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such is life (a true story of love and war)

In my last post, I shared the story of a young Russian couple who were miraculously reunited after long years apart.  I thought here might be a nice place to share a similar tale, from Kuramitsu/Nakamura family lore: the story of my great uncle Clark, presented to the best of my recollection.

Sadamu “Clark” Nakamura was a college student living in Sacramento, California when he received a notice from the United States government that he had to report for “evacuation.”  In the time that followed, he lost his property, his work towards a college degree, and was illegally incarcerated in a concentration center called Tule Lake.  Not long after, desperate to prove his loyalty to a country that betrayed him, he volunteered to fight in a racially segregated combat unit that served in France, Germany, and Italy.  This unit would later become the most decorated army unit in United States military history.

this is the kind of place my uncle was shipped off to

this is the kind of american wasteland my uncle was incarcerated in

While abroad, my uncle Clark met a beautiful Italian girl.  The two of them fell in love, and he asked her to marry him, but her mother wouldn’t allow it.  However, they still remained close.  After the war ended, Clark moved back to the United States.  Not even knowing if he would have a home to return to in California (he didn’t), he gave her his family’s address in Hakalau, Hawai’i.  Over the next few years, she would write him long letters of love and longing.  However, his Japanese-speaking mother didn’t know what these letters meant, or what they were, and she squirreled them away and never told him a thing.  Clark thought of her often for a while, but eventually got married to someone else, had a family.

Tens of years later, after his mother and his first wife passed, he found these heart wrenching letters in a box in their family home.  Outraged and exhilarated, he set out on this half-cocked search for this special woman, moving towards his goal with reckless hope.

He first wrote a letter to the mayor of the town he originally met this girl in, asking about her family name and any possible news of them.  A few weeks later he got a response from a city official which said that the family moved to another town many, many years ago.  He then wrote to the mayor of that town and, after another tepid waiting period, was subsequently informed that many years ago the girl’s family moved to a little place called, oh, Rome.

Not one to give up, my uncle then wrote to the mayor of the city of Rome, explaining his entire predicament: Japanese American G.I. Stationed in Italy During WWII, Looking for Lost Love.  My family still has a copy of the story that ran on the front page of Rome’s biggest newspaper, which reprinted Clark’s petition in full and asked the public for aid in finding this girl.

Not too long afterwards, my uncle received a letter postmarked from Italy.  He opened the letter with trembling hands.  The son of the woman he had been seeking had seen the letter, and wrote to my uncle in the stead of his mother.  The young man was overjoyed at Clark’s tale, he said, but his mom had actually passed away just a couple of years ago.  She never did get to reconnect.

There’s a phrase that many folks in the Japanese American community use, especially our elders, whenever emotions run high and life becomes difficult.  Shikata ga nai.  Nothing can be done about it.  It cannot be helped.  Though my personal sense of North American individualism (and Arminian self-determination) naturally challenges this deterministic philosophy, this teaching is what has helped many members of our community get through the nastiest curveballs and trauma that life can bring us.

After he finishes telling the story, my uncle always glances downwards with a wistful look: “how she would have liked to hear from me.  How happy she would have been.”  I can’t help but thinking how happy he too, would have been.  How things might have been so different, if only he was able to recapture fate and find this woman again.  This is a pretty amazing, crushing story and people often ask to hear it, so I’ve heard it on several occasions.  Each time my uncle tells it, without fail, the tale is concluded in the same way: Clark closes his eyes and smiles tightly and says only “but such is life.”

breaking up in the Internet age

I recently read the story of a young Russian couple who were torn apart just three days after they were married, when the husband was forcibly shipped off to join the Red Army.  Upon his eventual return home, he found his wife and her family gone, having been forcibly relocated to somewhere in Siberia as enemies of the state.  The couple didn’t see or hear anything from one another until sixty years later, when one day Anna and Boris both just happened to visit their old hometown, where they shared an incredible moment:

From the Telegraph:

“When Anna Kozlov caught sight of the elderly man clambering out of a car in her home village of Borovlyanka in Siberia, she stopped dead in her tracks, convinced her eyes were playing tricks.

