I was taught in school to hate Japan and the Japanese people. I grew up in a rural area in central China. My grandfather and great uncle fought in the wars against Japanese Imperialism. The scars and the traumatic memories, beginning with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, are freshly reopened by personal tales, movies, shows, school lessons, and propaganda in the news that occurs on a regular basis. It is a widely shared sentiment in China that having hatred toward the Japanese is our patriotic duty. I never questioned that belief before I left China.
My cultural shock began rather quickly after I landed at the Milwaukee airport 21 years ago. My cultural identity of being a majority Chinese was challenged and dismantled shortly after my arrival. I remembered during the initial “honeymoon” phase, everything I saw in the U.S. impressed me. The blue sky, the endless green tree lines, the vast, ocean-like Lake Michigan, and wide-open space! And “Oh, my!”, free toilet paper in every stall in each bathroom! When I visited Milwaukee County Zoo, I was shocked by how well the wild animals lived! I viewed these animals with fascination!.
Then I went through the phases of dissonance, resistance, and introspection. I was a mess! I was constantly thrown off balance. Just when I thought I was able to make sense of something, a new experience would trigger a new set of questions. This would send me back to an entangled web of confusion, shock, and disbelief, followed by seeming clarity and certainty, and then confusion, shock, and disbelief… over and over again.
After a while, when there was enough distance between myself and my upbringing, when there was a healthy distance between myself and my new country, I began to wonder, doubt, and question.
Throughout the years living in my new home country, I made lots of personal friends from all walks of life. When I hosted a party, my Jewish, German, Iranian, Cameroonian, Macedonian, Spanish, Columbian, and Indian friends would all mingle with each other. Everybody treated everybody with love and respect, and everybody had a good time together.
Two of the many questions I began to ask myself were: “Do I have to hate Japan in order to prove my love for China? If one differs from the accepted group thinking, can one still be accepted by their own community?”
These questions are part of the many reasons why John Okada’s book, No, No, Boy, resonates with me so much. The book opens with Ichiro being released from prison for being a draft dodger during World War II. He walks down the street toward his parents’ house, feeling like an intruder, pondering whether he should kill someone so he can go back to jail, knowing that his life is probably better inside. The relentless quest of who he is, and of how each person, based on their own beliefs, views and treats him, starts to slowly unveil. Therefore, directly and indirectly, his sense of self and identity are questioned, challenged, molded, and dismantled over and over again.
As a new immigrant who came here for college, my knowledge of Asian American history was minimal. My awareness of the Asian American experiences was only rooted in my limited personal circle. The first time I heard about the Japanese internment camps was through a novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Through the novel, I had the first dim glimpse into the Japanese American’s treatment during WWII.
Later on, as I learned more about Asian American history, I was in disbelief of the sheer depth of the destructive recriminations imposed on Japanese Americans. Within hours of the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and declared war on Japan. Within two months, 120,000 Japanese were put into internment camps. Their businesses, jobs, homes, assets, and personal belongings were all confiscated. Their world was turned upside-down overnight. However, the defining moment for many in the Japanese community was the loyalty questionnaire. It was the last nail driven into the coffin of their remaining sense of dignity. Question 27 asked everyone whether they would be willing to serve in the U.S. military, whenever ordered. Question 28 asked first whether they would swear their loyalty to the United States, and whether they would renounce loyalty to the Japanese Emperor. Anyone who answered “no” to either of the questions was immediately imprisoned.
In reality, as well as in Okada’s book, many other Asian Americans distanced themselves from the Japanese during that time. Asian Americans wore buttons that read “I’m not a Jap” to avoid harassment from others. Since Chinese, Korean, and Filipino Americans generally hated Japanese expansionism, no one else from the Asian community stood up and fought on behalf of Japanese Americans for this breach of the Fifth Amendment. Everybody was at war with everybody. This sense of dividedness among Asian Americans lasted all the way to the 1980s when the hate crime against Vincent Chin garnered national attention, and finally stirred up a sense of awakening and unity among Asian American communities. Asian Americans began to realize that, to many other Americans, Asians all looked the same, and are viewed to be the same, and therefore really ought to stand in solidarity with each other.
