Learning from History: Catharsis and Asian American Identity in Allegiance -The Toast

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I came across this poster fairly late in life, on a visit I made to the Museum of Chinese in America with my Chinese mother, her sisters, and their half-Chinese daughters. My mother and her sisters stood beneath the poster and offered vague reminiscences of a card they had seen my grandfather carry in his wallet, declaring that he was Chinese, not Japanese (though I’ve since been unable to find it), and a newspaper photograph they’d seen of my qui-pao’d grandmother, where the editor hastened to tell his readers not to be alarmed—this lady was Chinese, collecting money for American war bonds.


“If this is how they treated the Chinese Americans,” thought I, all incredulous bemusement, “how did they treat the Japanese Americans?” Dispassionate bullet points from high school history classes seemed to overlay the poster: arrests, internment camps, segregated regiments; I felt vaguely ashamed for forgetting this. My public high school was an excellent one, but “Asian American history” took up perhaps five minutes of the entire instructional year.

To be Asian American, at least in my experience, is to exist in a state of constant tension. Social emphasis is always on the first word, and personal experience is always on the latter. I tend to feel this most in the usual dialogue of getting-to-know-yous:

THEM: So, where are you from?
THEM: I mean, where are you really from?
ME: Technically Maryland, but it’s easier to say DC—
THEM: Where are your parents from?
ME: My dad was born in Boise, Idaho. My mom was born in DC.

At this point, I usually try to imagine myself as Elizabeth Bennet, whose courage rises with every attempt to intimidate her. My interlocutor, regardless of race, gender, age, or social class, is always Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady Catherine desires an implicit answer, which I am too arch to provide. Any subsequent questions to suss out culture are met with the truthful, fairly anodyne responses that could be given by any East Coast resident of any race. What languages do I speak? English and French. I took a German class once, but I’ve forgotten most of it. What do I cook? Mostly Trader Joe’s frozen meals. Where did I go to college? Massachusetts. What did I study in college? French Romanticism.

Inevitably, Lady Catherine picks up my genealogy again and asks where, then, my grandparents were from. I almost always want to pretend Lady Catherine is curious about my most illustrious ancestor, and say, “Well, my great-grandfather on my dad’s side was a screenwriter during Hollywood’s Golden Age! He was the head writer for the Wyatt Earp TV show.”

I almost always say: “DC’s Chinatown.”

It’s not quite the truth— my grandfather’s law office was in Chinatown, but my mother and her siblings grew up in Southeast DC— but it’s the expected answer. It establishes my separation from what is unambiguously “American.” And it’s one that best encapsulates what I mean when I say I am Asian American. DC’s Chinatown has become a collection of Starbucks, Paneras, and Bed, Bath & Beyonds with Chinese characters on them. The public eye always rests on the facade, assuming there is some internal difference to match the characters an accident of geography caused to be writ large on its surface.

Asian American history, in the rare moments when it is made visible, is often reduced to a line or two of reassurance, neatly separated from the grander, broader narrative of America. Angel Island was the Asian equivalent of Ellis Island! Chinese people helped build the railroads! Japanese people formed their own highly decorated regiment in WWII! Vietnamese refugees were helped out of Vietnam by American diplomats! My U.S. history courses remained mum on the experiences of other Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. I wonder, now, how the Korean American girls in my classes felt, never hearing themselves spoken of at all.

Perhaps your education was more complete than mine, but when I saw the new musical Allegiance, I was appalled at what I had never been taught. Within the first fifteen minutes, the main characters had been forced to sell their farm for a fraction of its price; to reduce their possessions to what they could carry; to be moved from California to Utah; and to make their home in a single, dusty, drafty room in the middle of the desert until the war ended.

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They were told, over and over again, that they were not American. They were Japanese. The main characters, siblings Kei and Sammy Kimura, are baffled by this. They were born in America. Sammy graduated from an American college. They think of themselves as more American than Japanese. How can they be America’s enemy? How can their country treat them like this? America was at war with Germany and Italy as well, but, as one of the characters remarks, “You don’t see them locking up Joe DiMaggio, do you?”

Today’s political climate is uncomfortably familiar. This July, General Wesley Clark seemed to view internment camps not as a cautionary tale against what can happen when a miasma of racism and unreasoning fear clouds our judgment, but as a useful precedent for attempting to deal with people who might be “radicalized” into becoming modern-day terrorists. “It is our right,” he insisted on MSNBC, “and our obligation to segregate them from the normal community, for the duration of the conflict.” In November, David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, wrote: “I’m reminded that Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.” On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, presidential candidate and ’70s-era Bond villain Donald Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He later equivocated when directly asked if he would have approved of Japanese internment camps: “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer. I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”

Such statements seem to mine the same deep vein of racism and xenophobic fear that led to the internment camps. This kind of prejudice allows for no exceptions, no complications, no nuance. In our fear, many declare that Americans are not defined by ideals, which cannot be seen or tested, but by what is visible. We are all reduced to what accidents of geography have writ on our faces.