There, in front of her, was Boris, the man she had fallen in love with and married 60 years earlier.  The last time she had seen him was three days after their wedding, when she kissed him goodbye and sent him off to rejoin his Red Army unit. “I thought my eyes were playing games with me,” Anna said.  “I saw this familiar looking man approaching me, his eyes gazing at me.  My heart jumped.  I knew it was him.  I was crying with joy.”

Now 80 years old, Boris had returned to visit his parents’ grave.  As he stepped out of the car, he looked up to see Anna standing by her old house, where they had lived for the few days after the wedding.  “I ran up to her and said: ‘My darling, I’ve been waiting for you for so long. My wife, my life…’”

This is an amazing tale.  Reading it makes me break out into the biggest, sappiest smile.

But that was then.  Love stories like these don’t happen anymore.

Over the past quarter century, we’ve seen stunning innovation in the field of how we connect with the world, how we socialize and interact with each other in virtual online communities.  Social media, as these tools have been dubbed, has been used for plenty of things: for self-promotion, for journaling, for organizing, activism, and sharing art, for staying in touch with friends, keeping track of enemies, and meeting new people.

he’s probably sexting

These social trends haven’t left North American culture unaffected.  We now live in an Internet era, one in which split-second decisions can become easily immortalized, prominently displayed for all to see.  (Entire websites exist to this end, documenting inebriated late night texts or other minor scandals.)  However, in my opinion the most interesting way the Internet Age is affecting us is how it has changed the way we relate to each other romantically.

Back then, Boris met Anna in through friends, asked for her address or phone number, then took her out on a date, and the two of them distinctly ended the affair if things did not work out.  But now, Bro is meeting Annie on Tinder, then they “talk” (flirtatiously text on and off for a few weeks), follow each other on Twitter, hook up when convenient, and stay Facebook friends long after the relationship ends.

social media

he’s probably sexting

I don’t think the romance of the past sappy and sweet and things today downright horrible; indeed, meeting someone back then wasn’t perfect, and falling in love today can be really nice too.  But one thing should be clear – short of moving to a desert island, there is no way of going back to how we romantically socialized and loved then.  Technology has ensured that the way we date has been changed forever.

One obvious example of this, something our generation is only now beginning to understand, is that social media has made the process of getting over an ex much, much harder than it was in the past.

Think about it.  Before the Facebook era, if, say, one night you had more than a couple of drinks and suddenly began feeling rather melancholy about your life, becoming dizzy and pained with the silly urge to reconnect with a person you used to love – a person with whom things ended very badly – if this happened to you, you most likely couldn’t do anything about these feelings.  Whenever they arose, as they inevitably did every once in a blue moon, you would just grit your teeth for a few minutes and wait until the thoughts dissipated.

Because the alternative was truly impossible.  Really, you’d have to put such effort into actually hunting down and reconnecting with an old flame.  You might have considered it for a second, but any longer and the entire idea would collapse.  I imagine the whole process would be quite complicated: you’d first have to open up a phonebook, or sort through some old papers, maybe write a letter or two, set aside time to call up ancient acquaintances, spend days or weeks traveling across town or scouring the country in the name of following this natural itch.

It would have been a lot of work.

But let’s assume you finally somehow succeeded in digging deep enough into the past to unearth this ossified relationship, let’s say you’ve even gotten to this point, which, let’s be honest, you haven’t, because the momentary urge to run back to an ex was never enough to sustain all of this effort.

But sure, let’s just say that yes, you’ve finally gotten here.

You show up on this person’s doorstep.

And you have no idea what to expect.

They could be married.

They could have kids.

However you went about trying to reconnect with them, whether by showing up in person or just penning a goopy letter, you would end up looking like a total psycho.

Because no one did that.

And I think this is how getting over a bad heartbreak was meant to happen.

together forever

together forever?

Today, it’s completely different.  Say ten, fifteen years from now you’re pretty happy, but you also develop an inkling to find out how your ex is doing.  You can, before you even realize what you’re doing, pull up his Facebook page and gorge to your burning heart’s content.  You can see if he’s still in shape, if he’s still posting sanctimonious selfies.  You can gape at how much hair he’s lost, check on his relationship status, see Christmas cards, breeze through pictures of his children and wife (who is really not prettier than you at all), and the aching feeling that will be left in your stomach afterwards will be one of overeating, of filling your belly with too many spoonfuls of ice cream long after you’ve had that “I’m soooo full” moment.

