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Reflections of a Summer Intern

When I first applied to the Nikkei Community Internship, I don’t think I really knew what I was getting myself into. The idea of connecting with my family’s culture in a way that also benefited the community was appealing to me, but I didn’t really think into it much more than that.

NCI is organized and supported by the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council and facilitated by the Little Tokyo Service Center in Southern California and the Japanese Community Youth Council in Northern California. For eight weeks throughout the summer, interns in Southern California have worked hard at various Little Tokyo community organizations, such as Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches, LTSC, the Rafu Shimpo, and the Japanese American Citizen’s League. We’ve talked to veterans at Go For Broke, practiced interviewing skills, learned about Little Tokyo development history, and been trained in the art of the perfect handshake. Three times the groups of interns from SoCal and NorCal met: twice in Little Tokyo and once in San Fransisco, for the program’s closing banquet.

At the beginning of my internship, I felt overwhelmed by the idea of community. Having never been seriously involved with a church, temple, scouting troop, or sports team, it was daunting at first to be thrust into the midst of a bunch of people who seemed like they all knew each other already (hey, I guess that’s what you get for being the Cal kid on UCLA turf). And to a certain extent it’s true: the JA community can be a very small place, and many of the participants and facilitators of the internship were already connected in some way. At the same time, however, this has been a community that has welcomed myself and other “outsiders” from Day One. Even if you don’t have a strong connection to Little Tokyo, this is a community that reaches out to you, provided that you “take your shoes off at the door,” as the Project: Community kids said, respecting the history and inhabitants of this place.

Working for Discover Nikkei at the Japanese American National Museum introduced me to the idea of “community” on many different levels. The Museum itself is a community within a community, comprised of the museum staff, volunteers, visitors and other interns. At the same time, I would work on projects or attend events that brought me in contact with the wider Little Tokyo community, such as Tuesday Night Café, J Town Voice, and JACL’s Project: Community program. Discover Nikkei also introduced me to the world-wide Nikkei community that participates in the site’s content. Until this summer, I was largely unaware of the large Nikkei communities in Latin America. In a few short weeks I went from total ignorance to complete fascination, finding myself eagerly attempting to decipher photo captions in Portuguese and Spanish (I don’t speak either language) to unravel the narratives created by users from Brazil and Peru. Discover Nikkei really excites me because it allows you to step outside of the JA (or Japanese Brazilian, or Japanese Canadian, or Japanese Peruvian, or…) bubble and see how other Nikkei are negotiating the day-to-day realities of what it means to be a descendent of Japanese migrants.

Little Tokyo is a community that has come together to support the NCI program. They’ve dedicated their time and expertise to give the interns workshops, tours, and personal interviews. They support our projects, such as the Next Generation Remix concert and Project: Community. Most of all, it’s been refreshing to be taken seriously. These are adults (some to be fair not much older than the interns) who seem to really care about what we think about the future of the Little Tokyo community. I’m left incredibly grateful and with the desire to come back, to repay their gifts, and also to be an advocate, to let everyone know about the vibrant community that exists among Little Tokyo’s commercial stores and non-profit organizations. I want to be a part of its future.

At the beginning of the summer, I didn’t really feel that being Japanese American was an integral part of my identity, my sense of self, and to a large extent that’s still true. At the same time, this is a community that has become very important to me, that I want to continue working for and participating in. In the end, I think that the Nikkei Community Internship has given me a greater appreciation for those words: Nikkei and community. When I look at those words now, I can see my summer, and tell you exactly what they mean to me.

*To view Nikkei Album collections created by Fiona, click here >>

© 2008 Fiona Potter

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