Lowell Uda is a retired United Methodist minister who lives in Helena, Montana, where he convenes a creative writing group. He has published poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction in a number of literary magazine, including Written River, The Whirlwind Review, MoonRabbit Review, The Other Side and Assisi.

 

Uda says: "The mantra "thumb, thimble, and three" has remained in my mind all these years and the embarrassing moment when, as an English instructor, I mispronounced "Thomas" in front of my first college class."

 

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Me and the English Language

by Lowell Uda

The oral test was simple—saying thumb, thimble and three correctly—to learn whether I, a Sansei or third generation Japanese-American in Hawai'i, was English standard material. I was lucky because, my Nisei or second generation Mom and Dad didn’t speak to us kids in Japanese, and they didn’t force us to attend Japanese language school. Japanese-American children whose parents spoke Japanese in the home had trouble pronouncing words that included the th sound. If I failed the test, Mom said, I would be pushed onto the non-standard track that would lead to trade school. I would have to attend McKinley High, called “Tokyo High.”

     “You like go da kine bobora school?” Mom would said. The Japanese word bobora meant “country bumpkin” and “fresh off the boat.”

     If I passed the test I’d go on the English standard track that led to Roosevelt High School and then to college. Dad finished the ninth grade and Mom the eighth grade, so they wanted me, their firstborn, to study hard and get a college degree. They didn’t want me to do “pick and shovel” or cane field “hoe hana” work.  They wanted me to be a professional.   

     Mom began preparing me in earnest for the dreaded English Standard Test. She’d say, “Say th—th—thumb.”

     I’d repeat, “Th—th—thumb.”

     She’d say, “Okay, now say th—th—thimble.”

     I said, “Th—th—thimble.”

     She’d say, “Say th—th—three.”

     And I said, “T’ree.”

     “Dat wrong,” Mother said.  “You going flunk.”

     “I was kidding, Mom,” I said. “It was a joke.”

     “You t’ink dat funny,” said Mom. “I going tell Daddy on you.”

     Practice paid off. When I was finally tested, I said, “Thumb, thimble, three” correctly, and attended Lincoln School. Two years later, my sister took the English Standard test. We drilled her and drilled her. “Thumb, not t’umb, you dummy,” I said, coaching her. Surely she would do as well as I, older brother, did. But she choked up. When the teacher asked, holding up her thumb, “What is this?” my sister said, “T'umb.” “And this?” the teacher went on, showing a thimble in the palm of her hand. My sister said, “T'imble.” “And how many fingers am I holding up?” the teacher asked. My sister said, “T’ree.” That was it, conclusive evidence that my sister belonged in the nonstandard English school system. My sister ended up at Lunalilo Elementary.

     I grew up terrified of the English language, as if the English language were God, and a punishing God at that. The most shameful moments in my life had to do with the English language. I'd say something in what I thought was my best English and be totally misunderstood. In great chagrin, I’d have to repeat or restate myself. Was it the strange Hawai'ian lilt in my voice or the Island pidgin I spoke when I was off guard that caused me to be misunderstood? I often used the pidgin stay in place of to be verbs. Someone would ask me, “Where is your brother today?” And I'd answer, “He stay sick,” or “He stay play hooky.” Further, even when I paid attention my sentence subject didn’t always agree in number with the verb. “The colors of the moon is...” I’d say. This tended to make me mumble or talk as if I had bad breath when I spoke to someone in authority. I never felt safe speaking up in grade school and high school classes.

     Yet I felt that I had much to express. I knew I was so full of love and beauty and hope and wanted to let all of it out. On the other hand, I knew from experience that I had to be silent or be subject to overt rejection. I felt ugly, angry and unacceptable, rejected for my very roots.  I believed I should not express my thoughts or feelings if I could not speak or write properly. Surely, I thought, attending college on the mainland United States was out of my reach.

     At the University of Hawai'i I met a teacher who changed my expectations. I don't remember her name. She praised my writing in spite of the errors. She said there was a lot I wanted to express. What I felt and thought mattered. I did not have to be perfect to be valued and to express my thoughts and feelings passionately.

     What a gift she gave me! My experiences counted, even the most painful. There was meaning to my life. I could express my anger and longing—what I felt and thought—with conviction and enthusiasm.

