I wanted to use Tina’s Ten (questions) to discover new things about people that I cross paths with. I believe there’s a reason people are in our lives at the times they are, be it for a short period or for most of our lives. I met Mary Fong many years ago through her daughter and my friend Lorna. We’d see each other from time to time at events and, to do this day, I can picture Mary smiling and waving at me. It wasn’t until recently, when I dropped by her house, that I learned much more about this strong woman who spent part of her youth in an internment camp in Northern California. I learned so much and wanted to share this. Thank you Mary! The interview is below the pictures… hit the “more” button. ~ Tina
1. TM: For years, I’ve always known you as my good friend Lorna’s mom but during our recent visit, I learned so much more! Is it easy for you to share your life experiences with others?
It’s easier now. I didn’t say a whole lot for years. The last 20-25 years I’ve been speaking up a lot more. I took a workshop called “Verb and Flair” an offshoot of Toastmasters, that’s when I started to talk a lot about camp life to other people. People who were in camp knew the story; people outside of the Asian community didn’t. The first time I spoke up, I broke into tears and couldn’t talk. I started instead of saying full sentences, I started make short brief remarks without details; started doing better. Now, it’s a lot easier. I tell my stories with a lot less emotions.
2. TM: Where did your parents grow up and when did they move to California?
Dad grew up in Kumamoto; Mom grew up in Fukuoka. They are on the Kyushu Island, in the southern part of Japan. Dad came over when he was about 18; he was 12 years older than Grandma. I’m guessing around 1918-19; by the time she was 20 or so, she had her first son, Shizuo. Takaki was Shizuo’s father; Grandma was already pregnant with her second son, Jack, when Takaki died of a heart attack in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Grandma was living with her mother and father who had come over from Japan with her younger brother; they were living in Colusa, she still pregnant with Jack, when she met Dad. This was in the late 1920’s. When she was married to Daisaburo (Kawano), she moved to Loomis to be with him. Daisaburo was already farming a fruit orchard in Loomis. He was a sharecropper; he shared the crop with the man who owned the property (Edmund Rippey).
3. TM: You were all living in Loomis during your high school years but something changed your world. What happened?
Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. All Japanese-American citizens and resident aliens were impacted. We were immediately given boundaries of seven miles from our home after dark. We were informed by posters on telephone poles and at the grocery stores in Loomis and in the town of Penryn. We got ready to evacuate into a camp, and it was not pleasant. We left Loomis by train to Arboga (near Marysville). We were taken by bus to the assembly center. We were at the assembly center from May 1942 to July 1942; then we went to Tule Lake.
4. TM: How long did you live at the Tule Lake internment camp?
We lived at Tule Lake for 3-1/2 years.
5. TM: What were you able to do within the camp?
We did everything that we did outside the camp; we went to school. I got a job in the mess hall and earned $10-12 per month. I peeled potatoes and beets; in the evening, I served meals to people on our block who came to the mess hall for dinner. There were 20 barracks in each block; there were enough tables in the mess hall for everyone from each block to eat together. We went to Japanese school until segregation; we had Girl Reserves, and Girl Scouts, Buddhist and Christian church, basketball, volleyball, baseball. Segregation was related to the “loyalty questionnaire” which among other things, asked if you would serve in the US military and foreswear all other countries. Internees who failed to answer these questions or answered both questions “no, no” were sent to Tule Lake. The Kawanos failed to respond which resulted in them being sent in for questioning. The federal government warned to send them back to Japan for not answering the questions. It became moot because Grandpa died, and Grandma was a widow. Shizuo and Natsuko (my older sister) also failed to answer both questions; when interviewed they both said that they didn’t answer the questions because their father had instructed them to not answer the questions.
6. TM: You weren’t able to leave. What did you miss the most?
Even if our home was way less than perfect, I missed being in Loomis. I missed my new found friends in high school. I missed the Rippeys because they were so nice to us. I found Sylvia Basona; she died a few years after I found her. I found Harriet Murray in Stockton; I found Ralph Isola, an eye surgeon in Sacramento. I didn’t stay in touch with them.
7. TM: You mentioned your father was your best friend and he said something to you during the time you were in the camp. What did he tell you?
He wanted me to get out of my depression because I was so depressed. As soon as I landed in Arboga, I couldn’t take it, with all of the barbed wire. I got really sick; I didn’t eat. I felt that if I didn’t eat, then I wouldn’t have to use the horrible latrines. Dad would talk to me and walk me around; he said that if I kept being depressed then I would be crazy. Japanese people didn’t accept craziness as part of a family thing. He told me I did have a choice, to go to Napa or Stockton insane asylums. He would be happy to take me to either one; I told him I wasn’t going to go. When I went to Tule Lake, I snapped out of it. Yaye Nishina grew up with me in Loomis; we worked together in the mess hall.
8. TM: You weren’t able to graduate but were honored years later with a diploma. How did that make you feel?
I actually did receive a high school diploma while in Tule Lake; however, because of former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber and AB 781, all high schools were asked to award honorary high school diplomas to Nisei graduates. I applied to the Roseville Joint Union High School to receive a diploma from them; there weren’t a lot of Japanese who went to Roseville High; most went to Placer High School. I was the only Nisei to receive a diploma from Roseville High. The boundary line between Roseville High and Placer High districts was the driveway of our house. I was honored and pleased that they made such a big production, all of the Roseville High staff were present and a few of the Board members were present. The principal was kind and thoughtful; the vice principal was very accommodating as well. Having Ralph and Sylvia there was nice. I know what a big deal it is to have Board members attend functions, having been a Board Secretary with the Sacramento City Unified School District for so many years.
9. TM: Where is the one place in the world that makes you feel happy?
Home. My home, my children, my close friends. I have my friends over as often as I can; I play cards and enjoy my friends’ company.
10.TM: My last question is usually about what you’ve learned from someone else… and since I know you through Lorna, what have you learned from her?
She’s taught me a lot. One of the things I remembered when she was growing up, she was very quiet. She soaked up and gleaned information from others. I remember Mrs. Bell, taught her to find the most important part of each paragraph. She learned it very well. She’s very no-nonsense, sometimes it comes off as hard to reach, but I admire that because I don’t have that skill. She’s OK.
Camp life brought some very close friendships; in the US, Japan, Europe. And we were all from Washington, Oregon or California. We all had a chance to grow beyond the little town of Loomis, California.