Jiakai Chang

May began warmly in Riverside. Since mid-April, after a spell of cold, rainy days, the region had slowly been heating up, reaching a peak around the turn of the month. This was a boon for the Fujimotos’ strawberry crop. The market price was up to $1.25 a tray, and the fields produced more and more each day, returning record harvests. With everyone but Pop back at home (the sons having quit school, and the daughters returning with their partners after closing shops in San Francisco and Redlands), the many hands made light work. George Jr. or his brother Charles (“Cha”) drove down every other morning to sell their berries and farm-fresh eggs at the co-op in Garden Grove.

However, the majority of their work was now in packing the house, and had been for some time. At the end of March, they finalized the terms of leasing their property to their neighbors, the Gibsons, transferring the house and the chicken coops to their name. What had followed since then was a flurry of hurried packing, desperate selling (via newspaper ads or “Casa Blanca Mexicans”), and furious cleaning around the entire property. If they were to leave, they would leave it as neat and ready as possible for their new tenants.


The coming of the new year is generally accepted as a time for reflection on the months gone by and, depending on how those months went, either a great hope or greater dread for the months to come. Really, it is just a more formalized instance of something most of us do, as conscious human beings, for every new month, week, and day––though, despite being conscious human beings, these reflections are often unintentional and unremembered beyond a short time. Then, somewhere between the fireworks and Ryan Seacrest of it all, when it comes time for that Big Reflection, we curse ourselves for letting our thoughts slip, when we could have set them down. As we approach a new year with our global pandemic, I find myself doing just that.


The front cover is wrapped in a brown sort of linen-like material, only fraying a bit around the spine. It reads: “DATE BOOK” and “1942”. The cover page, bits of Poston dirt stained into the off-white paper,  is signed, “George Fujimoto Jr. 3/16/42.”  Fujimoto was 21 years old, a photography student at the time, attending Riverside Junior College. He and his family owned a farm in north Riverside, raising chickens and growing walnuts and strawberries.

The first written page is Wednesday, March 11 (70th Day. 295 Days to come). A fittingly ominous heading for the beginning of the end.


“Went to school as usual. Shok at work in packing house. Came home about 5 PM and was shocked to learn that Pop was taken into custody by federal officials today. Twenty-eight Riverside Japanese aliens were rounded up in today’s raid; Mr Sanematsu & Pop included. Fortunately Pop was partially prepared.” 


In my own mid-March, long after Pop Fujimoto was taken to Tujunga Canyon, I, too, had a niggling feeling that we were about to plunge into something historic, and that maybe it would be a good time to start writing things down. This was also a time of turmoil, when borders were closing and students were going home early from schools, when Yellow Peril was a buzzword again in certain circles, along with China Virus and Kung Flu. I remember working on an essay around that time, to try to capture that moment. It never really clicked for me though; I know now that it was because I was attempting to squeeze a moral or a commentary from something that had not even begun to run its course.


From “Yellow Peril” by Jiakai Chang

“In a recent Fox News interview, the U.S. Surgeon General called the coronavirus outbreak “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.” By this, I think he meant that all of America would band together and fight off the disease as a unified nation with a shared purpose. I don’t think he was referring to the xenophobia that followed the two events, and that is on the rise again. He probably thought little of the president’s insistence on calling it “the China virus,” and he didn’t mention anything about a Republican senator chalking it up to China’s culture “where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.” If this is our Pearl Harbor, we also seem to be inching closer to our Manzanar.”


Friday, May 1st (121st Day, 244 Days to come):


“Cha sold berries. Gradually expanding market with increasing crop. Ben helped with berries again. Picked 14 trays –– record. Sold 2 highchairs, a white bed, springs and mattress, and $9.40 worth of nuts.”


What fascinated me about George Fujimoto’s diary was how, bar a few eventful days near the end, the bulk of the observations were terribly mundane. For the most part, you would not have known that their clearing house was anything more than a big family move, and they still sold their berries and eggs until just days before they left on Santa Fe buses to Poston Internment Camp, via the I-10. 


