Farewell to Manzanar’s protagonist, Jeanne Wakatsuki, chronicles the internment of her Japanese-American family as a result of anti-Japanese hysteria during WWII. Exiled from mainstream American society and viewed with suspicion, Jeanne has to consider what it means to be an American, and she meditates on the different ways that people of her parents’ generations and children of her own generation cultivate a sense of belonging in their chosen country while maintaining their Japanese identity. Showing the commitment to Japanese cultural mores that exists alongside heartfelt American patriotism, Jeanne evokes the richness and complexity of blended cultural identities. One of the major tragedies about internment—and the widespread prejudice and xenophobia it represents—is that it refuses to let these two identities coexist.
Known as the Issei, Jeanne’s parents’ generation of immigrants who came from Japan to make a better life in America maintain Japanese culture rather than assimilating to Anglo-American culture. Yet, having made a conscious choice to throw in their lot with America, they often know more about commitment and loyalty than native-born citizens whose patriotism is never questioned. Papa’s English is imperfect and he determinedly sticks to Japanese norms, like celebrating his wedding anniversary with a traditional ceremony. When Jeanne wins a prize in high school, she’s furious with him for making a traditional bow at the ceremony rather than realizing that this isn’t considered normal in California. However, despite wishing to maintain a Japanese cultural identity, he is firm in his commitment to America. After Pearl Harbor, Papa immediately burns his Japanese flag in a futile attempt to avoid accusations of disloyalty. During his imprisonment in Fort Lincoln, he is questioned about his loyalties. His interrogators are distrustful of his refusal to repudiate Japan completely, but he explains his feelings by saying that “when your mother and your father are having a fight, do you want them to kill each other? Or do you just want them to stop fighting?” For Papa, his Japanese identity is as essential to his character as loyalty to a beloved parent; however, this doesn’t prevent him from being a committed American citizen.
Moreover, Papa points out that he has been living in America since before the interrogator was born. Through this remark, he argues that he’s had more time to think about what it means to be a citizen, and to commit himself to America. The refusal of American society to recognize or trust this commitment, simply because of his origins, contributes to Papa’s ultimate breakdown during internment.
Jeanne’s generation (children born in America, known as Nisei) have only ever seen themselves as American and often feel alienated by Japanese culture. In order to cultivate a sense of belonging, they go to great lengths to perform their American identity, re-creating “normal” American culture even within the internment camp. However, even though they are more assimilated than their parents, they still face many of the same prejudices upon reentry to mainstream society. From the beginning of her narrative, Jeanne emphasizes her uneasiness with her Japanese identity. She recalls being terrified at Papa’s threat that he will “sell her to the Chinaman” if she is bad, and is frightened when she moves to a Japanese neighborhood and goes to a majority-Asian school for the first time.
Later, the memoir dwells on the yearbook produced by high school students at Manzanar, peppered with images of “normal” American adolescence and visions of a “typical American home;” Jeanne’s nostalgia for the “normal” American experience portrayed in the yearbook contrasts with her perturbation when she visits an old geisha giving lessons in traditional deportment. She and the other youngsters around her clearly aspire to live out the American tropes they observed before internment, and even though Jeannie is touched by her parents’ observance of traditional culture, she crafts her own American identity by moving away from it.
Ironically, it’s only within the camp—where the government has exiled them for not being sufficiently “American”—that the teenagers can enjoy this unqualified American experience. With each other, they don’t have to prove their loyalty or fight for their right to participate in the American society they’ve created. Jeanne’s initial sense of delight and fulfillment at Manzanar when she takes up baton-twirling (a “thoroughly, unmistakably American” activity) contrasts starkly to the obstacles she encounters after internment when trying to become her high school’s first Asian majorette. Even though she’s the most qualified student, the teachers aren’t sure if they want “an Asian to represent the high school in such a visible way.” By the time Jeannie finally obtains the role, she has realized that she has to “try twice as hard” as the students around her to enjoy the same privileges; the experience makes her feel alienated from, rather than accepted in, American society.
