Published June 5, 2009
Lately, the world outside Aya Medrud's windows seem to be unfolding like an old memory. At 84, the Boulder, Colorado resident has seen many trends from her youth regain new life including now, growing joblessness, high foreclosure rates, and the inevitable human despair that goes along with a global economic recession.
Aya, who went from a toddler to a teenager in the Great Depression, knows this plight all too well. Growing up in Seattle, Aya and her family survived the decade-long period of epic hardship by living off of what they could catch and grow. All the while, people would come to their door begging for scraps of food.
"We're not doing that badly now as of yet," said Aya, a retired schoolteacher and Mile-Hi JACL member. But grim economic indicators in 2009 continue drawing comparisons to 1929 making Aya a witness, in one lifetime, to two of the worst economic crises in U.S. history.
"It's incredible that it's all happening again."
For Asian Pacific American survivors of the Great Depression, memories of hope amidst despair and lessons from those trying times have gained new significance in the depths of the current recession.
"They were the original recyclers," said Marlene Shigekawa (Poston 21-11-D), 54, about the older generation that included her mother, Misako Shigekawa (Poston 21-11-D)
They knew how to stretch every dollar and reuse everyday household goods year after year. They were the so-called "frugalists" and "recessionistas" before how-to articles and lifestyle magazines popularized the monikers. And while Americans today are scouring these resources for new ideas to save money, Misako has been dishing out free advice for years.
"Money doesn't grow on trees," she would tell her children. "Save everything."
In January, the Santa Ana, Calif. resident turned 100, and impressions of the Great Depression remain deeply set.
"It was a disaster for everyone," said Misako, an Orange County JACL member. From this single life experience, she learned things she would remember for the rest of her life. She still insists on saving wrapping paper from opened birthday presents and shakes her head disapprovingly when her grandchildren waste even a drop of soda.
These are good lessons that have taken on new meaning in today's consumer-oriented society, said Marlene, a Bay Area writer.
"But watching our 401k diminish is motivation enough to follow mom's advice."
Children of the Great Depression
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Misako was attending the University of Southern California to become a pharmacist. News of the economic turmoil soon made its way on campus through newspaper headlines that announced the stark end to the "Roaring Twenties," an era of excess that led up to the Great Depression.
Misako got a job working in a drugstore after school in order to make ends meet. "Everyone was in the same situation, so it didn't feel too bad."
But the effects of the era can perhaps be best measured by what's missing. There aren't many photos of Aya's family from the Depression days.
"Not surprisingly people did not have cameras or money for luxuries like photos," she said.
One of the few images captured during this time is a 1930 black and white photo of five-year-old Aya with her younger sister Hope and cousin Tamotsu each clutching a toy of some sort. Their expressions tell the entire story: a far-off gaze, a young face crumpled. These were the children of the Great Depression.
In those days, the definition of "luxury" extended from milk and eggs to doctor's visits.
"We never went to the doctor for preventive reasons," said Aya. "The money wasn't there."
Her father Joseph Kozo Uenishi and grandfather Itaro Uenishi had helped build the Great Northern Railroad across the northern tier states, but the stock market crash forced the family, in 1930, to move to Seattle in search of more oppor-tunities.
There, Aya, her parents and two younger siblings lived under one roof with her grandparents. Joseph took odd jobs to try to make ends meet, including selling encyclopedia sets.
"If you could imagine getting a job trying to sell encyclopedias during the Great Depression," Aya said wryly.
With unemployment at an all time high, desperation hung heavily in the air.
Across the nation, suicide rates spiked and APAs - who, historians say, were blamed for taking away jobs - increasingly became victims of violence. In the summer of 1930, a mob of 400 attacked members of the Northern Monterey Filipino Club, killing two, according to the anthology, "Asian American Studies: A Reader."
In Aya's family, the effects of economic hardship seeped into everyday life.
Her grandmother, Tamae, suffered from constant migraine headaches and tended to the vegetable garden outside of their Seattle house, a pre-war "victory garden" with daikon and lettuce. And like other trends that have come around again, in March, first lady Michelle Obama broke ground on the White House's very own organic victory garden.
What was once old is becoming new again.
There are some definite parallels between the Great Depression and today, said Marlene. "People are starting to feel helpless."
In April, Michigan reported the highest jobless rate, 12.9 percent, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Joanna Takahashi, 26, is a part of that statistic. The single mother from Detroit was looking forward to a new beginning after her divorce was finalized in December. But two months later, she found out she was getting laid off from the automotive supply company where she had worked for a year.
"It was a big slap in the face."
To get by, she's pulled her three-year-old out of daycare and collects unemployment benefits.
"It's very stressful. Why me? I haven't done anything to deserve this."
In April, the national unemployment rate for APAs was 6.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This doesn't include involuntarily part-time workers and those on the verge of unemployment like 38-year-old Tim Chang.
Tim, who has a Master's degree from Columbia University in higher education administration, has worked for the Pasadena-based California Institute of Technology for 13 years, most recently as the senior director of institute housing.
On Jan. 26, he became another victim of the bad economy. It was "the day," a Monday that was long rumored to be the day of layoffs. What can you do? said Chang, who is fourth generation Chinese American. "You go to work and wait to see if you get called."
Then the phone rings.
"Ah, there you go. Dead man walking."
For the father of two, the path to his next career started at fear and panic, followed by anger and finally acceptance and motivation.
"I take each day as it comes."
He's applied to 40 jobs so far and has heard back from 10. They're the same responses: they've closed their search because of a lack of funding or they've decided to hire from within.
"It's tough. There is a glut of people out there. At the same time the pool of jobs is shrinking," he said. "A lot of people have Master's degrees. A lot of people have 13 years of experience."
Tim's last day at Cal Tech is July 31. It's a day he and his wife have spent years preparing for - building a safety net like his parents and grandparents have always told him to do.
It's sound advice now and always. Even as President Barack Obama has said that the economy has "stepped back from the brink" of calamity and the Labor Department has reported that mass layoffs were down in April compared to the previous month, evidence that some economists say point to an economy that's still grim, but at least not free falling at a rate that it was just a few months ago.
"It doesn't compare at all," said Aya about the current recession compared to the Great Depression of her childhood. "It was much worse then. But if this continues for a few more years, who knows?"
The other day, a department store representative called to offer her a 50 percent discount.
"I don't need anymore clothing. We don't buy a lot of things," she told the dejected representative.