The term “war bride” was used to describe those ladies who essentially married men who invaded their nations. Personally, I like to say that my Japanese mother never married a war so why is she labeled as the wife of one?
While the difficulties of growing up biracial are significant, having a foreign parent is no piece of cake either. As the white American children at our school carried tin lunch boxes adorned with popular cartoon figures, my sister and I endured the humiliation of oblong leatherette lunch bags embroidered with a Japanese crest. Trust me, it was so not cool to display Japanese symbols back in the day when people still freely spouted the word “Jap”. For my sister and me, our mother’s foreign-ness was cause for shame. Today, of course, we feel lucky to have had such a loving okasan inundating us with her rich culture. But for a child singled out because of a foreign parent, being unique among her peers was not necessarily welcomed.
This week’s Hip Hapa Homee was such a child, too. Meet Michele Thomas, aka Belgian War Baby, whose photo appears above. Michele created and manages a website dedicated to war brides. Check it out; then, read our interview with her, below:
Q: What’s a nice half-Belgian girl like you doing with a website about World War II war brides?
A: I became interested in war brides back in the 1980’s when I asked my mother, a lady I met one day in the supermarket who was also Belgian, and her friend (a war bride from France) to have lunch. At the time I was living in Northern Louisiana and didn’t know of anyone there who talked like my mom. Each war bride brought along her daughter, so there were seven of us. We daughters heard stories about our mothers that we had never heard before. It was very interesting. I knew I had to learn more about these strong women who did not speak English yet married American GI’s and left their families behind to start new lives.
Q: When did you start collecting these women’s stories?
A: I started my website in 1999, and my first answered questionnaire and stories from strangers started at that time.
Q: What is the most unusual story you’ve heard from a WWII war bride?
A: There are so many! It’s amazing to me that some of the brides would leave children behind in orphanages or with family members. Some women were also married when they had affairs with good-looking GI’s and ended up giving their children away. There are also stories about women being abandoned after arriving in the U.S.--the U.S. had given these women a one-way ticket here.
Q: What was it like for your mother to experience war as a civilian in Belgium?
A: It was very hard because the Germans were in her homeland. Her father was taken prisoner for awhile, and she was also questioned by the SS for being a spy. She was a high school girl on a field trip to the Atlantic Ocean and bought a red, white and blue nautical scarf as a souvenir. The SS took her in, and her father had to convince them that she had only purchased a souvenir. She was so scared. It was hard for her seeing so many friends disappear or put in prisons.
And, like most war brides, she met my father at a dance.
Q: I’ve said before that white Americans with foreign mothers share similar experiences with people of color. While it’s true that you could blend easier into the mainstream than me, culturally, you’re still different. In what ways did your mother bring you up differently from the average American kid?
A: One of the biggest things is the fact that we were not prejudiced. My mother and father were divorced in 1949, and my mother’s parents and brother moved to the U.S. out of fear of the Germans. This was the second time the Germans took over Belgium. I grew up in what I call “my own United Nations”. My mother’s friends were all Europeans from France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Germany and Poland. When we had a picnic, people would stare at us. The young men would be playing soccer--considered a strange game back then. We dressed differently, ate different foods, and would speak in another language others didn’t understand. I often heard Americans say, “Go back to where you came from.”
Q: What are the WWII war bride reunions like?
A: They’re wonderful! These ladies, mostly in their late 80’s, are full of life. They love to tell jokes--many dirty ones. They love to sing and dance. We are interviewing these women on DVD. Their stories are so sad, yet so funny. I love listening to them. They are so strong. A common thread among them is, “We made our choices and now we have to live with them.”
Q: You and I are who we are because of war. Are you a dove or hawk?
A: Gee, that’s a hard question. I guess a little of both. I’m very easygoing, but I will fight for myself and others who are treated badly because of what life gave them at the start. Judge me for me. I don’t care for people who can’t get past their own childhoods. After all, you had no control as a child but once you’re an adult it is up to you how you live your life. Hey, and no one calls me a “dumb foreigner” anymore.
Merci beaucoups, Madame Michele, for your dedication to our WWII war bride mothers! Your commitment and devotion are appreciated.
I also asked Michele about white English women who were forced by the British government to put their half black children fathered by African American GI’s in orphanages. Michele sent this interesting article in response:
If any of you Hip Hapa Homeez are in the area, please note that the World War II War Brides Reunion will be held in San Francisco from September 30 through Oct 4 at the Double Tree Airport Hotel. This event is open to all war brides and their families. If you can't stay for its entirety, then just stop by to see what's going on. You’ll find a lively group of people who enjoy having a great time. The “My Story” section of the reunion will be on Tuesday from 2 pm to 6 pm, and ladies are invited to tell their stories. They will be taped and a DVD will be made. Last year’s DVD was a wonderful success, according to Michele.
Here’s a timely article about filmmakers who plan to document Japanese war brides:
Until next week, please remember to join our Facebook group, Hip Hapa Homeez, and our Watermelon Sushi Fan page, too. Follow watermelonsushi on Twitter, check out the film at http://www.watermelonsushi.com, and our t-shirts at http://www.cafepress.com/hapateez
Next week, I’ll add a list of all the Ning sites where Watermelon Sushi can also be viewed.
Bonne nuit mes amis et amants!
Your Hip Hapa,