Okada’s insights are beyond brilliant. His writing is like a camera that captures whatever happens at a scene from various angles. Hence, each one of his characters is so real. Each one can be found in real life. As I flip through the book, each character pops off the pages, meets me, converses with me, and shows their inner feelings and thoughts to me. I am their daughter, sister, lover, friend, and confidante. I can feel, think and resonate with all of them. I can sense their pain, desperation, hopelessness, rage, guilt, and shame… What I cannot do is choose a favorite from the book, because the author so successfully makes each of them, and their views, a part of humanity.
Don’t believe me? Let’s meet a few.
Freddie is a “No-No boy” in the book. He lives a reckless lifestyle after his reentry. He is so tortured by his imprisonment and the hostility and rejection from his own community, that he is unable to find peace and reconciliation within himself. He takes out his anger and frustration on anyone who challenges him. It reminds me of my own bitterness, during periods of deep dissonance in my own multi-cultural identity development.
Kenji is a “Yes-Yes boy”, a wounded veteran with only 11 inches left on his right leg, who wishes to trade places with Ichiro the No-No boy. After giving everything he had, including his leg, to prove his loyalty to America, he finds he is disregarded nevertheless. “I would trade the 11 inches for your 50 or 60 years,” he says to Ichiro. That sentence breaks my heart. Ichiro is so wrapped up by rage, shame, and resentment, that he cannot see there is any hope for him to be who he is — a Japanese American. Kenji the “Yes-Yes boy”, feels less than Ichiro the “No-No boy”, and desperately wishes that he could rewrite his whole history.
It brings back lots of memories of my own courtship dance with my American identity. It was a period when I thought I could only be one or the other, never realizing I might be something different from either identity. Not realizing how very American that identity is.
These characters are portraits of the second generation of Japanese Americans. The older generation is torn apart by the need to belong. They see the United States as a land of opportunity, and a platform to board a train into a richer retirement back in their home country, but instead are stuck here forever. They impose their own delusions and wishes upon their children and cause great, agonizing conflicts in them.
Here and there, throughout the book, Okada provides us glimpses of hope and humanity. They represent a window into the society at large, and how one might be able to right societal wrongs starting within one’s own ability.
My own moment of identity awakening came quite late. For me, it was during the first People of Color Conference I attended. It was in Helen Zia’s presentation when I first heard of the term “Model Minority” Myth. I was shocked by my own proximity to this stereotype. I was angered by how that model had been used to divide people of color. I was disheartened by how much the Model Minority Myth had harmed the Asian community from within. In essence, it encourages people to simply take their eyes away from the struggles and hardships of Asian communities, while holding them up as some sort of false hope or example to other minorities.
Okada’s portrait of post-World War II America not only presents us with a panoramic view of the objective historical truth but also paints a portrait of the feelings, emotions, and struggles that people have in relation to those events. It’s about Japanese Americans, and yet it’s also about much more than Japanese Americans. It is about the struggles of any immigrant group that strives to fit into the mainstream. It is about Iranian-Americans after the 1979 Hostage Crisis. It is about Muslim-Americans after 9/11. It is about Mexicans who cross their northern border into the United States. It is about all Asian Americans during a global pandemic, battling against another wave of ignorance and hate crimes.
As I walk off the last page to chase that “faint and elusive insinuation of promise as it continues to take shape in mind and in heart”, I extend my loving hands to all Japanese Americans who have suffered for generations, as well as to my fellow Chinese citizens who might still be tormented by the past. I also open my arms wide to embrace all who have suffered in the world. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”
I am calling for unity and solidarity for all people of color. What about you?
Read the other articles in this series: