The first time I talked to my grandmother about her experience in camp was for a school project. The teacher wanted to do something about the Japanese internment camps, and he set up a mock trial in class. I was assigned to be a “witness,” to interview my grandmother, and take up the position that the Camps were wrong. On the other side, another student was supposed to make the case that the Camps were necessary.
I don’t think it occurred to the teacher that it might be awkward to talk to my grandmother about her experiences. In fact, she didn’t mind talking. She was very matter of fact about it.
When my great grandfather decided to buy a house on Mount Vernon Street in the Mission, the neighbors circulated a petition saying they didn't want any Japs in the neighborhood. At that time, there were no Asians living there. After a time, they got to know, and became good friends with the Italian neighbors. But my grandma still remembers being harassed. She would take the bus to school, and the driver would refuse to let her off at her stop, so she was forced to walk back from the end of the line. After the war started, she saw her father treated very badly because he was a first generation immigrant.
They were interred first in Rohwer, Arkansas, but then she was transferred to the high security segregation center at Tule Lake, when her father and uncle refused to sign a loyalty oath. Because the Tule Lake prisoners were seen as potential enemies of the United States, they were treated roughly, and there was a lot of violence there. My grandma saw a prisoner disemboweled by a guard.
Rowher was a swamp – very hot and humid, and my grandma remembered all these strange creatures she saw there – she’d been a city girl, so the swamp creatures were quite outside her experience. Her father found a giant turtle with grotesque bumps all over its head. It looked like a beast from the age of dinosaurs. He tied a rope around its neck and dragged it back to the buildings – so he could show the kids. One night, when she was trying to sleep, she saw a snake, up in the rafters above her head. It was shedding its skin against the beams, and pieces of the shed skin were falling down onto her face.
The prosecuting attorney, for the class project, was an eloquent white kid. A good debater. I wasn’t very organized in my points, and I was also fairly shy. The stories my grandmother told me were these memories that didn’t necessarily have much to do with presenting a case. At one point, I mentioned that she remembered going to the movies – they projected movies in camp. And the “prosecuting attorney” really jumped on that. They were even provided entertainment – so really, how bad could it have been?
So, in short – I didn’t end up making a very good case. What made it even worse was that I won the trial anyway. The class – they knew the correct judgment. The judgment of history. They felt sorry for me.