"They Think Racism is a Figment of Our Imagination"
Trigger warning for Readers of Color: This article contains anecdotes of violence and racism against People of Color.
You can find the transcript of the interview I made with Japanese American artist and farmer Nagi Koyama on racism against Asian people in the United States and on her avocado farm in Los Angeles, CA, where she lives and farms with her Mexican partner Cesar Alvarado.
Öztan: Nagi, thanks for making time to talk to me. Could
you please tell me about yourself and your background?
Koyama: I was born in Los Angeles, pretty much stayed here in Southern California all my life. I was a pre-MED student at UC Irvine, and I did biomedical research there. I have a Biological Sciences degree, but then I always wanted to do art, and my parents were a little bit scared that there would be no jobs in that field, so they were kind of like “get your biology degree first.” Then I applied and went to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and graduated from there. I have been [working as an animation artist] since then.
Öztan: You currently live on a farm. How did you get into gardening and farming?
Koyama as a kid in 1970s (Palos Verdes, CA)
Koyama: My Dad is from an aristocratic Samurai family--on the Toyotomi side of the Toyotomi/Tokugawa battle. [After the war,] they relocated and became rice merchants. The local people called them Kometo instead of Koyama in reference to their connection to rice. They owned [a lot of land] and diversified into bamboo farming as well. My dad's father worked in a bank but lost everything in the stock market so my dad went from rich to poor quickly. His parents died of tuberculosis and then [WWII] broke out. Because times were stressful, no one really wanted more mouths to feed. He was housed with his uncle and aunt (the one whom he considers his second mom--she was the rare kindness in his early life), and he worked in the fields to earn his stay. The men had all gone to war so he and his aunt worked hard in the fields to keep everything running.
He always gave us the sense of having vegetables and growing stuff and trying to teach us about nature and things like that, from the time that we were really young so that kind of stuck with me and then, as I got older I always had a vegetable garden. My sisters Yukari and Asagi also garden. Cooking and gardening are things we love to share [in my family. Starting a farm was one of my dreams.]
Then my mother got [cancer in 2012;] when I was taking care of her I took time off from work, and we had some good long talks. And she goes, “You know you got to really do what you want to do, and I know you always wanted to have a little farm. Time goes by so fast, so do what you want to do.” She had pancreatic cancer so she passed away quickly, but it made me really [think that] maybe I shouldn't wait. It took a long time, but I finally found a place. It was really dilapidated, and it was like this broken down orchard of 10 acres of dead trees, and I was just a gardener. I thought “OK, we can do this” and you don't realize until you farm just the scope of how difficult it is. Hard It is like physically, mentally, everything. My father was a conventional landscaper so he used chemicals. He had a pesticide license, and so I would read through his manuals, and it was for me that I didn't want to do any of that so I kind of turned opposite from him and just said “I want to do everything naturally. We can use nature, we don't need all these chemicals,” and so that's kind of how I had gardened and what I wanted to do for our farm [since when we bought our property in 2015.]
Öztan: You mentioned that your father was a farmer in Japan. Could you please elaborate on that? How did your mother and father meet?
Koyama’s parents, Hideyo and Yoshiko Koyama, in 1980s (Anaheim, CA)
Koyama: [My mother] was born in Canada, and they were interned during WWII. After the war, they weren't given a choice to go back to where they lived in Canada. Actually, the place where they lived, the neighbor said they would take care of it and they sold it [to make a profit] off of it. [My mother and her family] were held a year after the war ended and were given a choice to either go to the East Coast or to Japan. So my grandfather, who was from Japan, he was like “Screw this I'm going back to Japan,” so he took the whole family to Japan, where they were put in another camp called America village and treated and discriminated against as well, because they didn't speak Japanese. They were totally “Americanized.” Her brothers befriended my dad. My mother never really talked to my dad [and saw my dad one time when he came over their house with my mom’s brother.] My parents were match-made by mom’s father [later.]
