It’s a Small World After All?

Meeting a ton of new people every day is commonplace here at the museum.  So when Vicky came walking into the Media Arts Center yesterday with about a dozen visitors in tow, no one was very fazed.  She explained to me that her company consisted of the NCI interns; today they were getting a behind the scenes tour of the JANM.  Then she began to tell our guests why I was here at the Museum: what my duties were, that I had come as a Getty Intern, and the types of projects the Media Arts Center put out.  She paused, then said,

“What’s really interesting about this summer’s interns…”

Now, I was sitting at my computer, editing a video on the new Year of the Labbit display.  As I listened, a number of sentence endings ran through my mind.  This summer, there are a half dozen of them running around.  This summer, they’re all girls.  This summer…

Instead, Vicky finished by saying, “This summer we have two interns with famous grandmas.”

One of those interns, of course, is NCI intern Maya Kochiyama, granddaughter of famous activist Yuri Kochiyama.  The other intern is me.

My grandmother is Wakako Yamauchi.  She’s an accomplished writer, playwright, and painter.  But she’s also a wonderful, loving, absolutely amazing person.

But there is more than a little bit of pressure with such high achievements in your blood line.  With any accomplishments I have, I still worry that I don’t measure up to her, or sometimes worry recognition earned comes from her and not me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some perks to having a famous grandmother.  As an Asian American Studies student, I’ve had the added bonus of being personally connected to my studies.  I’ve gotten a first hand account of history.  I’ve seen professors go from “teaching professional” to “autograph-asking fan” as one once said.

Thanks to my Grammy, I’ve spent New Year’s Eves with Garrett Hongo and his family, eaten apple pie and ice cream with Hisaye Yamamoto.  I have memories of seeing my grandmother on to her plane from LAX to Japan where she saw her plays performed in foreign countries and languages.  I’ve gone to readings and book launches, heard my grandma talk casually of knowing Yuji Ichioka, or tell anecdotes about how Karen Tei Yamashita lived for a period of time in my grandmother’s back house.  I’ve studied her plays, and her life, in my classes at school.

So I wasn’t completely surprised when, as Vicky informed the other interns who my grandmother is, I saw a sudden jolt and eye widening of one girl. Was she, too, an Asian American Literature student, and recognized the name?  Had she read some of my grandmother’s plays?  Or had she simply been goosed by her neighbor, and was momentarily caught off guard.

“I know her!” she said.  “She plays cards at the JCI!”

She’d met my grandma in her current, other life.  As a retired writer, my grandma spends her mornings playing Blackjack, placing nickel and dime bets at the JCI in Gardena with other Nisei.  Few of her friends there know her as a famous name, a ground breaker in the Asian American Literature world.  There, instead, she’s just another one of them, playing cards, and of course, always “breaking even.”

But seeing this girl who knew my grandmother made me smile.  She saw her, not through the eyes of an academic fawning over her accomplishments, but as a normal person, happy in the company of her peers.  I realized then, how lucky I am, to be able to know my grandmother in both her worlds.

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