The Sense Of Belonging
One major question philosophers seek for answers is who we are, and to answer that they often ask where people are from and where they belong to. Each individual in the planet belongs to a family or a home, where their parents gave birth to the individual; people belong to countries and nations where they enjoy having rights and at the same time have certain obligations; ever since they are born, people also belong to different races and cultures. In the novel When the Emperor was Divine, there is one specific Japanese family that is sent to an internment camp in Utah along with thousands of other Japanese American families. Even though the novel focuses on one certain family, Otsuka still introduces the universalities of belonging to a home, a nation, and a specific racial group, to deliver the message that they are unchangeable and irreplaceable in people’s lives, and to encourage people to help others around them to feel like they belong.
Through the description of how important the home of the Japanese American family is to the four members in the family, Otsuka conveys the universality of being part of a home. Home might be a house people live in or certain family members, but no matter how it is defined, it symbolizes happiness and belonging. In the book, the first thing the mom does in the morning when she is in the camp is to reach for her keys, and the last thing she does before going to bed is to touch the keys again to make sure they were still there (Otsuka 107). The keys are symbols of home and where she comes from, and her touching the keys every day has become a habit of self-comforting. When the mom has the keys, she feels secured and reconciled; even though she is not home, she still has the hope and expectation of homecoming, and it makes her feel better psychologically. Likewise, through the description about the boy’s nostalgia, Otsuka also reveals the importance of home. When the boy is in the camp, he often worries about “the bicycle he’d left behind, chained to the trunk of the persimmon tree. Had the tires gone flat yet? Were the spokes rusted and clogged with weeds? Was the key to the lock still hidden in the shed?” (Otsuka 89). Those detailed memories about home still appear in his head when he is away, and he constantly thinks of home. The elements related to his white stucco house are mentioned over and over under his narrative tone, and they show the importance of home to him and the significant influence it has on him. Through writing about the pain the family endure of not being able to come home, Otsuka delivers the message of the irreplaceable role home plays in our lives and the importance for people.
Besides the smaller homes people live in, there is also a broader home they belong to, that is their nation, and in the book Otsuka introduced the importance of being citizens of a country by writing about the Japanese family being citizens of the United States. The woman has been a citizen of the United States for over twenty years. Nevertheless, she is asked to claim her loyalty to the country and forswear her allegiance to the Japanese emperor, and she comments that it’s all just words (Otsuka 99). The woman does not feel like she belongs to her country because she is forced to acknowledge her loyalty within mere words instead of actions, and as a citizen, she doesn’t get to enjoy the rights that she is supposed to have, like being trusted and given freedom by the country. Similarly, the father of the children is treated ill by the country as well. He angrily cries that “I’m the traitor in your own backyard” (Otsuka 143). As a citizen of the country, he should have been trusted but is given the name of a traitor; as a result, he lost faith in the government and is disappointed and hopeless at his own situation and at the existing social issue. Neither the mom nor the dad is treated well as citizens and neither feel like they really belong to the country, so neither of them sincerely love the country or enjoy being citizens. Otsuka uses them as negative examples to show that it is very crucial for citizens to enjoy the rights they have and fulfill obligations as citizens, and that citizens should be treated equally without prejudice or bias.
One of the reasons why the Japanese family is not treated equally is their different race and culture, and Otsuka uses this to deliver the message about the universality of belonging to a certain race and ethnicity. The boy finds similarities among all Japanese people and says that “for it was true, they all looked alike. Black hair. Slanted eyes. High cheekbones. Thick glasses. Thin lips. Bad teeth. Unknowable. Inscrutable” (Otsuka 49). He acknowledges these stereotypes against Japanese people and embraces his origin and culture. He is in a different country but deeply understands that he is Japanese and that he is from a different place. However, because of the unequal treatment they receive as Japanese American, they are forced to hide their identity by not talking on the phone in Japanese and not greeting a person using the Japanese manner (Otsuka 84). They have to hide their identity not because they are ashamed of it, but because they know people would avoid and alienate them. Not being able to completely embrace and feel like they belong to the culture and race is pitiful because it means self-denial; like what happens to the Japanese family, sometimes people are under too much pressure to fully embrace their origins and cultures. There are outside factors that influence how they think as well and Otsuka tries to promote the idea and importance of being part of an ethnicity and culture without having to conceal it.
The feelings of belonging to the three things, including a home, a nation, and a race not only applies to the Japanese family Otsuka writes about, but also to a broader and more universal audience. Like the Japanese family, everyone needs to feel comfortable about these three things to have a better life. Only when we feel like we belong to our homes, countries and races can we fully accept and embrace ourselves, and can we truly understand who we are and be who we really are.
Information: When the Emperor was Divine- Julie Otsuka
revision comments: this is one of the first five paragraphs essay I wrote for freshmen composition class, and I only changed the tenses in the revision process as the rest has been revised several times and looks good to me.