He had his own problems; he was orphaned at twelve and kind of tossed around between relatives who didn't really want him. He was a field worker working in the bamboo and rice fields, and so he day-dreamed about John Wayne and the United States.
At that point, you know when they read the stories about United States and how amazing it was and [Americans were] living [comfortably] whereas his friends [in Japan were] dying of starvation, [he wanted to come to the United States]. He got a work permit. There was a work program where you can pick vegetables in the United States so he was like “I'm going to do this,” and three months after the wedding, he left for America.
Dad's work permit landed him in Delano; the same place where Cesar Chavez started the unionization of farm labor. He got a loan and he had to work his way out to pay it off. He lived in a box car, he had one meal a day, “Milk and bread,” he said. And [he and others] were picking vegetables, and they would save their money and pool it and one person at a time would leave and try to find better work. [Then that person would help] to bring those other guys out of [that place,] because if you keep doing what you're doing you could never afford to get out of there so they pooled their money to get out.
Then, at one point he got pneumonia, and he wrote to my mom to let her know but he never said he got well after that so she thought he died, until he finally wrote to say that he had enough money to bring her [to the United States.] She moved back to Canada and worked in a cannery [first.] Then I guess they communicated, and he had enough money to bring her here, and so they came to Los Angeles to work off jobs.
A lot of the Japanese Americans were finding work as gardeners back then so he started doing that in 1957. He became a member of the Southern California Gardeners' Federation, organized by Japanese gardeners. In 1980’s he got his landscaper's license [to start his landscaping business.]
Öztan: So you grew up hearing all these stories from
your parents. In conjunction with the racism they were subject to and the
struggles they experienced as immigrants, could you please reflect on the
recent killings of Asian people in Atlanta?
Koyama: It brings up all these old memories from my past and my mother and her family having been interned and all of what happened, and the experiences of overt racism from when I was a kid.
One time somebody came and smashed out the windows of our car, and I think it was just some kids being stupid, but my dad called the police and the police didn't come [because] my dad has a very thick [Japanese] accent.
And our next door neighbor, who was white, said “Do you want us to call the police?”, and my dad said “It is too small of a thing, [don’t worry]” so the neighbor goes “No, no, no, let me call the police,” so he went and he called the police and the police came right away.
In kindergarten, kids started calling me names and then having to have that conversation with my folks, bringing home those words to ask them what they mean. Then they sit down and talk to you, like the whole history of everything. Then you start realizing over time, how deep it is; you just think “oh it's just this one incident or just this one, or just this one person” and then, as you get older you start realizing you know it's this whole system and you can't talk about it too much. My parents were so scared that “if you say too much, you'll get smashed” so they were telling me “just be successful and don't rock the boat too much.”
And as the generations are going, you see the younger people, which is really inspiring saying like “No, we're going to get together and support each other, this has to stop,” and you think that things are getting better and then something like this [in Atlanta] happens. I felt so horribly for those people, and then heard that police officer who said “Oh, he had a bad day, not feeling well,” and the police officers taking the word of a killer who doesn't want to be accused of a hate crime. Are we supposed to feel bad for this killer?
Beneath that, a lot of my friends, they were just like “Well, we want to see exactly why this person did it before we get on this bandwagon of racism.” So I had this huge conversation with my friend, where she's saying her boyfriend is Japanese from Japan, and she doesn't want to say that these kind of things happen anymore, and that it takes more effort for her to understand that this is actually racism. When are you going to acknowledge that it was a racist attack?
This was also the case with George Floyd’s murder where some white people were saying “it's not racism, it's just one cop, it's just one person [who committed this crime].” How many people will have to die before people acknowledge that these attacks are racist?
There’s a really infamous case, murder of Vincent Chin who was mistakenly murdered because they thought he was Japanese and these [white] auto workers were upset that Toyota Nissan were kind of taking over, and they were losing their jobs because of Japanese cars, so they picked this guy out and they killed him. And he had nothing to do with anything. There are so many incidents like my cousin bought a house in a nice affluent area, this is up in Canada, and they threw human excrement on her house and her car and was like “go home.”