     The writing began to gush out of me. My friends in Engineering took notice. I was getting B's on my compositions, while they were getting D's and F's.

     “Can borrow your papers?” asked one of my friends from drafting class.

      “I don’t know,” I said. “Why?”

     “Like see da kine dey like.”

     “No copy,” I said, handing him a couple of my papers. “No get us in trouble.”

     “Naw, nevah,” he said.

     Later, I saw him in the student union with his study companions reading my

compositions and laughing. What was so funny?  A couple of weeks later, this friend of mine copied one of my compositions and handed it in to his English instructor.

     It was a dim move. Didn't he know that the instructors teaching freshman composition shared office space and talked to each other? My friend was hauled into the Dean's Office and disciplined.

     “I warned you not to do that,” I said to him. He said, “You t'ink you so smart....” And the separation between us—between me and my cohorts—widened. They began calling me  “banana,” yellow on the outside and white on the inside, and “haole fight,” fighting for the white culture. They angered me. I stopped sharing even my answers to math and engineering problems. And I began plotting my escape to the mainland United States.

     I grew up unaware that English standard schools were established in the 1920s long before I was born, to separate haole—white—kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to private schools like Punahou1 from especially the Japanese kids who spoke pidgin or substandard English. The haole parents feared these Japanese kids would pollute their children’s superior English and impede their academic success.

     The dual public school system appeased the haole parents, but for those overseeing the shape and development of the Hawai'ian society between the First and Second World Wars the dual system was only a partial solution.2 With the growing threat of an ambitious Japan in the Far East, the challenge for the overseers was to instill American values into the Japanese kids—to Americanize them. The greatest obstacle to this end, the overseers believed, was the Japanese language schools, where Japanese children were taught not only the Japanese language, but also Japanese cultural and ethical values. They feared that these teachings would strengthen the Japanese children’s allegiance to Japan and weaken their allegiance to the United States of America and should be suppressed.3  

     The myth was that if a Japanese child spoke proper English, it was a sure sign that he had become a proper and loyal American. While my English was not perfect, I never doubted that I was an American. Yet I spent my freshman year at the University of Hawai'i feeling like a fearful and confused baby. Caught between cultures, in limbo, slowly losing connection with the Japanese language and culture and far from confident with the English language and the American culture, I began asking, Who am I? What am I called to do?

     By the end of my freshman year I had won a Hawai'i Sugar Planters Association scholarship which allowed me to matriculate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City as a chemical engineering major. But I had come to love the English language and began to write stories, articles and poems. After a couple of years I dropped my scholarship and switched to English. I wrote about the challenge of Sputnik for The Utah Chronicle, the student newspaper. I published autobiographical fiction and personal essays in The Pen, the student literary magazine, and became the prose editor. I continued to study writing in graduate school and eventually returned to Hawai'i to teach English at the University of Hawai'i.

     I was “a local boy who made good.” I remember calling roll my first class, the palm leaves rattling so familiarly outside the window. I was home at last. I came upon the name spelled T‑h‑o‑m‑a‑s and pronounced it with a “th” instead of T like “T omas.”

     "Th omas Araki," I called out. "Hold up your hand. Th omas?"

     For years, I had to watch myself: thumb, thimble, and three. But T omas, not Th omas.

     I have come to embrace my location in life with roots in two cultures, the Japanese and the haole, or maybe I should count four cultures, the Native Hawai'ian, which raised my mother,  and the Mormon, in which I was baptized. All were a gift and blessing. All have nurtured and challenged me, and continue to make me who I am.


[1] Founded in 1841, a school originally for missionary children of the Pacific region. Now a private, co-educational, primary and secondary institution.

[2] After overthrowing Queen Liliuokalani in 1893, the United States annexed the Territory of Hawai'i.  “Those overseeing the shape and development of Hawai'i” between the World Wars were the Big Five, an oligarchy of multi-million dollar corporations. The Big Five consisted of Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors, and Theo H. Davis & Co.

[3] In November 1920, the territorial legislature enacted Act 30 to abolish language schools. In September 1925, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared Act 30 unconstitutional. In 1942, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese language schools were closed. In 1943, the territorial legislature passed a bill prohibiting students up to grade 5 from attending language schools. The Chinese challenged and in June 1947 a federal district court declared the law invalid. Soon after, Japanese language schools were reopened.

 

 

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