I Hope You Know That We Are Good
December 27, 1942
My name is Sarah Kobayashi, and I am 9 and half years old. Though I am writing this after Christmas, I hope you will still get it at the North Poll.
I am from Los Angeles, California. My parents had a big grocery store on Alameda street. We sold lots of fruit and vegetables to the people in my neighborhood. This year I spent Christmas in “camp.” I live in 9-3-B. That’s Block 9. Barrack 3. Unit B. My mom made me commit it to memory when we first got here. I am here with my mom and younger brother and sister. They are 6 and 3. My dad did not come with us. He is in a place called Tule Lake, California.
I am writing to you because I want to show my brother and sister that you are real. My little brother Jacob asked me if you are real. I told him that of course you are. He said that you might not know that we moved, but I told him you would know. Mom said she had wrote to you before we left and that Dad would surely write to you to remind you too.
We have a big wire fence that surrounds the whole camp here. On the top of the big wooden poles that stretch the wire tight, there are little wooden cabins where soldiers point down with big black guns. Mom says they are to keep us safe from the war going on outside. But I told her the guns get pointed at us. She says to be quiet and never mind that.
A few days before Christmas, I wanted to make sure they would let you in without any problems, so I walked up to a guard at the front gate. I tugged on his baggy pant leg, and asked very nicely, “Are you going to let Santa in when he comes?”
He looked at me confused and told me that he wasn’t going to be here on Christmas and that I should run back to my family.
I told Mom later and she scolded me and told me that of course he would come, and not to do that again. She was mad and spanked me three times for going up to the guard without her. I had to count out loud each time she swatted my behind. The powdery red sand on my face turned my tears into mud.
A bald man came by our block and passed out a paper that said that we would have Christmas decorating competitions in our mess halls. Everyone got really excited. Even the old people. Everyone had jobs. Me and the other kids had to color our best reindeer for the walls. They gave us crayons and pencils to color them. We had to repeat some reindeer because there are twenty-two of us kids and only eight reindeer. I did Dancer. Some others did Dancer too. I drew him with tap shoes like my friend Stephanie Burns used to wear for her dance recitals at the YMCA back at home. Some kids made up their own reindeer. I said they couldn’t but Mom told me to let them. Later somebody brought cotton balls from the hospital and told us to tear them up and spread the puffy bits around the tables.
Some of the men dragged in a tree they said the First Methodist Church in the nearest town outside the fence had given us. We took some cotton balls and pushed them in around the bottom of the trunk.
Another lady, my mom’s friend Chieko, brought in a scrub brush from outside and twisted pieces of string and tin foil around each of the branches. She painted the tips white with some left-over paint from the school. The adults cut out stars and moons from bean cans and made ornaments. We hung them on the trees. The little scrub tree bent over to the side when we put on the stars on.
The old Obachans and Ojichans folded paper cranes and frogs. We put them on the tables and hung them from the trees too.
Then the bald man came back with some other people from other blocks and looked at our mess hall. They were the judges. They smiled and said we did a fine job. Everyone on our block was proud. We won third place and got a paper that had all the judges’ signatures on it. The winners were block 4. They got a cans of ham for their dinner, but we didn’t mind. We taped up our certificate over the front doorway so everyone could see.
A few days later it was Christmas eve and it was cold outside. Our room is small, and has thin walls. On the wall by my cot, there is a small hole where sand sprays through during storms. Sometimes though, on quiet nights, you can see the dark blue sky turn purple over the mountains. That’s why I don’t tell anybody about the hole. There are many holes in our walls, but mine is the only with this view of the mountains. Mom dressed me and Jacob and my littlest sister Franny in our thickest sweaters. They were scratchy and the arms were too long. We rolled them back up above our wrists and it looked like we had muscles like Dad’s. Mom also wrapped us in the thick wool blankets each family was given when the weather turned cold. They say US ARMY in big letters on the bottom. She said that Santa would be visiting us in the mess hall because everyone in the block did such a great job decorating it and that the chimney in our barrack would be too small for him anyway.
So we walked over the to the barracks. Somebody had made a small fat snowman out of mud and placed him outside the door. It had little sandy pebbles for its eyes and mouth and a big twisty branch for a nose.
