Posts by Min
When the Emperpor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka
Follows a Japanese American family who were incarcerated in the Utah desert during World War 2
Fox Girl, Nora Okja Keller
Three teenagers’ in America Town, the US military camp in South Korea in the 1960s, struggle to survive the impact of militarized intimacies, such as betrayal, violence, and prostitution
Inside Out & Back Again, Thanhha Lai
Childhood experience of a Vietnamese refugee in the US.
Internment, Samira Ahmed
Muslim Americans resisting in the internment camp they were forced to go to.
These descriptions are nothing but blurbs because there is so much to unpack. I hope you’ll approach these books with an open-mind – especially if Asian literature is a new genre for you.
We live in a very visual world today. As I glance at the numerous books on an aisle, a book cover makes or breaks whether I pick up the story and flip over to read the description. When I got this list of books, they all seemed so unfamiliar – until I saw the book cover of Inside Out & Back Again. Whether it was at the library or in one of the scholastic catalogs, I was sure I saw it somewhere in the past and it just never piqued my interest. It gave me a similar vibe as Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen; both had a tree, at least one person, and a dreamy background. I enjoyed Flipped, but looking at the cover of Inside Out & Back Again, I probably thought it was a coming-of-age book about a white protagonist. Maybe if I had noticed how the author’s name is oddly “foreign,” I would’ve considered the possibility of a “foreign” protagonist. So I guess…don’t judge a book by its covers and a picture is worth a thousand words, right? If these books make you feel uncomfortable, then good. We can’t always live within the comfort of our bubble, and this discomfort has definitely been an enriching learning journey for me.
Some questions to think about:
What do you know about war? How are these stories challenging your perceptions of war and of people? What are some of the messages the stories are saying? How are your experiences and knowledge influencing your interpretation? What is made visible and what is then rendered invisible? What are the dominant narratives that these stories challenge? Who is represented and who isn’t? Why? How? Is there an intended audience? Who? Why?
If you have the chance, read these and have conversations with someone else 🙂
Excerpt from Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai:
More is Not Better
I now understand
when they make fun of my name,
yelling ha-ha-ha down the hall
when they ask if I eat dog meat,
barking and chewing and falling down laughing
when they wonder if I lived in the jungle with tigers,
growling and stalking on all fours.
Because Brother Khoi
nodded into my head
on the bike ride home
when I asked if kids
said the same things
at his school.
I could go back
to not understanding.
This year, I felt a different kind of sadness – a type of fleeting emotion sprinkled with a touch of hopelessness…and perhaps helplessness too. I’m not quite certain which one, so let’s say both. Why? Because I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned about American imperialism.
The America I once knew was bright, especially to people who had left their motherland. For us, she was a new beginning. She meant opportunities, a better life, and success. But who is this America that represents life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for?
As an immigrant who has settled on the territory of the Tongva peoples, I am thankful to call this place my home. As a student at Colorado College, I want to acknowledge that this is the land of the Jicarilla Apache, Cheyenne, and Ute peoples on which I am living, breathing, and learning about settler colonialism and its legacies on the indigenous and Asian communities. I am very grateful for these opportunities and spaces to unlearn, question, and share with my fellow peers and professors, especially since the privilege I have to sit and consume information comes with a cost that people before me had shed blood for.
Throughout these blocks, I quickly realized that I am still living in an America that doesn’t belong to everyone. As I come to understand that violent histories just repeat themselves, the light at the end of the tunnel seems to flicker and fade as the image of America as a safe space for dreamers shatter. But so what? What am I going to do after learning that America has dispossessed Indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, incarcerated Japanese Americans, criminalized Muslim Americans, refused refugees, hated Chinese Americans, and more?
At this moment, ignorance seems so blissful. Similar to how Ha, the main character from Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, wished she could go back to not understanding the racist comments her classmates made, I sometimes wonder if it would be better for me to not know. All too often, I wish I could hide under my blanket and fall head over heels for fictional rom-com protagonists. Out of sight, out of mind – right? Not really. No matter how much I want to escape thinking about “so, what now?”, it’s constantly in the back of my mind. While understanding English made Ha angry, it also empowered her. I loved how she later used English to stand up for and protect herself. Certainly, I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the pain that nameless generations of marginalized communities have faced and are facing. I have no idea what I am exactly searching or aiming for, but I know that even if learning makes me feel sad, angry, and hopeless, it’s a much needed foundation. I also need to know what I am fighting for – whatever that may be – right?
Side note: Originally, I wanted to write a post on cliches/old sayings/ idioms that I would use to describe the literature we read. However, I decided that it just makes more sense to include it in this post, so if you noticed, there are several cliches/old sayings/ idioms here…
“Her watch had said six o’clock for weeks. She had stopped winding it the day they had stepped off the train” – When the Emperor was Divine, Julie Otsuka
We have all heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but what do we know other than the Japanese had attacked America? In my K-12 education, I sure don’t remember learning that there is a disproportionate number of US military bases in Hawai’i. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1945, which ordered the “relocation” of all persons of Japanese descent to incarceration camps. Why? Because they were Japanese and, thus automatically, a threat to national security. More than 120,000 first generation Issei and their Nisei children were affected – even to this day.
