By Roberta Barton
Daughter With Japanese Roots
ROBERTA BARTON: Daughter connects with Japanese roots
Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010
By Roberta Barton
By Roberta Barton
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. With every passing year, I wish that I could turn back time.
Those lost years would be replaced with a wholehearted reconnection to my cultural roots as a third-generation Japanese American sansei.
My youthful rush to leap forward would be rebalanced with a desire to remember and celebrate my Asian heritage.
My thoughts turn to my mother, Michiko. Fuzzy memories of her internment story, etched in the dust storms of Poston, Arizona, cling to me all the time now. A photo of Mom in cap and gown on the day of her high school graduation at the internment camp now lies tucked safely away in my wallet.
I remember Mom describing how her diploma fluttered nearly out of reach when she stepped up to receive it, just like the promising life that had been so unexpectedly snatched from her grasp.
The photo is my constant companion, a daily reminder of where I came from and an urgent call to preserve family history for my own child. Dust, scorpions, bad mutton and a faded photo of bachan. These memories are my son's inheritance.
Middle age prompted a frantic effort to reconnect to everything Japanese in my life before all connections were gone. I wrote to the National Archives to get a copy of Mom's internment camp file. Among the standard government forms, was a handwritten biography that she must have completed for school.
I was struck by the positive, upbeat tone of her narrative. There was no anger, no grief, no despair. My mother, like so many other internees, expressed a profound desire to prove her patriotism and love for her country.
Last spring, I attended a reunion of Poston internees. Traveling along the same bone-dry Arizona desert road that Mom probably traveled in 1942, I closed my eyes and tried to picture her experience. How would I feel as a young teenager leaving my home to live in a tarpaper shack in the middle of nowhere?
My emotions started to get the best of me, but I pushed them back down. Is this how Mom faced her impossible situation and the 120-degree temperature that greeted internees?
Then just outside the town of Parker, the desert gave way to fertile green fields. Our Native-American tour guide thanked the internees over and over again for the agricultural prosperity stretching as far as the eye could see on the tribal reservation land before us.
When we stopped at Poston II where Mom had been interned, I took a moment to call my sister in front of the original camp gymnasium still in use today. "Say 'Hi' to Mom," I demanded. We yelled it together over my cell phone. Then it was my son's turn to repeat the ritual with "Hi, bachan."
These days I try to make up for lost time by attending a Japanese church and volunteering for projects celebrating the culture and legacy of the Japanese-American community. One of those projects is the Fresno Assembly Center Memorial, which will share the stories of local Japanese-Americans detained at the fairgrounds on their way to the internment camps.
Now I can share Mom's story through a personalized donor brick that will line the walkway of the memorial. Thousands of people will know of her experience and learn the stories of so many others.
It's an important history lesson that until recently didn't seem to make it into most lesson plans. With everything that's going on in our diverse world today, it's a lesson in tolerance that we should all heed.
Mom, I hope you're proud of your daughter.
Roberta Barton is a third-generation Japanese-American. She is president of the Central California Asian Pacific Women and serves on the Fresno Assembly Center Memorial Upgrade Committee.