Densho Digital Repository
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Alan Nishio Interview
Narrator: Alan Nishio
Interviewer: Brian Niiya
Location: Gardena, California
Date: November 12, 2018
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-450-10

[Correct spelling of certain names, words and terms used in this interview have not been verified.]

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BN: And then you mentioned that you got involved with a lot of, you got politically engaged.

AN: Yeah, first with the Free Speech Movement, and then civil rights, later things, and then near the end, the Vietnam War. But then I graduated and then had to look at what I was going to do with my life. So there was three tracks I was thinking, one was the Peace Corps, another was actually, I was thinking of going to seminary, which is a whole other... during this time, I was studying existentialism, Christian existentialism. And so I was communicating with this theologian named Paul Tillich, I don't know if you've ever heard of Paul Tillich. But Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, who were both at Union Theological Seminary. And so I read some of Tillich's stuff, so I was kind of corresponding, saying, "I'd be interested," blah, blah. It was just pretty much a form thing, "Oh, yeah, we have this program." And so I was thinking of going, not to become a minister, but just to study Christian existentialism because both Niebuhr and Tillich were both at Union. So that was a possibility, or doing graduate work. And so fortunately or unfortunately, Tillich passed away during my senior year, and Reinhold Niebuhr transferred, came to Santa Barbara to work at the Center for Study of Democratic Institutions. So then they kind of left Union, so that left that whole branch of theology.

So then I decided to do graduate work, so applied to UCLA and SC. UCLA said, "You're accepted." SC gave me money, so I went to SC. SC was a breeze because Berkeley had prepared me well. But SC was not very rigorous academically. Because what I was studying was called public administration, a lot of students were working professionals, and so it was not particularly hard. Plus, during that time, my dad died during my first semester, and so in the middle of my first semester. And so he died in May, so I guess it was near the end of my first semester. He died in May, but left us with some medical bills. So I had to take over his gardening route while I was going to school. And so this was like, it was a crazy semester and so I had to... and my dad had no records of anything, so I had to rebuild from my working with him who the customers were, and so I took over his gardening route. But he was not, like I say, he didn't work a lot. So I compressed the gardening route so I would go take the gardening truck to school on Friday, do my Friday morning classes, and then go gardening Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and then what I didn't finish by Saturday I'd do on Sunday. So I'd kind of put together his whole route into two days. So I had to do that while studying. But fortunately, like I said, I didn't have to study that hard. But it was a crazy time. So I did that during that summer and then the year, the next year, I finished all that.

BN: So this would be '67-'68?

AN: '67-'68, yeah. So I finished my master's in '68 and was starting the doctoral program, but then I decided I was going to do this fellowship, take a couple years off and then resume my doctoral studies. But then that's when, like I said, we got the Center, so that was an exciting time. We were doing community organizing, training in black and brown communities. And so I was very much engaged in working with the Panthers, at this time Us, which was another organization, Black Congress, La Raza, so there was just a lot of folks, there was a lot of organizing going on. And that kind of changed my life script because I got much more engaged in that. And then after a year of that, I was approached to join the UCLA Asian American Studies staff, so I kind of moved into that. Just transitions from one thing to another. I mentioned that at UCLA it was a great time because of just learning about Asian American Studies, working with students, etcetera.

The first year was an exciting and fun time, and I enjoyed the excitement. The second year was when I had to be the acting director, was not a fun time. I was just blown away by being, when I was, what, all of twenty-five, at that time, and having to be, quote, a department... well, it's what Karen is doing now. But attending these meetings where I was, like, twenty years younger than anyone else there, and I was obviously not taken seriously by anyone, where they just kind of said, "Oh, yeah, well, it's the Ethnic Studies guy, Asian American Studies." So they just kind of patronized or ignored. And then just the dynamics of Asian American Studies, I was must more engaged with the students there, and saw myself as a student advocate. But having to take on these different roles, it was just this strange time to be having to act like a department chair. And then we would play poker like once a month with different folks, including the vice chancellor, was part of this poker thing. So I got to meet him, his name was David Saxon at that time, through poker more than administrative kinds of things. So that's kind of, I got soured on that, so I decided I wanted to leave UCLA and probably leave academia and go back to another life.

BN: And then when you started, you also were teaching some courses.

AN: Yeah, that was awful.

BN: You were kind of making it up.

AN: Literally I was there and we didn't have many classes, and there was this experimental center for educational development. So one weekend I developed this course called Comparative Analysis of Asian American Community Organizations because that was kind of what I worked on. I was a TA at SC, so I tried to adapt that. I put together the syllabus, it was approved, so I was teaching that class, and I didn't know what I was doing, there was no material, so I had to wing that and pull that together. And then developed with Mike Murase and some others, we developed this course for Gidra talking about the role of media in Asian American communities, so we did that class. But that was kind of more of a Gidra related class, and so did all of these things. But it was crazy, and it was very stressful for me, because I just wanted to be doing... but being put in that kind of administrative environment at a relatively inexperienced and young age. No one took me seriously, and I wouldn't take myself seriously either, because just knowing what the dynamics were, but that just turned me off. And then just the teaching was not the most fun. Because, one, I didn't have a lot of material, I wasn't necessarily an expert in the field, because it was an emerging field. And then just the dynamics of students was interesting, because they were just a few years younger than me, and having to deal with that, the pluses and minuses of having some really good folks like Kenyon Chan, Mike Murase, Stuart Kuo, that were in the classes, Bruce Iwasaki, was fun. But also other students that were just kind of looking for easy grades, etcetera, and were trying to cruise through, and were gaming and just trying to think, "Oh, yeah, this is a class that I don't have to do any work." So it bothered me that people didn't take this seriously, so trying to kind of require all that. So it was an interesting time, glad I got through it. So because of all that and all the other things going, I decided not to continue. So I finished my course work for my doctorate, but I decided to -- and took my exams, but I decided I didn't want to continue with that direction, because I didn't see myself continuing in academia. I saw myself doing something other than that. But then I ended up with a career in academia, so it just kind of all fell together.

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