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I first read the word “Manzanar” when I was about 8 years old. It was in a book that a teacher gave me as a parting gift when my family left San Francisco for Upper Arlington, Ohio. “In case you ever feel alone,” she said.
I return to Ohio once a year for the Fourth of July. I spent most of this week tearing apart my childhood room, sifting through dusty boxes and shelves in search of that book, “Amelia’s Notebook,” by Marissa Moss.
It’s a first-person story of a girl who moved away from California. In a sequel, Amelia described a family trip in which she first visited Manzanar: “It was like a camp for war prisoners, only these people weren’t enemy soldiers, just regular people — kids even!”
“I can’t believe it really happened,” Amelia said, “but you can still see some guard posts and a cemetery with Japanese writing on the gravestones … But no one ever told me.”
I forgot about Manzanar until 10th grade. It was 2004; George W. Bush had just been re-elected, the second battle of Falluja raged in Iraq, and the United States was contending with post-9/11 Islamophobia.
After a brief lesson on Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, our American studies class voted that the decision was ultimately the right one. The country had to make wartime sacrifices in the name of national security, my classmates reasoned.
I remember staring at my desk, face burning and not daring to look up. As the only Asian-American in that 50-student class, I wasn’t about to raise my hand.
The Zeiglers — the husband-and-wife team who taught the class — were swift and unequivocal in their response. They told us that they were very disappointed; that the decision had since been universally condemned, and the United States had apologized and compensated survivors in 1988. “Maybe it’s because of everything that’s going on right now,” Ms. Zeigler said, shaking her head in dismay.
Last week, the Supreme Court took the Zeiglers’ view, tossing out the 1944 Court ruling that had upheld the internments.
I was surprised that we were even learning about Japanese internment. It was the first time I had heard the subject being discussed, and I was also acutely aware that some of my classmates had tugged at the corners of their eyelids to greet me when we were younger. And yet we sat side by side, looking together at archival images of signs that read “Japs keep moving — this is a white man’s neighborhood.”
In my mind, it was a uniquely American story. Most of those who were interned were American citizens, like myself: born and raised in the United States, but considered the enemy because of how they looked. It wasn’t my experience, or my family’s, as Korean-Americans. But by studying others’ lives, we learned of a collective past that tenuously connected us to a present that we struggled to understand.
After World War II ended, the prisoners scattered. Some headed east, wanting to put the camps behind them. Others returned to the West Coast and tried to pick up where they had left off, but had trouble resettling, acting as if nothing had happened.
Then there are those, like Mas Okui, whose “search for a defining experience which shaped Japanese-American identity led them to Manzanar.” Mr. Okui was sent to the camp with his family when he was 10 years old. Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, he returned home after his release and taught high school history and social studies for decades. One of his assignments was to require students to interview a person who had lived through an important event in history.
Mr. Okui, 86, now educates visitors to Manzanar. “I felt it was incumbent on me, and I’ll do it as long as I can,” he told me as I recently joined one of his tours. Maybe we revisit the past to better understand ourselves and to help shape a better future. And maybe we do so by returning to the places that have been instrumental in forming who we are.
Near the end of my stay in Ohio, I went for a run, past a neighbor’s sign urging passers-by to “Make America Great Again.” As I retraced the familiar path home, I looped back, cutting across a lawn and nearly stumbling into another yard sign. It read: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
In our interactive story, Mr. Okui leads a tour of Manzanar [Visit]
Inyoung Kang is an editor on the news desk at The Times.
Here are some of the stories that we’re talking about, beyond The Times.
“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” [Teaching American History]
When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday [The Atlantic]
Dylann Roof’s Fateful Google Search [Pacific Standard]
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