A chance meeting. A brief conversation. A wonderful web of insightful words, heavy with history, hope and poignant perspective. These are my only connection to an elderly stranger, met almost a decade ago. And yet, her story, like those of so many unsuspecting others, has woven itself into the fabric of my existence. She is a part of the woman I have become.
I don’t know her name. This is all I know of her story.
I was wandering one early morning, barefoot and lost in thought, around the grounds of Moanalua Gardens when a clear voice stopped me. “Are you taking your daily walk around the gardens?”
“Oh, no,” I told her, “I’m visiting my sister here in Hawaii. This is my first time in this park.”
“Where are you staying?”
“Oh, not too far from here…” I began vaguely, as I always do when traveling alone, but all hesitation faded as I examined the figure before me. She was clearly of Asian decent, and, I assumed, in her late 70s or early 80s. Shorter than me, much shorter, and thin, almost boney, her slight frame was accentuated by a large floppy hat covering her glossy white hair. Her lively eyes, clear voice, and general vivacity compared against her age made for an intriguing juxtaposition. On her feet she wore black flip-flops.
“I’m staying on Fort Shafter,” I said with a smile.
She lived in the area, too, she informed me, and thoughtfully provided directions insuring I could easily navigate the road home. Casual conversation continued for a few moments.
She peered at the cheap pair of plastic flip-flops in my hand.
“I see you have slippers, too.” She looked at her own feet. “Many years ago when Caucasians visited Hawaii they said they could never wear something between their toes. But now, when I went to the Mainland I saw white people wearing them all the time.”
“You’re right; everyone wears them.”
“Where do you live?”
“Ah. How’s the weather back at your home?”
“My school just got two and a half feet of snow, actually!”
“Do you miss the cold?”
“Not at all! I am loving this tropical December weather.”
“I lived on the Mainland for one year, teaching at a school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. What a difference the weather was! But the man I was seeing then lived only 70 miles away and we got married,” she stated, eyes bright. Her eyes looked very young and were striking. For a moment, I couldn’t decide whether they were black or light blue, but they certainly must have been black. “For our honeymoon we traveled all the way down the Mississippi River and were we ever in for a surprise when the hotels had signs saying ‘Whites Only.’ I guess we must have lightened up a lot over the winter because they let us in.” She glanced down at her arm, tanned, freckled, and aged, as if she was once again worried about having no place to stay on her honeymoon.“That’s why I like Hawaii,” she continued. “There are all types of people here, everywhere you look—Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese… I’m third generation Japanese and all of my neighbors growing up were Portuguese, but they all spoke English. Maybe I knew a few words, but I’ve forgotten them…” Her voice trailed off. “After the war broke out, men were sent to my house to investigate. My Portuguese neighbors swore at them,” she said with a bit of a smile and a distant look in her eyes.
“Do you know what they did to the Japanese on the West Coast?”
“No,” I replied, puzzled, thinking she meant the western coast of Oahu.
“They sent them to concentration camps.”
“Oh… Yes, I know about that,” was my sad reply.
“We were lucky here. There were too many of us working in the plantations. Some people were sent if they had a strong connection… This was after the bombings. I remember I was going to church on Sunday when I heard the explosions. It was scary looking up and seeing the planes fly over with the red spots on their sides. We ran into our house and closed the door.”
“Was your family okay?” I wondered if any had been in the Pearl Harbor area.
“That’s when the men came and investigated us, like I said before.” She spoke as if I should have already seen the connection, and I should have. There are many other ways to be hurt than just with bombs.
Given the fear she felt, and the hardship she endured as a Japanese living in America during the Second World War, what came out of her mouth next caught me off guard. “But despite it all, I’m so glad to have lived where I did. I visited Japan five or six times and I’m glad I’m not an old lady there.”
“Men are in control, especially those my age. Your generation is much less,” she said, “and I’m glad for them.” She paused thoughtfully. “The world is changing,” she said as we parted, “and it’s for the better.”
I hope she’s right, I thought as she said goodbye and strolled away.
I still hold on to the same hope. When I’m feeling pessimistic, I chew on the words of the elderly woman, weathered by life, pulled between cultures, identities, tragedies, and hope, but still very much alive. I hold onto her hope. And as the world changes for the better, I want to be a part of it.
(Originally posted on my blog, Interim Arts, on May 7, 2013)