[Racism] exists but people don't want to believe that it exists, because it doesn't happen to them. It’s like a figment of our imagination, in fact, I was told at one point that I am just imagining these things, that I am hurt by something, that I'm seeing things that aren't actually there.
On the other hand, I feel like we are progressing. People of color are starting to join forces. I think before [Asians] were all separate, there weren't a lot of us, so we were kind of all in our different communities, but now [we are] coming together as one big community.
My parents’ generation kept quiet. They didn't want to be killed. [My generation is] kind of halfway there, but then this newer generation, the younger generation says “No, I'm American, I've been here for two-three generations, we deserve to be treated equally.”
Öztan: Thanks for your reflections on this difficult topic, Nagi. You live on an avocado farm with your partner, Cesar Alvarado. Could you please tell me more about your farm?
Cesar Alvarado and Nagi Koyama (Los Angeles, CA)
Koyama: Cesar is full time on the farm which actually worked out perfectly because there's so much that needs to be done on the farm. He figured out a system of putting in the trees, and everybody [else uses chemicals to grow these trees in our area]. Our neighbor is a large-scale farmer. He bought 3000 trees to plant but of those I think 500 died, and he was looking at us and our losses are 20 trees out of 1000. We don't use any chemicals, we don't use fungicide, we don't use any kind of pesticides, we use natural fertilizer. Everybody was like “This is not going to work, what are you doing, you guys are crazy,” and it’s working. I mean we're keeping our fingers crossed; we won't know until we get our first harvest. It's going to take maybe about three more years before we can harvest but so far everything looks good.
Öztan: I know that, in addition to avocados, you grow/forage a diverse range of plants on your farm. Why is this a priority for you?
Produce from the 10-acre family farm of Nagi Koyama and Cesar Alvarado (Los Angeles, CA)
Koyama: I like to grow different things, and then even there are so few things that didn't taste that great or you can find different ways of cooking them, but you do have to put more brainpower into “How am I going to cook with this [plant]?” That intrigues me because I like to experiment and explore a little bit more about different cultures, and what they saw in the plant and why they grew it.
There's one plant that we're growing right now; dwarf tamarillo. It’s really bitter, and my husband won't eat it. He ate it once and he's like “I'm never eating this again” but the more I ate it the more I realized it's very tasty. Yes, you have to be able to deal with that bitterness but underneath that there's this delicious sweetness, and so I felt like ”OK, I can understand why somebody chose to develop this and eat it” so that's for me the fun of gardening; discovering this kind of things.
There were so many weeds out here, and I thought “Well, are any of these edible; can I use them, or are they medicinal or what?” And so, over the course of the time that we've been here I've been cataloging what weeds there are and there's quite a few that are delicious. I've been picking them and eating them. It's kind of this lost [practice] of how humans survived in this area, or what they ate and appreciated the plants [that grow in the wild.]
I'm trying to grow more perennials; they are low maintenance. I want to create a food forest where you can just go in and eat anything without washing it because you don't have to worry about pesticides. In addition, if I have a diverse garden, I can identify that one plant which lives in this heat and then I can develop it out from there. I'm doing this in this poor soil, because I want to find the plants that can live in it, and I can focus on that versus trying to replace all our soil to make it all perfect so that we can have this perfect garden.
I think all these ideas come from my parents. After [WWII], there were food shortages, and a lot of their friends died of starvation. I know as a kid my dad would take me out along the freeway and tell me “If there's nothing to eat, you can eat this.” He would show us how to make shoes out of rags and how to make paper from the junk around the house, so I think in some ways unconsciously, that got into my gardening as well. I want to have something that I can pass to my nephews and my kids and say “OK, I brought it this far, and then maybe you can take it further in a changing climate.” Just in case for my family, if 50 years down the road something happens, and they need food fast, they know they've got it.
Öztan: Nagi, it was great pleasure talking to you.
Once again, thanks so much for making time for me.
Koyama: Likewise, thank you very much.