This is unhealthy.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about college and young adult breakups over the past few years, it’s that when you end things with someone who you never thought you would end things with, it is a good idea to really separate from each other.  To create as much emotional and physical distance as possible.  Sure, some people really can “stay friends.”  But most of us mortals can’t.  Most of us would be lying to ourselves if we insisted that it wasn’t so difficult remaining close to our former life partner, that we were completely over them and doing just fine, thank you very much.

Distance is good.  I think we’re kind of supposed to lose track of the people who broke our hearts.

That’s how breaking up was back then.  More clean cut.  It was much more difficult to fall hard into old memories and spontaneously reconnect with an old flame, so it really didn’t happen all that much.  (This was probably a good thing.)  Maybe you bumped into them years later at the grocery store, and it was nice.  But other than that, nothing.

Today, breakups are long, muddled processes.  We split but then continue to casually hold our greatest heartbreaks at arms length, toting around the ghosts of our past in polished digital portfolios.  We are easily able to gain the most intimate knowledge about an ex in just a few clicks.  The information era has increased our inclination for immediate gratification to the point where a booty is just a call away, a text pouring out forbidden longing only as distant as your cell phone and a bottle of tequila.  (Or Burnett’s.  We are in college.)

In the olden days, things faded more smoothly with time.  Today, the temptation to pitifully bemoan a former love interest, thinking “if only, if only,” can be nursed for years afterwards.   We can always “Facebook stalk our ex.”  Which is fun, in a sick sort of way, but in the end it makes you hurt (especially if it seems they’re doing too well) and this habit does make it a lot harder to get over breakups.

All that to say, this is why I believe it is good to have a couple of serious friends around who are committed to keeping you gagged and tied down after a devastating breakup.  Whenever a bittersweet, rogue memory crosses your emotional palate, they will be the ones who keep your mind otherwise occupied.  When you are feeling your most vulnerable, they will be the ones who monitor your social media activity; they will be the ones who help you hammer down any violently surfacing memories.

These friends will take you out to help you move on.  They will be the ones who hold you back when you’re raging, trying to stumble across town and spill your heart out to her.  In this day and age, one truly needs good friends who can keep you penned in, trapped, like Prometheus.  (Although instead of an eagle descending daily to devour you, and instead of being a god, you’re a child, and you’re inflicting your own torture, trying to eat your own liver out.)

One last story.

I was talking to a Cuban friend last month about the pain he has been feeling since he and his girlfriend abruptly ended things.  As he was telling me about this girl he was completely in love with, I asked for her name, to see a picture of her.

But he had gotten rid of all her photographs.  It hurt him too much, being that close to all those memories.  She did not have a Facebook either, or any social media, which helped to shelter his fragile psyche a bit more.  He even deleted her number from his phone, “so I wouldn’t be tempted to call her when I got drunk or sad.”

Stepping away from the technology that put her within arms reach, I think, is helping my friend begin to really internalize the fact that he will never hold her again.  I think everyone in this millennium who is struggling working to get over an ex could take a lesson from that.

And then he looked at me and said, “I could still call her, though.”  He rattled off a sequence of digits.  “I have her number memorized.”

second chances at illini tower

Two years ago, I quietly moved out of the privately-owned residence hall where I spent my first few semesters at this university.  I lived there first as a paying resident, and then as a Resident Advisor during the summer and fall of my sophomore year.  In this time, I made many wonderful friendships and learned a great deal of positive life lessons.  However, after a series of very negative experiences I had as an employee there, I decided to quit my job.

Shortly after, a student from the Daily Illini who had heard about the situation asked if I would be willing to sit down for an interview.  I agreed, and the paper soon ran a piece on the story, which referenced a blog post I had written about the whole experience.  It was deeply cathartic sharing what happened to me with so many people, people who understood and who offered me kindness and support.  However, the day after the article ran, when my roommate stopped by Illini Tower to pick up his last paycheck, he was asked to deliver me a message: I was strictly banned from the building, never welcome to return.  This news was especially difficult because of the close relationships I had come to foster with many of our residents – warm faces I still greet with care and enthusiasm whenever I run into them.  With nothing but a swiftly-relayed threat, I was forever cut off from the community I helped create.

