Remember When: How to Record Your Family’s History in Hawai‘i
Recording family history can be a fun and fascinating project for keiki and kūpuna. Here are tips for how to start, what to ask and how to turn storytime into history time.
In Hawai‘i, many grandparents play key roles in their grandchildren’s lives. Multiple generations live in the same home, and often tūtū and gung gungs are picking up keiki after school, along with moms or dads.
All this time together gives our children the unique opportunity to learn firsthand about the legacies of our families and our Islands. But how do we do this before it’s too late? How can we preserve stories for generations to come?
The record-keepers we spoke to say children may have more opportunities to gather information than their own parents. That’s because “grandparents will talk to their grandchildren more than they will to another adult,” says Jane Kurahara, a grandmother and volunteer who helps people preserve and research their families’ histories at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. While parents feel the need to discipline their children and set an example, she says grandparents will do almost anything to please their little ones. Also, “It’s family, and you’re not worried about saying the right thing, like if another adult is interviewing you.”
Heather Dinman, 14, agrees. At her family’s reunion three years ago, about 90 relatives from the Big Island, Mainland and O‘ahu gathered at Pearl Harbor and at the site of the Honouliuli Internment Camp. Dinman, 11 at the time, started questioning her mom, aunties and great-uncles about what happened to her family in Hawai‘i during World War II.
Dinman, who will enter the ninth grade at Le Jardin Academy this fall, also interviewed her grandmother who was a university student in Tokyo when Pearl Harbor was bombed. “At first, she seemed surprised about the topic, but then she seemed glad that I had an interest in her life,” she says. Her grandmother told her how she was “surprised and scared” by the attack and how young people had to quit their studies and ride trains to work in factories, building radios. “I do think it was easier for my grandmother to open up to me,” Dinman says.
Bryson Choy, founder of the website Stories of Kūpuna (medium.com/stories-of-kupuna), which chronicles senior citizen’s recollections, began recording Hawai‘i’s history by talking to his grandparents. Not only did he learn how his ancestors immigrated to Hawai‘i from Vietnam and China, but he discovered things even his parents didn’t know. “I learned about my ancestry more than anyone else in my family could have told me, such as my grandfather’s participation on the Dartmouth track-and-field team as the only Asian at the time,” he says.
“There are emotions and memories attached to their stories and all the experiences that they loved living,” says the ‘Iolani School graduate. While most of us would like to preserve our families’ accounts, it’s important we don’t wait until it’s too late.
How to Start
The biggest hurdle is the beginning. Interviews don’t have to feel like homework. You can start anytime, anywhere. A great time is during the holidays when families get together. Pull out dusty old photo albums and look at memorabilia at a grandparent’s house.
“When families gather over Christmas or New Year, you have your traditions and that’s when the stories are told, and it’s over food,” says Carole Hayashino, president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i.
Cultural celebrations, such as Chinese New Year, Japanese bon dances or Puerto Rican or Greek festivals, also can spark conversation for elders of those ethnic groups. “We have the New Year’s ‘Ohana Festival, and we still practice certain cultural traditions like pounding mochi, but it’s changed now that we have machines,” Hayashino says. Use the changes to reminisce over how things used to be done.
Places with historic items can spur memories, too. Kurahara, who has volunteered in the archives at the Japanese Cultural Center for 23 years, says a student who toured the museum with her school later wrote to her grandmother about an item she’d seen for the first time: an ice-box. Her grandmother told her all about the devices, and it inspired such a wonderful conversation that the student brought her grandmother to the museum to see other no-longer-used household items.
Another place to see vintage items is Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village in Waipahu. Replicas, restored buildings and donated furnishings depict life for Hawai‘i’s sugar growers and their families from 1850 to 1950. Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Okinawan, Portuguese and Puerto Rican families all lived and worked on the plantations. Many local grandparents are likely to see familiar items.
Choy participated in a photography project with residents of The Plaza Assisted Living in Waikīkī. The elderly residents paired with teens to walk around and take photographs of things that intrigued them around their neighborhood. He says that this brought back memories and inspired meaningful conversations.
You can also do an internet search for vintage photos of places where grandparents grew up in Hawai‘i. Parents, let alone grandparents, will see huge differences in downtown Honolulu since their childhoods.
What to Ask
Once you’ve decided where to start the interview, what will your children ask? Everyone we spoke to says start out with general questions, then be more specific, asking for more details about the people, places and events that the interviewees mention.
“Make it relatable,” Kurahara says. She suggests families think about the things children do today and compare them to their grandparents’ childhoods. Ask questions, such as, “Grandpa, what was school like for you? Did you have to wear shoes to school? What did you do after school? What games did you play? What toys did you play with? Did you make your toys?”
Keiki can find an online recording of grandma’s favorite childhood song, ask her about her favorite candy as a child and how she got into trouble. And children can share as well, with both parties learning about each other in the process.
When flipping through old photo albums, ask questions, such as, “Look at this photo. Look how young you are, Grandpa. Can you tell me about this photo?” Kurahara says. There may be stories behind the tables, clocks, paintings, Christmas ornaments and knickknacks, too. Even a house and its incarnations over years of renovations can tell a tale.
Over dinner, keiki can ask what grandparents ate and how food used to be prepared. Did they go to the supermarket or did they have a farm? Did they have a refrigerator, stove and microwave? Have cultural dishes evolved over the years? When you’re on a walk or driving around town, ask what used to exist in different areas.
