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A Yonsei's Reflections...

on Memories of My First Visit to Hawai‘i

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow. Set aside for acknowledging the loves and relationships in our lives, it’s a day celebrated for exchanging obvious gifts like chocolates, flowers, or other so-called romantic gifts.

This Valentine’s Day though, I will be spending the day at the Japanese American National Museum with my husband celebrating the quiet strength and subtlety of everyday lives and love. Gokurosama: Contemporary Photographs of Nisei in Hawai‘i, featuring black and white photos by Brian Y. Sato, opens to the public with a special tour and public program. As with many of the Museum’s and projects, I have found my own personal connections to this exhibition.

One of the photographs in the exhibition is of my husband’s great uncle and aunt. It shows Uncle in the foreground with Auntie in the background watering a tree. To me, it is very much in character with how I remember them from my first trip to Maui. Uncle Yanagawa has since passed away, but seeing the photo in the exhibition catalogue brought back some very fond memories.

When Russ and I were dating, he took me to Hawai‘i for the first time in my life. We flew in to Honolulu and headed straight to Sam Choy’s for lunch. In the short time we spent in Honolulu before going to Maui, we also worked in a trip to other Hawai’i favorites like the Bishop Museum, the Dole Plantation where we went through the maze, and a stop at Zippy’s.

In Maui, Russ shared with me the various places that he knew from his visits to the island growing up. His mother is from Lahaina, so he grew up visiting his grandparents during summers there. We mostly did the tourist-y things, but mixed in were places that the locals frequent like Tasty Crust and Sam Sato’s for saimin. There were plenty of stops at the beaches, a drive up to Haleakala, and to Lahaina to walk around, eat, and shop.

We stayed at Russ’ mother’s cousin’s house in Makawao. Carl and his wife were actually out-of-town at the time and graciously let us stay and house-sit while they were away. In return, they asked us to stop in and check on Carl’s parents in Lahaina to see if they needed to be taken to the store. They were worried because the story is that once, Auntie had gotten hit by a kid on a moped walking to the store. She yelled at him and made him take her on the moped to Kaiser’s emergency room where she made him wait and pay for the hospital bill. The kid must have been scared senseless. At the time I think she was already in her 70’s.

When we visited them at their home, they said their friend had taken them to the store earlier, but wanted to go eat lunch. They directed us to a small Japanese restaurant where we placed our orders at the counter. Russ quietly told me that I should go pay so I stood at the cash register with my wallet in hand. I was shocked when Auntie not-so-gently bumped me out of the way and proceeded to pay. I shot Russ a quick look and shrugged as I stepped aside. Years of eating meals with family had taught me that it was pointless to argue.

After lunch, they asked us to take them to Long’s Drugstore. As soon as we entered the store, Uncle and Auntie went off in two different directions. Not knowing what to do, I followed Uncle, mostly because he was slower and I had already lost track of where Auntie went. They each selected their items and paid. I had a sneaking suspicion that they weren’t buying them for themselves when I saw them purchasing macadamia nuts and chocolates. This was confirmed when we took them home and they gave them to us when we left.

Before we left Maui, we stopped in to see them again. I was in the living room when I noticed Auntie looking very intently. There was a big fly buzzing around the room and she was watching it. She moved slowly, but purposefully towards the big window. Suddenly, her hand struck out and she smacked the fly against the pane in one quick and efficient swat of her bare hand. I was in awe! It brought visions of the scene with Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid movie where they catch a fly in hashi (chopsticks).

As I sat in the living room looking around the room, Uncle brought a plumeria blossom from their backyard tree and gently placed it behind my ear. He didn’t speak much, but what I remember was his quiet, yet gentle warm smile. I don’t remember if the tree that Auntie is watering in the photo is the plumeria tree, but it does recall another story I heard about Auntie about one of their backyard trees. Apparently, one day she was up on a ladder when suddenly she fell. Unfortunately, as she fell, her toe fell between the ladder as it closed, cutting off part of her toe. They rushed her to the emergency room, but when the doctor asked her where it was so they could reattach it, she answered that she had flushed it down the toilet.

My last impression of our visit was of Auntie. As we were leaving, we followed her to the kitchen where she opened the refrigerator door and promptly squatted down, pulled open a drawer to pull out some mangoes, and quickly stood right back up. I was so impressed given that at my much younger age, I groan as I get up and down.

With all of these stories of Auntie, you’d think she was some sort of larger-than-life, fierce character, but as you can see in the picture, she’s actually quite petite. She’s always smiling and if I think of one word to describe her, it would probably be mischievous. Of course, this opinion is based on just two trips to Maui coupled with the various anecdotes and stories I’ve heard about her.

In April 2004, Russ and I returned to Hawai‘i to get married on Maui and then a honeymoon on the island of Kauai. By then, Uncle had already passed away, but we were very happy that Auntie could join us. This year, we’ll be celebrating our 5th wedding anniversary. We probably won’t be able to make it back in April, but are hoping to visit sometime this year. Auntie is well into her 90’s so we want to visit her again soon. It’s too bad she won’t be able to join us tomorrow for the opening of the exhibition. Russ and I will be there though along with his parents. I’m not sure if any other family members from the other people in the portraits will be able to attend, but I’m sure they’ll all be there in spirit.

 

Gokurosama: Contemporary Photographs of the Nisei in Hawai'i
February 14 - May 24, 2009
Japanese American National Museum

Gokurosama: Contemporary Photographs of the Nisei in Hawai'i is an exhibition of 35 black & white portraits by Honolulu photographer Brian Y. Sato.
See more info >>www.janm.org/exhibits/gokurosama/

 

© 2009 Vicky Murakami-Tsuda

exhibition family gokurosama hawaii maui

About this series

Vicky Murakami-Tsuda is the Communications Production Manager for the Japanese American National Museum. She is a “self-proclaimed” yonsei from Southern California who comes from a large extended family who loves working at JANM (especially Discover Nikkei), eating good food, spending time with family, playing on Facebook, reading, and used to be an artist who explored Japanese American culture and history through her artwork when she had more time and energy. This column includes various reflections on her life and the world around her.