But two years later, I find myself in Illini Tower once again.  I have been hired by the College of Business to work as a Resident Advisor for a month-long summer program where I am tasked with overseeing high school students of color who are interested in the business field.  And it is weird.  I’m in this tense, peculiar place right now, for instance, where I’m sitting ten feet from my old boss, writing a blog post about being an RA in a building I used to be an RA in where I’m still technically under a lifetime ban for writing a blog post about being an RA here.  It’s all at once puzzling, painful, and incredibly surreal to try and articulate just how it feels to be back in an environment that was both so kind and so cruel to me.

RA family

this is our original building staff. We grew very close over the time we all worked together. Out of all the RAs in this picture, only 1 made it to the end of the school year.

I understand why it might be hard for people to believe this, but Illini Tower really is such a special home to me.  This building will always stand in my memory as an odd, sacred sort of space, swollen with significant memories (both sad and sweet ones).  Illini Tower is, after all, where I first developed a sense of friendship and community in college.  It’s where I brought all of my family and friends when they came to visit.  It’s where I met people from the Chicago suburbs and from Africa and India.

I will always remember Illini Tower as that place where, on our first night at school, my roommate and I decided to cook steak and Mako shark in our kitchen, inviting kids from all over the building to join our impromptu potluck.  I remember it for being where I held sleepovers in the basement movie theater, where I first watched Game of Thrones, where I had dinner with the strangers I wanted to get to know.  It’s where my Catholic missionary friend crashed while his apartment was being renovated and where my grandfather absolutely annihilated our bathroom when he came down to visit.

Illini Tower is where I evangelized.  It’s where I developed friendships with some of the most gregarious people I’d ever met, by joining a group called Campus Crusade for Christ.  It’s where I spent day after day knocking on doors, impressing upon people that they should become a part of Cru Christianity™.  This building is where I hosted and participated in revival meetings and prayer sessions, where I started a blog to share my (thoughts on) faith, and where I and a couple other students started a weekly Illini Tower Bible study group that meets to this day.  It’s where my eager, inflamed zeal for Christ surely burned plenty of bridges.

Illini Tower is where I laughed.  It’s where my devoutly Muslim roommates and I spent each night finding strictly alcohol-free things to do (things that often got us into more trouble than boozing around would have).  Illini Tower is where I successfully played “the floor is lava” from my bedroom all the way down to the building’s front entrance, where we filled an empty vodka bottle with water and guzzled it down in front of our RA, and where we locked each other in the bathroom at the most inconvenient times.  It’s where we dragged our desks and chairs into the northwest elevator and hunched over physics textbooks, acting annoyed when people came in and interrupted our “studying.”

the roommates

so a Palestinean, a Japanese, a Nigerian, and an Egyptian walk into a bar…

Illini Tower is where I played.  It’s where we used County Market pineapples and kiwi and tomatoes to hold games of real-life Fruit Ninja.  It’s where I chased my roommate through our floor lounge with a kitchen knife, breezing past bewildered neighbors as we sprinted along shirtless, slathered in Ketchup we pretended was blood.  Illini Tower is where we pushed all the buttons on the elevators, where we abused Vaseline and whipped cream, Febreze and saran wrap, to interrupt each other’s studying with predictable pranks.  It’s where I played lots of other things, including songs by The Fray, Coldplay, and Mumford & Sons with banjo, electric, and piano-proficient friends.  It’s where I first made music with the girl I would one day fall in love with.

And love.

Oh, Illini Tower is where I loved.  It’s where I felt a hard flittering in my gut as I fell asleep one night, where I told my roommate, softly, almost imperceptibly, …I think I like Tara*.  It’s where I began my first relationship, where I had my first kiss, and where I used a Panda Express fortune cookie to facilitate my first breakup.  This building is where I flinched and swiftly wounded someone who didn’t deserve my callousness, where I internalized feelings of shame and regret that have followed me for years.  Illini Tower is where I first became enamored of C.S. Lewis, and where, for the very first time in my life, I fell in love hard and had my hard heart wrung and most definitely broken.  It’s where I first told a girl I love you and actually meant it, and it’s where that girl couldn’t stop crying for hours afterwards.

Yeah, this place was never entirely rainbows and butterflies.  Many memories bring nothing but pain.

