What Does It Mean To Be An American? — A Personal Story
Using shared experiences to teach the power of identity
By Dianne Fukami
When I was younger, I longed to visit Japan, the country from where all four grandparents emigrated. It didn’t matter that my father had never been there or that I didn’t speak the language at all. But for once in my life I wanted to look like everyone else and fit in. Even in San Francisco, I felt “different” and during our youthful years, there is nothing more important than fitting in.
I got my wish when I was in my 20s, assigned to go to Japan on a two-week work assignment. You can imagine my shock and disorientation upon realizing that once I had gotten there, I didn’t fit in there at all either. Sure my black hair and facial characteristics resembled most people living in Japan. But my gestures were too grand, voice too loud, clothes too colorful, and my stride not at all ladylike.
By citizenship, and birth, I was American. But in my own country I often wasn’t initially seen that way and there were many times when I felt I didn’t belong. Many Asian Americans can relate to the same types of questions and comments I’ve faced for much of my life: “where are you from?” (meaning what country are you from); or, “where did you learn to speak English so well?”
"Perhaps the genesis of the curriculum “What Does It Mean To Be An American?” is somehow rooted in my own history, parts of which have been experienced by so many people of color living in the United States. Officially the curriculum began with the idea of producing a documentary film about Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, who served as the mayor of San Jose, California, represented that area for 20 years as a Member of Congress, served under President Bill Clinton as Secretary of Commerce and under President George W. Bush as Secretary of Transportation. During his career in public service, he was also many “firsts:” the first Asian American mayor of a major city, the first Asian American Member of Congress not from Hawaii, and the first Asian American cabinet official.
His story is especially intriguing because he and his family were part of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were removed from their West Coast homes during World War II and imprisoned in concentration camps in remote areas of the United States. Norm was 10 years old at the time and ended up at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. We Japanese Americans believe his life is a powerful American story.
How can a man who has dedicated his career to public service not feel resentment or bitterness toward the country that lost faith in him and his family because of war hysteria?
When co-producer Debra Nakatomi and I set out to document Norm’s story, from the outset we knew we also wanted to create an educational curriculum to extend the impact beyond those who watched the film. We also knew that focusing the curriculum on Norm himself would not be broad enough in scope. So we began working with Dr. Gary Mukai and Rylan Sekiguchi at the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) at Stanford University, which has extensive experience in curricula development. We agreed on six themes extrapolated from Norman Mineta’s life: immigration, civil liberties and equity, civic engagement, leadership, justice and reconciliation, and U.S.–Japan relations. When we began working with SPICE in 2015, we had no idea how much our country would change in the next five years or how the themes we selected would unfortunately, have a timeliness with no sign of an expiration date.
Our goal was to create a curriculum that would expand students’ concepts of what being an American is all about.
SPICE would write the text, our documentary film team would produce videos, and the web design team would create a cutting edge website that would eventually result in much text, more than 200 images, 23 videos, activities card sorting exercises, primary source material, profiles of lesser-known people in American history, and the ability to view material directly or download as a Google doc or pdf file. And this is all available for free. When we were fundraising for the documentary film, we made sure to raise enough to fully fund the curriculum development and implementation as well.
We wanted to use Norman Mineta’s life and career as inspiration to teach students about our country in a relevant and broader manner. For instance, in the Immigration section we explore the controversy and prejudice that’s historically surrounded immigration to the United States. From the analysis of the Emma Lazarus “The New Colossus” poem, to a discussion of current immigration policy, we take students and their teachers on a history of immigration through images, readings, and videos. We look at immigration on the East Coast and the West Coast. High school and college students share their own family’s immigration stories that reflect how diverse our backgrounds are via video.
I take special pride in the Civil Liberties and Equity section which contributes material to our current national discussion on race and social equity issues. One of my favorite activities in this lesson is the decisions that students face in confronting several different civil liberty scenarios involving 17-year olds and a hypothetical report linking them to a surge in criminal activity and proposed laws to stem the problem. Three videos in this section are especially powerful: one is a montage of students giving their perspective on social equity issues that they’ve experienced or witnessed. Another is Muslim American students sharing anecdotes of what they and their families have experienced in post 9/11 America. And the third video is a candid talk with four college-age Black men who give emotional accounts of what it’s like to walk in their shoes: how they feel they have to look happy and optimistic or people will fear them; how they have to be defensive from the moment they leave their homes; and their fervent desire for people to realize they are just like everybody else.
We show students different paths to Civic Engagement. The obvious one is to run for office and serve in the government. However, we profile people whose civic engagement made significant changes in American history without running for office: Sylvia Mendez, who was instrumental in desegregating schools in Southern California; Mitsuye Endo, who played a significant role in the decision to release Japanese Americans from U.S. concentration camps; Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branch Rickey, who helped Jackie Robinson break the baseball color barrier; Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her bus seat in Alabama nine months before Rosa Parks gained fame when doing the same thing; and Harvey Milk, who was one of the first openly gay politicians in the country. We also created a video about an 18-year old Vietnamese American college student, who is working the campaign trail to support a candidate for a school district election as she explains why it’s important to get involved.
As we face a national reckoning over race and equality, justice and reconciliation will have to play big roles in that effort. The section on Justice and Reconciliation analyzes the art of the apology and what’s needed to create an effective and authentic one. Students will study the components of one of the biggest historical apologies in the United States: the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which offered redress and reparations to the Japanese Americans who were unconstitutionally incarcerated during World War II. Another interesting component of this lesson is an examination of justice among animals and how it works in the primate group of bonobos.
What defines leadership and what are the different styles of leadership? Those are questions students face in the Leadership segment. By studying five theories of leadership, they analyze which ones are the most effective given different circumstances and determine which type of leadership style they would most want to emulate. And in case they need extra help, soundbites with Presidents Clinton, Bush, and congressional leaders provide different perspectives.
In our last section on U.S.–Japan Relations, our production crew follows Norman Mineta to Japan, where he has warm relationships with cousins in his parents’ hometown of Mishima. Norm explains why the bilateral relationship is so important to him and the United States, but for me, the most poignant part of the video is when he talks about his reason for wearing an American flag pin on his lapel.
In a very matter-of-fact manner, he explains that wearing the pin helps people who are meeting or seeing him for the first time. Because he is an American of Japanese ancestry, they look at him, not sure of where he is from. But when they see his flag pin, they know he is American. To me, it was heartbreaking to hear that a man who had committed his life to American public service would have to rely on a flag pin to help others identify his nationality.
For too long now, when much of our country think of Americans, they visualize white people. As a young person, I bought into that assumption and believed that I didn’t belong here. In my case, it could be because my parents, grandparents, and other family members were all imprisoned in the concentration camps after the Pearl Harbor bombing because they were Japanese American.
Over the years I’ve come to learn that being an American is not about the way you look or just a matter of citizenship and birthright, it’s also a state of mind.
It’s believing that this country holds the promise of opportunities for everyone and that we should all be treated equally. It’s remembering that a 10-year old boy, who never lost his faith in America even when it betrayed him, would someday serve presidents and his government.
That’s what it means to be an American.
Dianne Fukami has been teaching multimedia and communication classes to college students since 2009. She is also an award-winning TV and documentary film producer. Her most recent film, “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story” was broadcast nationally on PBS in 2019.