Friday August 6 was the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, the first nuclear attack on a populated city in human history, and ushering in the frightening nuclear age that we live in now.
Grandmother is no longer with us, so I must tell her story now, as she told it to me over 30 years ago. She always said that the cancer from the Hiroshima bombing would get her, even when I was a kid.
My grandmother was born in 1923 in Hiroshima, and her family had been there for a few generations. Her parents were schoolteachers and her father decided in his 40s to go to medical school and become a doctor. They lived a pretty hardscrabble life in Hiroshima during the 1930s and it was even worse by the time the war started.
I have had certain bigoted people before tell me that my grandmother and her family "got what they deserved" due to Japan's atrocities in China, Korea, and the entire Pacific, but realize that none of them were in the military or supported Imperial Japan's aggression to the world. They were just ordinary folks trying to make a living and keep food on the table, and send my Grandmother to medical school.
So my Grandmother was home for the summer from Medical school after having survived the firebombings of Tokyo (which over 100,000 people were killed) when the air raid sirens went up and she got under the stairwell with her mother. My great-grandfather was outside and ran into the house just as most of the house got knocked down. Fortunately the stairwell was still standing, and they were lucky to have all survived, as they were a few miles from the hypocenter of the blast.
So my Grandmother and her father walked into the center of Hiroshima to try to help. She never would tell me what she saw, saying, "I'll tell you when you're older", but I got to see the next best thing. She took me to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where I got to see all the pictures, artifacts and stories of those that were there. I got to see the shards of glass pulled out of people's backs during the blast, and see horrific pictures of the burns, the death, the devestation of the atomic bomb that were incomprehensible to me at age 9. I had just finished the fourth grade.
My Grandmother taught me many important lessons, but the big one was that war is a terrible thing, the worst thing one society can do to another, and it's usually perpetrated by greedy and foolish people at the top that don't have anyone to stop them. I asked her if anyone opposed the war in Japan back then, and she said, "You were taken away and never seen again" so it wasn't like they could just go to the protest rally. Getting by with the famine from the blockades was hard enough. I asked her what the Japanese government was telling everyone about the war, and she said, "We were told it was a war for our own defense and survival, and that our way of life was under attack". Later of course I found out that the Japanese government had been taken over by a right-wing military faction that led Japan into war. Instead they brought only disaster and devestation.
Every nation, especially ours, should learn from that cautionary tale.
So my grandmother and her entire family became hibakusha, stigmatized by their own society due to something that they never asked for, just by the happenstance that they were in one of the two cities the Americans decided to nuke. There was a lot of fear and severe discrimination at the time due to the lack of knowledge about radiation. People thought that radiation sickness was contagious, or even hereditary. My mother was born in 1949, less than four years after the blast.
My grandmother got a double helping of discrimination, for being a survivor of the atomic bombing that wasn't her fault or doing, and for marrying my Grandfather, a classmate in Med School from Taiwan. For the crime of marrying a gai-jin she was subsequently kicked out of the family and written out of the will. In 1961 she and her family emigrated to America in a cruise liner and arrived at one of the piers in San Francisco. I know, I've seen the pictures. She decided she wanted very badly to be an American citizen, and gained her citizenship in 1974. I asked her years later why she wanted to be a citizen of a country that had nuked her. She said, "I wanted to be a citizen of a country that actually wanted me to be a citizen".
My grandmother, the hibakusha. How many survivors of an American nuclear attack actually became American citizens? I have no idea.
My grandparents came to Kansas City and were doctors at University of Kansas Medical Center, and my Mom subsequently went to University of Kansas where she met my dad. I was born nearly 41 years ago on the campus of the University of Kansas Medical Center, which is why I can lay claim to being born on campus as a Jayhawk. When I was born, my mother told me she checked all my fingers and toes to make sure they were all there, as our fearful legacy from Hiroshima now two generations later.
World War II shaped my Grandmother's life-- she was defined by it. Growing up as a kid, if there was a plane flying overhead she would grab me and dive under a table, waiting for the bombs to come.
She would lecture me about eating every grain of rice from the bowl because in the famine in Japan during the war, they didn't have rice. And of course she told me about the cancer from The Bomb that was going to kill her.
I can tell you that growing up up in the midwest as a Japanese American was no picnic. There was a lot of extremist and annihilationist rhetoric that was very alive and well, as well as old-fashioned racism. Only 25 years before I was born, "A 1944 opinion poll that asked what should be done with Japan found that 13% of the U.S. public were in favor of the extermination of all Japanese, men women and children."
