A Place to Belong
This was the secret thing Hanako felt about old people: she really didn’t understand them. It seemed like they just sat there and didn’t do much. Sometimes they were rude to you, and yet you had to be extremely, extremely polite to them. And then when they were nice to you, they asked you lots and lots of questions. Lots!
Her mother’s parents were both dead—Grandpa from being run over by a tractor while he was drunk, and Grandma from drowning in a giant wave off the coast of Hawaii. They had already passed away when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. But when Hanako had worked in her family’s restaurant, she’d encountered
many old people with their families for dinner. Mostly, as said, they just sat there.
And now her family was on this gigantic ship, going across the ocean to live with her father’s elderly parents in Japan.
This was the thing about Japan: she had never been there. Her parents had told her for her entire life that it was important to be American. It was important to talk just a little more loudly than some of the girls who were being raised to be more Japanese. It was important to make eye contact and not cover your mouth when you laughed, like some of the more Japanese girls did. Basically, the way to be Japanese in America was to be more American than the Americans. And now she was being told she would need to learn to be more Japanese.
Her family had been imprisoned for almost four years—since she was eight—and now that she was kind of free, she did not know what was out there in the world for her, in the future. She had no idea. All she could hope was that from now on, and maybe forever, she would never be in jail and nobody would ever point a gun at her again.
“Hanako, do you have any candy left?” Hanako turned to look at her brother, who was standing in his underwear, his pajamas in his hands. He had pale eyebrows
and a ton of black hair, with a big wine stain covering the skin around his right eye and beyond, like a pirate’s patch. She kissed his stain the way she liked to do, because it was so beautiful. It was shaped like Australia, except sideways.
Reaching into her pocket, she pretended to be searching, though her fingers were already clutching a candy. “Hmm, I don’t . . . oh, wait, I do!” She pulled the candy out and held it up triumphantly. Akira grinned and took it from her. She liked to make him happy—some days it was all she lived for, really. The candy was a butterscotch, his favorite. They had bought a bag of it a few weeks ago at one of the co-op stores in Tule Lake, where they’d last been imprisoned. Located in Northern California, Tule Lake was a high-security segregation center with almost nineteen thousand inmates. Each of the three camps where they’d been imprisoned had been different, all awful, but not in exactly the same ways. Plus, there was a different prison where her father had been held for almost a year. That was the most serious prison of all. In the freezing cold of Bismarck, North Dakota, he’d been housed with German prisoners of war. Hanako had never been freezing, but in Tule Lake she had been very cold for several days at a time, and
she did not like it at all. Papa said that when you were freezing, your feet started to hurt a lot.
“Mmm, butterscotch!” Akira said now, holding it up like he was looking at a marble.
Akira had a teensy, squeaky voice—sometimes Hanako thought he sounded like he would fit in your hand. She had to admit he was a strange little creature, with his squeaky voice and with Australia on his eye and with the way he was several inches shorter than other five-year-old boys. When Akira was only a baby, Mama had said, “He was born sad.” She had rarely spoken of it again, but Hanako had not forgotten it. She was always looking for signs of sadness in his face, and she often found such signs. Sometimes, even when nothing bad had happened, he looked like he wanted to cry from something—maybe loneliness?
After Akira put the candy in his mouth, she put his pajamas on him because he looked so helpless.
“What if we sink?” he asked suddenly.
Hanako tried to think of something comforting to say. It was hard, because she didn’t know how something as big as this ship could stop itself from sinking. “It’s impossible for us to sink,” was what she came up with. “It’s a US Navy vessel. It’s probably one of the
best ships in the world.” The ship they were on was called the USS Gordon, and it was about two football fields long. She didn’t understand how airplanes flew, and she didn’t understand how ships floated. She’d been quite scared about that. But at this point, who even cared? They were on the ship, and they weren’t getting off.
Akira grabbed her hand and started digging into it with his nails. Hanako always cut his nails into sharp spikes, because he liked them like that. He called them his “sharpies.” He said he needed to protect himself from . . . he could never say what. Hanako tried to wriggle her hand free. In response, he dug in harder.
