On the Outskirts of Our Country by Stephanie Zhong

Visiting Manzanar, a former Japanese internment camp in the California desert, challenged one writer to ask how to move forward after witnessing the consequences of U.S. policies through the lens of history. “To realize that, no matter who’s in charge, this is our country. We, the people, play a valuable part in transforming it.”

Banging at my door. Police. I barely had a moment to react before they lodged me in their car and whisked me away to the middle of the California desert. Once there, they confiscated my phone and marched me to a military barracks. Inside I saw two rows of army cots and a few other Asian-Americans standing along the wall in a state of shock. “Wait!” I called out to the policemen. “My husband! My kids!”

And then I woke up, my body doused in sweat.

According to my mother, I needn’t worry. It was just a Chinese Dream, one that signified the opposite was going to happen in real life. I was safe. But was I really?

Mae Yanagi, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange, public domain
During World War II, more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly moved from their homes and imprisoned in internment camps for three years. Now that Donald Trump is going to be president, it’s suddenly conceivable that history will repeat itself. A Trump surrogate told Fox News that the Japanese-American internment was a “precedent” for Trump’s plans to create a Muslim registry. One of the most conservative Supreme Court judges, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, ranked the internment case of Korematsu v. U.S. as one of the worst decisions SCOTUS ever made but cautioned that “you’d be kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again.”

Desperate to get perspective, I took a day off work, hopped into my car and drove four and a half hours into the California desert to see Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp turned national historic site.

The landscape was flat, dry and barren. In the distance, a range of snowcapped mountains formed an impenetrable wall. As I neared the camp, the ground and trees seemed drained of color. Only the vast blue sky provided any relief in this desolate world of gray and yellow. I exited my car and a cold wind pierced through my jeans and down the collar of my parka. Dust flew about like swarms of gnats. My ponytail thrashed and stung my cheeks. I stood there, taking it in. How did they survive? Two words to describe this place: uninhabitable planet.

I’d wanted to visit Manzanar for more than 20 years. In part because I have some Japanese ancestry. But also to see firsthand what U.S. history classes had failed by omission to teach me and most Americans about this dark chapter in our history. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered all persons of Japanese descent to leave their homes and live in remote deserts and swamps across the country. He claimed it was necessary to protect national security. Necessary? To imprison American citizens with no criminal record? The majority were women, children, orphans and foster children. Adopted Japanese babies were forcibly taken from their white parents. Yes, babies, too, were viewed as a military threat to our national security.

I walked up to the visitor center and passed a flagpole where our American flag flailed at the whims of the wind. A long barbed-wire fence wrapped around the perimeter of the camp. In the distance I could see a sentry post where soldiers once stood, pointing their rifles inward. Ready to fire on any man, woman or child who tried to leave the grounds.

Internees slept on army cots and had to stuff their own mattresses with straw. They were forced to inhabit a 20′ x 25′ room with eight people, which meant families had to live with complete strangers. The tar-paper barracks did little to protect them from the constant barrage of wind, dust and cold. The latrines were nothing more than open rooms of commodes with no partitions. The privacy and rights people knew as free citizens of a free country evaporated.

White residents formed the “Hollywood Protective Association” in 1923 and campaigned to “Keep Hollywood white.” Photo by Stephanie Zhong

Inside the visitor center, I saw photos of men, women and children lined up to board buses to the camps, each tagged with a number, like a prisoner. In every photo of a little girl, I saw myself. A girl who silently screamed every time someone bullied her, asked her what country she’s from (“America”), and why her English is so good (“because I was born here”). A girl who comes apart when she hears or sees acts of racial violence on the news. A girl overflowing with compassion and shame and not sure what to do with it.

As I walked through the exhibit, I expected to see nothing but faces of forlorn, broken people. Their unspeakable loss set off a quiet fury in me. A rage that would’ve given way to weeping if I’d been brave enough to let myself cry.

What I didn’t expect to see was the resilience, dignity and joy that families preserved despite their imprisonment. They took discarded fruit crates and constructed dressers, tables and chairs. They hung fabric in the barracks to create a semblance of privacy. Parents pooled toys together into a library of dolls, marbles and games for their kids. As their numbers grew, they convinced the camp director to let them start a school, a Catholic church, a Buddhist temple — even a newspaper. They recreated the America they loved behind the barbed wire: baseball games and Hollywood movies screened outdoors. Some musicians among them formed a band called the Jive Bombers who performed swing numbers at community dances. Photographer Toyo Miyatake snuck a camera lens into camp and constructed a camera body from scrap wood, secretly capturing the joys and pains of camp life.

Their example woke me up to something I’d forgotten: No one can take away my humanity or my self-worth — unless I allow it. The determination to live as normal lives as they could empowered many to rebuild their lives and eventually fight for justice — for themselves and other groups.

After the 9/11 attacks, Rose Tanaka and other former Japanese internees flew to Detroit after hearing that Muslim-American women were afraid to walk to the grocery store alone. These petite, older women risked their lives for another group of Americans facing potential backlash. Actor George Takei, who himself was interned in Arkansas, uses his platform to stand up for justice: “One of the best ways to heal from injustice is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. To anyone else.”

Visiting Manzanar challenged me to ask how I want to move forward as I witness the consequences of our policies through the lens of history and its voices. To realize that, no matter who’s in charge, this is our country. We, the people, play a valuable part in transforming it.

As the sun started setting over the camp, I headed back to my car. A park ranger walked out to the flagpole. He raised his hands, grabbed hold of the rope and pulled the flag down. He gently detached it from the pole and folded it into halves, then quarters and eighths. He tucked it like a baby bird under his arm, taking care to protect it as he walked back to the visitor center.

This is our democracy. Every day, something happens to take it down. But every day, we raise it up again. Hoping that, one day, it will become the “more perfect union” we imagine it could be.

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Stephanie Zhong

Stephanie Zhong is the owner of Dear Anne Media, a creative agency dedicated to helping good causes tell their stories. She’s created digital content for organizations like Planned Parenthood, and led content strategy and digital marketing teams at Teach For America. Her blog Fabulously Green was one of the first blogs to cover modern, green design. Along the way she’s worked as a public radio producer, newspaper editor, writing teacher, blogger and designer. She received an MFA in comparative literature from UCLA. You can follow her on Instagram at @dearannemedia.

Cover photo: sentry tower at Manzanar. Source: Wikimedia Commons