Violent attacks on Asian-Americans have erupted again here in the land of the free. We’ve demonized the Chinese, blaming them for Covid-19. Active hatred still prevails against the Japanese since World War II. White-supremacists have scapegoated American Asians, afraid they dilute the American stereotype — the Anglo-Saxon white.
Little has changed since the day that American racism and fear of Asians touched my life. I remember ….
“Can I get some free paper from the butcher?” I asked Mother, and climbed into the passenger seat of our black Chevrolet. “I told Mrs. Oldham I would, for a banner for Scouts.”
“Yes,” Mother said. “You ask him yourself, and be sure to thank him.” Mother’s glasses shone as she turned around in her seat and backed the car out of the driveway. She had a stern look, as if we were going on a long trip costing a lot of money. We were making the weekly drive to the grocery in our Southern California town, San Gabriel, named for an angel.
Every time we got in the car it was serious business, because in 1942 gasoline was rationed. “There’s a war on,” you heard the grownups say.
The summer sun burned my legs through the windshield, but I was distracted from the discomfort when we passed the San Gabriel Archangel Mission church. A wisteria vine, ripe with purple blooms, covered a high wall that seemed to protect the church from the war. I longed for protection from the guns and bombs that might hit us. We had to darken our windows at night or the bombs could find us.
In town I got out of the car, glad I’d worn my shoes because you could see the waves of heat radiating up from the asphalt. Pretty soon, I thought, I’d get new shoes for Fourth Grade. I loved getting new shoes. Mother looked at me to make sure I was next to her as we crossed the street, but she didn’t take my hand.
The butcher stood behind the white cases of meat along the side of the small market. He tore off some paper, made a roll, and put tape over the end. With the roll over my shoulder like a rifle, I marched behind Mother singing quietly to myself:
From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We will fight our country’s ba-a-ttles,
On the land and on the sea.
That was my favorite song about the war. General Eisenhower, commander of US forces in Europe, was about to take some 400,000 servicemen to the “shores of Tripoli.” The Germans had attacked Stalingrad. Close to one-third of Europe’s nine million Jews had already been exterminated, but I knew nothing of those facts, let alone where Tripoli was.
Mother and I left the grocery and went next door to the produce market. I was surprised to see no bins of vegetables out front on the sidewalk. The place looked shadowy. I couldn’t hear the familiar music from Mr. Nakajima’s radio. A man in a fedora and white shirt stood outside smoking a cigarette. He stopped us as we started to enter. “This store is closed,” he said. “Mr. Nakajima and his family had to leave.”
“Where’s Mr. Nakajima?” I asked Mother on our way to the car.
“You heard. He had to leave.” I waited for more information. “He’s been taken to a special place for Japanese people because of the war.”
Nothing had ever disappeared from my life before. Everything had always been there — cars moving on our streets, the mission wisteria blooming, Mr. Nakajima in his green apron listening to Bing Crosby on his radio. The bewildering news from this stranger in the hat changed everything. The stores, the heat and the cars had been swallowed by the darkness from inside the empty market. I thought of my five-year-old Austrian cousin Uta, who lived with her family inside the German lines. They had to hide in a dark basement because their home had been destroyed by bombs. I shivered.
“What place?” I asked as we got back to our car. “Who gets his store? Are they coming back? Is Mr. Nakajima in the war now?” You had to ask Mother a lot of questions to get answers.
“They probably won’t be coming back until the war’s over,” she said.
“Why not? He was here last week when we came. He didn’t say anything.”
Mother sat facing straight ahead, her hands on the hot steering wheel. “The Nakajimas had to leave because some people think they’re spies.” She talked slowly as if she didn’t want to say those words.
Spies? That word made me think of black-and-white movies with scary men lurking on a dark street. Mr. Nakajima didn’t fit in a movie like that. I clutched my paper rifle and hummed my song about “the shores of Tripoli” trying to cheer myself with thoughts of new shoes for school.
Did Uta have the shoes she needed, down in that basement?
More about efforts to combat racist attacks against the Asian community can be found at StandAgainstHatred.org.
This is an excerpt from a longer piece, “California, 1942,” published by the Preservation Foundation, 2015.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.