In this paper, I shall attempt to fulfill the purpose set forth before me, that is, “to develop an objective, critical, and analytical attitude” in the study of my family. I shall attempt to erase all biases and sentimentalism and deal with it as an object (R. T., “A Sociological Study of the Family,” Folder: #190 – 209, Box 2 Student Papers Unprocessed, 1939).
Although most students provided family stories without comment, some, like R. T., talked about the challenges they faced in completing such an assignment.
While there is no special prohibition in our family against asking questions about our ancestors and relatives, still we children have refrained from being too curious about these matters, as our parents have in the main been more or less reticent to discuss these things with us. Except for an occasional instance when they happen to mention one or two things that give us a little more insight into our family background, there has been no conscious or deliberate attempt to educate us in this respect. This reserve, both on the part of our parents, and on the part of us children, has resulted in our being rather poorly-informed as to our family ties. The reasons for this breaking-off will be evident as I trace briefly the origins of our family in Hawaii (S.C.Y., “A Chinese Family in Hawaii,” Folder: #321 – 332, Box 2 Student Papers Unprocessed).
Yet students did ask the questions, record the answers, and give shape to life stories in order to meet sociology assignments. RASRL writers prodded parents and grandparents to trace genealogies so they could create charts and asked them to provide stories of their emigration from China, Japan, or Korea, detail their levels of education, share their dreams. Some families talked – and daughters and sons heard for the first time – about alcoholism, abandonment, divorces, multiple marriages, children left behind or lost through adoptions or deaths, painful separation from their own parents and siblings, which, in turn, reminded students that their parents’ emigration meant a loss for them as well – no grandparents, no extended family in Hawai‘i. Immigrants recollected a culture and country with which they still identified and continued to feel loyalty to, how their previous education often had little value and use to them as laborers on plantations, the series of jobs they had held, and their movements within Hawa‘i, sometimes island to island, plantation to plantation, rural areas to Honolulu. RASRL writers also were told about transformative experiences that made their parents’ and grandparents’ struggles worthwhile.
Because the majority of RASRL writers were Asian, immigrant stories are well represented in the Collection. At least during the territorial period, very few papers were written by Hawaiians and more significantly, Hawaiians rarely wrote about their families. When they did, they were less than forthcoming. This writer addresses the silence directly:
The average Hawaiian very rarely paints an accurate picture as to his past, especially in such a case as this, when it involves his kupuna (ancestors), as it is one of her personality traits that has been inherited and acquired not to divulge upon his past life and that of his people. . . . It seems to me that in the writing of this paper, I am breaking faith with the ancestors of my parents, as they were people who never did relate about themselves to other people, especially haoles, who the Hawaiian people, especially my grandparents did not care to mingle with … (C. K., no title, 1930, Folder: Family Cases, Glick Box 5).
Students surrendered information to faculty, who were overwhelmingly Haole males. Because papers became part of a collection that acted as a research repository, not just the instructor assigning a grade read these accounts – and how must it have felt to have one’s family story graded? – but generations of other outsiders had and continued to have access to this most personal information.
The earliest family papers, called “life histories” or “case studies,” are from the mid-1920s and show Romanzo Adams as instructor. For the 1926-27 academic year, the course called “The Family” was first offered and taught by a visiting faculty, William Carlson Smith. While in Hawai‘i Smith collected autobiographical writings by students at the University of Hawai‘i, the Normal School, St. Louis College, Hilo High School, Honoka‘a School, Japanese High School in Honolulu, Lahainaluna High School, Laupāhoehoe Junior High School, Maui High School, McKinley High School, and Mid-Pacific Institute. These essays, coded and without students’ names, are available on microfilm at UH’s Hamilton Library, and a few typed transcripts are among Adams’ student papers (RASRL Life Histories, Case Studies Box 1).
