Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Memorial's Day


have lived in the Washington DC area since 1996. I try to go to the Mall as often as possible, but like many of us who who live in areas where there are large attractions, we sometimes don't go to the trouble to see them because we are too busy and convince ourselves that we can go see them whenever we want.

On the Washington Mall--a large area of land in DC where you will find many of the Memorials, the Capitol, and the White House--I have been to the Vietnam Memorial, the the top of the Washington Memorial and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When I go see Lincoln, I always make it a point to stand on the steps and look east over the Reflecting Pool toward the Capitol, and think of a man who stood there over 40 years ago and told everyone, "I have a dream." Martin Luther King spoke of the issues still faced by African Americans in the early 60s. He said, "the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." Many things have changed since then and economic prosperity and educational opportunity are shared by a far greater number of minorities. We are as equal as we have ever been in our history. But in many ways, we still live in a society that practices the spirit of the old ways: separate but equal. Perhaps, you have to be one of the separated to see the inequality at times because the practices are no longer overt. I would love to see an Asian American run for public office or climb the corporate ladder in a non-Asian American environment. I would love to have someone, anyone, make me eat crow...

Oh well, some do not see what I see, feel what I feel, because they have not experienced what I have experienced. Maybe my experience makes me see things that aren't there. As a little kid, I was beat up for being a "Chinaman." Was being called a "Chinaman" an expression of racial equality because all Asians are equal? In high school, I was exhorted by the dean of men to fraternize with my "countrymen". Was this a friendly, albeit naive, attempt at equal--but separate--treatment? Did these experiences taint my current world view? At work, when there was a party, I used to be expected to bring sushi, but when I tell them I make a better meat loaf or pasta salad, they frowned. Why do you think they frowned? I always thought it was because they presumed that, since I was JA I would "naturally" bring something Japanese. Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe they expected it because I teach Japanese, right? But then, why does no one raise an eyebrow when the non-Asian teacher of another Asian language brings Doritos. Do I imagine these slights? Of course, I was able to overcome one group to which I was associated. As a kid, I was picked on for being a dork--small, unathletic--by other JAs--everyone tries to find someone weaker than themselves. But with time and a change of environment, I am no longer afflicted, thankfully, since being a dork is not part of my genetic make-up.

Anyway, one memorial I have seen only once is the Japanese American National Memorial located between Union Station and the Capitol on D and New Jersey. It is, by DC standards, a modest memorial, but nice nonetheless. It is a tribute to Japanese Americans who have given their lives for our country in the armed services. Fortunately, the few I know who served are alive. One person I worked with and befriended, KJ, served in Vietnam. He used to tell me of the horror stories of tracer bullets flying overhead when they had little or no cover during a general retreat, and nights guarding munitions placed on a barge in the middle of a small inlet for fear that sabotage in camp would kill more soldiers. My old drinking partner, SJ, served as a medic in the famous "Go for broke" regiment, the 442 during WWII. Unlike the Rice Bowl Journal, Japanese Americans were grouped together, not by choice, but by the US military/ government. This type of treatment gets deeply seeded within the psyche. SJ and others from the 442 have reminded me over the years that we--Japanese Americans--were treated differently and it is hard to ignore the words and emotions expressed by my elders.

Now the reason why I have visited the JA National Memorial only once is because it makes me sad. As far back as I can remember, every Memorial's Day, we used to go to Evergreen Cemetary in East LA to pay our respects to dead relatives and my parents friends. My dad would occasionally take her sister, but when we got there she would go to a particular corner of the cemetary and sit with a bunch of other people for some kind of ceremony--"It's for your cousin," my dad explained. It wasn't until I was older that I realized it was a ceremony for war veterans, and that my cousin, who served in the 442, died in Europe during WWII. The JA Memorial in DC lists all the war dead, and I was moved and saddened when I saw and touched his name etched into the cold marble wall, the name of a cousin I have never met but who--despite being treated as the "other"--fought and died for all our freedom. Rest in peace, Andy...

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