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Voices of Chicago

Do You Know Kung Fu? - Part 1

I was born August 19th, 1961 at the University of Chicago Lying-in Hospital, on the south side of Chicago. My father, Joseph Earl Wiley, hails from a prominent family in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. His father, Joseph Elias, graduated from Tuskegee Institute, class of 1914, and served with distinction as an officer in the 92nd Infantry in WW I.

Mom and Dad and the two eldest siblings

My mother, Frances Sumiko Yoshida was interned with her family in Poston, AZ in WWII. She grew up in Lindsey California the sixth of nine children of an Issei farming family. Her eldest brother and sister married the eldest sister and brother of the Imoto family-who had eleven children. After camp, my mother matriculated from Drake University in Des Moines, IA with a degree in Library Science. After graduation, she took a librarian job at the University of Chicago. It was there that she met my father, who was earning a MA in English after graduating from Loyola University, thanks in large part to the GI bill. They soon wed, bore and raised eight children.

I am number six of the eight children. We all had the good fortune of being raised in the ethnically diverse, politically active, socially progressive environment of Hyde Park. Some of us tend to favor our father’s tall, narrow features, others more so my mother’s compact, sturdy physique, but we all have dark hair and glasses and look “Asian”.

The baby's christening 1967

My father worked as a special education teacher for the Chicago Public schools for 30 years and for most of my childhood sorted mail during the second shift at the post office. My mother worked also, for a time owning a fabric and notions store but also from home as a seamstress and tailor. Omnipresent at PTA meetings and parish fund-raisers, she maintained order and discipline in the house and always checked our homework. Somehow, my parents managed to send us all to the same catholic grade school, we all graduated from Kenwood High (Academy) the local and one of the most acclaimed Public High Schools, and my brilliant siblings all went on to achieve great academic success, graduating from the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins Medical Schools, Columbia Business, Bryn Mawr College, Sara Lawrence College, etc. etc.

Then there is me-University of Illinois-Chicago! The middle son of three boys, I have sometimes felt like the black sheep of the family. Growing up with gifted, brilliant siblings, I am at best an above average student. I am the only Wiley male in three generations that never served in a branch of the armed forces. I signed up for selective service in high school. Hey, is it my fault there were no wars going on when I was draft legible?

Christmas 1968

Fortunately, I did inherit from my parents a hard work ethic. Working most of my adult life in the construction industry, I have earned professional success and recognition and enjoy a good standard of living. It is not because I am particularly smart or creative. I have benefited from the mentoring and tutelage of some highly accomplished businessmen. I work very hard, and somehow I am able to build trusting relationships with people of all walks of life. Truly, I have lived a blessed life. I have never been hungry a single day. I have benefited immensely from my good fortune, but my mantra to my children is something like this: “There is no replacement for hard work. Natural ability and good looks will only take you so far in life and the world is full of broke-assed geniuses. Be industrious, prepared, professional, and productive and everyone will come to recognize and covet your skills and contributions, and you will have earned the respect of others.” How did I come to adopt such a philosophy? I believe I am a product of my environment.

Mom and Dad's 50th Wedding Anniversary

Hyde Park has long been renowned as a liberal, intellectual oasis on the South Side, home to the University of Chicago. It also is the home of the Museum of Science and Industry, at one time the “World’s most visited museum”. Currently, it claims Barack Obama as its own (actually, the Obama house is in neighboring Kenwood). During the 60’s it was a crucible for inter-racial relationships and home to peoples of diverse ethnicities. I had friends of various ethnicities but very few Asians. Kind of like the Little Rascals we loved to watch on TV, much of my carefree pre-adolescent youth was spent building go-carts and playing Army.

One of my oldest friends is Roger Y. We went to school together from kindergarten through college. Ethnically Chinese, his family immigrated from Hong Kong, so they were actually British Citizens. They owned and operated a Chinese hand laundry on 55th Street. Roger’s father, Eddie, regularly drove me home from kindergarten in a black ’57 T-bird. He had several match-grade pistols and collected antique fountain pens as a hobby. Roger was the eldest child in the family and would be the first in his family to graduate from college. In the catholic tradition, we matriculated from kindergarten to eighth grade sitting in alphabetic order at the rear of the classrooms. We became fixtures at each other’s homes and referred to each other as cousins. We both had black hair and wore glasses and were about the same height. I was a little heavier. We did not really look that much alike but there were not a whole lot of Asian kids our age. In high school people often confused one of us for the other.

Another close childhood friend was Roosevelt S. or Jerry. Jerry’s family is Black. They lived across the alley and just up the block. We met in 1st grade and we each had siblings of similar age. Our parents were both involved with Parish activities. In those days it seemed like everyone’s parents knew each other and often times Jerry’s Mom would be feeding me grits and eggs if I had missed breakfast and Jerry’s Dad would be dropping us off at school. Jerry’s father has passed away but to this day we still share a close bond that knits our families together.

Part 2 >>

*This article was originally published in Voices of Chicago, online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society.

© 2010 Chicago Japanese American Historical Society

chicago family hapa illinois

About this series

The articles in this series were originally published in Voices of Chicago, the online journal of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, which has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Voices of Chicago is a collection of first-person narratives about the experiences of people of Japanese descent living in Chicago. The community is composed of three waves of immigration, and their descendants: The first, about 300 people, came to Chicago around the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1899. The second, and largest, group is descended from 30,000 who came to Chicago directly from the internment camps after World War II. Called the “ReSettlers,” they created a community built around social service organizations, Buddhist and Christian churches and small businesses. The third, more recent, group are Japanese nationals who came to Chicago, beginning in the 1980s, as artists and students and remained. A fourth, non-immigrant, group are Japanese business executives and their families who live in Chicago for extended periods, sometimes permanently.

Chicago has always been a place where people can re-create themselves, and where diverse ethnic communities live and work together. Voices of Chicago tells the stories of members of each of these four groups, and how they fit into the mosaic of a great city.

Visit the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society website >>