2008 National Conference » Essays

MY THOUGHTS ON “WHO’S AMERICA, WHO’S AMERICAN?”

By Soonja Rosser

First of all, it was a special opportunity to attend to the conference, “Who’s America, Who’s an American?” which was sponsored and planed by the Japanese American National Museum. It was an exquisite honor for me to receive such an opportunity with a full scholarship as well. For that, I sincerely thank everyone who worked hard and made it possible for me and other scholarship recipients in Colorado. Without them, I, as a student and an educator, would not have had the great opportunity and experience to learn in depth about the Japanese American segregation was part of the American history in the 20th century.

As a student, this experience was learning history away from the classrooms and the textbooks for me. By listening to the actual stories of real people, the history became reality. As an educator, it was an acknowledgement for me to understand another side of our history. Not to mention that, in reality, our lives continue with the good and bad history, happy and sad stories of our history, new and old issues of our past.

They exist with us as important parts of our lives. For instance, the American history of good and bad brought us the country where we live today. Many of us still cry and laugh with our children telling and reading to our children the stories of the past. We still rely on old inventions and creative activities to build up our high technology. Without building upon the old and new inventions in our past, the high technology we depend on everyday may not have been possible. The trick is how much we learn from our past history. Learning from the past cannot make our past better, but we can make better future better for our next generations. It is up to us to make memorable history for them to rely on, and we can make it happen with a better understanding of what had happened in the past. For that purpose, the conference “Who’s America, Who’s American?” served me beyond my expectations.

The conference also gave me an opportunity to think about myself; who I was, what I was doing, where I live, what country I represent. I was born and raised in Seoul, Korea. I am a Korean and I am proud of it. I am proud of my parents raising me along with my brother and sisters through poverty and difficulties. I am proud to have Korean people close to my life; my family, friends, and relatives. Even the day I gave up my Korean citizenship, so I could be together with my loving husband, I was a Korean first; a Korean American wife. On the miraculous days when I bore my two sons with my American husband, I received a new title, Mom; a Korean-American mother. No matter what happens, what I do, and where I live, I will always be a Korean first because I am proud to be Korean.

Though, the day I dropped my Korean citizenship and became an American, I was born again in America. Only this time, my rebirth was without parents but with American dreams and responsibilities. I may have been free from my biological parents; no obligation, no cost from my own pocket, but I had to take an oath to pay my rebirth for the second time. I swore to pay respect to the United States and take the responsibilities and duties as an American citizen. In return, I receive freedom, equal treatment and opportunity. When I give and take successfully, I am a responsible American, a Korean-American, and I represent the country of the United States.

On the first day of the conference, I did not know anybody but slowly got to know many people. I saw people who were fighting for justice and civil rights. I heard many people speaking to stand up for themselves. All of them didn’t sound like strangers anymore because I could easily relate to their thoughts and experiences. Soon, they looked familiar and sounded friendly to me.

The first person I got to know was a wonderful and intelligent lady named Nancy Bartlit. We met each other on the trip to the Amach Camp site. She is an author who wrote the book Silent Voices of World War II: When Sons of the Land of Enchantment Met Sons of the Land of the Rising Suns. By talking to her I realized how passionate she was about her book and her research on the Santa Fe Camp in New Mexico. Her heart went out to those who suffered during WWII. I felt secure as if our freedom and equal opportunity in America would be protected as long as Nancy speaks, writes, fights for us. Nancy is my original American.

On the bus trip to the Amach Camp site, Nancy and I met two new friends, Catherine and Eric. Catherine is a middle school psychologist and Eric is a high school teacher, the same high school my oldest son goes to. They are both educators from Colorado, so we all got connected instantly. Catherine and Eric were, too, very interested in knowing and understanding in depth about the Japanese-American Internment. With their sincerity and respect, I was confident they will pass on their experiences and knowledge to their students and make sure they get the right education. I saw Catherine and Eric as respectful Americans.