By the early 1930s, students were submitting family papers for the introductory sociology course, and a course called “Personality and Culture” yielded even more autobiographical papers with their focus on students’ upbringing. Many of these papers closely follow what must have been very specific assignments. The elements of early family studies contained details about the immediate and extended family; the celebration of holidays; birth customs and the naming of children; marital and funeral customs; and the ways males were given preference in the family. Writers provided information on “household and family economy,” which included noting occupations of family members and their responsibilities within and to the family. They described “family communism” or the kind and extent of sharing within the family; who contributed to the earnings, whether financial support was given to extended family members, and who managed the family funds. Writers reported on “family organization,” which explained family discipline, etiquette, and how the family exerted control – gestures, ridicule, appeals to conscience. Families were characterized as either patriarchal or egalitarian, the latter a growing trend among families whose parents were Nisei. In later papers, students listed what their families had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, whether they ate from bowls with chopsticks, or with silverware off plates or both. They explained parents’ attitudes toward dating and dancing, and how young women received information about sex (almost never from their parents; almost always from older siblings or in college classes). Writers shared how averse their families were to openly showing affection, so unlike most Haole families, they observed. They talked much about the impact of birth order and gender on their lives and their siblings’:
That the youngest child is the luckiest and does the least work, I must admit, is not untrue. I have done less work, have had more education, and have had less to worry about than anyone else in my original family. I have been treated since my high school days as a scholar. I am not expected to work my way through college or even do much work at home. I do, of course, help with the yard work, wood chopping, and with other minor tasks. I have a room for myself where conditions are made most conducive to study. I have no worry about my educational expenses, for they are elicited from the family income. I may therefore be considered a liability or a parasite; but I am expected to play that role and I think I play it rather well (N. Y. (male), “Presenting Our Family,” likely during WWII, Folder: #253 – 292, Box 2 Student Papers Unprocessed).
I think it is a fortunate thing for me that no one in our family is married, because I wouldn’t be able to attend the University otherwise. I really need their aid badly. My oldest sister and brother work for the federal government, while another sister works in Chicago. My brother recently graduated from the University of Hawaii and is now a 2nd Lt. in the Army. Mother also works, but Dad has retired so he now stays at home. The rest of us all attend school (#2110, Korean female, “A Family,” 1955, Unprocessed Papers).
My brother is the “pet” of the family and none of my sisters or myself feel any jealousy. In fact we are grateful that he has such a fine character, that he is so thoughtful of our parents, and that he is not one of the community’s wayward boys (#2079, Japanese female, “My Family,” 1955, Unprocessed Papers).
As enrollment in sociology courses climbed, the number of papers grew. Our guess is that perhaps as much as one-third of the thousands of papers are autobiographies and biographies of families.
“Lives neither grand or trivial”
The above, a quotation from The Allure of the Archives (1989; trans. 2013,Yale, p. 29) in which Arnette Farge describes her research in the 18th century judicial archives at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, accurately describes the contradictions of RASRL student materials. Like Farges’ French commoners and peasants, RASRL writers were not people of importance (although some did become important, even famous). Their stories frequently are both tedious and fascinating in equal measure. On the micro level, the family papers, when they carry the writers’ names, are of immense value to the writers’ families – an ultimate genealogical collection. For descendants, these papers can provide stories that one has not heard or heard only partially. They contain descriptions that can fill gaps even as they give rise to new questions, and having names, locations, dates provide directional signs to find out more. Thus, the importance to the larger community to provide a searchable database with authors’ names.
On the macro level, however, the family papers confound. So specific and unique, they can be at once too individual and (strangely) repetitive; so personal, they feel off limits to the “outsider” researcher. If the family papers have research value – and to suggest this is to question the value of a good portion of our research – it is in the aggregate. The family papers, perhaps more than any other subset of the RASRL writers’ work, makes one appreciate the immensity of the collection and the vision and dedication of the faculty: Romanzo Adams, Clarence Glick, Andrew Lind, and Bernhard Hormann. Farge, who understands the experience of long, hard work in an archive, reminds us of the greater value, the potential use, of this type of research:
The archives bring forward details that disabuse, derail, and straightforwardly break any hope of linearity or positivism. This eruption of words and actions shatters established models, broadens the norm, displaces conventional wisdom once and for all, and often adds a certain confusion to things that had been previously considered simple. This is a godsend for women’s history, because it makes the thousands of contrasting aspects of gender conflict increasingly discernible (p. 42).
The RASRL writers would be more than surprised to think that their sociology papers might be godsends. But they are. They give voice to Hawaii’s young women and men otherwise unheard, and what they have to say might just displace conventional wisdom.