During World War II, some 120,000 Japanese and Americans were forcibly interned in camps. Storyteller Megumi tells the tale of how one man's life and artwork in a Japanese-American internment camp gave voice to an imprisoned community. We also hear toilet tales from Megumi and Tou Ger Xiong.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
This week we’re breaking from the news grind to bring you our winter storytelling special, this time featuring three Asian-American artists. We just heard Brenda Wong Aoki tell her tale about her special relationship with her grandfather, and in just a moment we’ll hear from storytellers Tou Ger Xiong and Megumi.
But first, Brenda I have to ask you. Why do you think you were so reluctant to hang out with your grandfather? I suppose I would have been a little shy too if someone had been walking chicken feet toward me.
WONG AOKI: You know it was just, I was a city girl. I wasn’t used to – oh, his outhouse! Now that I’m older it was just magnificent.
WONG AOKI: It stuck out over the cliff, and you had to go over this like little rickety suspension bridge he’d built. And then, you know, you’d get out on this little outhouse and there was no door. It just faced the ocean and was the most incredible view. But you know, back then when I was a young teenage girl-- that was just too funky for me.
XIONG: Where I grew up in the refugee camps and also in Laos, my mother used to say 'Boys … [speaking Hmong] … boys, if you have to pee, go outside and pee by the tree; girls, they go into the woods.' So ever since as young as I could remember, I remember 'pee by the tree, the tree is where you pee.' We come to this country…
XIONG: …and the first day in America, me and my brother had to pee. What do we do? We went out to the closest tree by our neighbors yard. My sister who had lived here a few years before us who did sponsor us to come here, my older sister, she looked out the window and she saw what we were about to do, she said 'No! You can not pee outside! This is America!'
XIONG: She took us inside the house and she says to us, [speaks Hmong], which means, 'come with me. I’ll take you to the special peeing place.' We follow her upstairs to the bathroom. 'This is where you pee.' We looked in, 'Where’s the tree?!'
XIONG: And she said 'No, no. It’s America. You pee in here.' She pointed to, of course, you call it the toilet. Well, in Laos, in the refugee camps also I remember as a kid, we didn’t have shoes, you play outside barefoot all the time. And mom and dad always said 'Wash your dirty feet, before you go to bed.' So the first time I saw the toilet, I said 'Hey,' I looked at my brother, 'American people have a special machine just for washing feet!'
XIONG: 'You don’t even use your hands, you just rub – stick you feet in the toilet and stir it around like this.'
XIONG: And so my sister 'No, no – that’s where you pee!'
XIONG: So we – sure enough, we peed. We ran down stairs and she yells at us, right before we leave. She said, 'No, you cannot just pee, but you have to flush the toilet.' In the Hmong language it translated to mean something like, 'You boys must drain all of the pee away.' Somehow!
XIONG: We had no concept of plumbing. So, I’m thinking, 'what- you want us to grab something literally and scoop up the pee out of the toilet and take it outside? No, we should just pee by the tree. What’s the point?!'
XIONG: We had no concept of plumbing. She said, 'No, it’s very easy. Come here, come here.' So she grabbed us closer and she says, 'Now, this is how you flush the toilet.' And then, she actually had a sense of humor she said 'come a little closer so you see better.' She grabs a few sheets of toilet paper and throws them in the toilet and says, 'Now count to three and watch what happens. One, two, three. [counting in Hmong]' She pushes a switch and we hear this noise – ssshhhhhh - and it starts to get louder. Ssshhhhhhh. She yells, 'Step back or the toilet will suck you in!'
XOING: So, I remember we ran real fast and when all the noise calmed down we looked in the toilet and she was right: everything had disappeared into a little hole. And she said 'You be careful, [speaking in Hmong]. You be careful, next time you pee, you stand too close, you flush toilet, ssshhhh...'
XOING: “…and you go bye bye.”
XOING: Well for about two weeks the joke was on us.
CURWOOD: That’s a great story.
CURWOOD: I wonder how this story strikes you.
MEGUMI: So when I was growing up in Japan we didn’t speak English, and when these two white old people came, my father told us that this was my grandfather and grandmother. But when they came because we had the squat toilet….
MEGUMI: …my father had to buy a special little stand so they could sit on this ring. It wasn’t just a squat toilet that didn’t flush. It was the drop toilet.
MEGUMI: And the drop toilet was really scary for me because even though I was old enough to know better, when you looked in you can really imagine all those mummies down there ready to come out. Right? Even though I knew logically there weren’t mummies, they were toilet paper, I kept thinking, they were mummies …
MEGUMI: …and when I was I think about nine, I thought Okay, I’m nine, I’m not scared these are toilet paper. Nothing. So I try not to look down there when I was squatting. And one night, I think it was about this time of the year, I squatted, telling myself I was okay. My mom didn’t have to stand right next to me. And …chrrr! … Something touched me, and I thought…
MEGUMI: …Aahaaahhh! I screamed and I asked my mom to come – ahhhhhh! And when she came, she said, 'There’s no mummies.' I said, 'Yeah, one touched me!'
