Legacy of The Sansei – Being Sansei

Legacy of The Sansei – Being Sansei

Photo of Christine R. Yano

Christine R. Yano
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Sansei live in a strange and unique position. We form the last of the generations of Japa-
nese Americans with direct knowledge of Japan in the form of grandparents. That tie, for many, is both very real and very tenuous. Because most of us did not grow up speaking Japanese, the tie itself is relatively mute. Japanese was what our parents and grandparents spoke when they didn’t want us to understand what was being said. And we complied, accepting the language barrier even as the occasional household words of admonition (“abunai,” “yakamashii”) poked through. So although our grandparents were certainly there in the house, at gatherings, maybe cooking food or working in the garden, we didn’t have real conversations with them. We talked around them. (I write this feeling very clearly the difference that language and generation makes. Three of my grandparents were Issei and thus spoke only Japanese. My one Nisei grandmother spoke both English and Japanese, and she was the only one with whom I could talk. As a Nisei who attended school in Hawai‘i, she already had one foot firmly planted in American soil. This language — and, to a certain extent, cultural — barrier made a world of difference in terms of my relationships with them all.)

As Sansei, our notions of Japan formed around our grandparents, since this was our most immediate and constant contact with that country. That contact was fuzzy, inchoate, a blur of sounds that we didn’t quite understand, but could somehow feel. That contact was and is undeniable and deeply emotional. Through our grandparents we saw Japan, not as a romanticized fairy tale, but as a place of hardscrabble lives that would impel people to leave for better opportunities. We grew up witnessing not only the remnants of Japan past, but perhaps of greater relevance, the immediacy of immigrant lives built around continual hard work. My grandparents never stopped working, whether they were at their jobs or at home. And it is this combination of hints of Japan and the hard work of immigrant lives that forms the background hum to our own Sansei lives. That hum persists — sometimes barely heard, often taken for granted, but always there as part of the chordal structure of who we are. We know it in ways that our children never will, because it is something that cannot be taught. It is a hum most powerful because it was and is lived. If that hum were to drop out (as if it could), the silence would feel strange and uneasy. The silence would feel like loss.

Background hums may be our foundation, but they are only part of who we are. We are lots of things, and our daily lives attest to this with their busy-ness. We play many roles and do many things — some big, some small, some public, many more private. We have families, jobs and responsibilities that take us outside ourselves and sometimes pull us away from the hum.

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