Eva Vallier, a seventh-grade student of Jenny Zavatsky at Lake Washington Girls Middle School in Seattle, Washington, read and responded to the online YES! Magazine article, “Less Stuff, More Heart: 5 Gifts On a New Dad’s Christmas List,” by Christopher Zumski Finke.
Writing Prompt: Imagine you’re about to celebrate a special holiday, milestone, or birthday. If you could ask for any non-material gift, what would you ask for? What would make this gift so special to you?
I try to breathe deeply but my grandma tied my obi too tight around my waist. I take a shallow breath instead and smell the incense that has wafted down the stairs, from the temple and into the gym. My obi is imprinted with flowers to match my kimono. The full gym is almost overwhelming for a first grader like me, but I smile because I can still taste the flavor of cherry shave ice.
Outside, lanterns are hung and people are dancing, like they do every July for the Bon Odori Festival, where I eat soba and watch people in colorful yukatas perform traditional Japanese dances. My mom leads me to a booth where she hands a man a few dollars to buy a book with a black and white picture of people behind a gate on the front cover. My mom shows me the book and explains to me that something happened in 1942, where all people of Japanese descent in certain parts of the United States were put in small cabins with dusty floors and no heat. My mom tells me that the children were not allowed to go to school and that the adults had their cars, their jobs, and their houses taken away from them. I wonder what it would have been like to live like that. I could not imagine a life that difficult. Then my mom tells me that my grandma spent three years of her childhood living that life.
“If you could only take three things somewhere for three years, what would you take?” my second grade teacher asks. I sit on the carpet as my teacher tells us that this was a decision people had to make when they were sent to the Japanese internment camps. I think about how difficult it would be to choose only three things, then I realize that my grandma had to make this decision in real life. I stop thinking about what I would bring and wonder what my grandma actually chose to bring. I wonder about this for the rest of the day.
In sixth grade, I listen to my mom as she asks my grandma questions about her childhood. My grandma laughs when she tells a story about her siblings, but when my mom asks her about the Japanese internment camps, a nervous smile appears on my grandma’s face.
“I was pretty young, so I don’t really remember much,” my grandma tells us in a tenuous voice. It’s like she’s avoiding the topic. I later learned that there is a Japanese cultural concept called gaman. Gaman means enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. The term can be translated to “perseverance” or “self-denial.” My grandma grew up with this concept and uses it in her everyday life. She does not ask for help and she does not share her suffering. She is strong, and masks her difficulties.
In the YES! article, “Less Stuff, More Heart: 5 Gifts On a New Dad’s Christmas List,” Christopher Zumski Finke says, “Stories help us grow, learn empathy, and actually create change.” Like Christopher Zumski Finke, I want to hear the stories from my grandma about the Japanese internment camps. I want to hear the stories from my grandma because they shaped many parts of her life and many members of her family’s, as well. And it shaped parts of my life, too.
I want to undo my grandma’s gaman. Parts of my family’s lives were stolen from them. I want to understand my family better. I want to have answers to questions that I’ve had for years. I want to hear their stories.