Cathy Tashiro

My story for Columbia 68

I’ve been in a reflective mood because of the book I’m working on about older people of mixed race, so that probably comes through in this story. I ended up writing more than I expected to about my history before Columbia, and then it was getting too long, so I condensed the post-Columbia 68 part. I’ll be happy to fill in the details in person next week for anyone who’s interested.

I was born in Cincinnati in 1946 to a Nissei (second-generation, US-born) Japanese American father who became a doctor, and my mother is from a white working class family from Kentucky. My parents got together right at the end of World War II when there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment, and my mother was initially disowned by my grandfather for marrying my father. Eventually, when the children started coming, my mother was accepted back into her family. In our immediate family life though, it seemed that the class and gender power differences mattered at least as much as the racial ones.

My early years were spent in some very isolated places in upstate New York and Michigan. My father had a series of jobs working in tuberculosis sanitariums, and we lived on the grounds of these institutions. It only occurred to me much later that these might have been the only jobs available to him as a Japanese American doctor right after WWII. We were very isolated. My happiest memories are of the summers we spent at my Japanese grandparents’ summer home because my aunt and uncle and their children were also there. It felt like we were our own tribe, and it was the only time in my childhood that I had a sense of belonging.

I spent my formative adolescent years in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in a very small town in upstate New York where the parents of most of the kids I knew either farmed or worked in the slipper factory. Again, aside from my family, the town was white, albeit ethnically diverse. There was “Guinea Alley” (this was before politically correct speech) where many of the Italians lived, and being Catholic seemed to forge a bond that overcame ethnic boundaries for Italians and Poles. I didn’t think of my town as white. To my adolescent eyes, people just were who they were. But who I was, and how I fit in, were mysteries. Race at that time and place meant Negro. I wasn’t Negro, but I knew I was different. When I was 14, my father left our family, and remarried. It was a difficult time. I did well in high school, and credit my great high school English teacher with teaching me how write an academic paper, and encouraging me to go to Barnard.

I achieved my liberation from this town by being an overachiever and getting a Regents Scholarship, plus a scholarship to Barnard. I arrived in New York in fall of ‘64 and never looked back until many, many years later when I discovered that I needed to reconcile that part of my life with the present. When I say liberation, I mean it! New York was my first real city, and will always be THE city to me. I also felt quite liberated and a sense of camaraderie being around radical Jews. They/you were smart, irreverent, and didn’t exactly fit either.

I have to say, my Barnard education was largely wasted on me. I wouldn’t take a class if it met before 10am. Aside from the strike, some of what comes to mind when I think of that era: Malcolm X’s speech at Barnard a few days before he was assassinated, hearing John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Janis Joplin, Cream, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Velvet Underground, seeing James Earl Jones in a Brecht play…I could go on and on, but what a time to be in New York! You may find this hard to believe, but this was also the first time I ate yoghurt. Remember Take-Home?

Unlike so many of you who arrived at Columbia with considerable political knowledge and experience, coming from a small town I was quite ignorant politically. It’s embarrassing, but I remember fall of my freshman year that I was actually for Goldwater! Not that I had any idea why, it’s just that my family had always been Republican. But I think it was later in my freshman year that I attended my first antiwar teach-in and things started to change. I probably went because I had a crush on some guy who was going. I knew next to nothing about Vietnam, and didn’t understand a lot of the speeches, but one thing struck me in a film that was shown at the teach-in. These people had Asian faces. There was something familiar about them that resonated with me. I started going to rallies at the Sundial. I hung out with some folks who later became notorious. I went to some meetings. It’s funny, more than the endless discussions of correct lines and actions, it’s the mimeograph machines that stick in my memory.

I started my first serious relationship towards the end of my sophomore year. I have Jon to thank for so very much. We went to some antiwar demonstrations together, including the one at the Pentagon, where we took the train down to D.C. and back. I still remember seeing the MP’s beating up the people in front of us. And no, the Pentagon did not levitate.

I honestly don’t remember how I ended up in Math Hall. My brother’s girlfriend Pam and I volunteered to take care of the food. I thought this was something helpful I could do, never giving a second thought to how gendered my behavior was – nor to the fact that I knew nothing about cooking! It was actually a lot of fun – I remember canvassing for money for the food in the West End and around the campus and getting lots of positive vibes and money. I don’t know how we put it all together, but Math Hall was well fed. Somehow we got stuff like spaghetti and chicken, and I remember Johnny Sundstrom disapprovingly asking us why we didn’t get lentils or something more practical. I barely knew what a lentil was.

My memories of Math are a series of impressions. I see many of your faces, though I don’t remember all of your names. What I remember most is feeling like you were my family, only better, without all the guilt and angst and depression. Being in Math was exhilarating and transcendent, a true peak experience that has deeply influenced the rest of my life. I felt that I/we could do extraordinary things. I was happy there in a way that’s been hard to match. It was a political happiness. I felt like I was with comrades, that I belonged, and that we were changing the world.
Selectively abridged life since Columbia 68

Fall 1968 – Moved to Berkeley

68-69 – Did community stuff on Kearny St. in SF Chinatown, Third World Liberation Front demos in Berkeley

Spring 69 – People’s Park demonstration, busted because a plainclothes cop from Texas identified me as being “with a bunch of Orientals throwing rocks at the police.” Not true, but it didn’t matter, and I was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. An “aha” moment for me; no, I was not white, and I had better watch my ass. I spent some time in the county jail with women accused of murder and prostitution who had been in for months waiting for their court appearances – a very illuminating experience.

1969-70 – Hung out with some strange left groups.

Winter 70-71 – Escaped to Brattleboro, Vt.

1971-1973 – Nursing school at Merritt Community College in Oakland – who could make a living with a Columbia degree in Oriental Studies? I was inspired to become a health worker by the barefoot doctors in China.

1975-76 – spent time traveling in Mexico and Central America

1977-81 – moved to Tucson, became a Family Nurse Practitioner, ran an urban Native American community clinic.

1979 – went to Cuba, which had a big influence on me

1982-83 – returned to Bay Area, got my masters in public health at Berkeley.

1983 & 1984 – to Nicaragua on solidarity trips with the Committee for Health Rights in Central America – more peak experiences.

1985-2000 – worked in a variety of jobs in public health, clinic management, and diversity programs. Got involved with a group interested in forming intentional, non-spiritual community. I was interested in the housing part, and out of this came a small group housing situation in Oakland that I was a part of until moving to Tacoma in 2000.

Got married and returned to school to get my PhD in Sociology at UC San Francisco.

2000 – Carl and I moved to Tacoma, Washington so I could take a faculty job at the University of Washington Tacoma where I teach classes on social justice and health, community and population health, the health effects of exclusion and inclusion, and health and aging in a diverse society. I’m still getting to know the community here, and I try to get my students involved as much as possible. My most recent research has been on the impact of relocation on the residents of a large multiethnic housing project. I’m currently on sabbatical working on a book based on focused life histories with older people of mixed race. Recently I’ve been getting into meditation, prompted by some health issues.

- by Cathy Tashiro
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