For the Japanese American girl in “When the Emperor was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, time had long stopped since she and her family were incarcerated. At the camps, there was literally no sense of time as they spent every single day waiting. Waiting for their father. Waiting to go home. Waiting for normal to return. But life can’t return to normal. In the three and a half years the family was imprisoned, many things had changed already – including themselves. From unconsciously sleeping together in the same room to quickly finishing their meals after their release, these habits were a testament of their legacy as criminalized “enemies.” Returning home wasn’t as simple as pressing an “unpause” button. They had to make sure not to trouble or offend anyone; they made sure to be the first to apologize even if they didn’t do anything wrong. They had to rebuild their trust with their peers and their neighbors and vice versa. In this America I know of, healing is so hard when her apologies often manifest in a monetary reparation and/or in a document that “acknowledges” the violence and trauma she inflicts on communities of color.
When life drastically changes, we can’t pause time and expect to return to “normal.” As we are ordered to stay at home and practice social distancing, this time of uncertainty is daunting and can be emotionally exhausting as we wait and wait and wait to go back to school, work, and hang out with friends. Of course, I don’t think it is fair to compare our experience during this pandemic to Japanese American incarceration, but I do hope we can learn to understand and accept that things will change – whether that is our attitude, our habits and routines, and more. Maybe this is too optimistic of me, but rather than being consumed with hate, frustration, and stress, how can we be present for each other and for ourselves?
It has already been two months since we first received the move-out notice in March. In the beginning of this semester, we hardly thought about the coronavirus having such a huge impact on us because of its “distance.” I still remember how I was worried about missing my friends when I go study abroad blocks 7 and 8, conflicted between which summer block abroad I wanted to take, and excited about my Venture Grant. While my plans soon became “unplanned,” it’s funny how things also worked out as I switched into classes by two amazing professors.
For many of us, this has been a bittersweet time as goodbyes were hurriedly said – or not said. For the seniors, they’ve also worked so hard and they won’t have a ceremony that solely belongs to them. I believe that many of us aren’t just aiming for this piece of paper to recognize the efforts, the stress, and the tears of these years. Rather, there is a sense of nostalgia for the memories and friendships formed at CC. And, I guess there is also a moment of finality and accomplishment to be able to walk up the stage to receive their diploma.
To all the people I know who are leaving – college isn’t easy and you guys did it. We don’t know what is going to happen during this time, but what I do know is how funny, insightful, and beautiful you are. Thank you for being such patient mentors who constantly inspire me to be more kind, passionate, and also skeptical. That’s right. “Skepticism” may sound cynical, but I believe it’s a spark of curiosity to question and have conversations. Although our time together was short, I am very glad to have met you and I hope we can continue to be in good health and may we stay in touch 🙂
The dominant narrative tells and shows us that war looks like…
WW1. WW2. Vietnam War. Bombs. Guns. Men. Death. Enemies. Tension.
Glory. Honor. Power. Protection. National security. Memorials. Veterans. Social Mobility.
Beyond the romanticized documentation of war, war is scary as it affects everyone and all aspects of life. The US is an empire that has built its status and power through its military. This give-and-take relationship, in which the US military “provides” the resources to “improve” the quality of life in the foreign land while dispossessing the native people is a traumatic, painful, and violent experience. In the words of my block 6 Professor Nadia Guessous, living in America gives us the “luxury of distance” from war. In our day to day life, we do not hear or see planes flying above our heads – ready to drop a bomb anytime; we do not hear or see bullets piercing through skin nor people bleeding to death; we do not hear or see frantic cries for help. And with this “luxury of distance”, we somehow become normalized to think people who are not directly involved in combat wars are safe and well-protected. War is not always about direct combat. As Dolma mentions in her post, “Asian American in the Time of Coronavirus,” war can be used as a metaphor to describe intangible “enemies.”
War stories are references that we often rely on to catch a glimpse on how it affects the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of people with war memories. But how do we know what is a “true” war story? For all we know, the author could have written from his or her imagination or draw from memories with missing pieces and made-up experiences. The truth is complicated and we should be skeptical with the information we consume, especially if it fulfills our expectations that the story is written by men (as the majority war stories are) and about someone who participated in combat. Rather, peeling off the layers of war can show us that war stories are so complex. They can be about familial relationships between the parents who experienced war and their children, about the intergenerational trauma and identity struggles, about the different silences and sacrifices made, about emotions that are hard to express, about militarized spaces and intimacies, about racism, and more. As Tim O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story,” a “true war story is never about war.” I thought something my classmate said was very endearing – if we are so caught up with finding the “truth,” we will “miss the beautiful irregular mundaneness of these stories, how they speak so closely to our hearts.”