Allegiance leans into the tension of being Asian American—of being defined by your visual features but rarely, if ever, seeing people like you as part of the narrative.

I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that this horrible precedent can be and has been repeated. Asian American history is not widely taught, except when we are mentioned, in passing, as an example of successful integration or American magnanimity. Our experiences are not sought, unless it’s to establish our Otherness; to remind us, again of that imbalanced Asian American identity. American society is always interested in what makes us Asian; it is rarely, if ever, interested in what makes us American. If no one understands what can happen when that second half of the term is stripped from us, no one can keep the injustice committed against Japanese Americans from being committed against other communities.

“Hateful as the concept may be, it’s better to put them in internment camps than waiting for them to commit crimes against us,” Donald Trump could very well say one day to a cheering audience, full of people who look like him, who have heard stories of their own history, their exceptionalism, their descent from the Greatest Generation so many times, any variation is at once dismissed as fiction. After all, it took the U.S. government decades to acknowledge how badly it had erred, how wrong it was to turn its citizens into prisoners for crimes that they would never commit.

As George Takei remarks in the Allegiance sample album, “Our only crime was looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor.” The musical, written by Jay Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione, draws heavily from Takei’s own experiences, but features the struggles of the fictional Kimura family, of Kei, Sammy, their father, and their grandfather, as they all adjust to life in their internment camp.[1] The lyrics may be a bit facile at times, but the story itself is affecting when it sticks to its central conflict, a question with no correct answer: How does one respond to such injustice?

Lea Salonga’s character, Kei, supplies one: “gaman.” To endure with dignity. (In an NPR article, the writers of the musical revealed that George Takei’s mother would say “Gaman, Georgie,” to him as they waited in long lines to use the doorless latrines of their internment camps.)

To endure, let alone with dignity, is nearly impossible when the American government forces all 100,000-plus residents of the various camps to answer a “loyalty questionnaire.” Do you agree to join the armed services, as it demands, when the government that runs the armed services doesn’t believe you are a citizen? When it, in fact, believes that all Japanese people are born with an innate loyalty to the Emperor of Japan that they must agree to forswear? You can say no, and be separated from your family, like Kei and Sammy’s father. You can say yes, as Sammy and Frankie do, and still be denied your rights as citizens. Sammy volunteers to join the Japanese-only 422nd regiment and wins a Purple Heart for his actions in Italy, but his family remains in an internment camp.

In an Enjolraic turn, complete with raised fist before a triangle of marching protesters, Frankie refuses to serve in the army until he is treated like an American. Frankie and the other young men of the camp will only enlist as other, whiter men do: as free citizens, reporting to the municipal governments of their home towns. Frankie is arrested for this choice, beaten, and sent to a federal penitentiary, and despairingly asks Kei how she can love a man foolish enough to die for his ideals. (“Very easily!” I whispered to my theatre buddy.)

George Takei, in an enchantingly kooky performance as Kei’s grandfather, suggests another compelling response to such injustice: He takes the loyalty questionnaire and transforms it into an origami flower, which Kei then places in her hair.

Make art, the musical suggests, out of the pain. Wear it. Make others see it.

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It is a trope universally acknowledged that theatre can bring catharsis, but I prefer the idea that theatre can be a corrective. There are operating theatres, and theatres of war; it does not strain credulity that the theatre itself can take something as painful as the national trauma of a war and try to heal it. For myself, the sight of a Broadway musical with a cast of almost entirely Asian American people was so validating, so meaningful, that the intensity of my emotions bordered on pain.

Allegiance leans into the tension of being Asian American— of being defined by your visual features but rarely, if ever, seeing people like you as part of the narrative—until the balance shifts, and both halves of the term have equal weight. It insists the history of the internment camps is American history; that these particular struggles against systemic oppression and racism are not just part of being Japanese during World War II. In the particulars of our history we find numerous examples of universal and ongoing injustice within American culture.

Our history is, for better or worse, American. And every American ought to learn from it.

[1] I should mention, here, that there has been some criticism of the historical liberties taken in the creation of Allegiance. I personally found the historical inaccuracies to be a useful shorthand; they make the story more accessible to audiences unfamiliar with Japanese internment camps, but familiar with the common tropes of World War II fiction. The most speaking example is when Frankie, Kei’s love interest, cracks, “Why are Japanese kids so good at math? They spend their summers in concentration camps!”

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