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January 2012

2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards

Prose: College

Second Place

Dusty Memories
Lauren Hirata,
Senior, Creative Writing and Professional Writing Major, Film and Media Studies Minor


A dry desert wind whipped at the low-lying brush at our feet. There wasn’t shade for miles and sweat was starting to bead on my nose. In the distance, the Sierra Nevadas taunted us with their snow preserved by high altitude.

We were only two-thirds through our journey to June Mountain—230 miles away from our home in Los Angeles—for our annual fishing trip. Usually, my father drives the 345-mile journey to June Mountain in one straight shot—other than two allotted bathroom breaks—but this time he wanted to make an extra stop at Manzanar National Historic Site. Every other time we’ve driven past, a simple “There’s Manzanar. That’s where Grandma was” sufficed.

Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. My grandmother was interned at Manzanar for two years before she asked for permission to leave and move to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she stayed until the end of the war.

This particular trip to June Mountain was different from the start. My grandmother was riding with us—she usually drove up separately—and my father decided that this new passenger would be a good segue into a field trip—especially since it’s 2002, 60 years since my grandmother was at Manzanar.

Up until this point, my grandmother rarely talked about her experience, and no one in the family wanted to pry. My grandmother hadn’t been back since she left in 1944. Since then, the Manzanar National Historic Site was established to preserve the stories of World War II internees, “and to serve as a reminder to this and future generations of the fragility of American civil liberties.”

“We lived somewhere around here,” says my grandmother, who fidgets with her beaded bracelet and shuffles ahead the rest of the family. Everybody surveys the desolate landscape around us: small signposts mark distances of 50-yards down the dusty clearing, depicting where wooden barracks would have been. We hurry after my grandmother before the dust can swallow her petite frame.

President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in 1942 called for the relocation of over 110,000 Japanese Americans that lived along the Pacific Coast, and at the time, my grandmother Tomoe (Carole) Kuse was 17-years-old. She had just recently finished high school and was living and working as a housekeeper and nanny in Sacramento, California, trying to save enough money to put herself through beauty school.

However, with the internment authorization, she was given a ten-day warning and had to return to the rest of her family, who lived in a small town outside the city called Elk Grove. My grandmother, her parents, and her four siblings were not given the full ten days to prepare, and instead were evacuated to Manzanar War Relocation Camp within three days.

“We were told to pack up our stuff and get ready to go,” my grandmother says. “So in three days, my mother—you know, Bachan—packed up everything and everyone had a suitcase full of our clothes and whatever else we mainly needed. We boarded the train and headed to Manzanar.”

My grandmother sits quietly on a footstool in her kitchen, surrounded by the mix of awkward school portraits of unfortunate haircuts and braces, homemade birthday cards, and family pictures that litter the typical American grandparent’s house.

Over 10,000 people made similar trips to Manzanar and, like my grandmother’s family, had to sell off their entire lives—furniture, houses, and businesses—as well as leave their friends behind. Some families were split up, including my grandmother’s. Her recently married sister and husband were not sent to Manzanar and didn’t see the rest of the family until after World War II was over. Despite these unfortunate circumstances and having to put her college aspirations on hold, my grandmother explains that it wasn’t she who suffered.

“It was the Issei who lost everything when we were put in camp,” she says. “I had just finished school, so it didn’t matter too much for me. But it was the older people who really suffered. They lost everything twice: once to emigrate from Japan to America, and again when the war started.”

Growing up, my father never asked about my grandmother’s experiences at Manzanar. It was always a touchy subject that was just ignored. But when asked now, my grandmother speaks more openly about her experiences at Manzanar. My father thinks it’s because her parents—the Issei generation that suffered the most—are long gone. “In a sense, she’s now able to bury the pain away,” he says. “She’s less haunted by her parents’ struggles and hardships now.” She has distanced herself from the past with decades of silence, and can now joke about her experience.

“When we got to camp, I had never seen so many Japanese [people],” she laughs. “I was really surprised—I guess I never realized how many of us were in America. But the thing was, we were all there for the same reason and that brought us all together.”

As a Yonsei, the Japanese term for the Issei’s great-grandchildren, I often feel similar to how my grandmother felt as a teenager—that I am often surprised to meet another Japanese American. Unlike my grandmother though, I feel distanced from the hardships that my relatives had to endure during and after World War II and racial discrimination—at least at this level—is a thing of the past. My friends are colorblind to my ethnicity, as am I sometimes. I consider myself more American than Japanese and my friends are often taken aback with my skilled use of chopsticks. The one thing that reminds me of my Japanese background is my grandmother and her stories.

“That’s not to say that we didn’t have problems [in camp] though. I remember there were the people called ‘Kibei,’ people that were born here but their folks sent them to Japan to study, and then they came back and were put in camp. They were about my age and they started a riot. I wanted to go down there to see what was going on, but my father wouldn’t let me—he said it was too dangerous.”

Though my grandmother was never interested in learning the details to this event, it turns that this riot was the most serious incident at Manzanar. It occurred at the beginning of December in 1942 and is known as the Manzanar Riot. It raised tensions between prisoners and military guards, and two people were killed.

My grandmother, with her silvery hair in perfect, short pin curls, sits in silence, lost in thought for a brief moment. I watch her think and my eyes wander to the assortment of crayon-colored papers that are taped to the pantry, and although her kitchen looks like a typical grandmother’s, I start to see the Japanese culture seeping into the mix: a ceramic Maneki Neko, or lucky cat, sits perched on a shelf between other knick-knacks, origami koi fish hang from the ceiling, and a painting with indecipherable Japanese characters hangs above the sink.

My whole life, I have taken these Japanese symbols for granted and they have blended in with the rest of my environment. Similar to how my family would drive past Manzanar without a second thought, I often found myself celebrating New Year’s with Japanese traditions, like eating kuromame—black soybeans—and ozoni—rice cake soup—for good luck, without asking the story behind each tradition.

As we stood in front of a post that says “Block 31,” I looked around for the block that this sign represented but there’s nothing. The only reminders that this empty clearing used to house over 10,000 people are piles of large white rocks that mark where the doors of the barracks would have been.

“Mom, you lived here?” my father asked, joining me in a search for anything other than brush and dirt. Although he has toured Manzanar once before, he has never been back with his mother.

My grandmother nods her head, lost in thought. “Two long years,” she answers.

View the complete list of the 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Award winners.

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