For instance, Illini Tower is where, under orders from my “spiritual discipler,” I tricked people into attending an evangelism meeting under the guise of a free pizza party.  It’s where my sense of discovery and excitement about God and the Bible was constantly stifled by a ministry leader who encouraged me to stop a) taking religious studies classes, b) participating in interfaith work, and c) attending mass at the Catholic church across the street.  This place is where I stood outside on a balcony on the building’s sixteenth floor during the worst thunderstorm of the year, shouting at God, crying, pleading, asking him to just help me understand.  It’s where I unintentionally started to become alienated from a holistic, authentic practice of the Christian faith, where the tiniest cracks in my perfect, carefully-constructed worldview first began to appear.

Both my spiritual and secular experiences here held their fair share of darkness.  As a freshman, I saw friends swallowed up by the ugly underbelly of the glory-bound, fratty lifestyle that maintains a heavy foothold on this campus – eating disorders, alcoholism, emptiness, depression, (sex) addiction took their toll on too many.  I myself only had the most minuscule taste of these afflictions’ consequences.  Illini Tower is where I became unnecessarily hooked on energy drinks, where I sometimes missed classes for weeks at a time, and where I once didn’t wash my shower towel for so long that using it gave me open, running sores on my face.

Some time later, I was hired as an RA.  And I loved it.  While others chose “Mario Kart” or “Monsters Inc.” as their floor themes, I selected “Suffering on Floor Se7en,” happily spicing up my floor lounge with crafted skulls, pitchforks, and the flames of hell, designing eye-catching door decs that depicted each of the seven deadly sins.  I performed standard paraprofessional duties – both busting parties and sharing those sacred RA words with students I cared about: “you can do this, I believe in you.”

But soon, Illini Tower became the place I spent late nights awake and worrying about my job, where I discreetly searched for apartments online, where I called my father trying my best to hide the shaking in my voice, “dad, I’m so sorry.  I don’t think this RA thing is going to work out.


Illini Tower is also where, in an impotent act of RA rage, I created this Frankenstein of a bulletin board.

A lot of other college things have happened since those days.  I got an apartment, I met other friends, and fell out of love.  I left Campus Crusade and found a new church home.  I got another RA job, traveled internationally, and changed my major.  I fell in love again.

But now I’m back in this old place, surrounded by these same spectral smells, sights, and sounds that first introduced me to college – the sharp pull of Freon in my nose when I enter a cooled room, the plush neon and blue novelty furniture, the musical way the elevators arrogantly ding and jump to a stop as they arrive.  I’m back playing basement ping-pong with residents and eating crappy imitation-brand Frosted Flakes in the old dining hall and using the same dysfunctional electronic keys, in this place I thought I would never see again.  It’s the strangest sensation – déjà vu on steroids – a nauseating sort of nostalgia that leaves my mental state lurching between past and present, spinning from soaring highs to sinking lows.

I feel like a reluctant zombie, in this strange process of rediscovering, stumbling through this vaguely familiar life.  And I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

Because in the real world, we don’t ever have this luxury.  Tragedies and trauma suddenly thrash against us and their violence changes the core of who we are.  Assault, addiction, death, divorce, depression.  We know that we can’t ever go back in time and somehow try to relive and avoid the awful things that brought irreversible destruction into our lives.  It is fully impossible to return to who we used to be before whichever cataclysmic event stained our souls with marks of pain and darkness.

A friend recently told me how she spent this past year in the midst of her own natural disaster.  It was a trying, catastrophic time for her, something I can’t even imagine going through.  And what she told me was that after this trauma happened, after this thing that nearly killed her finally passed, there was nothing left of the person she used to be.  Things had gotten so rough that she had to start from scratch, to learn day by day how to be her own self again.

I would do anything to give her the kind of chance it feels like I have now.  An undeserved opportunity to relive history, to remake the past in my own image.

There are many  times in my life that I’d love to return to, if only to try and handle things differently, better than I did before.  My parents’ divorce.  Custody battles over my little sister.  Falling in love with an ice queen.  The way I left Campus Crusade.  But in the end, I get the sense that even the most ancient magic couldn’t have saved my parents’ marriage, kept my youngest sibling in my life, or saved me from heartbreak and social rejection.  The past is eternally out of reach, forever creeping backwards into memory, into legend, into nothing.

All we have is this moment.  We never get the second chances we deserve.


