How Learning My Grandmother’s Story Taught Me To Appreciate My Heritage

Sep 20, 2019

I’ve lived in Chapel Hill my whole life. I live with my mom, dad, older brother Alex, two dogs, Rex and Bear, and my grandmother.

My grandma has lived with our family since before I was born. Her name is Hideko Tsuetaki, but I call her Bachan, short for Obassan, the Japanese word for Grandmother. I’m 16, and I’m wondering where I will to go to college and which jersey I’m going to wear to the next football game.

My Bachan is 95. When she was my age, she was wondering where her family would be relocated to and why they were being treated like the enemy although they were American citizens. In 1942, my grandmother was sent to a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

My Grandmother’s Story

The camp was located in Tule Lake, California. It was one of 10 camps the U.S. government established after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This order forced all people of Japanese ancestry to pick up their lives and move to internment camps outside of city centers, where they could be monitored until the end of the war. People like my Bachan – and well, me – were seen as a threat to the United States.

I never knew about my Bachan’s experience at the internment camp until I was in middle school. My brother was learning about World War II. We were at dinner and he was telling us about Churchill, battles and kamikaze planes and all the fighting that happened over there. Bachan let him talk a lot and then she told him about something his teachers weren’t talking about. She told him about her experience being forced to pick up her life and live for three and a half years at an internment camp with other Japanese-Americans. Normally after dinner we watch TV,  but that night me and my brother stayed at the table until late at night, listening to my grandmother tell her story.

In reality, I made myself forget the three and a half years I spent there at Tule Lake. -Hideko Tsuetaki

She told us that in the camp, she felt like her life was not her own. There were no trees - just dust. Dust and barbed wire, and rows and rows of black tarred barracks, hundreds of them. And they were constantly being watched from a guard tower.

My Bachan says she never spoke of her internment even to her son, my dad, or any members of the family until that day.

“In reality I made myself forget the three and a half years I spent there at Tule Lake,” she said.

Leaving a Legacy

Over the years since that night, Bachan has told me stories from that time she made herself forgot about her life during World War II. She told me about her high school graduation. She hadn’t gone to Tule Lake yet, but her neighborhood in Sacramento imposed a curfew on all Japanese-Americans. She had to run home in her stockings to make it back on time. She told me how she met her husband, my grandfather, at Tule Lake and how he always wore a hat. She told me that she made a lot of friends from all over the Western U.S. at the internment camp, but that after they left, they mostly lost touch.

Amanda Tsuetaki with her grandmother, Hideko Tsuetaki.
Credit Amanda Tsuetaki

Learning about my grandma’s time at Tule Lake was a turning point for our relationship. My Bachan is normally bright and cheery. She’s friends with all the neighbors and they all wave to her when she walks by.  I didn’t know that she was carrying those memories all that time. At first it felt unreal and so far away from the life we’re living in Chapel Hill. It made me want to learn about my lineage, to help carry our family’s history and understand why these things happened.

When I was younger, I felt American -- only American. I didn’t have a need to learn more about my Japanese culture. My brother and I took Japanese lessons. But we didn’t really understand why our Bachan was trying to teach us the Japanese alphabet. We were just regular Chapel Hill kids. But after knowing what happened to my grandma, when people tried to suppress our culture, I care more. I realized the importance of my Japanese side. And that makes Bachan happy - she wants me to know about my background and our family’s culture.

Bachan tells me: “My joy is watching my two grandchildren, a grandson and a granddaughter, grow into such good citizens.”

My grandmother taught me how to be a good citizen, a good American. She says that means getting involved with my community, which is why I’m part of student government. I intern at the Town of Chapel Hill and the Food for The Summer program that feed food insecure kids. I hope to preserve and pass down both my Japanese and my American side and make my Bachan proud.