What is your turning point? What are the significant events in your life that changed the course of your life? This is the question the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California asked of the J.A. community. We wondered if we could get everyday people to write and tell us about their turning points, especially as it relates to their J.A.-ness.
Two years later, we published Nanka Nikkei Voices II, the second publication of the JAHSSC. Edited by Brian Niiya, with cover artwork by Eddy Kurushima, we collected 57 personal stories and put together a 162-page book ranging from folks like Nisei geologist Takeo Susuki, to Hapa Yonsei Amy Phillips.
For me, it has been ten years since I became active in the Japanese American community. I've included an excerpt of the first half of my own "Turning Point" story.
I am a Sansei cultural and community activist. But I wasnt involved in the Asian American movement in the 70s. Im not a product of Asian American Studies and I didnt become a student activist in college. I wasnt even involved in the struggle for Redress in the 80s--because I didnt become active until New Years 1992.
In fact, I was raised in the sheltered suburban neighborhood of Westlake Village. In 1982, I went to Cal State Northridge as a business major. But in my first year in college, my conservative boyfriend who was born in Vietnam, accused me of being a Socialist for thinking that it wasnt right that there were poor, hungry and homeless people in the world, when so many people that I knew, including myself, had it so easy. I didnt even know what a Socialist was, but he acted like it was a bad thing.
He was the first one to call me a banana, you know, yellow on the outside, white on the inside, even though he himself used to tell people in high school that he was Polynesian, because he thought it was more exotic. College was also my first exposure to people who werent White--and Asians who were not my relatives. My friends were Vietnamese, Korean and Pilipino immigrants, Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans. It was the mid-80s and we were all business majors headed for jobs in the corporate world.
In any case, I graduated from college and continued working at the law firm where I had been working as a legal secretary for several years. With a degree in Human Resource Management, I gradually moved from an administrative position into upper management at the age of 27. I was plodding along, working 50-60 hours a week in a job that paid well, but wasnt really that emotionally satisfying.
At the same time, I was in a long-term relationship with the same boyfriend, who I had been in love with since my first year of college. For too many years, I had felt my life was on hold. Waiting for him to get his life under control, hoping he would keep a job for more than a year, waiting to get married--even though I knew deep down inside that things werent really right.
Finally after 8 1/2 years, he left me unexpectedly for another woman. I was devastated. My whole identity was based on my own unhealthy obsession with this man. It was November 1991 and I felt like my entire world had crumbled. I think I cried daily for two months, and threw myself even further into my job.
Over the holidays, my old friend from college, Gary Mayeda, invited me to a New Years Party thrown by the Asian Pacific American Network (APAN), a young and progressive chapter of the JACL. It was New Years 1992--the turning point of this story. At the party, I was invited to a meeting in Little Tokyo. I was a little vague on the details, but it was something about planning for a yearlong series of events surrounding the 50th anniversary commemorating Japanese American internme nt.
The meeting turned out to be an NCRR-Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress meeting, planning for NCRRs annual Day of Remembrance program. They needed help putting up posters and selling tickets to a special Night of Remembrance concert at the Japan America Theatre. I could do that, so I agreed to help.
Right after that meeting, I was invited to a second meeting that same day. It was a Future of the Nikkei Community planning meeting, where 25-30 young JAs were organizing a conference culminating the years 50th anniversary activities. They were trying to recruit a co-chair. Not having any idea what that meant, I raised my hand and asked what was involved. Without really getting my question answered, I was nominated one of 4 co-chairs of the conference, havin g been assured that I wouldnt have much to do. Im sure many people were wondering, Who is she? Where did she come from? Of course, I was asking myself, What am I doing?
At first, I went because it sounded interesting, but I quickly realized that there was an entire community that I knew nothing about. I had no idea the JA community was so diverse. The conference planners included a coalition of 20 different Japanese and Asian American organizations, ranging from the Media Action Network for Asian Americans to the Manzanar Committee. I met labor and community activists and students, as well as JA Nisei vets. I literally immersed myself in the JA community.
Even though I had never taken Asian American Studies class, I had on-the-job training in grassroots organizing and a crash course on the Japanese American experience. For the first time, I felt like this was something I could really relate to. Each day, I was learning more about my Japanese Americanness and was able to place my parents and grandparents camp experiences into historical context.
That year, I attended the Civil Rights Conference at UCLA and the Manzanar Pilgrimage the year over 2,000 people attended. I actively joined APAN and The Bridge, a community service group of 20-something JAs. I went with my family to the Gila River Pilgrimage in Phoenix. I saw Nobuko Miyamoto and many other Asian American artists perform, which made a lasting impression.
From that very first meeting in Little Tokyo, I was hooked. I had become a JA junkie.
End of Part 1. To read Part 2 and the other 56 stories, order your copy of Nanka Nikkei Voices II: Turning Points today by calling the JAHSSC. Jennifer Emiko Kuida is member of the Nanka Nikkei Voices Publication Committee and former Vice-President of the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California. Opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo. © 2002