You fatefully step out of air-conditioned bliss and into the middle of some desert.  Your trip’s chaperones have driven you and your fellow students three hours north of Los Angeles to visit the former site of a domestic concentration camp named Manzanar.

Outside, after an impossible brightness relents from your eyes, the landscape’s natural colors begin to materialize around you.  Actually, colors is a strong word.  Black, brown, gray, ailing yellow, and occasional tufts of green are the full expanse of the local shades (with the notable exception of the pregnant ocean hanging above your head).

You look down and are horrified to find that your skin – your proud, Hawaiian, Japanese, well-pigmented skin – seems to be sizzling helplessly in the sun.  Woefully, you brought with you neither shades nor sunscreen.  (You greatly underestimated the strength of that word, desert.)  As you walk towards the narrow copse of trees ahead of you, you breathe in the taste of dry, dusty air.  The wind is whipping itself hard against your lips, which immediately begin to crack.


Your group is taking a couple of minutes to explore one of Manzanar’s few remaining preserved sites: a small stone and wooded area, once a sort of desert oasis.  A nearby placard indicates that this dead space formerly housed a vibrant garden, designed and constructed by some of the most creative and resilient women and men who were incarcerated here.

Later, in the museum, you will see photographs, glimpses of what this place was.  In these pictures, prisoners and staff alike linger here, spending a few moments together in the sacred peace of blue and green,  koi and cactus and cool stone.

Yet bitter irony screams out from these quiet images, as this sad, bizarre juxtaposition abounds.  In this desert garden, in this concentrated safe space, enemies and friends gathered together in peace in the midst of inescapable violence.  It is truly the eye of a hurricane.

There isn’t much life left here.  The fish have died, the guards gone, the plants dulled, their colors masked by thin, cloaking layers of sand.  Only the harshest flora and fauna have survived the death of this place.  (There are perhaps a few prickly, aggressive-looking bushes left.  And tumbleweeds.  Scorpions.  Real rattlesnakes.)  The riverbed itself, which once drank deeply of water pumped in through local irrigation fields, is just as extinct.  Thin cracks jet across its concrete floor, reaching center and spiraling out again from long-dried depths.

In recent years, archaeologists sponsored by the national parks service have unearthed (and subsequently restored) many of these garden spaces.  These constant and complicated excavations are necessary because after the Supreme Court finally decided against the legality of the mass incarceration, the federal government undertook a desperate surge to erase the evidence of this crime.

Bulldozers were ordered to promptly demolish rows of barracks and homes, strip down fences and guard towers, fill in handmade gardens and ponds with cement and dirt.  This project was not an act of contrition, but one of obfuscation.  Your country’s military and political leaders did not want people to find out what really happened here, so they summarily dismantled the existing testimony.  (This was also certainly the reason why all “sad-looking” photographs depicting life inside Manzanar were ordered to be destroyed before the camp closed.)

Not much other than what was already dead survived this purge.  Out of respect, or perhaps a sense of shame, Manzanar’s cemetery was not destroyed by this fleet of censure.  To this day, the modest piece of land stands strong and silent on the edge of camp.  Formerly imprisoned Buddhist and Christian leaders have made pilgrimages to the site each year since the camp’s closing, to perform traditional remembrance ceremonies.  Aside from this, no one was allowed to return to this twisted Eden.

The burial ground is your next destination.

Your group hops back into the soothing atmosphere of the vehicle, and you drive off.

Inside the van, the desert has already started to seep in; water is in short supply.  Both of your bottles are nearly gone.  You were sure one wouldn’t be enough, so you brought two, and that wasn’t enough either.  The seals crack open and you can barely feel the water flowing across your lips.  Before you know it there’s nothing left.

Outside again, and the world is hot and stale.  You breathe in big sips of desert air, but through your nose, in order to keep your mouth from drying any further.  Marching towards the desert graves, you actually feel heavier, as if gravity itself has been cranked to eleven, working harder than ever to press you back into (the) dust.

As you near the graveyard, you stop in your tracks when you notice it – it is dead silent.  No casual, ambient noises fill your ears – no cars zooming along gravel roads, no music blaring, no cell phones chirping, no more beating wind.  You close your eyes, and picture yourself standing inside a tiny, soundproof room.  This tremendous void is nothing like the Los Angeles you arrived from, nothing like the Los Angeles many of Manzanar’s own residents were forced to “evacuate.”  The silence itself is a form of oppression.

