IMR: Entries: 2004: November: 07 — Sunday, November 07, 2004


When it comes to airline food, is there a difference between "pasta" and "meatloaf"?

It is here in the center seat, far back, aboard United Flight 57 that I finally steal a moment to write. I should probably be tossing out half-baked fiction for NaNoWriMo instead, but if I don’t try and catch up now, it may very well be 2005 before I get the chance.

Before tackling the last two months, though, I think I’ll start with the last two days.

Much to Jen’s chagrin, I left her and the kids this weekend to work in California, rather than relaxing and celebrating my 30th birthday at home. Since I had long joked that I wasn’t meant to live to see that chronological milestone (blame it on a cheap psychic who used to do readings in Ward Warehouse), she did not appreciate the late revelation that I’d be hopping a plane the day before.

Fortunately, my odometer clicked over with no problem.

I was in Los Angeles to work with the National Japanese American Veterans Council, the group for which my father was recruited last year to serve as president, and for which I was subsequently recruited to serve as technical adviser... and token under-50 associate.

I caught the red-eye from Honolulu, taking off Thursday at 11 p.m. Hawaii time and landing at 6 a.m. Pacific time on Monday… meaning I got off the plane in L.A., took the shuttle downtown, and had only a quick breakfast with dad and a chance to freshen up in his room (as mine wasn’t going to be available until 2 p.m.) before heading off to the weekend’s first meeting at the Go For Broke Educational Foundation’s headquarters in Torrance.

We first tackled council business, but then were given a tour and comprehensive program update from the foundation. They had their big gala dinner the very next night (which I would be attending), and some major plans to unveil. The office was humming, every space filled with boxes of supplies, T-shirts, centerpieces, and displays.

The foundation’s work is impressive. The air was heavy with a mix of deep reverence and sad urgency. Much of the conversation would unavoidably turn to veterans who’d worked with them, and inspired them, but had passed on in recent months.

The dedication of the surprisingly young (and primarily female) staff is palpable, encouraging evidence of the "next generation" stepping in to carry the torch of the Japanese American experience during World War II. They’re a top-notch team scraping by on grants, tireless fundraising, and an army of volunteers.

I know the hard life of a non-profit foundation, and could tell immediately these people were working for love, not money. Their webmaster was the caliber of a high-end new media firm, yet she was a college intern only recently converted into a full-time staffmember.

I think I envied them a bit. But idealism won’t pay the bills for a family of five.

By the time we finished, Friday afternoon Los Angeles rush hour was in full swing. The drive back to Little Tokyo was made even more exciting after our host and driver lost her contact lens. We made it back to the hotel in one piece, fortunately, and after a nice dinner at a Japanese restaurant called Suehiro (no relation to the former Honolulu eatery), we called it a night.

The next day, we continued our council meeting at the Japanese American National Museum, the incredible facility where I attended a meeting back in April, but never had a chance to actually walk around. There, too, big things were afoot, with an academic conference underway in the main hall — live CSPAN broadcast and everything.

The meeting only lasted the morning, so after we adjourned, my dad and I got to check out the museum. It was slightly reminiscent of the exhibit inside the Japanese Cultural Center in McCully, but easily twenty times larger and much more powerful. Here, the perspective on display was primarily a civilian one, focused largely on the WWII internment camps and everyday life before, during, and after the war. On display was part of an actual camp barracks, thousands of photographs, and artifacts ranging from a Japanese school desk (which got dad all misty-eyed) to the Star Trek uniform of George "Mr. Sulu" Takei.

We could have lingered there the rest of the day, but sadly dad’s flight was leaving that afternoon, so we headed off to lunch.

We ended up at East Japanese Restaurant, the place I ate at the last time I was in L.A. We both had the quintessential combination teishoku, with teriyaki beef and chicken and shrimp and vegetable tempura. It was surprisingly good, with much more generous portions and a smaller price than we’d get in Honolulu.

We got back to the hotel just in time for dad to catch his shuttle, and then I was on my own for a few hours until it would be time to head off to the Go For Broke Educational Foundation’s big "Evening of Aloha."

I wandered Little Tokyo, discovering to my great surprise that the district was much larger than the single street the hotel and museum were on. Many restaurants, and many little shops. It wasn’t all Japanese, of course, with Subway restaurants next to Japanese bookstores and a bail bonds company next to a shiatsu massage parlor. An interesting mix, likely brought about by the relatively "low rent" neighborhood.

Part of me, I confess, couldn’t help but being a bit skeptical of some of the "atmosphere" created with the window lanterns and calligraphy and items with bad English set up front and center in store windows. Was this place or that place a Japanese enterprise, or an enterprise set up to be match what a Japanophile would think a Japanese enterprise would look like? Was the largely young, college crowd genuinely fond of Japanese culture, or just out looking for something different?

