Hawaiian Eye – Pt. 4 (Family tour)

We had heavenly shave ice at the Waiola corner grocery, which was just a block from where my grandfather had his home and business. The spot now has a high-rise apartment or condo on it, and the location of the Honolulu Stadium next door is now a park.

Monday, Sept. 17

This day was one of discovery about my family. It began with my cousin Aileen Moriwake guiding us to the apartment of my Aunt Mary Asakawa and my cousin Keith, who’s probably around my age.

We met Aileen at the Ala Moana Center, a shopping mall in downtown near the Waikiki district, and she led us across a street and down a block to a building tucked away behind a high rise and next to some dilapidated old shacks. Honolulu is full of these juxtapositions of new and fancy with old and rundown. Ramshackle single family homes and low-lying old apartment buildings can often be found shoe-horned into tight spaces between modern developments. I figure this is a side-effect of rapid growth and economic boom times.

We had tried calling my Auntie Mary’s phone number but got a “no longer in service” message. Some of the Hanzawa and Sakuma cousins had visited with her to get her to attend the reunion but she declined. Aileen had spoken to her from time to time too. I know the Asakawas are a private family – we didn’t even know that my Uncle Alex had died some years back. The last time I spoke to Uncle Alex, my dad’s brother, was when I tracked him down to tell him my father had died, back in 1992.

Aileen decided we should just go to the apartment and see if we could visit with my Aunt Mary. I pressed the buzzer for the apartment, and a man’s voice answered. It was my cousin Keith.

Unfortunately, my Aunt Mary was out and Keith was about to head to work (for the Transportation Safety Administration), so we had just a brief conversation over the building’s intercom. I got their phone number – we had one digit wrong, which was why we got the disconnected message – and I’ll call sometime after I get back to Colorado.

From the apartment, we returned to the mall and got into Aileen’s car. She took us to an older residential area west of downtown, at the corner of Waiola Street and Makahiki Way and pointed to a high-rise apartment building. It’s where my grandfather and his family used to live, and where his construction business was based. It’s where the old picture I have, with the sign announcing “K. Asakawa Construction,” and all the Asakawa kids lined up in front of the building, was taken. Continue reading

Hawaiian Eye – Pt. 3 (The Reunion)

Joy and Hiroshi kicked off the reunion with a taiko performance. Joy is the cousin who came up to me at a book signing in San Jose, and dropped the bombshell that I have an entire branch of relatives that I never knew about.

Sunday, Sept. 16

The Hanzawa-Sakuma family reunion was a Sunday brunch, held at a restaurant on Shafter Army Base in Honolulu. Because she was one of the organizing committee members, Laura had to get there early and help set up. We waited a little longer, but had to make a stop on the way to pick up John’s older daughter Kelsey on the way. Kelsey was staying at the watercress farm owned by her mother’s family (John’s ex-wife). John still helps out at the farm, because his father-in-law was an early mentor.

When we arrived at the base, the extended family was still just starting to assemble. There were over a hundred people in the banquet hall when the emcee, my cousin Aileen’s son Isaac, welcomed everyone.

From here, names and faces and relations to the family get fuzzy. I know the immediate families of the cousins who organized the reunion. Isaac, a handsome guy who’s an environmental attorney and president of the board of the local Sierra Club chapter, is Joy’s brother. Joy is the woman who came up to me after a book reading in San Jose, introduced herself to me as a relative and invited me to the reunion. The two have a younger sister, Megumi.

Joy and her husband Hiroshi, who were members of a taiko group in Honolulu before moving to San Jose, played a song to kick off the reunion properly. Continue reading

Hawaiian Eye – Pt. 2 (The Pre-Party)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Yesterday was a long day, and a preview of today’s reunion.

We started with the relaxed morning of papaya and conversation with Laura, but eventually moved on to the day’s work: shopping at Costco and then the Star Market for the ingredients to make our “kakimochi” chips for the party. The chips are a favorite of our friends in Colorado – they’re Mexican corn tortillas coated with a JA combination of sugar, butter and soy sauce – and although we figured Hawaiians surely must have this kind of cross-cultural snack all the time, it’s relatively easy to make and tasty and we decided to offer to make it for the party anyway.

Costco was a revelation. I’d been there, several years ago when I attended the JACL National Convention in Honolulu. But it seemed like they’d expanded their aisle of local goods, and throughout the store was an amazing array of Asian foods and products, from imported Japanese canned tea to spices. The local aisle had a dizzying selection of all things macadamia, as well as shelf after shelf of snack items like picked plums, li hing-flavored mangoes, dried shredded ika (cuttlefish) and dried octopus and squid, both in large jars or individually wrapped. Yummy… these are Asian equivalents of beer nuts at the bar. We wished we could get some of these more “exotic” items in Colorado Costcos, and also marveled that the Hawaiian population, which isn’t all Asian by any means (although certainly “haoles,” or Caucasians, are in the minority between all the Asian as well as Polynesian ethnicities), all buys this variety of products. Multiculturalism is simply in the air in Hawaii, like the humidity… and the wind. Continue reading

Hawaiian Eye – Pt. 1

It’s great to feel so welcomed.

Erin and I arrived late yesterday afternoon at Honolulu Airport and called up Regine Shimomura, a cousin I’d never met. She’s the twin sister of Laura McHugh, who was stuck at a hair appointment. We’re staying at Laura’s home, so one we got the rental car, we called Regina to get directions from the airport to the suburban town of Mililani, to the northwest of Honolulu.

What I remember from my childhood visit to Hawaii is the sun, the clouds and the wind. The clouds are always on the move, with the wind pushing them along. It seems like Hawaii is just always breezy. Continue reading

Family ties

For most people — but I think especially for Japanese Americans, who tend to come from very defined communities bound together by geographic roots, generational branchings and, for many, the shared trauma of internment — meeting a stranger and finding out you’re somehow related isn’t such a big deal. It might be novel, or surprising, but it’s probably not a life-changing fact.

My wife Erin and I joke that in Denver, there are only a few Japanese families, and that everyone’s related, if not by blood then certainly by marriage. She plays the “six degrees of separation” game all the time when she meets a JA, and invariably finds that they have friends or family in common.

For Erin, whose nuclear family all live in the area as well as a huge number of extended family members, funerals and holidays are like frequent family reunions.

Not me.

My family has always lived in a community and family vacuum — an isolation chamber devoid of contact with relatives. We didn’t live within JA communities, didn’t grow up attending the Buddhist temple or Methodist church with other JA kids, and seldom saw or made contact with cousins, uncles and aunties. Even when my dad died, it was difficult tracking down the contact information for his brothers and sisters. Certainly, I’ve never had someone come up to me in Colorado and play “six degrees of separation” to see if we’re related.

But last weekend, I was in San Jose to attend the bi-annual Youth Conference for the Japanese American Citizens League (the APA civil rights organization for which I’m on the national board). Erin gave a workshop and the closing keynote speech for the conference, and I went to give a book reading and sign copies for the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. That’s when my little isolated world was shattered.

A young woman came up to me with a copy of my book, “Being Japanese American.” She explained she didn’t buy it at the reading, but brought it with her. She had moved to California recently from Hawaii, and her mother had sent her the book. And, she added, her mother told her she was related to me.

WOW. Continue reading