By Lindsey Yoneda
“Where are you from?”
That’s the million-dollar question I’ve been getting for 22 years.
“I’m from Omaha,” I’d answer.
“No but where are you really from?”
With my olive skin, almond eyes, thick dark hair and ambiguous last name, it turns into a sort of entertaining guessing game for some people.
“You want entertainment?” I’d think. “Here’s a joke: so a Japanese Buddhist and a Polish Jew walk into a bar … and now here I am. But I’m still from Omaha.”
Of course, no one is ever satisfied with the short answer to that question. And of course, there is indeed more to that story. After my parents met at a bar in 1984, they got married four years later. Three years after that, my older sister, Elyssa, came along.
But let’s rewind many years before those two serendipitous lovers crossed paths at an Omaha bar.
My dad, Stephen Yoneda, was born in Wahiawa, Hawaii, in 1959, a couple months before Hawaii became an official state. His parents, Ellen Tanaka and Tsuneichi Yoneda, were also born in Hawaii. Their parents, Yosaku Yoneda, Wakano Kinoshita, Komakichi Tanaka and Kine Fujimoto, were all born in Japan and didn’t speak a drop of English. Unfortunately, the only Japanese my dad retained from attending Japanese school is the curse words he picked up from other raucous kids.
The extent of my dad’s communication with his Japanese immigrant grandparents was when Grandma Komakichi would call home asking to speak to her daughter in rapid Japanese, and my dad could only say, “Mommy’s not home,” before hanging up the phone.
I will never know how, why or when my great-grandparents immigrated to Hawaii from Japan. We can only guess they were likely part of the first wave of Japanese immigrants recruited to work in the Hawaiian sugarcane plantations in the late 1800s to early 1900s. My dad still wishes he had asked more about his history before his parents and grandparents died.
My mother comes from an entirely different background. She was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, as were her parents, Eileen Epstein and Wayne Siegel, and her grandparents. Her paternal great-grandparents, Abraham and Gisha Winer and Aaron and Mildred Siegel, emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s.
The events in Poland at the time most likely influenced why Abraham immigrated to the United States. The king of Poland was assassinated in 1881. His death, which was falsely blamed on Jews, prompted many Polish Jews to flee the country after a wave of anti-Semitic riots and killings broke out. Abraham immigrated first to Canada, then to New York and then to Omaha. After working as a blacksmith and saving enough money, he sent for his wife, Gisha, and their two children, who arrived through Ellis Island. After the family settled in Omaha, they had another daughter, who would be my grandfather’s mother.
My grandfather recalls fond memories of his feisty 4-foot-9 grandmother, Bubbie (Yiddish for grandmother) Gisha, chasing a bull that escaped from the stockyard out of her garden in their south Omaha home. He also raved about the homemade gefilte fish and noodles she would make for Passover dinners, which is where my childhood nickname “lang lokshn” (which means long noodle in Yiddish) originated. Although Bubbie Gisha learned to speak broken English, she never learned to read or write it so her recipes passed along with her. Like my father, my grandfather wishes he had asked more about his history when his elders were alive.
So there you have it. That’s the long answer to the haunting, never-ending “where are you really from” question. Maybe one day the short answer will suffice.