Culture May 1, 2020
Places 2: Albuquerque
Waiting for me and my parents in 1962 through 1966—which were the years of our family’s first life in Albuquerque before our next move out, was a shock to say the least. For Mama and me, the lush green and crowded Japanese towns and cities and smells and the easy language communication, to the desert dry-heat and quiet of Albuquerque was a lesson in sudden disruption and adjustment. For Mama, it was a further moment of beginning both intense loneliness and dislocation as much as it was her resolve to assimilate into mainstream society as much as she thought she could. For me, my English having become more fluent and being very young, I would adjust quicker. And furthermore, there was the new but oh so familiar forms of racism along with the social navigation of finding trust in certain individuals.
After I had gotten to know some of the white kids in the neighborhood, many of them told me that their parents told them not to associate with me. But being kids, most of them didn’t listen to their parents and emotionally gravitated toward me, or were just “curious.” Some of them did stay away. Sometimes if one of the balls that rolled into their yards while playing kickball, volleyball, or some other ball game, we I would hear the familiar “n-word” or “Jap” through the front window where the white people stood while they glared. Once when my mother and I went to look for one of her friends that lived in an apartment complex in the northern part of Albuquerque, the managers came out and told us that we chinks and Japs had no right to be on their property. Once my mother and I were at home eating lunch, when a knock came and my mother opened the door. Quickly a white woman began speaking intensely to my mother about something and calling her a “dirty Jap” and I ran beside her from where I sat and told her to go away. In some ways, I was glad my mother didn’t understand English that much. But my mother already new “dirty Jap” and some other words that woman used, because my mother sometimes heard them from American, British or Australian soldiers and/or their wives while she lived in Japan. I, of course knew them well.
But we also had many more nice neighbors, mostly white and Spanish-speaking neighbors, who came to introduce themselves and would bring over food, and offer to go shopping with my mother. I made friends quickly as well. My father tried his best to gather his friends in the military who had Japanese wives, and introduce them to my mother. Of course the politics of military wives (rank of the man, racial hierarchy, neighborhood where we lived, and the hierarchy of Japanese clan names primarily) played a large role in which of these wives became friends while others became a thorn in another wife’s side. It was interesting to note that amongst the friends we made with other Japanese “war bride” families in Albuquerque, none of the kids spoke Japanese. Almost all of them didn’t speak Japanese even though all of them were born in Japan. Because of this I felt lonely because I could not share myself as Japanese, which I wanted to share. In fact, half of the mixed-kids of my father’s friends—whether white, black, Japanese-American or Latino mixed, would ridicule most Japanese things. Because of how sensitive I was about these things at that time, I never wanted to speak with them again. Not because I hated them, but it hurt too much.
At school, it was also along the same lines. Kirtland Elementary School was a mixed bag between white boys and black boys pulling their eyes up on the outer edges to imitate cartoons of slant-eyes when they approached me, or purposefully pushing books out of my arms in the hall, or staying away from me and recess (yes, actually running away when I approached them to ask to join in their play). But I made friends here and there, mostly girls and I made friends with a couple of Jewish boys at school who went through similar teasing and exclusion/violence as I did. But most of the teachers were very kind to me and helped me and understood some of my language problems.
When conversing with my mother about these events as the years rolled on, the one thing was clear from my mother’s perspective, and as I grew older, understanding it more—that Albuquerque was quieter and slower-moving and didn’t feel as threatening/intense as we felt when we were in Japan in the 1950s and early 60s. We had people around the neighborhood who were friendly and we were relatively unbothered by the more disruptive aspects of society including racism and sexism toward us as individuals save for a few experiences.
In late 1968, our family moved back to Tachikawa Air Force Base after living in Hawaii (late 1965—1968). Our experiences also were effected by the popularity of living in “suburbia” of America—which at the time was a promoted national movement promising the perfect middle-class American existence. Tachikawa had many more paved and modern streets than we remembered. Buildings in downtown Tachikawa were already taller. On the base where we lived and in Tachikawa Middle School and one year at Yamato High School, I didn’t recall any racist or other unusual forms of violence that I had become used to in my younger years.
One friend that I grew close to was soon told by his parents to cut-off our friendship because they didn’t want him playing with a “nigger” (which he secretly told me about with sadness). Even though it was the one strong moment in life, it was a reminder for me and my mother, to stay vigilant, as it seems that racism is an everlasting form of violation that we would have to live with throughout our lives, but had changed its forms through time, in different ways in different places.