The same year that your government began to illegally incarcerate its Japanese American residents and citizens, your country’s number one song happened to be a popular little tune called “Don’t Fence Me In.”  (Here is a cover performed by your favorite band.)  The song plays a lot like that old anthem home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play – it’s about a renegade, no-nonsense cowboy who’s making a living on the Western frontier, where life is good because he’s free to do as he pleases:

Oh give me the land, lots of land
Under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open
Country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

Even as Manzanar’s artists and architects labored to create stunning stone and wood gardens, its musicians came together to form camp bands, informal groups of vocalists, brass, and string-playing Japanese Americans who were given permission to perform at dances and other public events.  The music these women and men made here, like the camp’s flowered gardens, was a popular addition to camp life, celebrated among staff and incarceree alike.  However, one tune was explicitly forbidden from being played.  And your nation’s most popular song never pierced the desert silence.


the grave of a child who died here, trapped in Manzanar

Over one hundred and fifty people died in this humble Californian concentration camp.  Some passed away from natural illness or old age, others from disease and preventable infection, which often spread like wildfire from barrack to barrack.  A few of those incarcerated here simply lost the will to live.  Others, including two teenage boys, were even shot and killed.

Their thin marble gravestones fleck the barren landscape.  Some headstones are small, marking the burial of infants and children.  Of all those interred here, all but six families ultimately sent for the remains of their loved ones to be transferred elsewhere, or to be cremated in traditional Japanese fashion.  Even the dead don’t deserve to be trapped in this forgotten wasteland.

You instinctually raise your right hand to make the sign of the cross, father, son, holy spirit.  Amen.  But you do it quickly, making sure no one else sees.  Though you’ve taken comfort in this gesture a million times before, somehow it feels out of place… disrespectful even, to be doing it here.  You are, after all, standing on hallowed ground, in a Buddhist graveyard, in a former ghetto on American soil.  It’s one of those moments where you feel split in two.

In the sky, off to the east, it’s almost prophetic.  You recognize the shape of (not a bird! or a plane! but) a rainbow, hovering boldly above a craggy peak.  You snap a simple photo that does not nearly do the moment justice.

arco iris

Although rainbows have certainly come to mean something more to you in recent years, your mind first flickers back to what you learned in Sunday school: that this meteorological phenomenon actually represents God’s covenantal promise to protect and bless his people.

But you’re looking around, and you can’t see this God anywhere.  This God who declared that he would lift his people out of oppression and slavery, this God who promised to break every chain and to give his people a land of their own.  All you see are graves.

Dry, hot tears start to run down your face, creasing into little rivers as they’re pulled away from your eyes.  Where is this God, who, as the great story goes, was himself illegally imprisoned and executed by the government, whose very own body was swept aside and stashed away in a garden tomb?

You remember the great stories your great uncle used to tell you, how he volunteered out of one of these camps to join a segregated military unit which fought in France, Italy, and Germany during the second world war.  You remember the story of Daniel Inouye (who went on to become your country’s most senior senator), who lost his arm and was awarded numerous medals for his bravery in the war, only to return home, in uniform, and be candidly refused service in a San Francisco barbershop – “we don’t serve Japs here.”

Manzanar is absolutely swollen with great stories such as these, pregnant with the ghosts of gardeners, musicians, and soldiers who cultivated careful life, bred music, and went off to bleed and die for a country that kept their mothers and children behind barbed wire.

Yet if there’s one thing you’ve learned today, it’s that only Manzanar’s bleached skeleton remains.  This is not a prison anymore.  It’s not even a graveyard.  It’s just a capital wasteland, a national park eternally illuminated by the inescapable memories of those who lived and died here.  Really, it’s just a shell now.  Just sand and tumbleweed and a few arid landmarks.  There’s not a lot to see for those without the eyes to see it.  But for anyone who has a little bit of empathy, or imagination, for anyone who likes ghost stories, this place is inextinguishable, unlimited.

You really don’t know where this God of salvation and promise is.  The only thing you know right now is that this God of the forgotten is somehow here, in the graves, with the crucified and the restless dead.

You once heard a great king ask his friend the question “what can men do against such reckless hate?”

First, we weep.  And then we close our eyes, and whisper that tired old prayer, father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…

And then we rage.

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