Rediscovery of my Asian Self – Reflections of a Japanese American Librarian

This article, by Debbie Quakenbush, was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on March 20, 2022.

I grew up in the 1960s during the turmoil of the Vietnam War, Woodstock, and draft resisters, the excitement of the first moon landing, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I have reached a point in my life where I am one of those people that says, “I remember when…” I used to roll my eyes when I would hear that and think, “Puh-lease! Are you repeating that story again?”

At the risk of you rolling your eyes, I remember the first time I experienced xenophobia. A classmate in 1st grade told me his uncle said I should “go back to where I came from” and that I didn’t belong here. I was confused; I was born here. I was born in a Catholic hospital in Denver. Did they mean I was supposed to go back to the hospital?

I felt confused and embarrassed at school. I was different. I didn’t fit in. I isolated myself on the playground until the monitors shooed me over to the rest of the students.

Growing up Sansei (third generation) Japanese American, my parents emphasized our family was American. I never learned to speak Japanese. I had Sunday school classmates that attended Nihon-Gakko (Japanese Language School) on Saturdays. When I asked my dad why I didn’t attend language school, his answer was, “You’re an American. You don’t need to learn Japanese.”

“You’re an American.” What exactly does this phrase mean? As a child I interpreted this message as Asian = Bad/Embarrassing. I tried to suppress the Japanese part of my life which was, well, everything. It was hard and conflicting. I love my family. I love sushi and Japanese food (long before Japanese food made inroads into the restaurant industry). I am Jodo Shinshu Buddhist. Don’t get me started on the conversation that took place with my 3rd grade classmates when I didn’t know who Jesus Christ was:  “You’re going to burn in hell!” At that point, I didn’t know what hell was either.

I didn’t learn of Japanese concentration camps until I was in 9th grade. This was long before the reparations movement.  I wrote a story about my grandfather for speech club, and grilled my mom for information. She spoke quietly and secretively about my family’s forced removal from California. She sounded hurt, scared and angry. I was shocked. The U.S. had done this to my mom and dad and thousands of other people. How could this happen? We are citizens.

It took me years to understand the impossible situation my family was in during World War II. I finally learned about my family’s history when I went to university and received my bachelor’s degrees in history and ethnic studies. I learned about the laws that made it impossible for my grandparents to advance and become U.S. citizens. The anti-immigration laws, anti-land ownership laws, anti-marriage laws, anti-naturalization laws. How the model minority myth is so harmful.

My parents were young when they were forced off the coast with their families. Mom was 7 years old, Dad was 6. Japanese community members were not supposed to gather in big groups. They were told to disperse into neighborhoods and assimilate into white culture. They lost everything. And yet, despite all of that trauma, my parents instilled in me the pride of being a citizen of the United States of America. They suppressed their pain and anger. They buried it so their children could grow up and be successful. They made terrific sacrifices for me and my siblings.

I believe one of the reasons I became a librarian was because I wanted to help people. People like my family, fleeing persecution and prejudice to find a better life. I have memories of my family frequenting the library and spending hours in the children’s section, selecting books and checking out stacks of materials. I remember my mother introducing me to the glorious card catalog system—so many drawers, so many possibilities! I remember moving into the adult stacks and discovering even more knowledge. The library was a wondrous place where you could explore many different worlds. The library gave me hope and imagination. I didn’t have to be the model minority or an exotic Asian female. I could be the chubby Asian girl struggling with math. I was a human being thirsting for knowledge, and the library gave me the ability to quench my thirst. The library validated my existence. The library is where I spent hundreds of hours conducting research, learning the history of my people. It gave me the ability to give voice to my family’s history as “voluntary” evacuees.

All of this reminiscing is to instill in each and every one of you this universal truth: We are all human beings. We all deserve respect, dignity and love. Consider another person’s perspective of the world we live in. Times have been challenging for everyone. The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in all of us. Let us try to focus on the best—the good. Let us reach out to our fellow human beings and support one another.


Debbie Quakenbush recently left Pima County Public Library to be closer to out-of-state family. Her library family misses her greatly, including her contributions to the Anti-Racism, Biblio Lotus, and Young Adult Services teams. She’ll be remembered at PCPL for her great sense of humor, teamwork, and excellent customer service.

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