She concentrated on keeping her voice calm like she (almost) always did with him. “Akira, can you hold on to my sleeve instead, please?”
“All right,” he said, grabbing her purple coat and pulling at it. She didn’t like him to pull on her purple coat—it was her favorite thing, and it was from a store instead of sewn by her mother. But she didn’t scold him, though that took a heap of self-control. She didn’t want him to say what he’d said to her twice in the past: “You like your coat more than you like me!”
She looked around but didn’t see where their
mother had gone off to. Mama always liked to know what was going on. At the Tule Lake camp she used to go out every morning after breakfast and talk and talk to people. That’s what Hanako had heard, anyway; she was at school. Mama was obsessed with what was going on. It was like she was desperate to know more. Always more. Mama used to be a calm person—serene, even. She never used to care that much about what was happening in the outside world. But in camp her eyes became filled with a hunger to know things.
Hanako wondered if anybody here actually knew anything about what was going on. But how would they? It was very crowded here in the sleeping quarters, and you couldn’t see much because the aisles—the space between each set of bunks—was maybe two feet.
She scrambled up to the top bunk, looking around and seeing more bunks. But not that many. Sixty? In stacks of four, so 240 people sleeping here. Supposedly, there were thousands of Nikkei being sent to Japan on this very ship. Nikkei were people of Japanese descent, whether they were citizens of America, Japan, or any other country. Only women and children were in this room—all the men and older boys were on another part of the ship. It was strange how quiet the whole crowd
was. Probably scared and depressed. Then Akira whimpered, “Hanako, I’m afraid. Why do we have to go on this ship?”
Trying to get down quickly, she tumbled to the floor and then immediately dusted off her coat. “Because we don’t belong in America anymore,” she said as she dusted.
Akira closed his right eye and tilted his head. That’s what he did when he was trying to decide something. “I think I do. I do belong in America.”
Hanako thought this over. That was a hard one, because she wasn’t sure about it. “Belonging” was a difficult concept at the moment. Really, for the people on this ship, they “belonged” with their families, if they had them. Where else was there to belong at this point? They had no country.
It was a complicated and confusing story, why they had to be on this ship. There was no way to think about it and have it make sense. First, Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in early December 1941, a little more than four years ago. Second, that caused America to enter World War II. And third, more than 110,000 Nikkei—mostly American citizens—living on the West Coast had been imprisoned in ten different places, for no good reason. And then about six thousand more had
been born in the camps! What had Hanako’s family done wrong that they had to be held captive for almost four entire years? They ran a restaurant in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles!
They were sent to a temporary camp nearby, then a permanent one in Jerome, Arkansas. Jerome was a bad camp, because the director was really tough and made some inmates cut down trees for the whole camp for heat in the winter. Logging was one of the most deadly professions in America, Papa said. At Jerome it was grueling work with old equipment. The men—like Papa—who were forced to work as loggers there had no prior experience, so Hanako was always worried that her father would get killed. The other camps were provided with coal, but Jerome’s director, Mr. Taylor, wouldn’t stand for that. He was only thirty-four, and Papa said he did not have the least idea of what the difference was between right and wrong. But, still, he insisted Hanako and Akira call him “Mr.” She’d called him “Taylor” once, and Papa had reprimanded her for being rude. “But he didn’t hear me, he’s not even here,” she had replied. Her father hadn’t answered, just frowned at her.
One time she had complained to Akira, “I don’t know why we have to call him ‘Mr.’?” And Akira had
said patiently to her, “Because he’s the boss man, Hana.” And he was only three years old when he said that! Actually, Hanako had realized she agreed with him, because that’s the way she was raised: She could not stand the idea of not showing a grown-up respect. Even if it made her angry and sometimes made her cry, she could not stand it. Even if it ripped her whole heart out, she could not have stood it. So she always called him Mr. Taylor after that. Even though she hated him.
But now Akira was staring at her. “Why do you look mad?”
“I don’t! You need to get in bed,” she said in her most official voice, the one her brother usually listened to.
