The Feeling of Moving Through a Sacred Place that isn’t Canon

Our stars weren’t meant for
their sky. We have never known
the same horizon. — 
Clint Smith

It is September 22nd 2018. I have just finished watching a site responsive play at the Livestock building in Hastings Park called Japanese Problem. It is ten minutes to five o’clock. The performance has just finished. It is customary to clap. To show appreciation to the performers, organizers, and people who have done the work. I don’t feel like clapping. The space feels like a church, when a performance is finished, in order to keep the sacred feel of the space, we do not clap. However, a church maintains and projects a feeling of holiness. There is not holiness here, only ghosts.

Japanese Problem is a historical re-enactment but is not a vacuum. It isn’t a time capsule stored away, to be pulled out for a weekend hobby. It’s about context and connection. Context of a history of white supremacy, context of how Asian — Canadians, particularly, Japanese — Canadians were subjected to during World War II. It’s a connection for the Japanese — Canadian performers and their allies of their ancestry connected with the land they call home, of what it’s like to be born into a country, pledge allegiance to it for it to turn it’s back on them. Japanese Problem tells the story of people who lived in the internment camps in our own backyard. They claim to be “Good Canadians” but how can you be when you have a face that doesn’t match the vision of Confederacy? What does it mean to live as a fragmented person in a land that claims every citizen to be free? Why does being Canadian mean giving up your Japanese blood? Why is the latter a threat to the former, when you’re a living example that both things are true?

There is a heaviness that has lingered for a week. More than anything from the performance the thing that sticks with me are the character introductions and each performers feeling towards the story and show itself. Direct connections from history to present day. The other thing is their debate to end the show, asking what’s the point of it all, that they can’t sugar coat it, and this is “history” but what is history besides a story? They each share personal experiences of responses they’ve received from the show. People telling them to “get over it” or that “internment was necessary” to even “this is divisive.” This is silencing, gaslighting, and legitimizing. This is how whiteness works. Shout out to the Great White North or at least the image that these types of comments want to protect.

After the performance we were invited to sit and have a discussion, a debrief about what we just experienced. I didn’t say anything. I listened. I watched people cry. I heard people express that they had no idea this space was used as an internment camp. I heard a mom and a daughter share their story of them going to different internment camps in Canada and learning their complicated shared history with this country. I listened for twenty minutes. We comforted each other, reassured the performers that they were doing important work but ultimately we didn’t brainstorm any grand solutions. I mean it was the thirty year anniversary of the Canadian government officially apologizing to Japanese Canadian Internment. Apology done, issue over. Right? It didn’t feel over, the issues and feelings still feel raw, and the intergenerational trauma still needs to heal. Japanese Problem confronts and pushes this conversation.

In Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix special Homecoming King he talks about his father paying an immigrant tax to live in America. He explains the tax to be: as a person of colour you will experience some minor every day racism but you get to live in America and have a better life than one you would’ve had in your country of origin. As an immigrant you must accept this racism. However, Hasan points out that he was born in America, which means he should be, in theory, be protected by the constitution and be privy to all the rights. This contradiction is nothing new to any person of colour on this continent. It was a large theme of the Japanese Problem, one of the actors even disclosed to the audience that he feels more Canadian than Japanese, he doesn’t speak Japanese, neither does his father or grandfather. They have lost their ancestral tongue. What are the consequences to this? The first step of assimilation is losing your mother tongue and only speaking the colonized tongue. You’re in Canada, speak English. I am Asian — Canadian. I’m not Japanese. But I do not need to be Japanese to completely understand what these Japanese — Canadian performers were trying to express and fighting back against: the colour of my skin, the way my eyes look, and whatever other stereotypes that white people have created since they invented racism does not take away our Canadianness. In fact we must cut off our ancestral ties, as if cutting off an appendage, to assimilate to whiteness but even then only find that we hit a bamboo ceiling because unless the idea of what a true Canadian changes, we’ll never be that. So we must choose and in order to fit in we must fragment ourselves. This is what it must mean to give yourself to a country that refuses to do the same for you.

So why this show, why now? We learned that the city of Burnaby is looking to renovate and update parts of Hastings Park. As of right now there is no memorial, no information, or signifyer that this was an internment camp. It has been forgotten by our country’s canon. However, you spin it this is one of the shadows Canada casts on itself. Even if it’s forgotten, if these stories are never told again, it will always be there. The only way to truly get rid of it is to confront it.

Before I left the space, we were invited to write a message, thoughts, and/or feelings down on a cue card and place it on clips on strings near the entrance. I thanked the performers and organizers for doing such important work. This was a reminder that progress and distance aren’t the same things and history isn’t something that is left in the past but is a fluid story that evolves and changes through the people who tell it. Japanese Problem makes it clear that it is dismissive to talk about terrible parts of history in relation to problems of today saying that we have survived worse because many people did not survive. And finally I thanked them for doing work that is tied to hope. A hope for a better world, where not only, will something like this will never happen again but we understand the full context and weight of what happened. And an acknowledgement that hope isn’t magic. Hope is work, thank you for doing the work. I am hopeful that other people will be inspired to continue the work. Regardless if the work that comes from this is considered canon or not, it doesn’t matter because it is canon for them.