I got beaten up more than a few times over World War II and Pearl Harbor, events I had nothing to do with (and the kids beating me up weren't there for those events either). This was preschool, I was four. I cried to my Mom about it, and she told me, "They're just jealous, because you're so beautiful", but I could see she was crying too.
When I was in kindergarten, she was teaching me the Japanese alphabet, the hiragana and the katakana. I had a workbook where I would learn the stroke order. One of the kids in kindergarten grabbed it from me and said that learning anything about Japanese was "wrong", and threw it out the window in the rain. By the time I got downstairs, all the ink had run and the workbook was ruined.
I asked my Mom to stop packing me Japanese style lunches with onigiri rice balls, as the kids kept taking my lunch and throwing it against a tree.
And their message was clear : Your culture has no value. You should just die. You have no right to be here. Go back to where you came from, you goddamn slant-eyed Jap.
People, hate is not something we're born with. As babies straight out of the womb, we have no idea who anybody is. Hate is instilled by those unhappy people that lust for their own power and satisfaction at getting to step on somebody else so they can feel better.
It is wrong, and we as a society should understand and beware of hate. It gets us wars, kills millions of people, more than any other disease known to man, and accomplishes nothing. It galls me to see the same scowling rednecks that hated me for being "Oriental" scowl and call Arabs and Muslims the same kind of ugly epithets they heaped on me growing up ever since 2001. It gains us nothing, and only causes more darkness in the world. Just as most Japanese were not OK with Tojo and Yamamoto bombing Pearl Harbor, most Arabs and Muslims did not support the horrific events of 9/11 either.
My father is a caucasian from Arkansas that grew up in Kansas, so I'm actually half-white and half-Asian. That doesn't matter in the Midwest, where I'm nonwhite because I have "one drop" of non-white blood in me that apparently still gets me scowls and strange looks. As much as I love my homeland of Kansas, it still angers me when people say, "Welcome to America!". Because of course, since I'm not white, I couldn't possibly have been born here. I have to grin when I tell them I was born in Kansas City.
At least they don't ask me what Chinese restaurant I wait tables at any more. That one really pissed me off.
So folks, hatred and racism are wrong. They give us wars where innocent people get the crap bombed out of them with firebombs or worse yet, the ones with mushroom clouds. We should not only ask, but demand of our leaders and governments that they do the right thing and not engage in wars that bomb the hell out of innocent civilians. Maybe try to give some diplomacy, monetary power and "soft power" a chance again. And maybe realize that race is something none of us get to pick, but are born with. It would be like the blue-eyed tribe having a war with the brown-eyed tribe. Who the hell gets to pick the color of their eyes?
When I got into the School of Engineering at University of Kansas in 1987, my Grandmother made me promise that I wouldn't work on any weapons of war. I had the chance to with a potential job in Leavenworth, but I turned it down.
I first found out I wanted to be a superhero when I was four years old, after seeing the 1960's Batman TV show and of course Underdog back then in the early 70's. What really broke my heart was when the kids that beat me up in kindergarten told me that I could never be a superhero because I wasn't white. All superheroes were white, of course. All I could be was one of those bucktoothed Japanese villains with glasses in the World War II propaganda cartons they still played on TV back then, like "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips".
But now we live in an age where Superman from "Lois and Clark" is half-Japanese, originally born with the last name of Tanaka. And I have to laugh when I see white kids congregate at anime conventions, fascinated with Japanese culture and actually wanting to be Japanese. My, how the world has changed.
My Grandmother died in 1999, in more delirious pain than I had ever seen. Her doctor said that most people usually just gave up and died, but the cancer had spread way past that point with her. It was the first time I'd ever seen someone die, complete with the death rattle. We had the funeral she wanted at St. Joseph's Cathedral and Basilica, right across from The Fairmont where FC 2010 was, and were left with her legacy and her stuff. My Grandfather was so consumed with grief that he went back to his home country of Taiwan, where he died in 2008.
And I look to my cousins, my aunt's kids, also grandchildren of my grandparents that survived World War II. They have no memory or understanding of the war, and they don't really consider themselves Asian-American. In this day and age and in California, it's no big deal, and you're just kind of whatever. Let's hope for the future that it doesn't matter what race you come from, and everyone can understand and appreciate the good things that the tribes of humanity can bring to each other. Those kids that threw my Japanese riceballs against a tree and beat me up when I was four years old? They probably wait in line for sushi and drive Japanese cars now.
The world changes, as it must. And we all must find a way to live together, if we are to be truly free.