Study Guide

Farewell to Manzanar Foreignness and "The Other"

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

Foreignness and "The Other"

These precautions didn't do him much good. He was not only an alien; he held a commercial fishing license, and in the early days of the war the FBI was picking up all such men, for fear they were somehow making contact with enemy ships off the coast. (I.1.15)

This part is all about Papa burning up all the stuff that's Japanese. But there's no point, and not just because he's an "alien"—it's because he's clearly Japanese. We'll just point out that German Americans didn't have to go through all of this. Why? We'll leave that one up to you…

One of his threats to keep us younger kids in line was "I'm going to sell you to the Chinaman." When I had entered kindergarten two years earlier, I was the only Oriental in the class. They sat me next to a Caucasian girl who happened to have very slanted eyes. I looked at her and began to scream, certain Papa had sold me out at last. My fear of her ran so deep I could not speak of it, even to Mama, couldn't explain why I was screaming…And it was still with me, this fear of Oriental faces, when we moved to Terminal Island. (1.2.3)

A white girl with slanted eyes… Jeanne must feel like she's in an alternate universe where one kind of Otherness (Orientalness) is clashing with another kind of foreignness (whiteness). It's almost as if Jeanne's forced to confront her fantasy of whiteness as a foreign Other too, which ends up making her fantasy more like a nightmare.

We were the only Japanese family in the neighborhood. Papa liked it that way. He didn't want to be labeled or grouped by anyone. (1.1.2)

So… is Papa thinking their Japanese identity will just disappear so long as they're the only Japanese people in a white neighborhood?

On Terminal Island I first saw Orientals, those demon-children who had terrorized me. At Manzanar, past the fear of slanted eyes and high cheekbones, I watched with fresh amazement the variety of faces and bodies and costumes all around me. (1.5.14)

Jeanne's showing how total horror ("demon-children"—really?) and fascination with the foreign Other can co-exist at the same time, in the same person, and in someone who also happens to be "Oriental." A little disturbing?

One of our neighbors was a tall, broad woman, taller than anyone in camp, as far as I recall. She walked erectly and wore an Aunt Jemima scarf around her head. She was married to a Japanese man, and they had adopted a little Japanese girl I sometimes played with. But this woman, I realized much later, was half-black, with light mulatto skin, passing as a Japanese in order to remain with her husband. She wore scarfs everywhere to cover her give-away hair. (1.5.15)

Yet another case of interracial mixing that seems to fascinate Jeanne. Is it the interracial-ness of her neighbor that makes her seem so foreign to Jeanne? We'll just add: Jeanne, as narrator, is definitely treading on some tricky territory when she describes the woman as wearing "an Aunt Jemima scarf"…

Two more white faces stand out in my memory, a pair of nurses I saw from time to time in the clinic. They wore white shoes, white hose, and white dresses. Above their bleached faces their foreheads had been shaved halfway over their scalp's curve to make a sharp widow's peak where starched black hair began to arch upward, reminding me of a cobra's hood. Their lips were gone. Their brows were plucked. They were always together, a pair of reptilian kabuki creatures at loose in the camp hospital. (1.5.17)

"Reptilian kabuki creatures"? It's like these nurses are straight out of some Japanese horror movie. Is all that Otherness really that scary? And why?

He pressed his palms together at his chest and gave them a slow, deep, Japanese bow from the waist. They received this with a moment of careful, indecisive silence. He was unforgivably a foreigner then, foreign to them, foreign to me, foreign to everyone but Mama, who sat next to him smiling with pleased modesty. Twelve years old at the time, I wanted to scream. I wanted to slide out of sight under the table and dissolve. (2.20.32)

All this horror because Papa does a "deep, Japanese bow" to show his gratitude… Jeanne definitely seems to be overreacting, but she is—as she points out—"twelve years old at the time." Parental mortification is the norm at this age.

At that age I was too young to consciously use my sexuality or to understand how an Oriental female can fascinate Caucasian men, and of course far too young to see that even this is usually just another form of invisibility. (2.19.21)

Here's a puzzle for you: how is an Asian woman's sexuality "just another form of invisibility" if that sexuality is all about being exotic (like Jeanne showing off her body in a skimpy sarong)? What kind of invisibility as Jeanne talking about?

[The old geisha] was offering lessons in the traditional dancing called odori…. She was about seventy, a tiny, aristocratic-looking woman…. She would kneel in her kimono and speak very softly in Japanese, while her young assistant would gracefully swing closed knees or bend her swanlike neck to the geisha's instructions…. It was all a mystery. I had never learned the language. And this woman was so old, even her dialect was foreign to me. She seemed an occult figure, more spirit than human…. Something about her fascinated me though. (2.13.11-14)

Here is a moment when Jeanne comes in contact with a whole bunch of traditional things from Japanese culture—language, dance, dress—and it all baffles her. It must be hard to have dominant white normative culture label you as Other and yet also find so much of your heritage foreign.

I had found another kind of inspiration, had seen another way the church might make me into something quite extraordinary. I had watched a girl my own age shining at the center of one of their [the Catholic nuns] elaborate ceremonies. It appealed to me tremendously…. She was dressed like a bride, in a white gown, white lace hood, and sheer veil, walking toward the altar, down the aisle of that converted barracks. (2.13.25-28)

It's really easy to lump the foreign with the Japanese elements in this book, but this excerpt here shows how a Catholic ritual—like the confirmation of a new member—can also be completely strange, foreign, and alluring. Why dress up a little girl "like a bride" to confirm her?