Optimistic anticipation of a new school year quickly diminished as “round eye” and “half breed” flowed through the room in a wave of whispers. The cruel words of elementary aged children were an unsolicited voice reminding my mother, Kazumi, she didn’t belong and wasn’t welcome.
Mom’s childhood began in 1948, when she resided in Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan. However, Japan wasn’t truly a home. She wished the unrelenting cruelty of children and the judging eyes of adults could be escaped. While innocently playing in front of her house, rocks were thrown at her. The culprits would yell, “Yankee go home! Go home, you Yankee!” She also overheard such phrases from adults, as they guided their children in the opposite direction. Mom didn’t understand what she had done to instigate such hostility; her heart scarred with the confusion of intolerance.
Kazumi was the first child born to Saku Mori and Paul Rasmussen. Paul met Saku when he was stationed in Tokyo, as a cook in the Army. Like most soldiers, he would visit a seamstress for repairs on his uniform or to sew on patches. Saku’s modest beauty caught Paul’s eye, so she was the seamstress he frequently sought. Those visits quickly developed into a courtship, which resulted in three children: Kazumi, Lena, and Henry. Unfortunately, since they were not 100% Japanese, the children were considered and treated as outcasts. Due to the span in their age, mom was the only one who experienced the brunt of prejudice first hand.
Having a Japanese mother and an American father seven years after the attack on Pearl Harbor created a silent purgatory for Kazumi. She was caught between two distinct cultures, unable to unlock her hurt and confusion from this intangible tug-of-war. Mom’s childhood was lived in an environment where hostility towards Americans was still harbored by the Japanese. The disdainful eyes of the community viewed her, her siblings, and her mother as outsiders. Their fairer skin created a target that followed them everywhere. Kazumi’s young, innocent heart was scarred from the isolation and her continuous desire to belong.
Mom’s journey had a drastic change when she moved to the United States in the spring of 1962. A deep hurt and sadness from leaving the few friends she had and the fear of the unknown began to brew within. She was on an airplane for the first time with her father, a man she didn’t know. Her worries were momentarily put on hold when they stopped over in Hawaii. Mom ate a traditional American meal: hamburger and french fries. She had never eaten such food before. The saltiness of the fries is a memory that lingers on her palate to this day. The entire family eventually arrived to their temporary destination of six months, Fort Lewis, a military base in Washington. Despite the range of emotions, mom was thankful to reside in America. She had new luxuries such as TV, an indoor bathroom, and nice clothes. Sleeping on bamboo mats, bathing in the public bathhouse, wearing a uniform, and tolerating the rigidity of Japanese education was no longer required.
At home, mom was faced with yet another challenge, her father. He was more like the occasional visitor, rather than a dad. Kazumi saw him only a handful of times during her 14 years in Japan, typically during major holidays. Now she was living with this stranger of a man in a new, foreign place. He was trying to do what he thought was best for his wife and three children. However, a dense fog quietly floated into their lives creating a permanent division between a father and his children. Paul naively stripped Kazumi of her identity, creating a silent isolation that would last the rest of her life. Speaking Japanese was now forbidden at home, since “they were in America now.” Unable to communicate, this expectation created a state of constant confusion for mom. Her red, Japanese-English dictionary became her “Bible,” the only resource she had to navigate her daily life. The dictionary was a silent companion carried with her for years, translating the words she knew into the new words of the unknown; a liberator of knowledge.
There was another subtle division within the family. Mom’s two siblings, seven and nine years younger, were given “American names” at birth, rather than Japanese. Even in her own home, amongst family, she was different. Over time, Kazumi decided she needed a nickname. She selected “Linda,” after a pretty woman she met at the Albertsons’ bakery, where her father worked. To her, this sounded more “American,” allowing her to find an avenue to try and fit in. Kazumi was no longer required to repeat, sound out, or spell out her foreign name to others. She was now one of “them,” an American, leaving her Japanese identity behind.
Kazumi entered the classroom on the first day of school, this time in Lacey, Washington at the age of 15. She wore a pretty new dress, recently purchased from Sears. Students gazed at her as she made her way toward her designated desk. The teacher was talking assumingly in a kind way, but Kazumi didn’t understand a single word. She doesn’t look like us; the classmates silently judged the only Asian child in the school. I don’t feel like I belong her, Kazumi thought as her anxious heart thundered in her chest.
Once again, Kazumi was exposed to the verbal cruelty of her classmates. This time, whispers of “Jap” and “slant eyes” floated towards her ears. The same prejudice would creep up on her, like a mysterious predator following her, adding more scars to her heart. Mom stood out among the new peers, both physically and symbolically. Even though she was 15, the school placed her in the 5th grade. She was definitely intelligent, despite the ignorant assumptions placed upon her, but she didn’t speak English. Learning English was achieved solely by her own work ethic and determination. The teachers didn’t help, there wasn’t a “special program,” and no support was offered after school nor at home.
Mom completed fifth through seventh grade, then jumped to tenth, eventually graduating high school in 1968 at the age of twenty-one. Despite the incredibly difficult times, mom was very proud that she earned her high school diploma; a deep sense of accomplishment she finally felt for the first time.
In the depths of her eyes, the pain of Kazumi’s childhood is buried deep below the surface where only the observant can see. Even in America, the “land of the free,” her experiences have not been free of hurt, prejudice, or ignorance. Mom’s perseverance over time has created a quiet, determined strength that makes her the woman she is today. The scars on her heart have begun to fade, but they will never completely disappear. They are part of who she is, an identity, which she can proudly claim.