They had decided he would sleep right above her. The “beds” were hung by chains. Each one was only a sheet of canvas, maybe two feet above the one below. On every bed lay a muddy-green blanket, with no linen and no pillow. This is where the American soldiers had once slept when they were helping to save the world during the war, Hanako thought. And then she remembered the American soldiers who’d occasionally pointed guns at her in camp. Papa said the good and the bad thing about people like soldiers—and for that matter, all people—was that they usually did what they were told.
That sometimes made them act bravely, and it could also make them act right sometimes, but wrong sometimes, too. So you needed to have the right people telling them what to do. Papa said that was the hard part. Maybe, he said, it was the impossible part. Hanako thought about how she sometimes did the wrong thing when she didn’t think her parents would find out. Like when she and some other kids found several empty glass bottles once and threw them against the barracks in camp. For no reason. Then they ran away. She wasn’t sure if it was easier or harder to always do the right thing when you were a grown-up. She actually had no idea.
Akira’s eyes were closed already. He could fall asleep anywhere, anytime, in about ten seconds. Sometimes you had to scream to wake him up.
She took off her precious coat and thought about hanging it on the hook where her duffel bag was. But what if the hook tore the fabric? She laid it on the bed instead. But what if she wrinkled it when she slept? Suddenly she felt like crying. She did not want her coat to get wrinkled! She did not want to spend two weeks inside this ship! She did not want to go to Japan! There was so much that she didn’t want, but at the same time she didn’t even know what she did want.
“Are you all right?” a woman asked.
She realized her eyes were tightly closed, tears squeezing out. She opened them quickly. In front of her was a tired-looking lady holding a baby. “Because we’re all here to take care of you,” the woman continued. “Nothing will hurt you now.”
“Thank you,” Hanako said, embarrassed. “I’m fine. I’m sorry . . . I shouldn’t cry.” Crying wasn’t very brave.
But the woman was now gazing down at her baby, who was suddenly whimpering. Beyond her, Hanako spotted her mother looking wild-eyed as she walked toward someone new. Mama laid her hand on the new woman’s arm, leaned toward her, and began talking. Mama had a habit of getting too close to people when she wanted to know what was going on. Hanako began to undress, having decided to lay her coat over her blanket while she slept.
Women and children all around were also changing into their bedclothes. Nobody was shy, because in the camps there had been showers and latrines with no partitions between them. So none of them had had privacy for years. When you’d been forced to be naked in front of strangers every day for years, you didn’t have much shame left.
She got into her bottom bunk and thought about a magazine photograph she had seen in camp, of American soldiers sleeping in a room much like this one. They were wearing their uniforms, though they were in bed. She thought about how some of those men might be dead now. Maybe a soldier who had slept in this very bunk had been killed in the war. For a moment she felt as if she could sense him. Maybe he had been scared, or maybe he had been brave. Probably both.
Her bunk was about two inches from the ground, but there was no sag, so she couldn’t feel the floor. There was so little sag, she could hardly tell Akira lay above her.
She touched a seam in her pajamas. The US government had allowed each family to bring only sixty dollars on board this ship. Mama was holding that money. This was because even though the war was over, the government wanted to control every last thing they did, until the last possible moment. But Hanako was carrying another twenty dollars that her mother had hidden in a seam in her pajamas. Akira’s pajamas held twenty as well, so altogether they had a hundred dollars. Maybe Papa had managed to hide some money too.
She felt her thick braid on her back. Briefly, she considered undoing her hair, but she didn’t want to lose her rubber band. It was her last one. She was quite concerned about it. She’d tried ribbons and string, but they always slipped out of her hair. Her rubber band was dear to her. When you hardly had anything, even a lowly rubber band could fill you with feelings.
But she needed to think of something happy. So she thought, Japan will be fine. It will be beautiful. Everyone will love me. She closed her eyes and pictured the three most beautiful places in Japan. She’d never been there, but in class at Tule Lake the children had painted watercolors of the three beautiful places: Matsushima, Miyajima, and Amanohashidate.
Matsushima was a group of more than 250 small islands in blue, blue water. Miyajima was the island of the gods. Amanohashidate was a sandbar covered in pine trees. So all three of the most beautiful places in Japan had to do with water. Miyajima was near Hiroshima, where they were headed. She hoped it would be beautiful too.