Author JS Lee writes about her short time as an elder companion to a Japanese internment camp survivor and how their short relationship unexpectedly validated the author's Korean adoptee pain.

6 months ago

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How a Japanese internment camp survivor helped validate my Korean Adoptee pain

Mirabel laughed each time I told her that I was adopted to White folks. She brushed her hip-length hair to the side and wrapped both hands around her teacup. She wasn’t laughing at my life or my pain, but what she saw as absurd. Her eyes and mouth grew wide as I explained there were hundreds of thousands of us. I expected her to assume our good fortune, like most others do. Instead, she said, “When we were in the camps, at least our families were with us. We still had each other.”

Observing an inter-generational disconnect, I signed up as an elder companion last December. Earl’s listing omitted her picture, but spoke of his wife lovingly before sharing key health information. When I arrived the first day and saw Mirabel’s face peering out from behind him, my heart skipped a beat. I’d never had the regular presence of an older Asian woman in my life before. I’m not a proponent of fate, but it felt perfectly timed.

Their home had a breathtaking view of the San Francisco Bay. The walls were filled with Earl’s photographs, framed or printed on canvas. He gave me a tour as he spoke of his art, writing, and music. We had much in common, he said, gesturing to take a seat. In our correspondence, I’d suggested activities such as arts and crafts, playing music, and memoir writing. I assumed that’s why I was chosen—but quickly learned Mirabel wasn’t interested in any of those things.

As Earl carried on about a song he had written, Mirabel fidgeted in my peripheral view. She lifted her hand and blinked twice. “May I ask what this meeting’s about?”

“That’s right.” Earl tilted his head back and laughed. “We mustn’t forget that we’re here to talk about companionship!”

I got the sense that he could use a companion of his own.

I had the privilege of getting to know Mirabel for a couple of hours, three days a week, over the course of three months. Each day I arrived, Mirabel needed to be reminded of who I was and why I was there. I learned to refrain from small talk that was short-term memory dependent—such as books, movies, or how she had been. Instead, I commented on things in the room or the nature around us. She loved to show me her garden. We meandered through winding paths she designed long ago. We admired the flowers already coming into bloom. Spending time with Mirabel made me cognizant of the beauty of life in the moment.

Overlooking the East Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by JS LEE

Earl would sit and chat before heading out. A few times, he ditched his plans completely. I appreciated his political views and his energy for his passions. And it warmed my heart to witness his love and compassion for Mirabel.

He lobbied hard for me to break her routines. Earl wanted to expand her world, but Mirabel seemed to take comfort in well worn patterns. She wasn’t interested in games or making things with her hands. She often resisted getting in the car. I think some days she forgot who I was by the time we gathered our belongings and made our way to the street. Perhaps she was nervous about where this stranger would take her. On days that we did venture out, we climbed to beautiful vistas, had picnics while enjoying the animals and plants. People would smile at us and I’d wonder if they mistook her for my grandmother. Having always stuck out in my large, White adoptive family, I enjoyed the assumed familial belonging.

On rainy days, we flipped through albums of black and white photos. The antique scent wafted into the air with every page turn. Mirabel was proud of the life she had lived. I was intrigued by the girl she had been and loved seeing her family resemblance. Asian families always tug at my heart. It’s like a glimpse into a life I might have had in an alternate world.

As a result of World War II, she and her Japanese family were prisoners in this country for nearly four years. As a result of the Korean War, I’d felt like a prisoner in my own body and adoptive home. Her homeland’s government caused immeasurable harm to my homeland and people, throughout history. Yet, there we were—two Asian Americans, two generations apart—finding comfort in each other’s presence.

When the conversation came back around to the camps, as it often did, I’d carefully respond as if it were the first time. I’d listen to her tales of what it was like in the Santa Anita horse stables before they were moved to Colorado. I’d find photos online for her to add commentary. Some days, she was sympathetic to the government’s fears. Other days, she explored the injustice.

Evacuees of Japanese ancestry line up for lunch at the Santa Anita Assembly center. NARA

“You see, we were so recognizable. It was easy to single us out as the enemy. You and your family understand.”

I’d tell her again that I was adopted to White folks. She recoiled and asked, “Then who did you talk to about this kind of stuff?”

“I couldn’t until I was much older,” I’d say, resisting memories of racist encounters from my youth that never got validation.

Because her reactions were consistent, I knew they were authentic. She saw family separation as cataclysmic. Being raised disconnected from one’s race and blood was, to her, unfathomable. I’d always thought internment camps were far worse than what I’d survived, but Maribel’s perspective countered a lifetime of demands to see the bright side in all I had lost.

I wasn’t ready for our time to end and neither was Earl. His approach was to hand me new maps and lists of activities to try, when the regular companion was returning in less than a week. She was a medically trained caretaker with a room in their house. Earl hinted at an arrangement where I could continue, but we both knew it would be disruptive.

On our last day, he had a friend over to help him with some heavy lifting. When they were done, Earl offered to take us to lunch. A Korean restaurant was suggested, perhaps for my sake. I hopped in my car—mouth watering from the thought of pajeon and japchae—and met the three of them there. But the Earl that arrived wasn’t the Earl that I thought I knew. He poked fun at the names of Korean menu items. He harassed the server with offensive questions—such as how he was supposed to eat the food. I was embarrassed to be sitting there with two White men, as he persisted at making a scene. The Korean server glared at me, and I couldn’t blame her for what she might have been thinking. I was horrified. But when Earl made a joke at the expense of Mirabel, it broke my heart. It was hard not to wonder what other hurtful things were said in her presence, knowing she wouldn’t remember.

Needless to say, our goodbyes were awkward and without the warm sentiments I’d imagined.

Driving home, I tried to make sense of what happened. Was he experiencing caretaker burnout from being responsible for the woman he loved every minute of the day for the past three months—minus my six hours per week? Had he begun to form an attachment to having someone around who saw him and admired his artistic ways? Did his inability to process the impending loss cause him to set it on fire? Or, was I seeing the real Earl—the man he was with his friends? Was everything from before an act that he couldn’t maintain? Was he just another White man who was attracted to Asian women for how we served him, with no respect for our feelings or cultures?

I’ve been thinking of them, given their age and COVID-19. I’ve imagined sitting with Mirabel, discussing anti-Asian violence, over a hot cup of tea. Had we found a way to keep me on as a part-time companion—had that lunch never happened—the sheltering restrictions would’ve cut our time soon after. I considered checking in, but stopped short. I know people can’t always be perfect. Sometimes we all slip. I don’t want to boil Earl down to that one occasion of him at his worst, but his behavior warrants an apology I’m not sure he feels and I haven’t received. People of color often diminish the pain we are caused and enable its continuance by glossing over it. When I recall that day, I still ache. So I’ll wish them well from afar. Leave things as he left them.

It’s sad to acknowledge I’m likely forgotten, that Mirabel doesn’t know what our time meant to me. But to focus on what’s remembered is to discount her existence. This stage of her life is fragmented, bearing witness to pieces of the past and present. It’s a collection of fleeting moments—each one, worthy and valid—impacting and enriching those who share them with her.

We don’t know that what slips through the mind is no longer felt in the heart.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.


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JS Lee

Published 6 months ago

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