I grew up in a predominantly Asian community in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. Every Sunday, my family and I would go to a Japanese-American church in Redwood City, then drive up to the Richmond district of San Francisco to visit the Chinese side of my family. Being young and idiotic (goes hand in hand, really), I didn’t grasp the importance of what my mom was trying to teach me about my family history. Years were spent ignoring the intersectionality of my upbringing, both in language and culture, which I took for granted. "Yes, I know Grandpa was in an internment camp, can you drive me to the mall?"
So what does all this have to do with Vietnamese Boat People? I’ll get to that.
February 19 is right around the corner, a date that isn’t too infamous but should be. It’s the anniversary of Executive Order 9066, President FDR’s authorization to imprison German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Japanese-Americans in concentration camps - my family in the lattermost category. The Day of Remembrance.
It was insane. My grandfathers on both sides had served in the US Military; my yeh-yeh served in WWII and my ojiichan has a Congressional Gold Medal from serving (despite being imprisoned for four years). I have a great-cousin who was second wave in Normandy.
This photo was taken sometime during WW2. My yeh-yeh (1918-2001) is in the US Army uniform. Standing on the left is his younger brother; on the right is his older brother. Sitting center is my great-grandfather (1879-1954). He emigrated to the US in 1919. They are all American citizens.
This is one of my ojiichan’s sketches he made of the camps. No cameras were allowed inside at the time, unless you were Dorothea Lange.
It was in high school, and ultimately college, when I began to reconnect with my roots - or more aptly, forced to confront them. My parents grew up in 1960s San Francisco, my aunt was Miss Chinatown. I’d always felt profoundly American, until I was made to feel otherwise. I could make a bingo card of how often I was called “Jackie Chan,” or “Bruce Lee” or Too Chinese to be Japanese-American, too Japanese to be Chinese-American, too Cantonese to be Mandarin, too American to be Asian - too Asian to be American. “What? You can’t speak Mandarin/Cantonese/Japanese? Bad Asian!”
This is my mom and I at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, near their internment exhibit, where my grandfather has some artwork on rotation.
I’m proud to be Japanese, Chinese, and American. And even prouder to talk about my grandparents’ and parents' history. Last year, I discovered the Vietnamese Boat People podcast and realized that other Asian-Americans families had stories too. And I could help them tell their stories, much like my mom helped her father tell his.
Vietnamese Boat People gives me the opportunity to shine a light not just on the Asian American Experience, but on the Southeast Asian American Experience which is fundamentally different than the East Asian one I was used to. It’s a heart-warming, introspective, and often intense ride that has defined to me what it means to be American.