top of page

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.