Jeanne’s parents hope to maintain their Japanese cultural identity while becoming committed American citizens, but her own generation is willing to move away from traditional culture in order to achieve social acceptance and a sense of belonging. The tragedy of internment and its aftermath is the collective discovery that, in the eyes of Anglo-American society, neither of these strategies are sufficient. Just as Papa discovers that his protestations of loyalty to America can’t overcome his imperfect English and immigrant origins, Jeanne’s excellence at school and fulfillment of quintessential American tropes don’t make the students or teachers around her see her as the fully American citizen she knows she is.
Belonging in America ThemeTracker
Belonging in America Quotes in Farewell to Manzanar
[Mama] would quickly subordinate her own desires to those of the family or those of the community, because she knew cooperation was the only way to survive. At the same time she placed a premium on personal privacy, respected it in others and insisted upon it for herself. Almost everyone at Manzanar had inherited this pair of traits from the generations before them who had learned to live in a small, crowded country like Japan. Because of the first they were able to take a desolate stretch of wasteland and gradually make it livable. But the entire situation there, especially in the beginning … was an open insult to that other, private self, a slap in the face you were powerless to challenge.
For a man raised in Japan, there was no greater disgrace. And it was the humiliation. It brought him face to face with his own vulnerability, his own powerlessness. He had no rights, no home, no control over his own life.
It is a patriotic song that can also be read as a proverb, as a personal credo for endurance. The stone can be the kingdom or it can be a man’s life. The moss is the greenery that, in time, will spring even from a rock.
The fact that America had accused us, or excluded us, or imprisoned us, or whatever it might be called, did not change the kind of world we wanted. Most of us were born in this country; we had no other models. Those parks and gardens lent it an Asian character, but in most ways it was a totally equipped American small town …
By that time I was desperate to be “accepted,” and baton twirling was one trick I could perform that was thoroughly, unmistakably American—putting on the boots and a dress crisscrossed with braid, spinning the silver stick and tossing it high to the tune of a John Philip Sousa march.
It was all a mystery … and this woman was so old, even her dialect was foreign to me. She seemed an occult figure, more spirit than human. When she bowed to me from her knees at the end of the hour, I rushed out of there, back to more familiar surroundings.
Three years of wartime propaganda—racist headlines, atrocity movies, hate slogans, and fright-mask posters—had turned the Japanese face into something despicable and grotesque. Mama and Papa knew this. They had been reading the papers. Even I knew this, although it was not until many years later that I realized how bad things actually were.
I smiled and sat down, suddenly aware of what being of Japanese ancestry was going to be like. I wouldn’t be faced with physical attack, or with overt shows of hatred. Rather, I would be seen as someone foreign, or as someone other than American, or perhaps not be seen at all.
I couldn’t understand why [Papa] was home all day, when Mama had to go out working. I was ashamed of him for that and, in a deeper way, for being what had led to our imprisonment, that is, for being so unalterably Japanese. I would not bring my friends home for fear of what he would say or do.
He was unforgivably a foreigner then, foreign to them, foreign to me, foreign to everyone but Mama, who sat next to him smiling with pleased modesty. Twelve years old at the time, I wanted to scream. I wanted to slide out of sight under the table and dissolve.
To this day I have a recurring dream, which fills me each time with a terrible sense of loss and desolation. I see a young, beautifully blond and blue-eyed high school girl moving through a room full of others her own age, much admired by everyone, men and women both, myself included, as I watch through a window.
I wanted the carnival to end so I could go somewhere private, climb out of my stuffy dress, and cool off. But all eyes were on me. It was too late now not to follow this make-believe carpet to its plywood finale, and I did not yet know of any truer destination.
These rock gardens had outlived the barracks and the towers and would surely outlive the asphalt road and rusted pipes and shattered slabs of concrete. Each stone was a mouth, speaking for a family, for some man who had beautified his doorstep.