Leading up to the weekend of the Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive trip to the Manzanar National Historic Site, I was actually very reluctant about going. I thought about dropping from participating several times. This was two weeks before final exams and it was one of the last weekends I could use to study for my exams. I was faced with two decisions: Prioritize academics or follow through with my commitment to the Manzanar Committee. Luckily, I chose the latter.
Coming into this project with no expectations, no prior experience of what was going to happen, I was very curious as to what exactly was planned for myself and four other students. We didn’t even know the name of the project. All we were told was that we would be gone mid-Friday to late Sunday. I thought that we were just touring the Manzanar site and doing logistical planning for the upcoming Pilgrimage—while I was partially right, I missed a huge part of the reason we were there.
Words cannot describe how grateful I am to have been able to participate in the Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive pilot project. As someone who is not of Japanese ancestry, I never had a familial connection to the incarceration camps and could never fully understand the emotional trauma that Japanese American community faced. Being the Cultural Chair, I’ve done some research and worked with the UCSD Nikkei Student Union to conduct our Day of Remembrance event, but I never truly understood, in detail, what happened in the 1940s. During this two-day learning experience—an intense and emotionally filled weekend—I had the opportunity to learn about Manzanar, not just from a historical perspective, but also from a personal one.
Each day of the project was jam-packed with details and information about Manzanar. We walked through the barracks, gardens, mess halls, play areas, the cemetery—all with a personal story from a former incarceree. I learned and experienced so much that the average individual who visits the site would never have the chance to be a part of.
It is one thing to see photos and read articles online or through a textbook, and it is another thing to experience something first-hand. By participating in this project, I got to see Manzanar with my own eyes and hear the stories of those who were incarcerated with my own ears. From the harsh weather, to almost inedible food, to the extreme lack of privacy, I was moved to tears several times and ached for the community who lost their homes and whose families were broken apart. It became so much more impactful, emotional, and meaningful to have this hands-on participation during this weekend.
I am forever grateful to the Manzanar Committee and to the National Park Service staff at Manzanar National Historic Site for putting together and funding this crucial project. Thank you for allowing myself and the others the opportunity and honor to be the first group of students to have been able to experience this two-day intensive learning weekend. I don’t think I will experience anything else like this and it will forever impact my future involvement within the Japanese American community. Thank you with all my heart.
Erica Wei is in her second year of her undergraduate studies at the University of California, San Diego. A Northern California native (from San Francisco; makes her home in Sacramento), she serves as the Cultural Chair of the UCSD Nikkei Student Union.
We urge you to read more about our pilot project, Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive. You can do so here.
LEAD PHOTO: UCSD Nikkei Student Union member Erica Wei (center) is shown here at the location of residential Block 9. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee/
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