This luggage tag, used to identify one of my grandparents’ suitcases during World War II, may look faded and insignificant. But to me, it is a vivid and powerful reminder of the fundamental importance of respect.
When people truly respect one another, there can be no racism, no bigotry, no discrimination.
That is what I think about when I look back on my grandparents’ forced deportation from Stockton to the Rohwer Relocation Camp in rural Arkansas in 1942. Along with tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, they boarded trains for unknown destinations, unsure if or when they would return home. Each man, woman and child could bring only what would fit in one suitcase. They had to leave everything else behind.
The internment of Japanese Americans, at its core, was a failure of respect. Wartime hysteria trumped respect of individuals and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution to every American citizen.
Today it is the fear of terrorism that is preventing us from respecting the needs of people who need our help the most. This was driven home to me during a recent family vacation in Europe, when we boarded a train from Austria to Germany. We quickly realized that most of the car was filled with people fleeing the civil war in Syria. The family seated behind us – a father, mother and their four children – reminded me deeply of my parents and grandparents.
What can we do in our own lives to foster respect, so that history stops repeating itself? In my own case, I am honored to volunteer as the executive director of the Sacramento Mandarins, where we use musical performances to teach young people the value of hard work, dedication – and respect. Once limited to young people of Chinese descent, the Mandarins today are one of the most socioeconomically, ethnically and culturally diverse groups you will find anywhere.
We require our young people to respect their instruments, their uniforms and the facilities where they perform. We insist that they respect their peers and their teachers. We demand that they respect themselves.
Time and again as a mentor to members of the Mandarins, I have seen the power of respect to change people’s hearts and lives. I believe that each of us can make a difference by showing and teaching respect in our homes, our workplaces and our communities.
For me, this is the lesson of the luggage tag. It is the reason my family contributed an image of the tag to University of the Pacific in Stockton, which houses the Japanese-American Internment Collections, for a recent exhibition. Perhaps by seeing this tag, and the many hundreds of letters, photos, camp newspapers and other items saved by families like mine, future generations will better understand the importance of respect.
Jim Tabuchi is executive director of the Sacramento Mandarins and program director for the Catalyst Leadership Development program. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.