My lessons to learn the history of Japanese-American Internment Camps were presented widely throughout the conference. Among the guest speakers, there were several survivors of the camps who were willing to share their experiences with us. By listening to them and meeting them in person, I felt their stories and the history were more real to me. The ways they were treated, the places they were forced to move into during the segregation were sad and painful. Japanese-Americans had to move out of their homes and hometowns, leaving everything they had behind. Some families were even separated from each other and taken to different camps. Their living conditions in the camps were very poor, and everyone had to suffer from freezing cold to very hot weather. Their freedom was locked up with their bodies inside the fences. It made me think and wonder if there was any other way the US Government could have dealt with the situations differently. On the other hand, my mixed emotions lead me to questions of my own, ‘what if’s. What if the U.S. Government took no action at all, what if the government took more time to consider our Constitution before the action, what if there was no WWII…

Even though there were hundreds of thousands of Japanese-American people who suffered greatly and sacrificed their rights and freedom during that time in American history, we cannot forget the fact that it all began with the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan during WWII. It is true human nature to take any defensive actions when one is attacked by another. And it is a natural consequence of war for the blame to fall heavily on the one who loses the war.

I personally blame it all on the war. The wars in the past, in the present, and in the future, have been and will always bring destructions to earth and humanity. A war is nothing but an action of humans and a power struggle. If we don’t stop wars, we may even self destruct some day. Therefore, it is becoming more and more crucial that we all fight for peace on earth.

In human history, though, we have had wars of many kinds all over the world; small and big; national and international; in the countries of England, Germany, France, and many more. In my opinion, the country of Japan was not an exception during WWII. The ambition of the Japanese people was soaring high. Their ambition of conquering the world was so high that no one could interfere with their goal. It seemed like the Japanese people knew what it took to achieve their goal; togetherness as one, loyalty to their country, and the cleverness of developing different war strategies that work. Their patriotism and loyalty toward their country was beyond any other people in the world. One of the well-known examples would be the countless suicide bombers, Samurais, who attacked Pearl Harbor. For the initial attack, many Japanese pilots gave their lives with the bombs they carried in their airplanes, and they did it all for their country.

Japan invented weapons and strategies in the war that were also remarkable and superior. Using this technology, they were able to make weapons that flew by themselves from Japan to the United States, over the oceans and mountains. Recently, I was exposed to the kind of weapon Japanese used during WWII. They were balloons. Looking like weather balloons outside, and they carried powerful bombs inside that could have killed millions of people in American. More remarkably, I was told the balloons were made by school children in Japan. Their spy activities were remarkable as well. With their intelligence and creativity, they were able to break into many U.S. Military secrets.

Again, I have a hard time controlling my mixed feelings with ‘what if’s. What if Japanese-Americans were not forced to move and lived their normal life after the Pearl Harbor attack, would they had been treated any better by fellow Americans? What if they continued their normal life and a small fraction of them acted against the U.S. Government, I mean a small fraction as 1/1000. One of a thousand from 100,000 people would have still been 100 people. I am overwhelmed to think what even a handful of Japanese patriots in the United States could have done. If a few bright Japanese Patriots were successful with their mission, would we still have the same or better civil rights, freedoms, and opportunities we have today? This is not to say the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-American people was better in terms of defensive, but to have a better understanding about the bigger picture.

Whatever ‘what ifs’ I thought of, I always came to only one conclusion about the Japanese-American internment. The price they paid and the sacrifice they gave were too much to bear considering the Constitution of the United States. The conference “Who’s America, Who’s an American?” gave me a chance to sit down and think deeply about what I could do for America and make it a better place to live. With my deep acknowledgment of the conference, I can start giving better history lessons to my students, and keep working with them so the same kind of, or similar history doesn’t repeat itself again.

I am taking a moment and asking myself, “Who’s American, Who’s America?” As I experienced at the conference, every one of us are Americans. Not only do we expect the country to do a better job, but we are doing something to make a difference for the country. Americans understand that we can’t change the past, but we can make a better future. Therefore, the country which those Americans represent is a true America.

Soonja Rosser is the mother of two children, a wife, a student, and a volunteer of her community. She lives in Colorado and is currently a senior at the University of Northern Colorado.