

He’d say, “This fo’ me. This fo’ company!”

He’d light a big stogy, (ooh, whoo), look me in the eye and say, “Ooh, whoo, ah, Blenda! Blenda! How’s skoo?”

Brenda, how’s school? That was Grampa’s favorite American line. You see, in Chinese, words take on different meanings if you change the intonation. So, my grandpa would change his tones and think he was saying a whole bunch of American words. Our conversation used to sound something like this.

“Ah, Blenda! How’s skoo?”

“Grandpa, tidepools are cool.”

“Ah, Blenda! How’s skoo?”

“Tomorrow can we take a day off?”

“Blenda! How’s skoo?”

We used to talk like that for hours. At the end of the summer, Grandpa poured gasoline on the rocks and torched them. I remember standing with him watching the flames burning on the waves. He said that was so the old seaweed could die and the new seaweed could grow.

When my parents picked me up, I gave my grandpa a big kiss on his bald head, right between his big, floppy ears (smooch). And he said to me, “You go now! Go! Go!”

And he stood there all alone in the cow pasture with his little green flashlight. And that beam never wavered until we’d gone all the way up the mountain and dropped over the crest.

My grandpa died when I was in college, and we buried him up near San… up near San Francisco in the Chinese cemetery. Cem… cemeteries were all segregated. And the Chinese cemetery is right behind Home Depot, so I can always find it. Everybody put cut flowers on his grave, but I remembered and brought a small green plant that still had its roots.

Recently, my Uncle Victor passed away, and I found out that my grandpa was one of the last seaweed gatherers off the coast of California. This was a community that had been there for 100 years. They’d escaped the purging of the Chinatowns when Chinatowns throughout California were burned down. And fleeing Chinese were shot or lynched or put on barges and left out in the open sea without water or food. Grandpa and a bunch of men and their families, they, they gathered seaweed quietly on the coast. And they were respected because they weren’t in competition for the ranch hands, uh, jobs or anything. They also had money. They were merchants. They sold to China; they sold to Chinatown.

And I interviewed one of the ranch hands, and she said that my grandpa had saved them during the Depression. She said, “We were starving. The ranch hands were starving but your grandpa came with baskets, and he brought us Chinese food. It was the first time I’ve ever had Chinese food.”

And I thought, “Chinese food and baskets.”

She said she’d never had fish or crab before in her life until grandpa came and saved them during the Depression. So, my grandpa was a well-respected merchant. Georgie Wong, the Chinaman.

On the Train to the Japanese American Incarceration Camps

by Storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki

Story Summary

Brenda recounts a story that was told to her by a woman who was a nurse and who, along with 120,000 of other Japanese Americans, was forced to leave her home and all she and her husband owned to be imprisoned in Incarceration Camps during WWII. A baby who should have been in the hospital is placed on board the train to the camps with her mother. The nurse does all she can to help the mother and baby but the end-result is out of her hands.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  On the Train to the Japanese American Incarceration Camps

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you had to suddenly leave everything you owned and loved behind and could only take one suitcase with you, what would you take?
  2. How was it that American citizens could suddenly lose their citizenship rights to own their homes, their businesses and receive due process before being imprisoned? Do you think it could ever happen again?
  3. How was the propaganda against Japanese American citizens during WWII like the fear and prejudices against Muslim American citizens we see today?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Brenda Wong Aoki. This year, 2017, is the 70th anniversary of the Executive Order 9066, which was responsible for putting 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were United States citizens, in incarceration camps throughout the country. Now these people, two thirds of them were United States citizens, they lost everything. They lost their jobs. Their bank accounts were frozen. They never got ’em back. Their homes, their businesses, they had to sell for, for, for peanuts because they only had a week to sell everything. And they could only bring what you could carry, which was usually a suitcase and a small child. And some of these people were in these incarceration camps for up to five years, three to five years.

So, recently, uh, my sister-in-law said there was a woman she knew, an Issei woman, second generation Japanese, who had a story that she wanted to tell me, Brenda Wong Aoki, because I am the official, in her mind, Japanese storyteller. And she wanted me to have this story because she wanted me to tell it to the world. It goes like this.

I am a United States citizen, born right here on Grady Avenue. My father fought in World War I. My two brothers were drafted and fought in World War II. I am a nurse. Still am. This year we’ve helped so many friends die. Ne papa? My husband, he is 87. I am 84, so we think it’s time we told this story. It’s about the train ride.

It was 1942. We were newlyweds with a week-old baby and a houseful of brand new furniture. Birds eye maple bedroom set, new refrigerator, sofa. We had one week to sell everything. We had 50 bucks. We ran down to the train station with mainly just the clothes on our backs and baby stuff. We didn’t know we would be there for five years. When we got to the train station, there were soldiers everywhere. They separated the men from the women. They put me on the train with all the mothers and babies, and this is what I wanna tell you.

