Thursday, November 10, 2011

Go For Broke


 Last week I accompanied my Great Uncle George, who is truly great, to Washington DC, where he was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for serving in the 442nd regimental combat team during WWII. The 442nd, along with the 100th infantry battalion and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), were being honored for fighting two wars: one against fascism abroad and the other, indirectly, against prejudice in their own United States.  All three groups were Nissei, second-generation Japanese-Americans, who were born and raised in the US but classified "4C- enemy alien" following Pearl Harbor.  They faced immediate suspicion, on top of longstanding discrimination, and their families were locked behind the barbed wire of those racist American internment camps (vaguely mentioned in US history classes).   Nonetheless, these men fought courageously and with unceasing loyalty, as the true Americans they were, to become the most highly decorated outfit in US Army history.

If this seems peculiar to you, that´s because it is.


What could have possibly inspired loyalty among these guys? Why would many of these men volunteer to defend a country whose government had stripped them of their rights, their land, and their belongings?

Shedding their blood to "defend American freedom" was beyond irony to me; in many ways, it made me angry. I sat in the fancy conference hall, scrutinizing the motto stitched into their 442nd veteran's caps: "Go For Broke."  A gambling term that means risking everything to reap substantial reward, implies that these Nissei believed there would be quite a payoff... 


There were a number of scheduled events, one of which was to visit the WWII memorial.  When we got there, George kept looking past the memorial and out to the nearby park.  Hobbling around in my heels, I wheeled him to the pond, where we watched the ducks and the deep colors of autumn trees (after the war, George was an artist in Greenwich Village for sixty years). I could see the media doing interviews across the pond, back at the memorial, and I found this to be an appropriate time to ask him my burning questions...

"Why?" He repeated slowly. "Because we're Americans. This is the only land we've ever called home."  Unfortunately, patriotism has always been a foreign thing to me (pun intended).  I didn't get it.

A friend of George's, who was in the MIS,  tried to explain later, "We had something to prove."
But I still didn't get it.  I was busy looking around at the spouses of these vets, weathered and beautiful women who lived through the internment camps and never got to "prove" their American-ness.
(I tried to discuss this with a fellow Yonsei, a bro from LA, who assured me, "yo, that feminist shit is hot.")
"...did so despite the fact that our nation at times fell short.."

But after several days of deserved pomp and circumstance, I started to figure it out for myself.

The substantial reward, for which the 442nd, the 100th, and the MIS were willing to risk it all, was most evident at the CGM ceremony.  Voted upon and awarded by members of Congress, these Nissei soldiers received the mostly highly recognized form of national heroism...
It´s like a sharp backhanded slap in the face of our notorious history, which is riddled with suspician, prejudice, and discrimination.  The Nissei soldiers valiantly defended our country, honored their families, embarrassed our government, and preserved their dignity. All without asking for any recognition... How very Japanese!

It´s also sort of a declaration of love: "Hey, even though your government took away our rights, doubted our loyalty, and threw our family in camps-- you´re worth fighting for, America."


At the gala dinner, I heard one 90 yr old woman say to another, "they just don't understand what it has taken to get here." Maybe they were discussing the DC traffic, but I was super critical and assumed it was about our generation. After all, I had heard this murmured before... and I agree.  We feel pretty free to stomp our feet without acknowledging that we're standing on many people's backs. There is a great quote in my mom's house that says, "Honor those who stepped forward when others were thinking backwards."

It's so easy to take our own American freedoms for granted... I do it all the time. On the other hand, it would be irresponsible, arguably disrespectful, to not use those rights that we do have, which others have earned for us. We are "the grandchildren" for whom they fought, and as such, we all have an American history (I'm not only talking about Japanese-Americans here). This whole experience helped me understand what George meant, about being American. Maybe, being American should mean being accountable (as people, not as a Nation). 


Anyway, George turned out to be quite the candid capturer. He is such a hoot. Truly one of the greatest men I've ever met.

A fond memory of George was back at the WWII memorial.  I had just finished thanking him for his service, knowing that he, like the others, were there mostly for their buddies who never came back.
"Well I tell ya-- War is a lousy business," George sighed, sitting back in his wheelchair. "But in the end... I'm pretty hungry. Say, where can we get a sandwich around here?"


All in all, the trip to DC was really important for me. I got the chance to reflect on what it means to be American and what it means to be Japanese-American.

Twas the perfect send off to figure out what it means to be Brazilian.

Love from the southern hemisphere, where my full moon is your full moon too,

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful post, Quinha! I'm sorry I couldn't make it, but I'm really proud that you experienced this. Thanks for writing!