Fortunately, the great food I’d eaten and the decidedly cold service I’d received at the Miyako Inn convinced me that I was, for the most part, immersed in a small piece of Japan.

As the sun began to set, and the weather turned cold, I made my way to the Go For Broke Memorial, where a number of veterans and their spouses had already gathered to catch the motorcoach to the "Evening of Aloha" dinner at the Ritz-Carlton. I surprised myself by falling asleep during the trip, and stumbled off the bus in a daze when we got to the hotel.

The "Evening of Aloha" was a major affair. The delegates were a mix of folks in coats and ties and aloha shirts, veterans in their uniforms and in wheelchairs. The crowd was thick and friendly. As I wandered the silent auction — where things like an ‘ice cream mochi of the month’ and Hawaiian quilts were up for bid — a woman immediately surmised that I was from Hawaii.

"I suppose you can see this stuff all the time," she said. "For us, this dinner is the only time we’ll ever see this many Japanese people in one room."

Indeed, it was like a quintessential gala dinner at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, except in southern California. Every guest was given a puka shell lei at the door, and the stage was set with fake palm trees and "tropical" lighting. I’d only been away from Honolulu for a day, but after feeling lost in the sprawling urban mess of Los Angeles, I was still feeling a bit homesick and glad to be surrounded by "my people." Once again I realized that I might never be able to live away from Hawaii.

There were dozens of women from local hula halau chatting and laughing. The place was crawling with VIPs, many of the military variety, but there were plenty of other familiar faces. Brook Lee was impossible to miss, and Rob Mizutani — now a sports anchor for a California network affiliate — drew quite a crowd. As part of the evening’s entertainment, the Makaha Sons were milling about, as was ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

The dinner was prepared by both Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi. Like at a real fancy restaurant, the food was flavorful and wonderfully presented, albeit in small portions. Brook Lee chided them for using "soy sauce" on the menu rather than "shoyu."

Speaking of shoyu, Aloha Shoyu was one of the evening’s sponsors, and presented to each attendee was a bottle of the stuff, complete with a limited edition Kristi Yamaguchi label.

The keynote speaker was General Eric Shinseki. He talked about growing up in Hawaii in awe of WWII veterans, and how they informed his military career and tour in Vietnam. It was a very personal speech, touching on family and close friends. But he also drew parallels and contrasts between past conflicts and Iraq, comparing timelines between the 34 months following December 7, and the 34 months following Sept. 11.

Finally, the music, and the Makaha Sons were as playful and wonderful as they usually are. Jake Shimabukuro joined them for several songs, after opening with a solo ukulele rendition of "God Bless America." Then the hula halau took turns on the stage, as did Brook Lee herself.

It was past 11 p.m. when the program was over. Many in the audience were asleep.

During the bus ride back to the monument — where most of my exhausted elderly busmates would still have to get into their cars and make their way home — I eavesdropped on conversations that, when working with veterans, had become all to familiar. Old friends catching up, and updating each other on who was still kicking about, and who passed on. Couples arguing about whether or not they’ll go to the next gala dinner, or lamenting that they’re just too tired to travel anywhere anymore. Counting grandkids, and comparing how far away they live.

I got back to my hotel room at midnight. My birthday was over. As much as I wanted to moan and groan about getting old, it was impossible to feel old that night. I feel asleep in my clothes, on top of the covers.

This morning, I slept in. I had grand plans to do some exploring, but didn’t even drag myself out of bed until 9:30, when Wayne called. I had told him I would be in Los Angeles, but apparently "Los Angeles" is a pretty vague description when it comes to determining one’s location, and he explained that he lived at least two hours away — far too late to make meeting up worthwhile.

Fortunately, Wayne will be visiting Hawaii for the first time in two years later this week, so we’ll definitely get to hang out then. In fact, he’ll be staying with his parents in Miliani, not two blocks from where we now live.

I packed, then headed out for some lunch. It turned out that most of Little Tokyo opens at noon, if at all, on Sundays. I ventured further out that I’d ever gone before, but had to settle for a Quizno’s. With only an hour left before I had to leave for the airport, I went back to visit the Go For Broke Memorial, then darted into the Japanese American National Museum gift shop to get some T-shirts.

I hopped the shuttle, suffered through the madness that is the security checkpoint at LAX (I think the lines were longer there than at Disneyland in the summer), boarded the plane, and have been sitting here ever since. We land in Honolulu in about three hours.

You know, I could use a three hour nap.


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© 1997-2008 Ryan Kawailani Ozawa · E-Mail: [ PGP ] · Created: 13 November 1997 · Last Modified: 14 January 2008