By Terry Watada
My concern these days lies with the Nisei. They are by and large in their 80s and 90s. Some have reached the century mark. Hardy stock, to be sure. I once asked my father-in-law (who will be 92 this month) what’s his secret to a long life. He said wryly, “Don’t die.” But I’m not here to speculate on longevity. I mean who knows why a certain strain of shark can live up to 400 years, while some insects die in a day.
In any case, my concern with the Nisei is with their mental state. Now, some are still “intact” as my grandmother-in-law once claimed. Where she learned that word is still a mystery – one grandchild suggested she “watches too much television.” But there are others who have lost total self-control, all inhibitions are off. Thus in seniors’ homes, racist attitudes come out of the mouths of the residents. I have to admire the caregivers who take what they hear and go about their business, laughing off the racial slurs. I know this is a characteristic of aging and the caregivers know this too, but sometimes it must be hard to take.
Another example took place at the JCCC. I ran into an old friend who was accompanying his mother (a Nisei in their late 80s). Before I could utter a greeting, she burst out loud, “You’re fat!” Okay, I agree, I am a tad overweight, but really, there was no need to broadcast the obvious. My buddy immediately apologized and chastised his mother. To which she said, “Why? I’ve known Terry since he was a little boy. I can say anything to him!”
Interesting, I have known her a long time, not since I was a child, but certainly since I was a late teenager. But really, we aren’t on such intimate terms. I waved it off and reassured my friend, “It’s okay, she’s old.” A tad harsh, I know, but this wasn’t the first time I was publically insulted. Once in Japan, young professors drank too much at a thank you party for me and declared I was fat as well. Again, it took alcohol to release the inhibitions from their moorings. What will they be like in their dotage? Maybe I should go on a diet. Now don’t write to the Bulletin agreeing with me. I just might have to declare you incompetent in some way.
Then there are the Nisei who still think of Sansei as teenagers or children. This is more than my friend’s elderly mother. They like to order Sansei around and tell them what to do without asking. One incident involved a Nisei who got it into his head that I should write a piece for one of his organizations, which I would’ve been happy to do if he had asked, citing length, due date and provided a description of the organization he represented. Instead, he simply “voluntold” me to get it done. He even reported to his Board of Directors that I would be happy to do it. After much agitation and my imploring him for a formal invitation and letter (or e-mail) from the organization, I had had enough and said a crushing no. I admit I caused quite a public scene.
Another incident involved a prominent Nisei who called and left a message to call or e-mail her because she “had something important to tell me.” So I e-mailed. Instead of a response, a young person wrote telling me how happy they all were for my interest in the project. What project? I was not told, I was “voluntold” to participate. Obviously the Nisei assumed I would never turn down an opportunity so “important” to her.
I did find out later what it was all about, having heard from another old Sansei friend whom I respect very much. She explained everything. I was so insulted I turned it down. There were legitimate medical reasons as well but the Nisei had no idea at the time of the “voluntelling”. She just made assumptions.
Now contrast that to the Hiroshima/Nagasaki Commemoration at City Hall last August. Setsuko Thurlow, an eminent Shin- Issei, called to ask me to read the proclamation letters from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki mayors. I was only too happy to do so (easy enough task). This conversation was followed up with a formal letter of invitation and a few e-mails from members of the organizing committee. They even kept in touch to let me know what was being done. What a contrast!
It all comes down to respect. I don’t like being taken for granted. No one does. I have suffered a string of disrespectful incidents this year and have decided enough is enough. So if someone approaches me for a favour, do it with respect or I just might embarrass you in public. Like most of my generation, I don’t like being rude to senior seniors, I like to avoid confrontation, but I will since that seems to be the only way to get through to them. I felt an extreme amount of guilt when I as Executive Director (de facto publisher) had to fire one from the Nikkei Voice years ago, but the others in the office were complaining of his dictatorial, egotistical and irritating manner. He initially laughed at me since I was his junior by many years, but I stuck to my guns. Everyone wanted him gone. He finally agreed; to save face, he said simply the paper would only last another year (at the most) with his absence. That was in the late 1990s. Still, I felt bad as a result. Was I too heavy-handed, too abrupt with someone I was supposed to respect no matter my position? Was I becoming a loose-cannon?
As a result, I have recently turned my thoughts to aging Sansei. Do we do the same to Yonsei, Gosei and Happa as Nisei do to us? Through the ages, I have heard the complaints from Sansei that Nisei didn’t allow them to take over positions of any importance during community events or in community organizations. That Nisei bristled against any “new fangled” ideas. That Nisei always discouraged Sansei by saying abruptly, “We tried that years ago. It didn’t work.” That Nisei were so dismissive and discouraging. Are the Sansei who are now in positions of power doing the same to the next generations? Maybe so, but the most I say to those younger is “Shut up and give me the damn discount!”