The first thing you notice is the remarkable landscape. The day we arrived, early in February, the Sierra Nevada range was entertaining the idea of a snowstorm, and they looked capped, much shorter than they ought to be. Surmountable, practically.
The whole thing was an illusion, of course, a mini-set from the Lord of the Rings — until you got into it, and then it became so real that you almost felt as if you couldn’t leave if you wanted to, because you’re hemmed in by those deceptive mountains on one side and endless loops of barbed wire on the other side. And then there’s the goddamned watchtower.
This is Manzanar, now a National Parks Service “site of conscience.” It was a World War II “War Relocation Center,” one of ten camps set up to accommodate Japanese Americans who were forced to relocate for multiple reasons after Pearl Harbor. This year, this weekend, we mark the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order for this relocation.
When my husband and I visited Manzanar earlier this year, we did it in the shadow of President Trump’s executive order regarding refugees and immigration. We were also en route to Death Valley, where we got married six years ago, to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
Jim is usually very good about letting me do what I want to do. He calls himself a simple man. What he means is that it’s easier to let me steamroller my way through our lives together so long as it’s something he can fit in without giving up too much of his own morals. Wife wants to get irrationally drunk? Fine, so long as she doesn’t moan about the hangover. Wife wants to eat potato chips for breakfast? Okay, so long as she doesn’t whine about the size of her thighs. Wife wants to dedicate a chunk of her life to writing a novel? Fine, so long as she tells me if she’s hurting for cash so she doesn't wake up in the middle of the night wanting to talk “budget.”
Wife wants to visit an internment camp as part of our wedding anniversary weekend? Crickets.
To be fair, I did ask him in an email. And when I called him later, to ask if he’d seen my email, he didn’t hesitate. Of course we’d go. And yes, he agreed it was important for us to pay our respects, to witness this part of American history. Now more than ever, he said, but if we could please be at the Jeep rental center in Death Valley National Park by 4PM, that would be great. I checked Google: “People usually spend 45 minutes to an hour here.” No problem.
It’s times like this I’m reminded of all the old chestnuts people drag out when it comes to marriage: It’s a compromise; learn to love the mundane; it’s hard work, blah blah blah. Overall, our marriage—our whole relationship, really — isn’t hard work, or a compromise, or mundane. Most days it’s outrageous fun, the kind that makes you feel lucky to be alive.
Where we fall down, though, is in the gulf between our two cultures—mine, 1.5-generation immigrant; his, Bible-belt Wisconsin. I’ll never quite forget the day that I found out Jim prays for me every night. That was a knock-down, drag-out whopper of a fight. I mean, where does he get off praying for me? Did I ask for his prayers? On and on, until I got it through my thick head that, although Jim doesn’t practice his family’s religion anymore, praying for someone is calcified habit, his way of sending good thoughts into the world.
That’s to say nothing of the day Jim had to go ask my parents for my hand in marriage. He took a one-day trip from New York to Los Angeles, prayed to my ancestors via the gigantic intimidating altar in my parents’ living room to see if he had their blessings, wore a suit, and came home visibly changed with, thankfully, a positive result. The ancestors and my parents had said yes.
Then there was the day that I found out he voted for Bush. Twice! I had to quiet all the terrible emotions that information brought out in order to hear that his education funding had been decimated by the Clinton presidency. You see, I’d never had to pay for my own education.
Shortly afterwards, I found out, during a conversation with friends, that Jim’s primary voting litmus test is the environment. At the time, Jim sat on the board of an environmental not-for-profit that I’d founded, so that was okay with me. But part of me still whispered, “Doesn’t he care as much for the fact that he’s partnered with an immigrant woman? Shouldn’t women’s rights matter just as much?”
And then came one ugly driving incident, during which we were cut off by a man screaming obscenities in a foreign language. Jim shot back, “Go back where you came from! We don’t drive like that here."
I was stunned. Shocked, really, and crying suddenly, because what he’d said was what I’d been told so many times growing up.
That day, our relationship was work. It was hours of talking it out, me trying to rationalize into words how it feels to be told you don’t belong. And Jim got it quickly, once he realized that that just wasn’t something you could say, even if you were angry and didn’t really mean it; that it wasn’t something that was ever going to be okay to hear. It was hours before I could look at him; days before I could recall the incident without feeling the flush of shame on both our behalfs.
That day, at Manzanar, we worked our way through the indoor exhibit first, housed in a “community hall” that was built in 1944. We stood in front of a display on pre-war sentiment just underneath the highest part of the ceiling. While I boggled at the idea that they’d built the hall, a permanent structure, so late in the war, Jim whispered, pointing at a photo of a sign that said “Japs Keep Moving; This is a White Man’s Neighborhood,” “I didn’t realize there was so much racism even leading up to the war.” I blinked at him and walked away.
Later, we visited a reconstructed intake barrack. We’d read on another display that the wind was brutal, and the planks of the barracks’ hastily constructed walls were not quite flush with each other, so that the living quarters were cold all the time. Bundled in my hi-tech polyfill coat and wrapped in a scarf and boots, I could still feel it, in the floorboards under my feet and whipping through the building in tiny restless eddies. The whole damn place rattled.
“It’s so cold in here, Yish,” said my husband, and I nodded, and bent down to poke at a reconstruction of a straw mattress-covered Army cot. I laid on it. The springs protested, sagged from my core out to my shoulders and hips. I flopped onto my side. The springs, again, and the straw in the mattress parted, this time, so the metal and the wind felt flush to my skin.
We walked and drove through the rest of the camp. We saw bathrooms with no dividers, so that you did your business within knee-width of another human; a mess hall that looked like a nightmare out of a bad summer-camp movie; gardens that the residents built for themselves so they could find some solace, some beauty. Spare wire and concrete and scrap wood had been fashioned into bridges and turtle sculptures. The residents had also built a waterfall.
There was a ranch. A soy sauce and miso factory. A school, and a hospital. A tiny city, far away where no one could see, hidden the way you might hide a carpet stain under a new side table.
At the back of Manzanar, far away from the front gate, and outside the barbed-wire perimeter, is a cemetery. Only five of the 149 people who died during their internment at Manzanar are still buried here. A monument stands in the cemetery now. People leave offerings. Strings of peace cranes. Notes of regret. Talismans.
There, standing in front of a grave, I cried. Jim came to stand next to me. “They were Americans,” I said, furious, and he nodded.
We didn’t make the 4PM appointment for the Jeep rental place. Jim said he didn’t care, and I believe him.
Wife wants to make a visit to an internment camp part of our anniversary weekend? Yes, okay, because here, in a dark, shameful part of American history, we can find a greater understanding of each other, and what it means to be part of something bigger.