Lately, I’ve been getting sunspots on my face, and I can hear your voice saying, “Ally, stay out of the sun.” It makes me laugh to think about, because nothing could keep you away from the land; your heart called you to the earth every morning, 4am coffee in hand. There, you were tending to your garden with a bucket hat and a mischievous grin. To you, it was home.
To me, your backyard was a magical place that made a shy young Japanese-American kid feel invincible. I’d run to the ceramic deer you brought with you from home to home, its faded face my captive audience and, often, my only friend.
Nothing was as vivid as the tangled strawberry vines in your backyard, though. To my young eyes, they covered a mountain – their wild, spontaneous growth mirroring your fiery spirit. Your unyielding motto, “We gotta keep it moving!” still resonates. We would sit under the blaring Seattle sun, your face and hands marked with sunspots, and you’d teach me how to quickly pick the best strawberries. This was a skill passed down to you as a sharecropper’s daughter, a symbol of our heritage and an act of survival in a country that barred Asian immigrants from owning land in the early 1900s. Picking strawberries was the back-breaking work that no one else wanted to do, but you did – for days and hours at a time. You understood at a young age what it meant to be treated as an outsider in this country. As we hunched over those vines, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride in our heritage, and a deep understanding of my racial identity.
My journey to self-acceptance has been a marathon, a lifelong struggle with identity and origins. Despite moments of despair, I am fueled by you, Grandma. Your tales of community and hope found amid confinement fuel me to keep pushing”
It’s been 81 years since Executive Order 9066 – the order that incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast. It is a shameful stain on American history. You, just 16, were stripped of your possessions and lost everything, including the family farm your parents were finally able to purchase under your brother’s name, which was given away to neighbors. You were numbered and tagged like cattle. I wonder if you think we’ve forgotten about it.
To be honest, my heart keeps pulling me to Heart Mountain, and this summer I will be making the trip to the very site where you were incarcerated for four years. The annual pilgrimage to Cody, Wyoming, is a two-day journey back to our roots. I feel excited and nauseous at the same time. I think of my own journey of moving to Los Angeles at 14. I’ve been marred by rejection, placed inside boxes that continually got smaller and smaller. I’ve been broken time after time; told I was too Asian, not Asian enough, or that I would never make it. “Can you be a bit more exotic?” My journey to self-acceptance has been a marathon, a lifelong struggle with identity and origins. Despite moments of despair, I am fueled by you, Grandma. Your tales of community and hope found amid confinement fuel me to keep pushing. “You are enough. Step into your power.”
A few years ago, I launched Asian American Girl Club. It’s an avenue to bring our stories to the forefront, to make visible the invisible, and to celebrate what it truly means to be Asian American. It stands at the intersection of my life’s work and what I’ve discovered to be my ultimate purpose. You’d never believe your shy granddaughter would be here pursuing the impossible. Each character I portray carries pieces of you, from the emotional Hana in The Big Door Prize, to the driven Miko in Shortcomings. These stories are part of the continuum of our story as Japanese Americans – a story of overcoming the odds, of survival and resilience.
Your spirit, Grandma, was never broken. Your heart, filled with grit and optimism, has been my guiding light every single day. Your curved spine, one that caused you to shrink gradually in your later years, was a product of a childhood spent hunched over the wild strawberry vines of your youth. Your love for the earth never left you. Your love for people endured. Your hearty laughter will forever ring in my ears: “Every time you see me I’m another inch shorter, but nothing can stop me!”
I am in awe of you and the legacy of women who came before us. They left sparks destined to blaze, forever shifting what’s possible for women of color. Grandma, you are my muse and my strength, and I am determined to continue to tell our stories that will live on through characters onscreen. I miss you forever.
I can’t wait to pick strawberries with you again one day.