I see my friend Michi. She and I had just had our babies together over at General (Hospital), only Michi’s baby was so sick. The doctor said it would die if it left the hospital. So, Michi got on the train without her baby. But just as we’re about to pull out of the station, some soldiers come and throw a baby in one of the empty seats.
All the mothers are, “Whose baby, whose baby?”

Do you know, it was Michi’s baby! Those soldiers had gone into the hospital and taken the baby out of ICU against doctor’s orders and just dumped it on the seat. So Michi sat next to me because, as I told you, I am a nurse. I took one look at that baby. Its cry was so weak. But Dr. Takeshita, the doctor I worked for, he told me he was gonna be on the train, just one car ahead of us. And if anything should happen to any of the mothers or the babies, just go get him. So, at the first stop, I get off the train and a soldier points a bayonet at me. I said, “A baby is sick! A baby may be dying!”

He said, “The next one goes right through you!”

I got back on the train. It was so hot in there because they nailed the windows shut and painted them black. And the ride took almost three days, and they only fed us one time. But I remember the food. Spoiled milk and green bologna, left on the platform like we were animals or something. With nothing to drink, my breast milk was drying up, and my baby was crying and crying. (Wooo!) Everybody’s baby was crying and crying. But Michi’s baby was so quiet. Then I noticed… it was dead. But Michi didn’t seem to know. I mean, she knew, but she just… (rocks and sings, ooh, ooh…)
When we finally arrived, we were in the middle of nowhere, nothing. We are city people. We never been to a place like this, the desert.

In all the commotion, Michi slipped away. They couldn’t find her for hours. They had to get a jeep to go get her! There she was, walking through the desert with her dead baby in her arms. She was still trying to find a hospital!

My breast milk never came back and my daughter would have died too because all she had to eat the first two weeks in camp was sugar water. But Mac, the Hakugin pharmacist back home, a white guy, he heard about our situation and he sent us formula the whole time. Never charged us nothing!

Decades, decades have come and gone since the train ride. My daughter has had health problems her whole life because of those first few weeks in camp, but she survived. My husband, he married into Michi’s family, so he sees her from time to time. But me, I can’t come. She won’t see me … because my face reminds her of the train ride.

Racism on the Road and Into the Next Generation

by Storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki

Story Summary

Brenda performs a children’s song in Japanese and is told to stop using “demonic language” and is called “a witch.” She is told by a producer that he is disappointed she isn’t a “real” Japanese. Unfortunately, the bias and ignorance Brenda encounters on the road is also visited on the next generation as Brenda learns that her son is mistaken for another Japanese American student who looks completely different from her son.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Racism on the Road and Into the Next Generation

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do some people approach differences with curiosity and respect and others react with ignorance and hate?
  2. What would you do in Brenda’s place if you had been confronted with similar statements and actions? Have you experiences similar slights and biases?
  3. Brenda is disappointed that her son is experiencing similar prejudices and invisibility? Do you think race relations are improving or getting worse? Why or why not?

Resources:

  • Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives by Howard J. Ross
  • Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji

Themes:

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Bullying
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

I’m Brenda Wong Aoki, and I’m the first nationally recognized Asian Pacific storyteller in the United States. I’ve been doing this for a living for the last 40 years. So, I wanted to share with you some stories about being on the road. Uh, one of the stories is about being called a witch. I was doing this song for a bunch of children in a school. It goes like this. It’s about a big fish and a little fish.

Okina sakana, suiei, suiei

Chisana sakana, suiei, suiei, suiei

Okina sakana, chisana sakana

You get the idea, right. So, I’m doing this story. And, um, the person around me says, “Don’t do that.”

And why… I’m, like, “Why?”

And he said, “Well, because the mothers think you’re doing a demonic incantation on their children. Please don’t do that.”

I said, “Okay.”

So, then I did my public concert and there were women in the audience with signs that said, “Witch, go home!”

I think they’re talking to me but I’m a professional storyteller so I go on. And I start telling my story and they start chanting, “Witch, go home! Witch, go home!” And they start pulling their kids out of the assembly, and the kids are crying and everybody’s… There’s chaos and they’re chanting, “Witch, go home! Witch, go home!

Witch, go home!”

And I just freak out, run into the dressing room, and I’m so shocked. And I look in the mirror. And I think, “Huuuh! Maybe I am a witch because nobody out there looks like me.”

So, I called my friend Eric, who is a priest, and I say, “Eric, you gotta come out here because people think I’m a witch out here.” Now Eric is a circuit rider in Nevada. This happened in Nevada. So, he has lots of churches, and he usually wears a Hawaiian shirt, and he’s in a big open jeep. And I said, “But don’t come like that. Come in your cossack. Come with your cross; you know, come looking churchy.

So, Father Eric puts… comes. And he looks like Jesus Christ on the back of a jeep. And he’s got his black Cossack, he’s got his cross, his blond hair was flying in the breeze, and he screeches up to where I’m performing. And all these people with placards go, “Oh, my xxx, the witch has the anti-Christ with her.

So, all Eric said, “Let’s just go get a beer.”