MEGUMI: 'There are mummies down there and they can reach up!' You know?
MEGUMI: And she said, 'No, no, no, no, there can’t be.' And we found a little praying mantis. It had just come in through the window. And had just flown up and touched my behind. So…
MEGUMI: My grandpa, my Caucasian grandpa, he was a career military man, so there was only a few times before he died when I knew enough English to actually make conversation. And one time he sat there and started talking about war stories. I knew that both my Japanese grandfather and Caucasian grandfather had served in World War II. My Japanese grandfather never came back. Never came back. He was missing in action for years and years. I always had this imagination that my Caucasian grandfather had killed my Japanese grandfather. So I had to get over that to just sort of sit down comfortably while he chatted away about going to Asia. You know somewhere in Asia, he said, 'Oh, we were so hungry, we caught some chickens in the field and we plucked the feathers and we cooked them.' And I thought, but couldn’t actually say to him, didn’t the chickens belong to some starving farmer? You know, so, I have those kinds of memories.
CURWOOD: Megumi, you’ve spoken with a lot of older west coast Japanese Americans who lived through that time of losing their homes and being forced to move inland in defense camps, the internment camps, where more that, what, 100,000 Japanese nationals as well as Japanese American citizens were forced to live after the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.
And I suppose I should disclose a little something from my family here. My mother worked with a Japanese woman teaching nursery school in 1941, and when word in 1942 began to come of the internment camps out West, this woman moved into our family home for a while, and then she disappeared. A couple of months down the line, I’m told, they gave her some papers with Chinese names and she moved to live with friends in New York City for the duration of the war. They hid her out. I guess she had a brother who did wind up in one of the camps. She’d gotten word of this and she was very worried.
And this was what the women at this early childhood education center, otherwise known as a nursery school, decided to do. As a kid growing up, I always knew about this Japanese woman. There was correspondence exchange, but I never knew the story until actually fairly recently, of why we had this relationship with her.
So tell me a story that you have, about a teenager named Jack, I think.
MEGUMI: Yeah. Okay, Jack’s sketches.
During World War II, the U.S. government uprooted from their homes 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, without trial. And imprisoned them. Most were American citizens. The rest were legal American residents. Well, this was back when most Americans believed that their president, the FBI, the U.S. army knew what they were doing. So, they did not protest this mass arrest and imprisonment.
And in the Japanese community there was this concept of Gaman. And Gaman means to be strong, to be patient and no whining. No whining, so it was almost a taboo to question authority. In fact, there were probably just four Japanese Americans who formally protested. Four out of 120,000. There was one boy, a sixteen-year-old boy named Jack who decided to stand up to this injustice. And what could he do? Well he took scraps of paper and a pencil and cartooned. And he was able to tell the story of what happened without disgusting us. [Laughs] Jack drew a sketch of moving into their barrack apartment.
You know Parker, Arizona, there were three camps, Poston, one, two and three, and he was in Poston two. 20-by-24 cell. And of course the father is still absent. He’s in some penitentiary somewhere and he draws himself, his little sister, and his mother. And of course he’s the man of the house, so he has the broom and he’s sweeping up this humongous scorpion, bigger than him…
MEGUMI: …into this dustpan. And the caption reads, 'Before we could move in, we had to evict the former tenants, the scorpions.'
School was very, very important. Education was very, very important, so the parents demanded to arrange for schools, even if they didn’t have qualified teachers, even if the didn’t have equipment. So some of the early photos show teachers sitting on rocks, kids sitting in the shade, in the dust, with paper and pencil and trying to do work. Those are the kind of things that he drew.
One of my favorites, too, is the graduation picture. He’s in a cap and gown, by the time he graduated they had those. And he’s looking at a teacher sort of apologetically accepting the diploma, and the caption reads: 'I didn’t think you’d make it, either.' He didn’t think the teacher would make it. And the teacher didn’t think Jack would make it. But he did graduate.
And I have a feeling he did all he could to insert humor in the hardships of camp, but there came a point where he couldn’t do that anymore, and he was distracted. And he was able to attend art school for part of a semester because they had a special program that the Christians in the government had put together for promising young students to attend colleges in the Midwest. And he was there for almost part of a semester working as a janitor and taking classes, but he was called away to the draft. He became an intelligence officer for postwar Japan interrogating prisoners of war and translating sensitive documents and investigating important events.
