by MARY TERUKO ABO, For the North American Post
My parents’ café in Juneau was the world where my siblings and I learned to see them as our bosses.
My childhood vocabulary developed with our uniquely shared words: food stack of hots, beef tongue, boiled salmon belly; workers Kato-san, Inouye-san, Saburo-san; and customers Russian George, Liquor Store Nick.
Our words were colorful and concrete.
I didn’t notice anything missing from my vocabulary until I started school. I heard my friends called “Honey” and “Sweetie” by their mothers. I tingled when my music teacher, Mrs. Sommers, called me “Cookie.” At last, I had a “sweet” name. At home, I was called by my Japanese name “Teruko.”
Sometimes, my mother called me “baka” (stupid) to keep me in line.
Affection in my family was not expressed with special words, hugs or kisses. I didn’t know there was a Japanese word for “love.” Rather, it seemed obedience and respect were our family values.
We reciprocated by working hard and doing our best in school. We didn’t get hugs and kisses, but stayed within the boundaries of parental approval.
When I started kindergarten, I was shocked to see students with blond hair and blue eyes. I remember a boy slanting his eyes at me and looking mean. I grew up seeing movies and magazines depicting Japanese as sly, scary and exotic
I accepted my fate as never quite fitting in and so I tried to be like my friends as best I could.
Juneau in the 1940s was an immigrant community with Yugoslavs, Swedes, Filipinos, Norwegians and Natives. We were all part of the working class. When the 1942 wartime exclusionary order was issued, several prominent citizens spoke on behalf of my father to no avail.
The Alaskan Japanese families were all placed on a boat to Seattle and the majority taken by bus to the Puyallup assembly center. After three months, most were taken by train to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in south central Idaho.
We returned to Juneau four years later and back to the café. My father was 65. He died six years later after working every day.
When I was a teenager, my mother insisted on seeing “Go For Broke.”
The World War 2 movie depicted the heroics of the all-Nisei 100 Bn, 442 Regimental Combat Team. I was horrified at the attack scenes showing the soldiers fighting fiercely. I had not learned that Nisei fought in the American army.
When the lights came on, I didn’t want to be seen with my mother. I purposely crossed the street as we walked home. Mother stayed on her side. Perhaps it was a mother’s intuition to let me be.
What words could have been spoken? We didn’t have a word for “shame.”
Years later, I was interviewed about my family and my life experiences.
“Is there something you would like to say to your parents?” I was asked.
Suddenly, I could see Momma and Poppa. Words swirled in my head, until I blurted out, “I wish I could have told them I loved them.”