In the wake of the recent controversy surrounding Asian-American, Harvard grad Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks, I found myself musing about the situation of minority groups who have such difficulty blending into the stereotypical American landscape. One of the reasons, it seems, that Jeremy Lin burst into the news as some kind of phenomenon is because of racial stereotypes about his athletic ability. It is not dissimilar from the experiences of individuals in other races or ethnic groups who are assumed to lack academic ability because of their bloodline.
Unlike our long history with Blacks and Hispanics on the American continent, the Asian American as a prominent group in our society is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, I remember growing up in Austin, a city where Asians or their children – outside the University campus – appeared few and far between. It’s probably safe to say that knowledge about Asians was gleaned from the movies of Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, and World War II.
In my Dallas family, however, there was one Asian American who had played a prominent role for decades as the family physician. Dr. William Tsukahara of Japanese ancestry even delivered me into this world. But more significantly, he demonstrated to me and many that the kindly family doctor does not have to look like Marcus Welby, M.D.
Dr. Tsukahara, called “Suk” (pronounced “Suke”) was the doctor who cared for grandparents, mother, and aunt, and other members of the extended family. He saw my mother through all of her childhood diseases, including diptheria, when she was quarantined and my grandmother had to boil everything she touched. He was also the doctor who delivered my aunt, Jeri, and saw her through polio, recommending that she not be hospitalized like other children suffering from the disease. He believed that the spinal tap required by the hospital to confirm the diagnosis, made the condition worse, having seen it first-hand in his own daughter and other patients. This, of course, required more work on his part, but Jeri attributes her complete recovery to his care and advice. I’ll never forget the time or two I came from Austin to Dallas at Christmas time and I was taken to see Suk, who delivered me from severe cedar fever symptoms.
I asked Jeri if she ever thought it was strange that she would have a doctor of Japanese descent, and as you would suspect, she said she never thought twice about it. That was her normal; he was just part of her family. She remembered him as a roly-poly man with a beautiful speaking voice, and that she always felt better after going to see him – even if she was still sick.
Not too many years ago, something triggered my memories of him and I was struck with the idea that, unlike other Japanese Americans during World War II, he and his family were not forced into the internment camps. And why, I wondered, was Dr. Tsukahara living in Dallas, Texas in the first place? By the time my questions arose — since it was my previously unquestioned normal, too — I had only my aunt left as a source and she didn’t have many answers although she was confident he had been born in Texas. Luckily, with the advent of the internet, I was able to satisfy my curiosity and learn the interesting history of his family.
From a google search, I easily retrieved a very informative article at the Baylor University Medical Center website about Dr. Tsukahara and other Asian-American doctors at the Center written by Dr. Masashi Kawasaki . The story of Dr. Tsukahara and his family, I discovered, was quite an interesting thread in the tapestry of our history.
Dr. Tsukahara’s uncle, Kinta Tsukahara, was the first in the family to settle in Texas. Kinta arrived in 1885 and settled in Honey Springs, Dallas County, Texas (annexed to Dallas in 1946). Kinta was one of three Japanese Texans recorded in the 1890 census. The other two resided in Cameron and Tarrant counties. Kinta worked at the Overton Farm in Honey Springs. The magnificent Overton homestead, built in 1844, is known as the oldest occupied home in Dallas County.
As Dr. Kawasaki writes, in those days, most people from Japan emigrated one at a time. If circumstances were favorable and the family could find the resources, the next chosen male family member would be sent to join his family member. If location prospects in North America continued to be positive and the necessary funds were available, sometimes the entire family would come. Kinta, a farmer, came a year after the Meiji Restoration sanctioned general emigration. Emperor Meiji embraced the principles of the Industrial, American, and French Revolutions and dreamed of sending people abroad to learn and, subsequently return to westernize Japan.
Thus, in 1900, his brother, Kinya Tsukahara immigrated to Texas at the age of 26. Rather than farm like his brother, Kinya wanted to follow the medical profession as previous generations in his family had done. He had already graduated from Saisei Medical College in Tokyo in 1899, but for licensing reasons, Kinya entered Baylor University College of Medicine in 1904. At that time, medical school was generally completed in 2 years; Kinya graduated on April 24, 1906 and joined the staff as an intern at the newly created Texas Baptist Memorial Sanitarium. In 1908, he opened a private practice of medicine and surgery in Honey Springs.
At some point during these years, Kinya’s Japanese wife joined him in Dallas. From this arranged marriage, six children were born: Henry Chuken, William Chono, Woodrow Chubin, Theodore Chusho, Mary Kura, and Berta Takako. All the children were given western first names and Japanese middle names. While many Japanese immigrants returned to Japan and aided in its planned westernization — Kinya and his older brother remained in Dallas and contributed to their chosen community.
Kinya Tsukahara’s son and our family doctor, William Chono, was born in 1912 in Honey Springs. Enrolling in medical school in 1930 at age 18, William received his degree from Baylor University College of Medicine 4 years later (more requirements by then), and interned at Baylor Hospital. In 1938, he served as health officer of the Texas Centennial Observance in Dallas and then established his medical practice on Forest Avenue in South Dallas (now MLK Boulevard). Kawasaki notes that he was not forced into Japanese internment camps during the war because he did not live on the West Coast. Government security officials, however, scrutinized his everyday activities during that time. [My aunt remembered my grandmother saying that he lost many patients as a result of the war and that his practice never thrived to the degree it had pre-war.]
Dr. Tsukahara was married twice and fathered six children, 5 daughters and one son. Devoted to his patients, he maintained his practice throughout 6 years of dialysis treatment. He treated patients up until the day before his death in 1980, at age 68.
I would have loved the opportunity to have known Dr. Tsukahara better, but what I learned from him was enough to last a lifetime. Through this modest man, one of a progressive America, but still possessing the sensibilities of his Japanese culture, I realized the value of looking beyond superficial appearances based on ancestry. I’m sure he would be surprised to learn that 30 years after his death, that there are many people like me who still remember him fondly and, more importantly, attribute him with their exposure to a life-long, incurable affliction: racial blindness.
Similarly, I hope that Jeremy Lin spreads the same affliction to a younger generation. By ignoring the racist epitaphs and comments hurled his way, he has shown great class and courage, demonstrating once again that an individual can transcend their preconceived categories.
I just wonder when we, as a people, can transcend our tendency to conceive of such categories.