By Anne Su
I remember the first thing I, and perhaps everyone else, noticed was the beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Unforgettable were the scorching sun and endless logging of desert bushes. But most importantly was my experience and friends I met on the Alternative Spring Break Manzanar trip. During my spring break in freshman year, I decided to sign up for the ASB Manzanar trip to expand my knowledge of Japanese American history in the United States and their people’s struggle for civil liberties. Although I had some knowledge of Japanese culture, seeing it through the American lens was a whole new experience.
Out of our diverse group of nine people, there were undergraduates at different points in their education as well as two doctoral students; all of us were in different majors. Not to mention Sumi Pendakur, our enthusiastic leader who has more energy and laughter than anyone can imagine. Sumi, the director of Asian Pacific American Student Services at USC, has led the ASB Manzanar trip for six years in a row. With all of us divided into two automobiles, we embarked on our road trip up north to Manzanar.
Park Ranger Ted at the Manzanar National Historic Site led us to the men and women’s latrines where we were shocked by how little privacy they were alotted. Our tour continued as we walked to the ponds and elaborate gardens built by the internees. For our final stop, we arrived at the cemetery to see the gravestones of the fifteen internees who died out of the 150 at the relocation center. The cemetery was purposefully built outside of the barbed wires to symbolize how Japanese American could only obtain freedom from the internment camp in death.
To make their lives at the camp as typical as when they lived in a neighborhood, the internees hosted garden decorating contest to determine whose gardening skills and aesthetic were better. Their self-sufficient lifestyles could be seen in the orchards of growing apples and other fruits and the farms where they raised cattle and chickens.
However, I was saddened as we went deeper into the history and learned of the internal tension and conflicts caused between the Japanese American internees in their suppressed frustration and conflicting views on cooperation with the American government. On December 6, 1942, the Manzanar riot broke out between two groups of Japanese Americans who believed that one group was “selling out” the Japanese Americans to the U.S. government.
On the second day we met our friendly competitors, students from Colorado State University. Because of our coinciding dates of service learning at the camp, Park Ranger Ted gave us a tour of the camp and arranged the film screening of “Snow Falling on Cedars” to further inform us of the deep impact and scars left on the hearts of the Japanese Americans.
The next two days were dedicated to removing bushes that swamped the camp site. We alternated between two jobs: digging up the bushes and collecting and dumping them in large piles. The National Park plans to rebuild on the site a model house, fitted for greater comfort and privacy, where the administrative officials of the camp will live. The auto tour route will also be extended since it’s not exactly comfortable standing under the sun with 40 mph winds gusting at your face. Our speedy efforts allowed us to completely clear the road on 1st Street between A Street and B Street.
The Japanese internment camp at Manzanar was established in 1942, where a little more than 10,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast were housed after the Pearl Harbor incident. Although the camp closed in November of 1945, many families were uncertain of where to go and how to start their lives again in the real world. And in the end, none of the 120,000 internees were charged with espionage.
This trip was a reminder for me and others of the present situation in the U.S. as extensive fears of Muslims and Middle-Easterners after 9/11 has translated into animosity and suspicion. Will the U.S. government learn from its past mistake? I sincerely hope for prudence in future U.S. governmental actions considering how unwilling it was to consider the deep scars unfairly left on the Japanese Americans.