A few days before the Wakatsukis’ scheduled departure from Manzanar, Papa decides he wants to leave “in style.” Suddenly coming out of his “lethargy,” he walks to the nearest town with the intention of buying a car. Mama thinks this is a bad idea, but he scoffs her advice away. Papa has always preferred unusual cars, with which he distinguishes himself from his neighbors. Tonight, he returns with a dark blue sedan. In order to transport the family and all its possessions, Father makes three trips from Manzanar to Long Beach, during which the car frequently breaks down.
When Papa finally springs into action, it’s not with a practical plan but a decision that will preserve the family dignity—at least in his own eyes. While Papa may improve everyone’s morale, it’s clear that the family needs Mama in order to survive.
Jeanne and Mama go in the first trip; Papa is driving frantically and becomes outraged every time the car breaks down, but every time the car breaks down Jeanne hopes they will be stranded in the desert forever.
Although Jeanne has always dreamed of the outside world, now that she’s beginning to understand the prejudice she’ll face there she feels more comfortable at Manzanar.
Papa has been drinking throughout the trip, but he sobers up as the family approaches Los Angeles; they’re all dreading some sign of hostility towards Japanese-Americans, something to match the stories they’ve heard. Even though Jeanne doesn’t understand exactly what’s going on, she’s heard so many people talking about hatred that she’s afraid as she huddles in the backseat.
When Jeanne arrived at Manzanar, she was too young to be confused or frightened; now, although she’s returning to her childhood home, she’s old enough to begin to understand the complex racial dynamics that will impede her life there.
However, as they first drive into Long Beach, the family encounters not overt racism but “indifference.” The family feels like “fleeing refugees” and imagines that everything in the outside world is transformed, and it’s almost surreal that things seemed almost unchanged.
The surreal atmosphere of their homecoming reflects how truly distanced the Wakatsukis have been from the outside world since the inception of internment.
However, in the ensuing months the Wakatsukis discover that many of the most important things have changed. For one thing, they have nowhere to live—housing shortages are indeed serious, and some returning internees are even living in churches. The American Friends Service helps the family find an apartment in a Long Beach government housing project. For Jeanne, it’s exciting to live somewhere with its own stove and flushing toilet; not until years later does she realize the project, Cabrillo Homes, is decrepit and depressed.
Jeanne feels lucky to live in the housing project even though it’s primitive compared to the comfortable house where she grew up. Although the internees did their best to make Manzanar livable, her delight at a flushing toilet reveals how rudimentary and inhumane circumstances there were.
Mama is able to recover some kitchenware she’d stored with neighbors before internment. However, the warehouse where she stored most possessions has been “robbed” and there’s not trace of her furniture or valuable wedding gifts. The car Papa bought before Pearl Harbor has been repossessed, and there’s no trace of his boats. Economically speaking, he’s as badly off as when he arrived with nothing in 1904.
The loss of the family’s material possessions shows that racism isn’t just motivated by ideology but also the possibility of economic profit. By acquiescing to the internment of their neighbors, Caucasian Californians could appropriate their property and goods without resistance.
Papa never quite recovers from this blow, but he doesn’t give up either. For Jeanne, this demonstrates the way that America “can both undermine you and keep you believing in your own possibilities.” To keep his mind of the dire state of things, Papa begins drafting sketches for the housing cooperative he still dreams of starting.
Meanwhile, Mama busies herself with the immediate concern of providing for the family. She soon gets a job at a cannery, knowing that she’s going to be the only breadwinner for a while; Papa would never accept a menial job of this sort, for him to do so would make Mama even more ashamed than he. Every morning Mama carefully fixes her hair and puts on makeup. Then she rushes out of the apartment to join her carpool, which is filled with other Japanese women who have fulfilled the same morning rituals.
Mama’s careful dressing isn’t a mark of vanity; it’s a way to maintain her personal dignity, even though she has to work a grueling job and live in a cramped house. Mama’s coping strategies are much more effective than Papa’s—his feelings of shame prevent him from working, even though the family badly needs the income.
Jeanne gradually begins to lose her sense of dread and fear. She’s soothed by listening to the same radio programs that marked her life before the war. However, when she starts public school in the fall, she realizes that she was right to have apprehensions about returning home.
Jeanne always finds comfort in American culture, which is more familiar to her than Japanese traditions. However, she will come to realize that the people with whom she shares this culture will often refuse to accept her.