Generational differences among Japanese-American families

Susan Churchill is a Japanese-American who grew up in a small town near Seattle not long after World War II. But her experiences growing up were nothing like her father’s.

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Susan Churchill (Photo by Anne Hillman, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Susan Churchill (Photo –  Alaska Public Media)

CHURCHILL: “After the war, when he got together with his brothers and bought this property to farm, my father commuted from Falls City, where the farm was, to Seattle the first, I’d say, 5 years that they owned the property. Because he felt it was a community of mostly Caucasians. He wanted to make sure it would be safe, really, for his family to move out there because of WWII and his experience.

My parents’ generation, which is second-generation Japanese-Americans, most of them did go through World War II in the internment camps. They were taken away from their property and treated like prisoners because of they were easily identified. It would be harder to be able to round up the Italians and the Germans that lived in the communities on the West Coast and put them into camps.

The first time I realized my parents were sent to internment camps, I was like 12 or 13 years old. And my father was talking about…when they were given notice that they had to be evacuated, and they could only take what they could carry, [my grandfather] had them practice carrying so they could carry as much as they could take with them. Because they were leaving their home and not knowing when they’d ever come back, or if they’d come back.

When they’d get together with friends or with family, and they’d talk about fun times—reminiscing—and they’d talk about this happened in camp or so-in-so got married in camp, or all these things. And I thought, well they were talking about church camp because all the things that they would discuss openly like that were all fun, positive things that happened.

And when I would read stories and things, I could start understanding more why they didn’t want to talk about it. Cause some of it reverts back to the Japanese values, which is there’s a term ‘shikata ga nai’ which is ‘it can’t be helped.’ And so that was the pervasive mantra that went through as all the first- and second-generation Japanese were being evacuated and going through this process was, ‘There wasn’t anything we can do, it’s happening,’ and then they would endure.

During the time my father was starting his farming and establishing his business after the war, he purposely got involved with the community to make sure that he paved the way for us to live there and be known as people who wanted to contribute to the community.

I was readily accepted by all my playmates, so there wasn’t anything I was uncomfortable about.

Somethings were amusing like somebody had mentioned to me, ‘You and your sister look alike.’

And we don’t think we look anything alike, and nobody’s ever said that. And I said, ‘Oh really. What’s similar?’

‘Well, you look familiar. You look similar through your eyes.’

And I’m thinking, ‘Well we both have classic Asian eyes…’

As a third-generation Japanese-American I feel pretty distant [from my culture.] Growing up outside Seattle in the all-white community I was in, our parents didn’t send us to Japanese School, and they only spoke English to us. The only time they spoke Japanese was when they had conversations they didn’t want us to know about. If you don’t speak a language there’s a lot of the culture you miss. They were on this kick to make sure that we were All-American and sort of assimilated totally into the American culture because they felt that would be important for us, so we wouldn’t have to face the prejudice and the discrimination that they had to go through.

So yeah, overall I’ve been able to feel like I’ve had the advantage of being Japanese. It hasn’t been a deterrent and I haven’t had any direct discrimination because of that.”

That was Susan Churchill talking about what it was like to grow up as a Japanese-American after World War II. She spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Anne Hillman. We’ll be discussing recognizing racism during Community in Unity on Wednesday at 7 pm at our studios in Anchorage.