We split April and May between San Diego and our mountain refuge in Idyllwild. On the weekdays, I went to classes remotely from my childhood bedroom. On the weekends, we hiked to the top of Suicide Rock, Devil’s Slide, and Saddle Junction. My mom and dad would walk the dog early in the morning, and my brother and I would alternate walking him again around 5pm, when the setting sun turned the face of Tahquitz Rock a glowing orange hue. In those months, we never strayed from the house and the cabin and the line of highway between them. In San Diego, we only left the house for weekly excursions to the grocery store. In Idyllwild, the only people we saw were the occasional fellow hikers on the trail. 


“From the shelter of my house, it’s hard to tell where my own community stands. When I walk outside, I don’t feel unwelcome (except to the club of dog owners that stubbornly continues to congregate in the park across the street, but fuck them), but there is a propensity for caution that was not there before, in the joggers who shift course into the street rather than get too close, in couples adjusting their masks before we inevitably cross paths. I have not been the victim of a hate crime. But when the outbreak is contained, and the pandemic ends, I wonder how long it will be until people trust again.”

In my recounting, I have no choice but to be boring. When the first reports of anti-Asian hate crimes began showing up, I still lived in the comfort of my quiet suburb. As old and as white as my neighbors were, none of them would consider doing anything to my family––even the ones on the corner, with the Trump 2020 flag still displayed proudly over their garage. A small part of me wished for confrontation. I wanted something to happen to me. Nothing violent or life-threatening, just something mildly inconveniencing and overtly racist, just to be able to say that I was a part of this moment. Something worth writing about. 


In the pages of Fujimoto’s diary, there is no mention of incidents such as the ones we are seeing now. But the fear is there.


Thursday, May 7th (127th Day, 238 Days to Come)

“Got up early to pick tomorrow’s berries. Mom, Mek, + Shok went to beauty shop this morn for wedding. 
Mable – Truck married. 
Best Man – Tsuruzo. 
Maid of Honor – Mek. 
I gave bride away in Pop’s absence. Harrie stayed home to act as watch-dog.
Both sides claim heavy enemy losses in greatest naval battle of all time. Sacramento + Stockton areas got evacuation orders.”


I am drawn to what is unwritten. The smallness of the service, the lack of fanfare. The berries did not stop growing for the wedding. The house could not be left empty. I don’t know if he is being intentionally bland. He writes about his sister’s wedding with the same matter-of-fact tone as he writes about the state of the chickens in his backyard. Does he have no sense of occasion? I initially see his faithfulness to non-editorialized reporting as a result of a boring everyday. But surely, this day of all days should be remembered with some flair? I can’t help but wonder how I could have written it better.


I can’t focus on ___ right now, not during a global pandemic! It’s something I’ve often heard in this past year, from many people about many things––watching lectures over Zoom, organizing socially distanced club activities, searching for a summer internship. A national anti-asian witch-hunt would probably be enough to make a wedding lose its sheen. It is the unfortunate nature of bigness to make everything else look small. 


What Fujimoto called “the greatest naval battle of all time” was the Battle of the Coral Sea, which lasted four days in early May, 1942. In those four days, the American fleet successfully deterred a Japanese attempt to invade Australia via the island of New Guinea––the first time in the war they were able to halt the Japanese advance. At the time, many commenters truly did believe it to be one of the most important battles in naval history. For Australians, this is still the case; they call it “the battle that saved Australia.” But for most others, the memory of the battle is overshadowed by larger battles from later in the war. It is the nature of distance to make bigness seem small. 


