It is a Thursday morning, just before Memorial Day weekend, and I am sitting in an elementary school auditorium. My son is onstage with his third-grade class, standing on the middle riser, singing. At least, he is moving his mouth—I can’t tell from this distance whether he is actually making any sound. Together the kids are as loud and enthusiastic (and slightly off-key), as eight-year-olds have been for as long as there have been school performances. “I’m proud to be an American,” they sing, “where at least I know I’m free.”
I want it to be sweet, and it is. But there is irony, too, in watching this group of children—almost all of whom are Asian, Latinx, or Black—proclaim in song their love of a country that often fails to love them in return.
It is morning, early on a school day. I am eleven years old. Riding the bus to middle school is still something of a novelty, but today I am frowning. Across the aisle, a blond, blue-eyed boy has just told me to go back where I came from. I am indignant, but not surprised—this is not the first time someone has said this to me, nor will it be the last.
I was born less than twenty miles from this stretch of road that the bus carries us along, and have lived in this county for my entire life. “Go back where?” I say, glaring at the boy. “Back to Salinas?”
“Go back to China,” he says.
I am not Chinese, but he is not interested in the distinction. None of them ever will be.
It is a Wednesday morning. I am walking my son and daughter across the playground. We are running late; I stayed up late the night before watching the election returns come in, and now I am dragging.
We reach the line for my son’s class just as his teacher rounds the corner to come collect them, and the kids immediately mob her. One girl bursts into tears. “Donald Trump is going to build a wall and I’m never going to see my grandma again!” she says.
Another boy shuffles his feet, his chin down and his voice sullen. “I’m going to have to go back to Mexico now.”
The teacher tries to offer some comfort, tries to allay the kids’ fears, but they’re not buying it. And why should they? She looks up at me and we exchange a brief glance. I know. She knows. We don’t say anything.
It is evening. I am at my father’s parents’ house, where my grandparents have recently hung a display case full of my grandfather’s medals on their hallway wall. I am, perhaps, seven years old, and I have been hearing stories as long as I can remember about my grandfather’s service during the war. He never talks about it, but my grandmother will always proudly point out that his unit, the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was the most decorated group of soldiers in American history.
It will not occur to me for almost two more decades to use the word “segregated” when talking about my grandfather’s regiment. When I am in high school, I will interview him for a history assignment and he will claim that they gave Bronze Stars to everyone, and he will downplay the wound that earned him his Purple Heart. When I later read accounts of the battle he fought in at Bruyères, the brutality and loss of life will bring me to tears. But at seven years old, I do not yet know more than that my grandfather was a hero, and that he fought for America.
Throughout my life, I will hear story after story of American injustice, told to me by people who deeply love America. The same grandfather who earned the medals so proudly displayed in his home will tell me that after Pearl Harbor, he and his fellow Nisei draftees were imprisoned in a barn in Gilroy, then shuffled to low-level desk jobs in the interior of the country before they were finally given the chance to prove their loyalty in combat. My grandmother will lament her family’s prosperity before the war, reduced to nothing when their property was seized while they were forced to live in internment camps under armed guard. My mother will tell me of her own father’s desperately poor childhood in Dust Bowl-era Arkansas before he made his own way to San Francisco to find work, where he would be greeted by Californians suspicious of Okies. It will not occur to me until I am an adult to consider the ways America has failed so many of the people closest to me.
Neither of my grandfathers will live to see the rise of Donald Trump. My mother’s father will die in 1998; my father’s father ten years later.
Neither of them will see me become outspoken. They will know me only as the good, quiet, hard-working Japanese boy who has grown into a good, quiet, hard-working Japanese man.
One evening, as I paint a sign for a rally the next day, I will wonder what they would have made of my newfound activism. I will be unsure whether what I am feeling is regret or relief that they cannot see me now.
It is afternoon. My grandmother and I are walking from her fabric shop to the barber a few doors down, taking me to get a haircut. I am six years old, perhaps seven, and have just excitedly pointed out a new bookstore that I spotted across the parking lot. My grandmother makes a face and tells me that it’s probably a white supremacist store.
This is the first time I’ve ever heard that term. “What does that mean?”
“Oh, you know,” she says. “Only white people in this shop, everything for the whites.” She grimaces, and we keep walking.
Later, when we are back at her house, my grandmother will proudly tell me that Japanese Americans are called “the quiet Americans.”
“Why do they call us that?” I ask.
“Because we don’t complain,” she says. “We don’t protest, we just work hard and don’t make trouble. That’s why we’ve been able to do so well.”
I have come to realize the lie that stands beneath the story that we—my family and I—tell ourselves about our successes. The story that affirms our own goodness and strength by assuring us we did it on our own, overcoming impossible odds and obstacles to arrive at affluence. The story that tells us to mind our own business and not make waves. The story that racism is something done to us, never by us, and that injustice is a thing of the past. It is a seductive story, but it is a false one.
And yet what is America if not a story we tell each other? A story in which all people are created equal, in which we all enjoy the benefits of freedom and opportunity, in which laws are fair, justice is blind, and every voice contributes to the song. If we truly love America, we can and should fight for this story, but we cannot do that until we see it for the fantasy it is.
I do not know what my grandparents would say if I asked them what they think of how loud I have become. I’m not sure whether they would see patriotism or disloyalty in my criticism of not just our President, but of the country they loved. The country I still love. It may well be that they would be disappointed. But in the end, it is my children who will suffer the consequences of my action or my inaction. It is to them that I am responsible, and to the America that could be that I owe my allegiance.
It’s a Thursday morning in late May, and I’m watching my son’s third-grade class perform. Despite the bunting-bedecked stage they stand on and the careful recitations they deliver, I doubt any of them fully understand the holiday they’re celebrating, or the moment they’re living through now. But perhaps this assumption does them a disservice: Some of them, I know, have already seen the angry America, the fearful America, more closely than I ever will. As the music swells and their voices rise, I see clearly that their belief in America is genuine.
If there’s any expression of patriotism I can still cling to, it’s this: These children deserve a chance to see a country that lives up to the lyrics they’re singing.
In the weeks and months to come there will be new tragedies, new worries and fears. Each new incident will bring new rage or despair, but will also present an opportunity to learn and to teach, one that I will try to take as best I can. I will talk to my kids about the wage gap, about income inequality, about gender stereotypes. We will talk about affirmative consent, about police violence, about white supremacy. Time and again, I will be gratified by how well they comprehend each issue.
When the last song ends, the parents in the audience clap and cheer as the children file out of the room toward the lunch court. I go and find my son among the crowd. “You did a good job, buddy,” I say. “I’m proud of you.”