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Ships, Bridges and Barriers: My Family

What it means to be an immigrant in America, then and now

By Tomi Nagai-Rothe

(Editor's note: The following is a guest essay from a Next Avenue partner, Diverse Elders Coalition.  The opinions reflected in the piece do not necessarily reflect those of Next Avenue.)

My grandfather passed through the Golden Gate — where the Golden Gate Bridge would later be constructed — in October 1903. He was on a ship from Japan that had stopped in Honolulu. The ship’s manifest notes that he was none of the following: an anarchist, a polygamist or a cripple.

The author's grandfather, Uhei Nagai  |  Credit: Courtesy of Tomi Nagai-Rothe

My grandfather arrived in the time between The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and The Immigration Act of 1924 (which included The Asian Exclusion Act and The National Origins Act). By 1924, the U.S. government had completely blocked the immigration of people it deemed undesirable including Asians, Arabs, people with disabilities, formerly incarcerated people, people with a history of physical or mental health issues and the poor — along with anarchists and polygamists. In addition, the U.S. severely limited the number of African immigrants and tried to control the number of Southern and Eastern Europeans and European Jews. All of this in order to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity,” according to The Immigration Act of 1924.

You can read this as a list of what the U.S. feared or saw as incompatible with being “American.” Today, some things have changed: our government is not supposed to discriminate against people based on their religion or country of origin and a narrative has developed of the U.S. as a salad bowl or mixing pot. But some things have not changed: our country is still afraid of immigrants — what they bring and what they represent. The hoops that people must jump through have become much more rigorous than the pro-forma questions my grandfather was asked in Honolulu.

After working in a San Francisco restaurant, my grandfather crossed the bay by ferry and started his own business in Oakland — the New York Café on Broadway. My grandmother arrived in 1917, my father was born in 1918 and five siblings followed. My dad and his brothers and sisters grew up helping out in the restaurant located in Oakland’s Japan Town.

The author's grandfather at his restaurant, the New York Café, in Oakland  |  Credit: Courtesy of Tomi Nagai-Rothe

My dad impressed upon me the long hours and hard work required to run a restaurant. As the oldest son, he had the responsibility of helping in the family business as well as corralling his younger siblings.

My grandfather arrived in Honolulu with $0.50 and no command of English. Of the 30 men listed on the same page of the ship manifest, one other person had $0.50, and seven arrived with no money at all. I can only imagine what it took my grandfather to survive, work and eventually build a business. Still, it makes sense that he chose to create his own employment as someone who probably faced job discrimination. Being enough of a risk taker to leave home, family and country translates into being entrepreneurial.

“Immigrants today are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born citizens . . . Despite accounting for only about 13 percent of the population, immigrants now start more than a quarter of new businesses in this country.” (, February 2015)

In the years before the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Dad took the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco to attend a post-secondary program at Galileo High School. He later told me about the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1936, and recounted walking on the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 before it opened.

In the late 1930s, Dad studied photography with Ansel Adams at the Art Center School (now ArtCenter College of Design) in Pasadena and had begun work as a photographer. However, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942, all of his career plans went out the window.

Dad described it as a terrible time. Oakland and the entire country turned against the Japanese-American community for no good reason. Newspapers, labor unions, government officials and business owners — afraid of Imperial Japan — turned against law-abiding U.S. citizens of Japanese descent and their Japanese-born relatives.

I am an American
Credit: Dorothea Lange | Library of Congress

Dorothea Lange’s well-known photo of the Wanto Company sign “I am an American” was hung on the grocery store located at 8th and Franklin in Oakland. My grandparents knew the family as other business owners in Japan Town.

The sign may have been as much for the white community as parts of the Asian community, as Chinese and Filipinos worked hard to distinguish themselves from Japanese, for fear of being targeted.

In the entire country, only two groups — the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker organization) and the California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spoke out against the imprisonment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in U.S. concentration camps. The California ACLU challenged the constitutionality of the incarceration in federal court (note: the national ACLU was silent on the issue).

My grandfather lost his restaurant and my dad’s family was sent to Tanforan Racetrack with what they could carry. Plywood boards were put down in the horse stalls and families were housed there. Dad lived at Tanforan for four months and then he and his family were sent to Topaz Concentration Camp in Utah — which he described as incredibly dry and dusty — to live in Army-type barracks.


The government allowed people to leave camp if they could find a job and a guarantor in the Midwest or East. My dad immediately started writing to references and potential employers. One of his references wrote to the War Relocation Authority that, “In this writer’s opinion it would be unwise to depend upon his Americanization or loyalty to this country.” If they were unclouded by fear and bigotry and only knew what a straight arrow my father was! (Dad was hesitant to vote for Barack Obama because he had an outstanding parking ticket when he ran for President.)

He overcame that letter and left for Chicago in June 1943. He got to know my mother, who was best friends with his sister, and they were married in 1944.

The author's parents, winning a car  |  Credit: Courtesy of Tomi Nagai-Rothe

In the 1950s, a Chicago radio station held a contest with a new car as the prize. Listeners sent in their phone numbers to be called to answer a question: Which bridge connects San Francisco and Oakland, California? Everyone answered the “Golden Gate Bridge” which actually connects San Francisco and Marin County. This went on for three weeks — totally inconceivable today. My dad told all of his friends, “If they call you, say ‘the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge!’” Then one day they called him, and he won the car. My parents received the keys to the car during an appearance on a local TV show.

May 27 was the 80th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. This year, I thought about my parents (who both have passed) whose wedding anniversary is May 27. In 1987 my family and I were living in a house that overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge and my parents joined us to celebrate their 43rd anniversary and the bridge’s 50th. My dad told stories about how the entire bridge was open to pedestrians the day before it opened.

I think about Dad strolling across the bridge in the spot my grandfather’s ship had passed in 1903 — the year this poem was mounted at the base of the Statue of Liberty, the “mother of exiles.”

“. . . Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. . .”

— Emma Lazarus, from The New Colossus (1883)

I share this quote in the hope we will all truly take these words to heart.

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Tomi Nagai-Rothe is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Leapfrog Consulting. She also designs and visually facilitates meetings, creates Big Picture Maps, teaches these skills to non-profit/public sector organizations and coaches leaders. Tomi just celebrated her “Kanreki” — 60th birthday milestone (in Japanese culture) — and enjoys reflecting on the elder chapter of life. Read More
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