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Coming to the U.S.A.

We came to the U.S. on this day many years ago. Entering was easy because we were with our American father, and he had made all of us Americans too. Except for mom, who was Japanese, and got special treatment. We left Japan for a new life in the U.S.A., leaving grandma Mitsu waving through her silent tears from the docks of Yokohama, crossing the Pacific Ocean and cruising under the Golden Gate Bridge two weeks later. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump by propeller planes to Kansas City, Chicago, and New York. A bus ride later we were in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, dad's birthplace and home to his brothers and sisters, all born to his immigrant Irish parents who had both passed on. Dad told us we were just stopping there to see his family on our way to Southern California, where everything would be nice. Americans would love us. Somehow, we never left Pittsfield.

At first, we lived in a big house with lots of relatives. We were welcomed with open arms by our aunts and uncles despite the hostility and hatred that was directed at us by the community who were encountering their first Japanese following a devastating war. To some people we were the enemy, but to our family we were their children. Becoming Catholic was the price we had to pay to receive their complete acceptance and support, and they nourished and protected us in a harsh environment.

My Aunt Margaret, who like several of my dad's siblings had never married or had children, delighted In dressing me up and taking me downtown to show off. One day we were walking down Main Street and a man stopped her and asked about my dad. She told him he was back from Japan and that I was his son, proudly beaming down at me. The big man looked down too stared at me, at first with a quizzical expression and then suddenly breaking into a big smile as if he was recalling some fond memories. "I've got some kids over there myself," he boasted. Margaret's smile vanished and her sweet face became suddenly fierce. She looked him in the eye and said, "Well my brother's not like that!" She pulled me hard by the hand and we walked away from that man.

My Irish aunts and uncles may not have understood our situation, but they struggled to help overcome the stereotypes and stigmas we faced. They taught us good manners and proper etiquette. They showered the priests and nuns with high-quality stationery from the paper factory where my Aunt Joanna worked, so that we were admitted early to St. Mary's School, receiving a classic Catholic education steeped in traditions and strict discipline with a bit of fire and brimstone. Our aunts bought us only the finest clothes so that on Sunday we would be seen at church looking proper. They took us to the fanciest restaurants, where we all ordered lobster, so that would not appear or feel small and poor. As we looked at the menu and noticed the prices, they would smile and say, "It's okay, you can order lobster." So even when we didn't want lobster, we ordered lobster.

The racially stigmatized need to work hard to overcome the stigma. By my behavior, I always had to show others how well I was brought up, how even a child like me, so marked by my race, could be a good boy, a smart boy, a credit to his family. I didn't realize that the time that I was also stigmatized by my father's alcoholism. My dad was the only man I knew we didn't drive a car, but I never fathomed what a social misfit he was, though I could sometimes sense it. In many ways, my Japanese mother was seen by society as a more normal one in the marriage, highly respected in the community as a good wife for enduring her wayward husband's antics, as a successful professional woman, and as a mother for bringing up three three respectable "half-breed" kids.

I wrote about coming to the U.S. in When Half is Whole and you can read the chapter here,

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