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An American Story

(by Dawna Lee Heising)

I am Chinese, Japanese, and Native American. My mother, Fumie Lee, is a second-generation Japanese-American (Nisei). During World War II, she was interned with her family at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona.

My grandparents, Morizo and Emi Fujimoto, emigrated from Japan and ran a carnation farm in Carlsbad, which they lost when they were interned. Poston was the largest of the ten American internment camps. It was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, over the objections of the Tribal Council, who refused to participate in doing to others what had been done to their tribe. Its peak population was over 17,000, mostly from Southern California, in a site so remote that guard towers were considered unnecessary.

People in the camps were allocated to “blocks,” which consisted of about 14 barracks, each shared by four to six families. There was a mess hall for each block, with a kitchen, and meals were provided cafeteria style. Food was delivered once a week from the United States government. My mom remembers having lots of rice and pork. Fried baloney with sugar and a little soy sauce on top was a staple, along with Spam and hot dogs. A dish called Weenie Royale consisted of sliced hot dogs mixed with eggs and oyster sauce, stir-fried with onions and served over rice. Ketchup and hot water were used for soup bases; soy sauce took the place of gravy. For the Issei, as Japanese-born immigrants like my grandmother were known, integrating native foods such as rice and soy sauce in their meals created a link to the past, which made them feel more at home. They also worked hard to supply their own food. Agriculture was a way of life for many of them, and they took great pride in producing a wide range of crops, such as cabbage, squash, and soybeans.

After internment, my mother remembers eating tomato sandwiches because money was so scarce. But my grandfather started another carnation farm in Encinitas after the war and made a lot of money through the Japanese stock market, although he continued to live frugally in the same house, demanding that all seven of his children work in the carnation fields. One of my mother’s brothers remembers that Fumie had many male admirers coming to the house, which upset my grandfather and caused him to make the children work even harder in the fields. (He certainly imparted a fierce work ethic to the family: One of my uncles was the first Asian-American to become president of a U.S. institution of higher education, Sacramento City College; another of my uncles became the renowned cinematographer for The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and The Sixth Sense.) After graduating as the valedictorian of her San Dieguito Union High School class (and being voted “Most Beautiful”), my mom attended nursing school and worked as a charge nurse at UCI Medical Center for many years.

My father emigrated to the U.S. from Toishan, China, by himself at the age of ten, living in the back of a relative’s laundry in New York City and working in a Chinese restaurant when he was young (he became an aeronautical engineer who helped develop the Patriot missile). One of his ancestors went to California to work on the railroads in the 1800s and returned to China with a baby he conceived with a Native American woman, which gives me yet another part of my heritage. But I grew up eating mostly Chinese food at home and going to Chinese restaurants. It was authentic Chinese food—the fish always came with the eyeballs intact, and chicken was bought with claws still attached.

My mother raised five children and has helped to raise six grandchildren, including my daughters Marissa and Misty. She is a devout Buddhist, and for many years, my sisters and I took part in National Obon Odori (Japanese dancing) at the annual Obon Festival, which is held to commemorate ancestors; now my granddaughters Emme and Maya join in. The traditional dance expresses joy for the teachings offered by the Buddha, and the festival foods include Okinawa Dango (donuts), Imagawa Yaki (sweet bean dessert), and Oden, a one-pot dish that combines boiled eggs, daikon radish, and fishcakes stewed in broth that is flavored with dried bonito, anchovies, or sardines.

About three years ago, Mom became a vegan. Her arthritis has gone away, she has a lot more energy, and she has started line dancing again. So now we always have vegan dishes at family gatherings and holidays. Mom is a great cook, and I am not. I'm the one who cleans up after dinner. My daughters still make fun of the way I prepared ramen when they were little: I’d pour boiling water over the packaged noodles and serve them while still crunchy because that’s the way that I liked them. Happily for my daughters, we moved in with my Mom for five years while I finished my college degree and got an MBA from Pepperdine University, and my mom began cooking for them. My mom is the reason that my daughters turned out so successful and career-oriented—Marisa is a pharmaceutical rep, and Misty is a psychiatrist at UCLA. She also taught them the importance of contributing to the world around them and treating everyone with kindness. She is the happiest and most positive person I know—a not inconsiderable journey from her childhood—and perhaps a true American story.


Dawna Lee Heising was the director and vice president of marketing at technology companies for many years. She is now an actress, vice president of the Mustard Seed Media Group, and was an associate producer on the feature film Railroad to Hell: A Chinaman's Chance, about the Chinese working on the California railroads in the 1800s. She can be found at and @dawnalesheising.

Tofu Scramble

1 T. turmeric

1 t. cumin

1/4 t. paprika

1/4 t. chili powder

1/2 t. salt

1 t. nutritional yeast

1 t. olive oil

1 c. red bell pepper, diced

1 onion, diced

1/2 c. shredded carrots

4 green onions, chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1 lb. firm tofu, crumbled and drained

In a bowl, mix turmeric, cumin, paprika, chili powder, salt, and nutritional yeast.

Heat olive oil in a skillet, and add red bell pepper, onion, carrots, green onions, and garlic.

Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Add tofu and sauté for 1 minute.

Add spice mix and stir to coat.

Kale Salad with Tahini Lemon Dressing

4 - 6 c. chopped kale

1 c. finely chopped red onion

1/2 chopped red bell pepper

1/2 cup shredded carrots

2 c. diced cucumbers

1 avocado, diced

1/2 c. grape tomatoes, halved

1/2 c. raisins

For dressing:

1/4 c. tahini

2 garlic cloves

1/2 c. lemon juice

1/4 c. nutritional yeast

2 - 4 T. olive oil

3 T. water

salt and pepper, to taste

In a large bowl, combine kale, onion, red bell pepper, carrots, cucumber, avocado, tomatoes, and raisins.

In a food processor or blender, combine tahini, garlic, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, olive oil, water salt, and pepper.

Dress the salad and toss.

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