All the kids were inside and it was loud. There were sweet mochi cakes and cookies on plates at each of the tables. We sat down next to Chieko and her two kids Isiah and Luke. They are twins and are 7 years old even though they don’t look alike. Their father was there with them in his sweater and smoking a pipe and talking with the other dads. His name is Mr. Akiyama. He works in the general store and sometimes saves mom the catalogue after he is done because she likes to look at all the new things in the stores on the other side of the wire. She has the old copies stacked underneath her cot. It made me miss my dad to see Mr. Akiyama smoking his pipe. My dad like to smoke his pipe too, outside on our porch back home, and he would tell us stories of when he was little and grew up in San Francisco and how his parents worked in a cannery and always smelled like fish. He would set his pipe down and put his hands up next to his face like fins and push his lips into a kiss and make bubble sounds. He would stick out his tongue and roll his eyes when we caught him.
I started to cry when I thought about this and Mom came over and told me to hush and that Dad was having a fine Christmas in Tule Lake and would be with us soon. She told me to be strong for the other kids and gave me a hug from behind.
One of the teachers from the school, Mrs. Higa, told us to come and sit down in the big space they had made in the middle of the room. She said Santa would be coming soon to bring us presents. She had us sing Christmas songs with her, and some of the parents sang too.
It was getting late, and some of the littler kids were getting tired. I shook Jacob a few times to make sure he stayed awake. Franny was already asleep with Mom. Luke started to complain that Santa wasn’t coming. A few of the other kids started to complain too. Then one of the parents burst through the door and said that he was here. We all had to be good and sit up straight for him. Then he came in. A funny man with skinny legs and a lopsided belly and a funny stringy white beard came and took a seat in front of all of us. His hat looked like a deflated balloon. He did not look like the Santa Mom and Dad had taken us to see at The Grove back home. He carried a sack of presents and said Ho Ho Ho to all of us. They had us stand in a straight line and wait. He invited one kid up at a time and had them sit on his lap and then he gave them a present. I was towards the back because my mom said I was taller and older than lots of the kids. After they got their presents, the kids ran off to their parents or to their friends and opened them. Some got tin cars, and some got dolls. One got a Jacks set. They were yelling and having fun with their new things.
Jacob went before me and sat on the Santa’s lap. He looked up with big eyes at the Santa and burst out crying. He shook his little hands back and forth and Mom had to go up with Franny in her arms and take him down. She apologized over and over, but the Santa smiled and let out another Ho Ho Ho. The Santa gave Jacob and Franny their presents and then Jacob stopped crying and went over with Mom and opened his present. He got a new wooden top. Franny got a rattle.
Then it was my turn. I walked up to him and sat on his knee. His leg was boney, and I could feel my behind slip back and forth while he jiggled it. His suit smelled like moth balls. I could feel his beard on my arms and it didn’t feel like any hair I had felt before. It was stiff and scratchy. I put my hand on his belly, and I could feel little bits of feathers squish as I patted it.
He said to me that’s his belly, and I said that it feels like stuffing, and he Ho Ho Ho’d and handed me my present. I took it and hugged it to my chest. I looked up into his eyes. They were slanted and brown like mine. I reached for one of them and felt the soft almond-shaped lid under my fingers. The sides of his face relaxed and he looked sad. He told me Ho Ho Ho again, but in a different voice and set me down. He told the next kid to come to him.
I walked over to Jacob and Franny. Franny was still asleep. I opened my present and it was a new notepad.
I’m writing this letter on one of its pages. Hopefully you will get this letter. The man at the mail station said he would be able to get it to you.
If you could write me a letter back, that would be great. I am putting my address on the bottom so you have it. They let us get mail here. I sometimes get letters from my old classmates. I promise not to show Jacob or anybody until they are a little older and understand that you couldn’t make it this year. But I’d like it to show them one day.
I know Santa isn’t Japanese. I know the Santa here was probably Mr. Fujita because he was the only dad in our block that wasn’t in the mess hall. I know that probably the guards or the army or the president didn’t let you in because other Japanese people in Japan were bad and killed lots of people. They probably wanted you to stay safe and not get scared coming to see us. I hope you know that me and Jacob and Franny and the people here aren’t like those Japanese. And that my Dad isn’t bad either. I know he is being held in New Mexico because they think he is bad, but I hope you visited him anyway and told him how we are doing and that we have been behaving well without him. I hope you know that we are good.
Maybe I will get to see you next year.
9-3-B, Camp I
About the Author
Christopher Berardino is a writer of Japanese-American descent from Orange County, CA. He received an MFA in Fiction from Cornell University in 2018. He has completed his first novel, Infamy, about the oft-forgotten Japanese Internment Camps. His work has previously appeared in Flash Fiction, Blind Corner Literary Journal, The Copperfield Review, FLARE: The Flagler Review, Pilgrimage, and others.