Cheryl Cook: Where is the value in a civilization that does not respect differences?
My dog Sandy wears the sunglasses and I squint into the December sun. Two bottles of milk, one white and one chocolate, sit precariously on the front steps.
My mother moved in with my grandparents when my father joined the Army following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Sunday morning surprise attack interrupted my grandparents’ preparation for Mass at the little wooden Catholic Church on the skirts of Punchbowl Crater. At one point during that endless two-hour siege, a Japanese plane with a rising sun insignia on its flank flew up their street. The pilot turned his head and looked down at them standing mesmerized on their front porch.
Then he emptied his shells into the side of Punchbowl Crater before returning to his aircraft carrier.
My family lived through blackouts and rationing, and the loss of sailor buddies who never made it back. They helped retrieve bodies from the oil slicked depths of Pearl Harbor before the crabs could do more damage to “those poor boys”.
Yet the Japanese in Hawaii, those who lived and worked beside their neighbors, were not rounded up and interned when the United States entered into World War II.
The same people of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly removed from their homes and locked away in California, Washington, and elsewhere were the same Japanese that remained as farmers, seamstresses, and teachers in Hawaii. And war heroes.
Fourteen-thousand second generation Japanese Americans volunteered to join the 442nd Infantry Regiment known as the Hawaii “Go for Broke” unit. Of those who served, 9,486 members were awarded Purple Hearts.
As a young child in post-war Hawaii, I thrived in the kaleidoscope of a multi-cultural neighborhood.
The Chong family lived across the street from my Gramma. My mother tells that before her own father decided to put a telephone in their house, she would receive calls at the Chong residence. Mr. Chong’s broken English was further compromised by a very obvious stutter when he spoke, but he would broadcast “Heeee-zooo” loud and clear to the entire neighborhood whenever she received a call. And Hazel’s skinny legs would come running … to be followed by three more sisters through the years.
In the black and white photos of me, I have kicked off the stiff Stride Rite shoes tightly laced around my ankles and run free with a Hibiscus flapping in my hair. My dog Sandy wears the sunglasses and I squint into the December sun. Two bottles of milk, one white and one chocolate, sit precariously on the front steps. I am exploring The Garden of Gramma Emelia, playing under the shade of her bountiful fig tree and silly-counting the dotted spores on the fronds of her ferns, stopping only to take a bite of the fruit she slices in the folds of her apron.
The black and white photos evolve into a series of school photos of children with plaid dresses, striped T-shirts, and toothless smiles. L. Knippers. V. Freitas. C. Santoki. V. Kauhane. Colorful palettes of diversity. Most of the elementary school teachers standing at the end of the last bleacher in those photos are women of Japanese descent.
We all see life through a personal lens. Those of us who hold on to the old black and white photos as the great times tend not to take in the panoramic shot of any moment in history. We see only our narrow view of life. Our family. Our business. Our back yard.
On Dec. 8, 2017, Rep Steve King, R-Iowa, tweeted, “Diversity is not our strength.” He then endorsed the Hungarian Prime Minister’s view that “Mixing cultures will not lead to a higher quality life, but a lower one.”
In December, 2017, a Senate candidate from Alabama is quoted as calling Native Americans and Asian Americans “Red” and “Yellow.” When asked when in history America was last great, Roy Moore responded, “I think it was a time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another.”
The President of the United States wrote in “Art of the Deal,” “Tell them what they want to hear. Then play to their fantasies.”
Those who preach the malice of foreigners, closing of borders, and the building of walls are telling white nationalists what they want to hear. Those who parade an exclusive brand of patriotism and an inbred form of culture are playing to the fantasy of one superior race. They deny the very roots of our American heritage.
My grandparents moved to California when I was 10 years old. When I visited them with my own children, my grandfather had begun grafting the branches of an apple tree that had produced three varieties of apples. Their four daughters had grafted English, Irish, Portuguese, and Japanese branches to the family tree.
My Gramma Emelia had made friends with an immigrant neighbor from Italy who spoke no English.
Mrs. Bevilacqua baked bread in an outdoor oven, raised several feathered fowl in her front yard, and brought stinky cheese in a greasy wrapper to share with Gramma. I am told that her grand daughter, Barbara, is now a physician.
Gramma’s view from her front porch, the cultural enrichment of that first neighborhood, and continued respect for neighbors no matter where she lived, opened the whole world to me.
She helped me see that when you believe in the goodness of the human spirit, and afford people opportunities to live in communities of mutual respect, you open up a bright prism of possibilities.
Dec. 8 was the birthdate of my Gramma Emelia who lived to the age of 96. On the date, Rep Steve King tweeted, “You cannot rebuild your civilization with someone else’s babies, you’ve got to keep your birthrate up and you have to teach your children your values.”
Gramma Emelia would have invited King to sit down for a bowl of steaming red bean and cabbage soup. She would have ladled the soup with a shaking hand and told him that she had given birth at home to seven babies. She taught them all that the value of being a good American was acceptance and celebration of all the diversity that made America great.
She might ask what value there was in a civilization that did not respect differences.
When he told her that, “Assimilation has become a dirty word to the multiculturalist Left. Assimilation, not diversity, is our American strength”, she would have offered him a slice of Portuguese sweet bread she had baked that morning.
“Assimilation?” she would have asked. She would have wiped her hands on the embroidered apron and shown him photos of her yet unborn, beautiful racially-mixed grandchildren.
(Because this is my fantasy, she might have delivered a soft blow the side his head).
My mother would be the first in her family to graduate from high school. That squinty eyed granddaughter without shoes would earn a graduate degree. But in those years apart, I never wrote her letters to tell her how welcomed and loved she made people feel.
I didn’t write those letters because my Gramma never learned to read.
I don’t remember who taught me to read. But I know it must have been someone with parents who immigrated from a foreign country.
Cheryl Cook lives in Penn Valley.
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