May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month began as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week in 1978 with a joint congressional resolution. Congress expanded the observance to one month in 1992, renaming it Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
In 2022, the Biden administration designated May as “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month,” reportedly to bring broader visibility to Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.
At the close of this year’s Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’ve invited Mari Hirabayashi, United Way of King County manager of marketing & events, to speak about her family heritage and her lasting childhood memories and experiences she’s passed on to her children.
As a native of this state and a fourth-generation Japanese American, my appreciation for family and the legacy created has deepened with age. I was raised by a single mother, and my grandparents, Yuki and Fudge, were hugely part of my life growing up. My grandmother is the woman who taught me so much about myself and our family’s history.
My grandparents met on a blind date in the internment camps during World War II. For years, they lived imprisoned in the Idaho desert, in small, wooden barracks with no running water or electricity. On Saturdays, the mess hall would be cleared out and they would have regular dances. My grandma, the matriarch of our family and my role model, would recollect those days, stating my grandpa was so handsome and chased by many girls. They fell in love in camp and would write letters after my grandpa enlisted in the U.S. Army. He decided to fight for the government that imprisoned him for being Japanese. He is the biggest hero in my mind.
After the war, they were married and settled down near White Center/Burien. Their tiny neighborhood was called Top Hat. They worked so hard to assimilate to an American culture and environment that had shunned them for being Japanese. They both got jobs, raised 2 children and did their best to achieve their American dream. Farming was a way of life for so many.
My grandpa had a massive, healthy garden full of every kind of fruit and vegetable I could imagine.
He had apple, apricot and cherry trees in his yard. It was a wonderland playground and buffet all in one! My brother and I once ate so many sugar snap peas it made me sick. The flavors of those vegetables became core memories for me. I still compare some foods to my Grandpa’s produce.
My other relatives were also working hard to create a legacy for their children. My great aunt and uncle owned a U-pick strawberry farm in Kent. For years, my brother, younger cousin and I would spend days in the sun, in a sea of strawberry rows, running, singing, playing hide and seek, and eating so many delicious, sugary strawberries. Again, my core memories of strawberries are so strong, it is my absolute favorite flavor of all time. A strawberry milkshake can lift any mood!
When our playing was done and the sun was too hot, we would rest in the back of my Grandpa’s truck with an appetizing display of snacks, homemade sushi, fresh mochi and as many Capri Sun drinks one could stomach. My mother and uncle would often comment about how their childhoods spent at the strawberry farm were very different. Some customers didn’t always want to pick their own strawberries, so my mom and her brother spent much of their childhood picking all day long.
Starting with my great-grandparents, my bachan and jichan, who first came to the U.S. from Japan, my family legacy has been about creating a future for the next generation. Each generation has taught hard work, perseverance, tenacity and respect. It was not encouraged to speak ill of negative experiences and my grandparents always talked about camp in a very objective way, which kept my own anger for their experience distant.
Living with the spirit of my grandparents, I have strength to lead my own family in a positive light.Mari Hirabayashi, United Way manager of marketing & events
Now, as an adult, I understand the severity of removing families from their businesses, homes and livelihoods, just because of their ethnic background. As a society, we must never let citizens of this country be imprisoned out of fear.
The legacy built by Yuki and Fudge remains today in our family. While our next generation of children’s experience will be different, I am focused on our family history and raising my two young men to be socially minded and self-aware. Living with the spirit of my grandparents, I have strength to lead my own family in a positive light. As the world continues to change with different social issues coming to light, my focus always comes back to my family’s legacy and how I can raise my own young men with tenacity and respect.