You know, all he did as a little teenager was to just draw what he saw. And he didn’t really have lofty plans, just to, just to sketch what he saw. Just to express his feelings, but later on when there was no more fear of government censorship, his mother talked him into publishing them. And he was able to publish his first edition of these cartoons, which he redrew as a professional cartoonist in 1974. And I personally believe that he did a lot to help those who were there who wanted to say that the camps never happened. He was able to help those who were there to laugh and cry and talk about it. And for the rest of us who weren’t there he, I know he inspires me to stand up to injustice, in whatever form I can. So that’s what Jack’s sketches have done for me, and that’s the story as I’m telling it to you.
[MUSIC: “Happy Theme,” Mark Izu: www.markizu.com]
CURWOOD: What a story to tell of those times. And Brenda, Tou Ger, does that concept of Gaman, of grinning and bearing it, sound at all familiar?
WONG AOKI: Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s just you know, your mantra. Gaman. Oldest sister must be the good role model for everyone.
MEGUMI: Suck it up.
CURWOOD: Tou Ger?
XIONG: Well, I have a big family. Six brothers and four sisters.
XIONG: Eleven. Yeah. The ladies say 'Oooooh, your poor mother.' My friends in college say, 'Hey, your daddy had it going on.' So I had to tell them well, in an agrarian society you big families to survive. Plus we lived in the jungles in Laos. Most kids didn’t see their fifth birthday due to malnutrition or diseases, so if you have a few kids, chances are some of them won’t survive. So that’s why Hmong people have big families. That’s why I have lots of brothers and sisters. And besides my father did have it going on.
MEGUMI: Maybe your mother did.
XIONG: Maybe my mother did, you’re right.
CURWOOD: You know the part of that story that really grabbed me is first they lock up this guy. And then, when they let him out to do work on his art, he gets drafted into the army. Now if he was so dangerous, why did they lock him up, and then why do they have him go to work in this army. I mean, the absurdity of it, seems…
WONG AOKI: The Peruvians.
MEGUMI: Yeah, I mean, when they kidnapped the Peruvian-Japanese, they were Peruvian citizens and locked them up and then later on they weren’t entitled to the reparations because they were illegal immigrants.
WONG AOKI: Are you following this? They took Peruvian Japanese from Peru, brought them to America, put them inside Japanese internment camps. My husband’s mom said 'oh, Mrs. Ichiguchi, she never could speak Japanese or English, she only spoke Spanish.' And then the Peruvian government wouldn’t allow them to go back and they couldn’t get American citizenship. They sent them to – some of them to Japan, right? And they couldn’t …
MEGUMI: For prisoner of war exchange.
WONG AOKI: Right, these poor people, they couldn’t speak Japanese.
CURWOOD: You know, I tell you, Franz Kafka wrote some novels, but he didn’t have themes like this in them.
MEGUMI: It’s hard to imagine.
CURWOOD: Tou Ger, I’m guessing that most Americans don’t know a whole lot about the Hmong people. And growing up in the Midwest, I bet you’ve gotten pretty used to educating others about your roots. What do you tell them?
XOING: Yeah, I get that a lot. I came here when I was six, so a lot of kids come up to me 'Hey, Tou, are you Japanese?' 'No.' 'What are you? Are you Chinese?' 'No.' 'What are you?' 'I’m Hmong,' I tell ’em. And they say “well, Chinese are people from China and Japanese people from Japan. Hmong people - Hmongland? Where’s that?'
So I went home and I remember asking my mom. My mom spoke very limited English. She knows stuff like 'Hello. How you do? I do fine, thank you. What do you do? I do my work, thank you. Where you come from? I come from Laos, thank you.' So she knew the basics. So I came home and I remember asking, 'Mom, mom, mom. What is Hmong?' She thought about it. She recognized it was a question. 'What is Hmong. I is Hmong.' I said 'no, mom. You can’t say that. You gotta say Hmong is something.' She thought about it, she says, 'Okay, Hmong is I.'
XOING: 'I is Hmong and Hmong is I,' And I thought, wow, that was weird. And it wasn’t until later on when I went to college and got older I realized why my mother couldn’t really articulate what Hmong was, because we don’t have a written history. We’re not documented. We don’t have a sense of nationhood. So we originated from the country of China several thousand years ago, but as a people, as an ethnic hill tribe, we eventually went south to avoid persecution and genocide to the countries of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Southeast Asia, known as French Indochina and settled there. So even when we’re in Southeast Asia, we couldn’t really blend in with the natives there too, the Laos or the Burmese or the Vietnamese. So I often tell people, Steve, that we are the hillbillies of Asia. And no, no we don’t say 'Yee haw' but we Hmong people do say “[Hmong language],” same thing.
[MUSIC: Nouthong Phimvilayphone : Lam Pheong from Vision Of The Orient: Music Of Laos (Amiata Records 1995)]
CURWOOD: More from Tou Ger Xiong when our storytelling special continues in just a moment. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER: Support for the Environmental Health Desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth