Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Michiko Frances Chikahisa Interview
Narrator: Michiko Frances Chikahisa
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Skokie, Illinois
Date: June 17, 2011
Densho ID: denshovh-cmichiko-01-0020

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TI: So let's keep moving. Let's get you back to Los Angeles.

FC: Yeah, so then we stayed and as soon as the exclusion from the West Coast was lifted, my father actually came out in January of 1945 to kind of take a look at how things were, and he said that he was okay about coming back, thought it was, that it would not be too difficult. So as soon as school was over for me in May we moved to return to California.

TI: And so returning to the house, what was that like?

FC: That was, the Mexican family moved out the night before, left behind a dog. And so it was just my parents and I because my other, older sister had not yet come home and my younger sister was in the hospital. So for a brief period of time, and I remember more than the house was how Los Angeles had changed in the three years, with all the influx of workers for production and assembly, war production, the city was humming with people, all kinds of people, and traffic was much heavier than I remembered. So it was like, L.A. was kind of a sleepy city when we left, when we came back it was like a metropolis. And of course I, before the war I didn't have much freedom, just went to school and back. I didn't know much of the rest of the world. Coming back I had to find a way 'cause I had to finish high school, and my father, he had a hard time. He didn't know what to do. He had, he was too old to start a business again and he had depleted some of his savings over the war years, and he had lost a lot of his zest. Before he was always up and ready to go. So it took him over a year to kind of sort things through. He ended up becoming a gardener, and here he is in his late fifties pushing a lawnmower.

TI: So that must've been hard for him, just, from before the war he was doing so well, the business was doing so well. So he wasn't able to get back into the wholesale produce?

FC: He was thinking about it, but the business had changed so much 'cause you had supermarkets and you had unions to deal with, and he couldn't start a little tiny business. You had to have plenty cash, so he said he just couldn't see doing it. So the most secure thing was something where he got money on a regular basis. And then a lot of the other Issei men were also gardeners. There was a whole army of gardeners at that point. So he went out and cut grass in the neighborhood, and he was pretty philosophical about it. He said, "I get to see American families from the inside," and he would cut the grass and he, the ladies would offer him a soda and he'd sit and shoot the breeze with these ladies. [Laughs] He'd come home and tell us what they talked about. He was able to handle himself, manage somehow. And by this time my sister had come home and she was working. And I was going to Manual Arts High School for the one last year, and then, I don't know, got into UCLA without too much trouble. My grades were not that great, but I think UCLA, because they knew we had come back out of camp, they had kind of a, they were not as stringent. Course there were also all these GIs that were coming back from the war, and so they had to accept credentials that were not the best 'cause these GIs, I'm sure, a lot of 'em did not, did not even complete high school or did not do well in high school.

TI: It must've been an interesting transition for the universities because the GI Bill, all these vets coming back, many of them maybe not really super serious about studies but because of the GI Bill they were...

FC: And a lot of 'em were already married and they had kids, so they needed the money that the GI Bill gave 'em so they were pretty serious students. But sitting in class, I'm seventeen years old sitting in class next to a guy that's studying up for classes at night and he's got two or three children. It's, they would look at us and they say, gosh, I can't imagine sitting next to a teenager. [Laughs]

TI: Just two whole different worlds.

FC: And UCLA was just totally unprepared and the registration was a nightmare 'cause you had to go from classroom to classroom to try to get in, and the hallways were jammed with people.

TI: And so because of that you transferred?

FC: I hated it, yeah, 'cause it was so crowded and it was so impersonal. I didn't know anybody. I didn't feel connected to any faculty member. And then at that point I also decided I wanted to become a Catholic, so my parents finally said okay. My younger sister preceded me. She was baptized first and then I said I wanted to, so they didn't object. And once the nun at Maryknoll found out that I was gonna become a Catholic, she knew this professor at this Mount St. Mary's College and she said, "I'm gonna call her and ask her how we could get you transferred." So at that point UCLA's tuition was twenty-nine dollars a semester.

TI: [Laughs] Yeah, don't tell the current students that.

FC: So I said, well, I don't mind transferring, but my folks can't afford the tuition of a private school, so she said, we'll talk. So the Mount St. Mary's accepted me with twenty-nine dollar tuition.

TI: So you just had to pay the twenty-nine dollars, what you'd pay at UCLA.

FC: So they took me in, and then, I didn't realize it, this woman that Sister Esther knew was a Ph.D. social worker and she was teaching undergraduate social work, welfare at Mount, at the Mount. And she was only there for, like, probably five years, and I had her for two of those years. I mean, she was, she changed my life in terms of the direction I was gonna go. And she had just a few social work students; she was so determined that we were all gonna get some graduate education on this, so she taught this class like the BSW classes are today in universities. She taught it in a very professional basis. She made us go on field trips to all of these institutions, and it was an amazing curriculum.

TI: So that influenced -- before that, what did you think you were going to do?

FC: I thought, well, I thought maybe I'd take sociology. There was some interest, I wanted to get into teaching when I started 'cause my family always said I was good with kids, maybe I'd make a good elementary teacher. And so when I started UCLA the professor, the advisor said, well, what do you want, what major do you want? And I said I guess I'd like some teaching. He said -- at that point L.A. teachers were all white. There were no minorities in education in L.A. city's school system, so he said, "If you get your degree and this district does not change you're not gonna find any employment." And he said, "Had you thought about that?" And I said no, I hadn't even given it consideration. So he said, "Try to think of a broader base curriculum," so I said maybe sociology. I could go work for the welfare department. And he said, "Okay, that's maybe, at least you'd be able to get a job." So that's how I did, and then when I went to Mount St. Mary's I realized that there was more of a professional side to social work. Now, I had some connections with social workers as a result of my sisters being sick, and in camp, talking to administrators when you were being processed through, so I did know that there were social workers, but I didn't have any direct contact. I thought it was kind of an interesting career, to be able to help people.

TI: So when you met this woman it just all came together.

FC: Came together, yeah. And she latched onto me. She saw me as a potential professional person. And Father Lavery, in the meantime, also had thought that I had some potential, so he encouraged me to continue in, and he was happy I decided to change to this Catholic college.

TI: Well, and also convert, to be baptized too, all that. [Laughs] You're a long term project, all those years.

FC: [Laughs] That's right.

TI: I'm curious, did he still drive the car?

FC: No, he gave us the car as soon as we got back.

TI: Okay.

FC: Yeah. In fact, I think I learned, no, I didn't learn to drive on that car.

TI: And so did your father use that in his business, use that car?

FC: No, he got an old car, a coupe, and then he built a truck in the back.

TI: I see.

FC: And so he did his work, and then later he bought a truck. But I guess we sold the Chrysler by that time.

<End Segment 20> - Copyright © 2011 Densho. All Rights Reserved.