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1-Introduction & "Swimming In the American"

My name is Meryl. And my name is Alex, and we are interviewing Hiroshi Kashiwagi on May 3rd, 2005, in San Francisco.

Do you have any siblings?

I have a brother and sister and one deceased sister.

What did your parents do?
My parents were farmers—laborers on the farm, my father was. He was also a fisherman, and then later he became a merchant, small grocer and fish marketer. He became ill so he had to stop that.

Do you remember a memory from when you were young?

I spoke Japanese until I started school. I started school when I was five, going to kindergarden. And then, from six I started grade school. I was still beginning to learn English, and I didn't feel comfortable with it until I was in second grade when I was about seven. It wasn't until I was in the third or fourth grade that I became comfortable —really comfortable—in school so that tests did not frighten me. I was able to do pretty well, although reading was always a problem. I had to concentrate on that. But, then it became easier and easier, so I was able to handle it.

Was school difficult in other ways beside you just didn't know English? What was your social life like?

I made friends quite easily. When I was in the second grade my father quit the farm and bought a store, so that I was a "townie". I was able to walk to school, which was only about five or ten minutes. And I used to walk to school with white kids in town, because there were no Japanese families living in town. So I had these buddies with whom I walked and walked home from school. And I have a poem that tells about that.

Yes, I had a friend who was of German background and he was very good. I had a kind of obese friend who was kind of an object of jokes—classroom jokes. The three of us would walk to school and walk home and this poem is about the games we played when we walked home.

When did you start to write poetry?

That I started quite late, when I was working for the library downtown. One of my duties was to select poetry books. So, I would read all these poetry books and while reading you think of ideas and you think, "Well, I could do this." So, I started to write poems. Then, it was 1970. Actually, I started to write when I was about thirteen or fourteen. I started in a Japanese language sc hool, where we were told to write little essays. So, I wrote in Japanese and that's when my creative writing started.

Now I am also an actor, so I began to act in the Japanese language school. Also, every year, we would do a program to show the progress we made during the year for our parents. My teacher once wrote a skit, in which I had a big role. Supposedly it was a comedy, and I was able to make the audience laugh and they thought I was quite good. That's when I got hooked on acting. I've been acting ever since off and on. Now I'm a member of the Screen Actor's Guild. And I was a member of the Actor's Equity, which is a live theatre actor's union.

I am also a member of the Dramatist Guild, because I've been writing plays. I started that when I was in college and published just this year. This is a book that I had published just this year and I'm going around promoting it. It's called "Swimming in the American—A Memoir and Selective Writings." It sort of covers my life and also the experience in the camp. This is the poem that I referred to, it's called "Pee in the Puddle."

Wes was fat, something
of a classroom joke
we laughed when he
was late which was
almost everyday and
we laughed when he
came on time John
was always so fair
he let me play
Chinese tag with
them on the way
home from school
but I'd like to remember
him as our fourth
grade Santa Claus
though actually he
was slender with
a high nose and
very German it was
he who thought we
should pee in the
puddle. He called
our things brownies
I know he got it
from mine theirs
were white blue
white I wonder
what became of
Wes. I know John
was killed during
World War II
flying for the RAF
crazy guy couldn't
wait for the US
to enter the war.
I suppose Wes is
still fat and lazy
probably a father many times
anyway we wasted
a lot of time
after school. Three
golden loops rising
out of the
brown puddle into
which in time we
all three were
shoved when at
last I came home
crying for my
bread and jam I
was smelling quite
a bit of pee
Remembering now
I can almost
smell it Wes's
John's and mine.

There was an article published in the Chronicle and it was talking about how Swimming in the American was a metaphor for something. Could you go into more detail about that?

Ah, yes, Swimming in the American is a metaphor for living in America —my life as an American. Also, it refers to swimming that I did as a child. We used to swim in the American River—a little swimming hole we had. When I was around ten, I learned to swim - not just dog paddle, but real strokes. It was called the 'Austrialian Stroke', I learned from this older fellow, who taught me. So one Sunday, I tried to cross the river. It was not very far from here to maybe the wall, or the other side of the room. I did a few strokes, but I hadn't learned how to breathe correctly. So suddenly I stopped my swimming. Since I wasn't breathing much, I ran out of breath. As I stopped, I became vertical. So I screamed for help and he threw me a tire tube—an inflated tire tube. But my eyes were full of water and I couldn't see that, so I'm screaming. He dove in after me, and pulled me out. And that was my first experience of drowning, and being saved.

