The Suitcase Speech

As promised in my last blog post, I will be including my speech from the 50th Anniversary.  Okay, so I admittedly came up with this speech the morning of the event due to a combination of jet lag/my narcoleptic sleeping habits, other school work and the fact that I wanted to hang out with my family.  This is by no means verbatim and I added in a few sentences for the sake of clarity (I always get a bit nervous during speeches and end up making weird, cringe-worthy grammatical errors or forget to fully explain a lot of things), but here it goes:

Good afternoon.  Now that the program has dwindled down to the last speaker, I want to say a few brief words for all the young people here.  To begin, I’m so happy to see so many young people at this event.  I would like all young people and ex-internees’ children to please stand and accept a huge round of applause for being here to learn and remember the 1962 internment. 


Now, I’m not sure if all of you can remember the first time your mother or father told you about the internment camp, but I certainly remember the first time my father really talked about his experience during and after the camp and the first time I really understood the impact that it had on his life.

I remember I was in seventh grade, so I was about twelve or thirteen years old.  One day, I came home with a homework assignment.  The teacher had told us to imagine a scenario in which we were told that we had to pack a suitcase with only four or five item and explain why we chose those items; we would not be told where we were going or when we would be coming back.  I wasn’t too sure about what I would take, so I asked my dad. 

When I asked my dad about the items he would take, I was a bit surprised at how quickly he answered; he answered almost as if he’d been drilled with this question.  He listed the following:  a knife, a book, a change of warm clothing and some preserved food. 

When I asked him how he was so sure, he responded, “Because it did happen to me.  When I was a boy, someone did bang on my door in the middle of the night.  Someone did tell me that we had to pack our bags.  We weren’t told where we were going.  And we had no idea how long we would be gone.”

My dad then proceeded to explain the importance of each item. 

“In the camp, we had to go without knives once they were confiscated.  A knife is a very important tool.  Without a knife, it was hard to dig for roots so that we could burn firewood and stay warm.  Without a knife, we couldn’t prepare our own food; the camp would distribute huge chunks of raw meat for each barrack without bothering to ration it among the families.  A knife is more than just a weapon; it’s useful for everyday life.”

“If I could go back, I would have brought a book.  But instead, I wasted nearly three years of my life in that camp, learning nothing.  There were some young teenagers who brought books with them and volunteered to teach us young kids.  But all I remember is learning the alphabet for six months.  It was a huge waste of my learning years.  After I was released from the camp, I was so far behind in my schooling.  None of the good English schools wanted me; they said I was too behind and too old.  Even Chinese school was difficult; we spoke Hakka at home, not Mandarin.  The other kids always made fun of me and it was humiliating.  I remember one time, I couldn’t write some Chinese characters on the board and the teacher hit me and yelled at me in front of the entire class, ‘You’re not a Chinese.  You must be an ignorant Tibetan!’”

“I would have brought a change of warm clothes.  In the camp’s cold desert climate, it was difficult without warm clothing.  In the winter, my skin cracked and sometimes bled.  The Red Cross tried to bring us some clothing, but it was all too big and didn’t fit.  And then when I left the camp, I remember how difficult it was to only have one set of clothing.  My friend’s mom gave me a set one time, but I remember all the kids making fun of me, pointing and laughing, ‘Look!  Michael can’t even buy his own clothes.  See, he’s wearing Joseph’s old clothes!’  It was nice of her to do that, but I refused the clothing after that.”

“And finally, I would have brought at least a little bit of food.  I remember the train ride to the camp and the food rations in the camp.  I don’t know if anyone ever felt full; there never seemed to be enough food.  After we were released from the camp, it was even worse.  In the camp, at least we could depend on the rations, but after we were left on the streets, it was so hard to earn enough to feed all of us.  My mother had fourteen mouths to feed back then, and she sometimes only had five rupees a day for food.  Five rupees is nothing, and it was almost impossible to feed us all with so little money. 

Somehow, she managed it though. When I was young, I followed my mother around on her grocery errands, and she would often wait around the market until closing time when the shopkeepers were willing to sell her the unwanted vegetables and meat at a lower price.  Except on rainy days; on rainy days, the shopkeepers had no sympathy and would close their shops early.  Those were the days when I had to see my own mother quietly crying in the rain because she knew she wouldn’t be able to feed us all.”

After hearing my father talk so much about each item and what each symbolized in his life, I realized how much I took for granted each day while my father grew up with so little in his life.  It was impossible to forget that conversation with him.

I’m so glad that I can be a part of AIDCI and help them achieve their goals, but a challenge we have been facing is getting young people involved.  So I’m really overjoyed to see all the young people here.  I think it is our duty to our parents to work toward this cause and to work toward an apology from the Indian government.  They have sacrificed so much for us and they have suffered so quietly so that we could have all the things that they never had.  We ought to make a few sacrifices in return.

Before I left Shanghai, some of my friends thought I was crazy for going all the way to Toronto for such a short event.  But I didn’t want to miss it.  My dad told me I should never live with any regrets, so I’ve made it a goal to do everything that I can to serve AIDCI.  I could always use some help though, so please join the cause and help us out.