Saturday, May 23rd (143rd day, 222 days to come)

“Got up at 5 o’clock + finished getting baggage tied up + prepared. Cha + I took one load of baggage to Santa Fe depot at 6:30. When we got back Mrs Hogan was here ready to take family over. Mr. Gibson helped load dodge again. When we got to depot, hardly anyone there; time 7:10, 10 minutes too late, we thought. M.P. ordered us to 5th and Main. Found big crowd there. Boarded 8 Sante Fe buses. Left 8:30 AM. Made numerous stops – Banning, Indio, Desert Center (passed out box lunches). Arrived in Poston Camp about 3:30 PM. Registered, assigned to barracks. Another load from Delano arrived about 6 PM. Baggage trucks came 8 PM. Helped unload. Art, Ben, Cha sick from drinking bad tap water.”

Fujimoto’s monotone keeps his words alive: unfussed to paint things bigger than they are, they remain as faithful, irrefutable documentation that this happened.


From the Tahquitz Peak Fire Lookout, you can see the route of the I-10 as it snakes past Banning, Palm Springs, and Indio. First built in 1937, the lookout is not only the highest in the 823,000-acre San Bernardino Forest, but also, because of its location in a designated Wilderness area, is fairly primitive in its upkeep. All maintenance is done with regular hand tools––no power tools, not even cordless, are permitted. Extra materials, if needed, must be carried up the Devil’s Slide Trail by mules, then along the Tahquitz ridge via a gravel path that narrows in some parts to only a couple feet across. As you hike along the ridge, it is probably best to not look down.

I can imagine there were rangers at the lookout in 1942, to see the Santa Fe buses take the Fujimotos to the purgatorial sands of Arizona, to Poston, ironically built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation and maintained by the Office of Indian Affairs––a reservation within a reservation. A year after they first arrived, George, his older sister Lily, her husband Harrie, and their infant daughter got permission to leave Poston and resettled in Des Moines. Eight months later, George was drafted. He served in occupied Japan after the bombs dropped, until he was discharged in May 1946––almost exactly four years after their evacuation.


A year has passed since that initial March. It is still strange to think about that. But while the pandemic remains at the forefront of the national consciousness, there seem to be a few hopeful signs. Our new president has promised all adults eligibility for the vaccine by May 1st, and he does not use terms like “China Virus” in public  speeches. 

There has been a recent rash of hate crimes towards Asians in America. In Thousand Oaks, CA, a white woman in an SUV mounted the curb to try and run over an asian woman who was out for a walk. In San Francisco, a 91-year-old man was pushed to the ground as he was walking outside the Oakland Asian Resource Center. I hear about these things on the news, but, safe in my home, nothing of the sort has happened to me. 

My parents Facetimed me the other day, a few days before my scheduled flight to Austin, Texas. My girlfriend and I are going to stay on her high school best friend’s farm, far away from the busier parts of town. This comforts them. In the early stages of our planning, the pandemic was their biggest concern. My mom spent $58 on a box of chinese herb sachets, meant to strengthen the lungs and protect against the worst symptoms of the virus. My dad will periodically send me a link to the same CDC webpage about airport safety––he picks out the ones he thinks are the least intuitive: turn the tiny seat fan to full blast pointed right in front of your face, don’t even think about using the bathroom, and don’t accept food or drink from the stewardesses.

But this call, three days before our flight, they worry about something else. “Did you hear about the couple in Oakland?” My dad says, “Someone was holding a sock with rocks in it and broke the woman’s nose. Promise me you’ll be careful, and AVOID CONFRONTATION. If someone approaches you looking funny, just walk away.” Now that anti-asian violence is being so widely reported, my mom says, it’s almost like it’s a sanctioned act of violence. The trend, one could say, has gone viral. 

As we near the 365th day, I wonder how many more there are to come.

I think I know what I would do if I was suddenly thrown into the narrative of anti-Asian hate crime. If someone does approach me looking funny, I am far likelier to take my parents’ advice and walk away. For now, my story remains unwaveringly boring. I am grateful.


Jiakai Chang is a third-year from San Diego, California studying journalism and creative writing. He is trying not to develop a coffee addiction, but it makes him feel so damn alive.