A Tale of Two Immigrants: Un-Welcome, Lent Part 3

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Just as a body is one whole made up of many different parts, and all the different parts comprise the one body, so it is with the Anointed One. We were all ceremonially washed through baptism together into one body by one Spirit. No matter our heritage—Jew or Greek, insider or outsider—no matter our status—oppressed or free [Republican or Democrat]—we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Here’s what I mean: the body is not made of one large part but of many different parts. –1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (The Voice version)

As part of my Lenten practice this year, I want to do a few of posts on refugees and immigration. 4 stories. 2 about refugees. 2 about immigration. 2 from a welcomed perspective. 2 from an un-welcomed perspective. The subject is complicated, varied, and divisive. I don’t know anyone who thinks we should ‘throw open our borders to anyone,’ nor do I know anyone who touts that we should close our borders to all. I will not solve any of the issues in my blog; however, I want to share some stories. I hope the stories will help us remember that while we debate and discuss immigration issues, we affect real people’s lives.

The last 2 weeks, I’ve told the stories of refugees–me, who felt like a refugee living in Germany, and a family in our town who were Romanian refugees living in Germany.

This week, I’ll tell the story of my husband’s mother who married an American, thus becoming an immigrant in America. I don’t have all the details. Just bits and pieces from a letter she wrote 30 years ago, and stories I remember her telling us.

My mother-in-law grew up in Japan during WWII. She knew of the bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I only know snapshots of what she experienced. She didn’t open up about the war years much–which seems common in that generation. My husband never knew much about her life during the war–except that her father lost almost all his wealth. My sister-in-law may know more. I know in my family, I tend to ask more questions about our history than my brother does…

I have a long letter that she wrote to me after my husband and I got engaged. In the 9 or 10 pages, she talked about her hopes and dreams for her son, and alluded to some of the difficulties she’d experienced in America. She wrote it in Japanese, and then had her husband and another friend translate the finished project to send to me.

Her life started out seemingly idyllic in her island village. Her father loved her. She came from a  well-respected, well-off family descended from the Samurai. But, underneath the photos of the beautiful young girl lurked a hidden past. A mother who left for reasons unknown. Images of her mother in photographs destroyed–slashed. In her era of Japanese culture, the family removed all semblance of the spouse who left, and never spoke of that person again. Her father remarried a woman who acted out abusively because of jealousy toward her stepdaughter. She did not want to share her husband’s attention with anyone–especially not another female.

In school, she began to learn English … for about 6 weeks … until WWII broke out … when English became ‘the Enemy’s language.’ All forms of English schooling stopped. Japan became nationalistic and cut off Western education and culture.

A striking beauty, my mother-in-law dreamed of marrying an American so that her children would be tall and have blue eyes. (No one seems to have taught her about genetics. While neither of her children have blue eyes, two grandchildren do.) She had other offers; but she held out for a tall, American.

My father-in-law served in the military for several years. His service took him to Japan where he met this lovely Japanese woman. Almost a decade from the end of WWII, the world had begun to heal and rebuild. They married, and thus began my mother-in-law’s new life in our ‘Land of Opportunity.’

Except that she was Japanese.

She bombed Pearl Harbor.

She aligned with the Axis Powers.

She ended up on the wrong side of history from an American viewpoint.

Even though she was only a child during the war.

In a few conversations, she spoke of the prejudice she encountered from strangers, and her new family members. Her own mother-in-law did not accept her until much later in life. She spoke of having to learn ‘the Enemy’s language’ by conversing with people, learning this new culture so foreign from the one she left. People expecting many different things from relationships. In the Japanese culture, people rarely expressed their emotions.

She spoke of regrets that she had to leave jobs she loved because her husband’s job changed. She had no choice. No say. No recourse.

She could not make it on her own. And she felt very alone. Probably frightened.

And her new country did not want her.

She was the enemy. And she lived in her enemy’s world.

She spoke the wrong language.

She practiced the wrong religion.

She ate the wrong foods.

She laughed at perplexing times, because she had a different sense of humor.

Put yourself in her shoes. How would you fare uprooting to Russia, China, Botswana, or Haiti? How would you feel leaving the culture you love and hold dear, and moving permanently to a place that didn’t welcome your culture? Your beliefs? Your perspective?

Many immigrants come here because they hope for a better life. Many of those do not find a welcoming space here. Especially now. I hear stories every day of people born and raised in this country hearing ugly remarks like, “Go back to Africa!” (one man, who has Turkish heritage, was told, ‘Go back to Mexico.’). So imagine if we’re mistreating people who actually come from this culture and know how to navigate life in America, how those from other countries must feel.

My mother-in-law learned to hide some of her Japanese pride in public. In the safety of her home, she had many remembrances. With her Japanese friends, she spoke her native language animatedly. But, she didn’t draw attention to her heritage publicly. She couldn’t afford to show that pride. She didn’t know if she was safe.

May we become ‘safe’ people for those who have left everything they love and hold dear. May we remember that our country is a melting pot of cultures. Let us celebrate those differences. Unity amidst diversity makes us great.

I welcome comments! Please keep them respectful and constructive.

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