But that was one of my experiences. It happened several times to me throughout the country being called a witch, but it was a very innocent song. Another time I was at a reception in my honor, which was before the show, which is awkward because usually a performer likes to be preparing, warming up their voice. Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah! That kinda stuff, right. But if you’re at a reception before your performance, you can’t be doing that.

So, I’m trying to be polite and thank everybody for having me. And one of the society ladies comes up to me. You know the kind, starved to perfection.

She says, “Goodness, Brenda! It has been a delight working with you because, let’s face it, you speak such good English.”

And I said, “Well, thank you. I was born here.”

And she goes, “Uuuuh! Oh! No, no, no, no, no. I thought we bought a real one!”

And then she took me to the guy who paid the big bucks and he kind of looks like a great, big toad. He says to me, “What part Japan you from?”

I said, “I’m not from Japan. Actually, my name is Brenda Jean. I’m Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, and Scotch, and I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah.”

And he goes, “What part of Japan is Salt Lake City, Utah?”

I said, “It’s not in Japan; it’s in the United States.”

He goes, “Oh, that’s why your eyes aren’t as slanty as the rest.”

And I’m thinking, “Am I supposed to say thank you?”

Now I have to tell you another story. I’d just finished performing in New Orleans at the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center. Wonderful, standing ovation! I was doing Japanese ghost stories. And after the performance, this woman comes up to me and says, “You know, we’re having so much problems between Vietnamese and blacks that could you come to East New Orleans and tell some Japanese ghost stories?”

“Okay.”

So, I go to the high school and it’s, like, one of those high schools, you know, with, like, like, guards everywhere. And they got German Shepherds sniffin lockers to look for drugs and things. And I go to the auditorium, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of kids and I look at them. They’re all wearing baseball caps and baggy clothes and they’re just kinda… uh, un. And they’re all Vietnamese, and I’m thinking, “Well, where’s all the African-American kids?” But anyway, I start my Japanese ghost stories.

And you couldn’t… there’s just silence, absolute silence. And when I’m finished there’s, like, one applause (clap, clap) and they can’t wait to get out of there.

And I’m thinking, “Wow! Great! I do a free performance and I bomb.” And I’m sitting there. I think, “What a waste of effort!”

And this girl comes up to me and she’s typical f.o.b., fresh off the boat. Immigrant young girl with glasses and books. And, you know, over… her clothes are too big. And I think, “Great! Not only did I have to do a free gig, but now some bookworm’s gonna ask me for a dissertation on Japanese theater. Uuh, huh!”

And she goes, “Miss Aoki? We don’t means to be dissing you but this is East Nawlins. Here we don’t gots to be Vietnamese. We gots to be black.”

And that was like, bam, slap, slap, slap, slap, enlightenment! I should not have been sittin up there tryin to tell these kids Japanese ghost stories. I should have been tellin ’em what it was like for me growin up in my mom and dad’s store. Bein the eldest kid, havin no money and bein poor. And knowin what it felt like not to have money, and havin people look at you. And it woulda been so much better. Sometimes the personal is so perfect.

The last story I want to tell you is about MaK.K. I have a son Kai Kane. Well, he grew up in an all African-American neighborhood. Very ghetto, crack house next door, arms dealer across the street. We all get along. It’s just that K.K. was the only non-black kid on the block. So, all of his friends didn’t want to call him by his real name, which is Kai Kane. And they said, “We’re just gonna call you K.K. So. K.K. grew up playing basketball and, you know, everything with African-American kids. Then he gets a scholarship to this fancy, white school on the other side of the bridge. Suddenly, there’s only two, uh, boys of color in his entire school. It’s Masashi, who’s from Japan, who’s very, very tall with straight hair and glasses. And K.K. who’s, uh, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Scotch, and looks like a cherub with all these curls. And he’s very, very short and kinda chubby. And the school cannot tell ’em apart. They can’t tell the difference between Masashi and K.K. So, they just decide to call him MaK.K. So, from kindergarten to eighth grade, he’s MaK.K. along with Masashi. MaK.K. So fast forward.

My son is a dancer, and he’s dyslexic, and he’s got ADHD. So, he gets a scholarship to Stanford because they’re looking for another Steve Jobs and they thought that, you know, with all these learning things, he might be the new Steve Jobs.

And he just graduated with a Master’s in Cultural Psychology. And he tells me, at the celebration, there’s only four kids who graduated with a Master’s in Cultural Psychology at Stanford. This just happened a couple of weeks ago. The four kids: one’s an African-American girl, one’s a Filipino girl, two Asian boys – one’s from China, and one’s my son K.K. Okay, the boy from China is very, very short. K.K. is now very, very tall. And K.K. tells me, the whole time they’re in the Psych Department getting their Master’s, the secretary of the department, who controls everything, you have to be on her good side, could not tell him and Larry apart the whole time. And this is Stanford University, the best Psych Department in the country, and this is Cultural Psychology. So, isn’t it funny and sad how some things never change.