Deep down, we know it's important to make an effort to hear our grandparents' stories, but starting those conversations can sometimes be challenging. Here's another reminder that it's definitely worth trying.
In the 4th grade, I remember going to Marukai with my mom (the Gardena location that’s almost like the mothership of all Marukais) and buying a kimono to wear as part of a family heritage project.
I called my grandparents on both sides of the family (from our home landline, of course) to ask them questions I prepared about their upbringing and our family’s history. Feeling fancy in my new kimono, I remember reading my speech from my index cards about how my great-great-grandparents immigrated from Japan, how my grandparents on my mom’s side grew up in Hawaii, how both of my grandpas fought in the army, and how my grandparents on my dad’s side were put in *internment camps during World War II.
There have been a few projects since that I have needed to ask my parents and grandparents about our family history and heritage, and those conversations were pretty easy to have. I’ve only watched myself become slightly more uncomfortable when trying to have those conversations organically, with no assignment to complete or project to finish. The idea of opening up a conversation with my grandparents and asking them about their lives simply because I’m curious or because I want to make sure their stories get passed down can feel a little intimidating and even awkward.
Growing up, we hear time and time again how important it is that we spend time with our elders and grandparents, that the wisdom and the stories they have to share are important to not only hear for ourselves, but to be able to pass onto the next generation. That rings true in many cultures - there’s a sense of responsibility, of moral obligation to be a historian in some ways, ensuring that the stories of our families and our communities live on beyond the lives of the individuals who experienced them firsthand. For some, we’re lucky enough to have grandparents who are more than willing to share their stories and don’t need a lot of prompting to engage with those conversations. For others, bridging that generational gap and entering into uncharted territory of personal conversation can be a challenge.
The idea of opening up a conversation with my grandparents and asking them about their lives simply because I’m curious or because I want to make sure their stories get passed down can feel a little intimidating and even awkward.
Funny enough, being part of the Yo! team has been my most recent “project” that allowed me to connect with my grandma on my dad’s side to hear more about her life. Prompted by my mom, we planned a weekend trip in August of this year with the sole purpose of spending time with her to hear her stories "for the magazine," whatever that meant. I’ve always enjoyed spending time with her (and my grandpa too before he passed years ago) when we’d take trips up north to the Santa Cruz area, so I was happy to take some time off work, pack a notepad, buy a disposable camera, and familiarize myself with the voice memo app on my phone for the weekend.
What I didn’t anticipate was how much I’d treasure those photos and recorded conversations on my phone. Listening back in preparation to write this (while cleaning my stove and doing laundry like a true millennial with podcast multitasking), I found myself laughing, remembering how much I hate hearing my voice on audio, smiling to myself, and uttering pensive “hmm”s as my memory was being refreshed of the conversations we were having.
I started the conversation rather awkwardly, heading straight into asking my grandma about what she remembers during her time in camp at Poston. This was a large part of my grandma’s story that I grew up hearing about and even associating her with (besides her amazing cooking ability), remembering photo albums, documents, and pictures in camp. The more involved I became in the Japanese American community, the more significant I held those particular stories and memories. As seen in the photo above, my mom was also present for a majority of the weekend’s conversation, as she’s been fortunate enough to hear a lot of my grandma’s stories that took place outside of her life in camp. It’s because of that additional context that she interjected and mentioned various family tragedies my grandma went through at a young age and different connections that our family has today that trace back to my grandma’s friendships in Delano, near Fresno.
At the time, I remember feeling a little frustrated by my mom’s interjections, but in hindsight recognize how important those bits of information are. The whole point of the weekend wasn’t just to hear about my grandma’s time in camp or to discuss the different facts about the Japanese American communities I’ve learned about, but also to be able to get a greater understanding of my grandma’s life as a whole. We got to talk about different friendships she made, part-time jobs she had, a boy who was a lifeguard at the camp’s reservoir pool who she dated and ended up marrying, what it was like to not have her mother growing up, getting permission to drive one of the security’s car and impressing them with her ability to drive stick shift, graduating high school in camp, and the list goes on. We then went through boxes of photos and photo albums, newspaper and magazine cut outs, programs from old Delano reunions, and postcards from vacations over the years.
As much as I loved looking through those incredible photos (let me tell you - the hairstyles, outfits, and glasses are unparalleled), a fond experience for me was recognizing that my grandma and I are similar in the way we hold onto certain sentimental items over others. While she keeps those photos and is very well-documented (as am I), she also makes a point of knowing what to keep, what to give to others, and what to get rid of altogether. The older I get, the more I appreciate how sweet it is to have the opportunity to recognize similar tendencies like that.
There’s a sense of responsibility, of moral obligation to be a historian in some ways, ensuring that the stories of our families and our communities live on beyond the lives of the individuals who experienced them firsthand.
I’ve heard a number of Japanese and Japanese Americans reference the saying, “Okage sama de” or I am who I am because of you when honoring our elders, ancestors, and history. Beyond our continued gratitude and respect for our grandparents’ legacies and their stories, I’m also grateful to my mom and the rest of our parents’ generation for being the catalysts, translators, bridge builders, and nudgers in this process. It’s in large part because of them that our generation has the foundation to begin learning and sharing these important stories.
So, here we are again - remembering and reminding ourselves that it really is important and special to spend time with, talk to, and learn from our grandparents while they're still here. If you’re thinking, “Yes, that’s great in theory, but I still don’t know what that looks like with my grandparents,” then I hope you can use this article/reflection as an opportunity. Maybe reach out to your parents or grandparents about getting to spend time together (potentially virtually) and talk about this article you read that mentioned engaging in that dialogue.
My grandma is as sharp as a tack and has a memory better than mine, bowled a 218 during her league days (see above), is quippy and funny without trying, and has an incredibly generous heart. Though there are some parts of her that I carry with me (unfortunately not the bowling ability), I feel fortunate to have these stories, photos, conversations, and memories to hold onto and share with others in new ways.
..or perhaps in ways not so new when this online article eventually gets printed and mailed to my grandma to read. I can only hope this makes its way into the same box I have grown to cherish so dearly.
Love you, Grandma.
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