Years later, after the war, we went back to the American River, and we were swimming—cooling off—and there were younger kids, teenage. I was about in my twenties, but there were younger kids, who couldn't swim. Yet they were in the water. They were using inflated pillowcases as floats—very dangerous, because it deflated. This girl started to go down and screamed for help. I was standing nearby and I was about the only one able to swim. So I reached for her and she grabbed me and we both went down down down. It was quite deep. As I was going down, I thought, "Oh, here we go." Completely relaxed. And that was the key to the whole thing, that I was relaxed. We went down together. As I was going down, I had visions of a Japanese folktale where this man—old man—goes into a watery kingdom and notices beautiful mermaids. I was thinking sort of like that, as we went down, it only took a few seconds. We hit bottom. Miraculously, we both rose to the surface.

After we came up, we had to struggle. I'm holding on to her and we finally made it to shore. It was kind of messy. I didn't feel heroic at all. The girl said, "Oh, thank you for saving my life!" And I couldn't believe I had done that actually. That's the story of the swimming, which is part of the book. The struggle in all that is also part of the book.

You mentioned two friends in that poem. Were you friends with them throughout your school years?

It's a strange thing. We would make friends as kids—young kids —and I suppose race did not enter into the picture then. But, as we grew older we would slowly drift apart. So, my friends were mainly of Japanese descent—Japanese-Americans—and we would lose our white friends. By the time we were graduated from grade school and we were in this eighth grade grammar school. After eighth grade, we would graduate and go to a four-year high school. When we went to High School, we would meet on the sidewalk. John, as I mentioned in the poem, would recognize me. I'm sure he remembered our childhood, but there was nothing close about it. We were not real friends by that time. So that's the tragedy of our growing up.

Did you find that your race played a larger role in High School than it did in grade school?

Yes. We happened to live and go to school in a very racist area. We didn't realize it at the time, we thought that was the way it was. The school, though not segregated, there were cliques and there were people who were from the town of Auburn—where we went to school it was ten miles from our town in Loomis—these students were of a separate, very exclusive group, and they were called "The Four-Hundred." They were children of the prominent families in Auburn. Then there were the Japanese-Americans and there were also white kids who were not from affluent families. That's the kind of school we went to.

It was quite racist. When the war started I had a favorite teacher and I took public speaking from her. That's where I developed my speaking skills and also being up on the stage. And I did very well in that class. I'm sure she would've remembered me. I wrote to her from camp that I was interested in forming a theatre group. And since she was a teacher—a drama teacher—and she had directed plays for the school, I thought she would send me at least a letter. But there was no letter. So that was one of the frustrating things about being in camp and trying to find friends outside.

Later, I learned that she was one of the leaders of the Anti-Japanese group in town, of which there was a large group of people. Auburn, Placer County was a very racist place. So that determined how I felt later in camp. Not having any friends outside, I would think "Well gee, they abandoned me and they put me in camp" and so fourth. That determined my course of action.

You said your town was very racist, but you said you didn't realize that till you were older? Do you remember experiencing any racist things while you were in school? Or was it just after?

While I was in school? We were placed in a certain place and we knew our place.

When you say "we" are are you saying "Japanese-Americans"?

Yes. The non-white students. I consider myself one, as well as there were Mexicans and others who were not considered privileged. At the time, we knew our place. I was going to talk about being bussed to the school, and we were bussed home. All the social activities took in the evening, so we were ten miles away and we had no way of going there, so we never thought of participating in any of the extra-curricular activities, except for sports. If one is an athlete, then you were accepted more and you tended to participate. But, these athletes the only way home was to hitch-hike. So, if you wanted to do that then you went out for sports.

What was your relationship with your brothers and sisters?

My brother and sister, while they were a bit younger—meaning they were younger. And as I write, I was the oldest in the family and of course I had to set an example. Whenever they had a problem, they came to me and they're stuck with a problem. I was never part of their game, because I was the oldest. I wasn't interested in their games.

For some funny reason they liked to play cars, constantly, and I could not understand this. They would crawl on the ground and make car noises. It was fascinating to them. They would play that game all the time. And these cars were not real cars, they were blocks of wood. They imagined that they were cars and trucks and so forth. They would make these car noises. Strange. Old cars in the thirties, they made a lot of noise.

Yeah, I didn't really play with them, I was by myself more. As I write in my book, I would get up on the top of the billboard—we had a billboard next to the store—and the billboard advertised cigarettes. You wouldn't find that today. "Smoke a camel" and so forth. So I'd sit up there and watch the world as my world—my limited world. So I spent my childhood quite a bit by myself and not with my brother or sister. They today even think that I was rather odd.

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