Saturday, January 31, 2015

Poem: Picnic at Manzanar

Picnic at Manzanar

Twenty-eight rice balls
have gone in our bellies.
Now we sit swapping licorice
on shaded park benches

in a place where the desert
crashes into the mountains.
But had we arrived
just seventy years sooner

we might have dined on
Jello served on steamed rice
and listened to teeth chatter
in the cramped, hot mess hall.

How strange this quiet tragedy
has brought us all together
in a place where barbed wire
lies on the other side of the river.

--Rebecca Lang
January 27, 2015

* * *

I originally wrote this poem back in 2013 and even posted it on the blog. (You can see the old version here.) This week, I happened to glance at my old poems and decided to revise it. I'm not a poet by nature, but I do appreciate the craft of putting a feeling into words and then reducing those words to their absolute essence.

Manzanar is an old internment camp in central California, between the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevadas. Back in World World II, Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned in this and many other camps across America. They had to share barracks with other families, endure public toilets (some without stalls), and dine in communal mess halls. Some of the cooks didn't know how to prepare Japanese cuisine and gave them things like the Jello rice slop. Life did improve, though, as the Japanese set about turning their sparse surroundings into a community.

I'm half Japanese American on my mother's side. My grandparents came from Hawaii, and my grandpa actually saw the planes fly toward Pearl Harbor. They were never interned, but they had to hide their culture. My grandma, for example, stopped going to Japanese school and get her hair permed to look more America. I don't actually think she minded that in the least. 

My mother spent much of her childhood denying that she was Japanese. She was and is very much American. It wasn't until she heard about Manzanar and other Japanese internment camps, that she began to connect with her Japanese heritage and even embrace it. I always thought it interesting how such a terrible event could bring out a sense of pride.

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