Thursday, March 01, 2007

Family History

In a conversation I had with a friend, I mentioned that, although it's really corny, when I run into difficult stuff here I think about my great grandparents and what they had to do when they came to America. And then generally whatever I'm going through doesn't seem so bad. My friend expressed some surprise that my family's been in America for so long. And it's true, the majority of Asian immigration to the US occurred post-World War II.

It's actually kind of weird since I have an almost textbook family history in some ways. I'm not entirely sure when my great grandparents (all 8 of them) came to the US, but it had to be before 1907 for the guys since that's when the Gentlemen's Agreement eliminated Japanese immigration to the US. Apparently my great grandfather's brother was caught in Japan at the time the agreement was passed and was unable to return.

Two of my great grandfathers started out in Seattle, one of them settled there for a while before moving down to LA where he supposedly founded a grocery store empire in the greater Los Angeles area and became seriously wealthy. The other one worked his way down the coast and out to Hawaii where supposedly there was an uncle waiting for him. When he got there, his uncle had disappeared and no one knew where to find him. Finally, one other set of great great grandparents came over as a couple and eventually settled in one of three somewhat "utopian" Japanese farming communities, the most famous of which was the Yamato Colony.

It actually surprised me but in a couple conversations I've had with people, the camps have come up. And although there's usually some amusing confusion about my grandparents being "in camps", people generally really surprised that my family was interned. I guess for me it's not really that unusual. I mean, my family is Japanese American, most of us were interned. But I guess most people have never met someone whose family was interned. Whatever.

The grocery empire was totally lost because of internment. They had to sell everything and lost a lot of money, and they never really recovered. Had my family held on to their stores, I'm sure our family would look a lot different, maybe I wouldn't have even been born, I don't know.

When I think about it, my great grandparents were pretty amazing. Most of them came to America at the age of 16 either to work or to marry some cousin who was 10 or so years older than them, and not speaking English. They lived in a country that was hostile to them and denied them citizenship. They worked dangerous and low paying jobs which Americans were not willing to do. Most of them never returned to Japan, which meant that they never saw their families again, and probably only occasionally heard from them.

My great grandparents took some pretty big chances. They were most likely motivated by inheritance disputes, poverty, shiftlessness, or just plain lack of options. However, it is good to remember them sometimes when I start feeling too sorry for myself.

1 comment:

exangelena said...

I knew this guy who was into crazy conspiracy theories who said that lots of Japanese-Americans disappeared during the internment and were never seen again, and I was like, I'm Japanese-American with a large extended family and I think we're all accounted for! He definitely picked the wrong conspiracy theory to peddle to me.