What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Journeys

In My Family’s American Dream, Bootstraps Met Blocks of Government Cheese

After an Arduous Journey Emigrating from Vietnam in the ‘70s, the Author Benefitted from Both Personal Resilience and Public Assistance

By Kim Luu
August 23, 2016

I spoke my first words on a boat: “milk,” “cockroach,” and “itchy.” An unusual toddler vocabulary perhaps, but not surprising considering that I spent the second year of my life on a freighter with thousands of other people, a floating petri dish of equal parts vomit, diarrhea, desperation, and hope. Every inch of that boat teemed with refugees: the cargo hull, hallways, and deck. Even the captain’s steering room had ceased to be a sanctuary.

I am an immigrant from …

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The Japanese-American Officer Who Helped Take Down and Then Rebuild Japan

Born in Seattle in 1920, Harry Fukuhara Was Fully Bicultural, Bilingual, and Binational

By Pamela Rotner Sakamoto
January 28, 2016

When I first met Harry Fukuhara, in 1994, he was orchestrating a Tokyo press conference for Japanese Foreign Ministry officials, former Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, and veterans of the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The groups were there to commemorate the separate threads connecting them to the Holocaust. The Foreign Ministry officials were belatedly acknowledging a renegade consul, Chiune Sugihara, who had issued approximately two thousand transit visas to desperate Jewish refugees in Kaunas, Lithuania, when he was stationed …

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How a Refugee from the Nazis Became the Father of Video Games

Ralph Baer's Life Is a Classic Tale of Scrappiness and Perseverance

By Arthur Molella
December 11, 2015

It’s perhaps fitting that the man recognized as the father of the video game, that quintessential American invention, was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, whose personal story converged with America’s at a critical time in the nation’s history.

“I had the misfortune of being born in a horrendous situation,” Ralph Baer told the Computer History Museum, of his birth to Jewish parents in 1922 in southwestern Germany. When the Nazis came to power, Baer was still a young child. They …

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From Okinawa to Hawaii and Back Again

A Painter Follows the Currents of Her Family History

By Laura Kina
August 31, 2015

I am a hapa, yonsei Uchinanchu (a mixed-race, 4th-generation Okinawan-American) who was born in Riverside, California, in 1973 and raised in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state. My mom’s roots stem from Spanish-Basque migrants in California and white southerners in Tennessee. My father is Okinawan from Hawaii. Because I don’t look quite white, people frequently ask, “What are you?” From an early age, even though Hawaii and Japan were enigmas to me, I have had to explain …

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How Americans Fell in Love with the Open Road

As the Automobile Industry Took off, Drivers Discovered the Romance and Freedom of Long-Distance Travel

By Peter J. Blodgett
August 13, 2015

Tens of millions of Americans have hit the road this summer. The all-American road trip has long been a signature adventure, but once upon a time the notion of your own motorized excursion of any length would have seemed impossible.

In 1900, Americans were hampered by wretched roads and limited by the speed and endurance of the horses that powered buckboards, coaches, and wagons. If they had an urge to travel far distances, they had to rely upon the steam …

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A Young Bride Among the Roustabouts of Santa Fe

My Great-Great Grandmother Missed the Gentle, Green Valleys of Germany, But Our Jewish Family Needed a New Start

By Hannah Nordhaus
June 16, 2015

When my great-great-grandmother set out for New Mexico territory in 1866, she spoke no English. Nor did she speak any Spanish.

German was her native language; Yiddish as well. Julia Staab was a German Jew from a small village in Prussia. I don’t know how her marriage to my great-great-grandfather Abraham Staab came about—if it was arranged beforehand, or if they chose each other. But I do know that they were in a hurry to begin their married life in …

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How Living Abroad Brought Me Closer to Home

As a Californian With Korean-Irish Roots, I Felt More Like a Global Citizen—Until I Lived Outside the U.S.

By Victoria Namkung
June 2, 2015

In the summer of 1997, days after my 20th birthday, I was making my first international trip alone. I was going to Kuala Lumpur for the summer to intern at a men’s lifestyle magazine that published in English.

Halfway through the connecting flight from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur, I was handed a landing card from the flight attendant and began filling out my passport details. Under nationality, I wrote Korean and Irish. After all, anytime someone at college in Santa …

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Searching for Mozzarella in the Land of Processed Cheese

Growing Up in Suburban Virginia, Our Italian-American Family Relied on My Grandmother to Bring Us the Foods We Craved From the Bronx

By Gina DePalma
April 21, 2015

My grandmother’s visits from New York City always began with what I call The Great Unpacking, which took place on our dining room table the very second she crossed our threshold. I always wondered if her fellow travelers knew what my nonni was carting in her assortment of tote bags, not to mention the gigantic piece of luggage that was stuffed solely with food. As an Italian-American family living in Virginia in the 1970s, our only chance of getting what …

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Chasing Holocaust Ghosts Down Route 66

Coping with Survival, My Father Took the Family for the Ride of Our Lives on America’s Mother Road

By Marc Littman
February 24, 2015

When I was 9 my father, Jacob, uprooted me from my magical boyhood in Detroit to chase ghosts down historic Route 66. We were bound for L.A.

Like Dust Bowl Okies, the entire family—my parents, two sisters, and I—piled into a hapless 1960 American Motors Rambler crammed to the gills with our ragged possessions. The quest took us a month because the car kept breaking down. I spent a lot of time by the side of the road on Route 66, …

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Somersaulting into America

As a Top Japanese Gymnast, My Dad’s Future Was Laid Out for Him. He Opted for Adventure in the U.S. Instead.

Yoshi Hayasaki, gymnastics

By Erika Hayasaki
January 2, 2015

The letter that would change my father’s life—and eventually lead to his recent induction into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame—arrived in 1964, at his high school in Nara, Japan. Addressed to Yoshi Hayasaki, it was from an American.

My father, 17 at the time, could not make out a single sentence typed by Eric Hughes, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He asked a campus English teacher to translate. “It sounds like he is trying to invite …

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