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Skeletons and Tea Cakes

“Where are the dinosaurs?” asked my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Evie, as we walked into the Japanese American National Museum on a recent afternoon. In her mind, “museum” was all but synonymous with prehistoric skeletons; what we found instead was a ceiling-high pile of old-fashioned trunks and hard-sided suitcases, a silk Japanese wedding gown, lots of old photographs and a wooden shack from a World War II internment camp. There were no horrible images, no scenes of abject mourning. The damage was devastating, its relics subtle. At one point Evie ran over to the shack. “Mommy,” she said. “Is this where the Japanese-Americans lived a long time ago?”

It occurred to me then that these were skeletons — though of a sort most of us would just as soon leave in the closet. I decided Evie didn’t need to carry the burden of this particular shame just yet. I answered with a noncommittal grunt, and her attention soon shifted to the origami table.

After the museum we walked over to a bakery at the Little Tokyo mall looking for a snack. Evie chose a green tea soft cake. It wasn’t as sweet as the treats she’s accustomed to, but she liked that it came in a paper cupcake wrapper. We sat at a table near the smooth granite fountain as she worked her way through the cake and I brooded over the museum’s video images, in particular one with two Japanese-American babies in adjoining highchairs sharing a plate of noodles. The accompanying text explained that after the war the Japanese-American community in L.A. was all but exiled, its comings and goings undocumented and ignored. Much of what exists today is based on personal letters and a few home movies, like this one. It looped over and over, noodles hanging and dropping, to a lilting soundtrack.

At the table next to ours a group of older people sipped drinks, smoked and joked in Japanese with the bakery staff. Their casual, unrushed manner suggested this was a regular gathering of people who lived nearby. Suddenly, housing the museum in the midst of a living community felt strange, like plopping a holocaust museum on Fairfax. How can people just go on and live their lives, with unspeakable wrongs reiterated daily right next door?

We wandered into the Japanese market and Evie immediately spotted something wrapped in shiny Hello Kitty paper. When closer inspection revealed it to be a sheet of seaweed, she lost interest and made her way to produce. There she discovered a cardboard box of small, green fruit. She liked their slightly furry texture and we put a handful in a plastic bag.

“What are you gonna do with those?” an older Japanese man asked. He was looking at my daughter, who was rolling one of the fruits over her lips, enjoying the fuzz. “You can’t eat it,” he said. “You have to make pickles.” I extracted the fruit from Evie’s mouth and promised him that we would.