How to Tackle Tough Subjects
While questions about Christmas pudding, New Year’s mochi or a childhood tune are easy to broach, other subjects, such as war or family illnesses, may be more difficult. Often, children want to ask their grandparents about historical subjects for a school project, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, but do not know how to go about it.
Many elders don’t want to talk about negative experiences, says the Japanese Cultural Center’s Hayashino. So, she suggests starting with a positive outcome of an event and then asking them to reflect on the past. For example, if a child is asking a Japanese-American grandparent about the family’s internment during World War II, “they could start from a positive place of the government in 1988, apologizing for what happened during World War II, then ask how they feel about it.”
Through her interviews, Dinman, then a Kailua Intermediate School student, learned that her great-grandfather, Joichi Tahara, was given just minutes to pack up and leave his wife and nine children on the Big Island. He was forcibly sent to the Honouliuli Internment Camp on O‘ahu, where he died a year later at the age of 55. Several of her uncles volunteered to serve in the now-famous 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team composed almost entirely of Japanese-American soldiers.
Dinman says that if keiki are nervous about asking relatives about these topics, parents can get them “excited by explaining the impact and relevance of those experiences today.”
In her case, she used her family’s history as a jumping-off point for a project that won first place at the 2017 Hawai‘i History Day Fair. Through research and interviews, she detailed the internment of Japanese-Americans, their wartime heroism, battle for citizenship, legacy and the accomplishments of individuals, including the late Sen. Daniel Inouye.
Parents can help by explaining how their children’s lives would be different if their ancestors had not gone through those hardships, she says. Meanwhile, Choy says sympathy is key. “Try to empathize with their experiences, get immersed in their story and try to see it from their perspective,” he says.
Stories of Kūpuna tells the “stories, experiences and life lessons of older adults.” Out of his 20 subjects, just two are relatives. The rest are people he met and became fascinated with while playing piano at assisted-living facilities, through school projects and a conversation on an airplane. Others are relatives of friends.
Choy started his website after interviewing elderly patients for a separate school project. He soon found that they wanted to share their life stories with him. One in particular—a woman who had lived in various countries, including Morocco and Iraq—made such an impression on Choy that he decided to find a way to preserve and share her stories and those of others. So, he spent his summer vacation after his junior year doing interviews and setting up the website.
One of his subjects was a Vietnam War veteran who did not support the war after seeing the bloodshed firsthand. Choy says he broached the subject by saying, “I know that the Vietnam War was unpopular, and you served in it. Can you tell me about it?” To show him that he could relate, he also mentioned that much of his family lived in Vietnam during the war. Choy also cautions not to push a line of questioning if someone appears distressed.
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While some may never feel comfortable talking about difficult times, others may begin to open up as they age and realize that their stories will be lost forever if they don’t tell them now, Hayashino says. An interview with their grandchild or another young person may just be the thing that gets them to share their past before it’s too late, she says.
For kids who are still anxious about approaching people, Choy says not to worry. “Youth are a definite source of positivity in the lives of many older adults, particularly those who live in nursing facilities where outside social interaction is more limited,” he says.
Ways to Record and Preserve Stories
Technology makes recording histories easier, but all the various, confusing options can paralyze us. “I used a mini iPad to record the oral histories,” Dinman says. “It worked fine because you could clearly see and hear the person being interviewed, and I used iMovie to edit the recordings shorter. An iPhone’s video camera works well, too.” She says she enjoyed watching it back because, “you also can hear the tone or see the facial expressions of the interviewee, which can help you understand how they feel even more.”
Once stories are edited, you can put them on a website and share them with other relatives. Family-tree sites allow multiple members to contribute stories and information. Choy uses his iPad, too, but transcribes every word.
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“I simply type out the story verbatim on my iPad and adjust any spelling or grammatical errors afterward before publishing,” Choy says. “It’s a very simple process but requires a substantial investment of time and effort, as the stories may be narrated in a nonchronological or confusing order and need refining,” he says.
Both Dinman and Choy have done interviews when visiting family and friends on the Mainland. But, if relatives can’t get together in person, keiki can make a video call with Apple’s FaceTime, Facebook Messenger or apps such as Skype, Hangouts or Viber. Then, a separate device can be used to make a video recording of the conversation.
If your long-distance relative isn’t technologically savvy, record a phone call using Call Recorder and Voice Recorder apps, or mail or email your questions.
Inspiring a Lifetime Passion
You never know what one interview will inspire in a child. Hayashino recorded her first oral history report in fifth grade and continued from there.
“Seventh grade, eighth grade and through high school—it’s been my life,” she says. After all, her entire career has been dedicated to documenting and sharing the stories of fellow Japanese-Americans.
It seems that Dinman has been similarly inspired. What started as an interest from a family reunion has now snowballed into 10 interviews and a second History Day project related to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“I’m more passionate about this type of topic because it’s one I can relate to because it relates to my family,” she says. Not only has hearing firsthand accounts helped her better understand what happened during World War II, but she now has a greater understanding for her family.
Dinman encourages other kids to interview their grandparents, aunties and uncles to “appreciate their history and interact with family members more.”
Meanwhile, Choy wants to incorporate his interest in kūpuna with his other passions of medicine, business and technology. As he heads off to college, he is formulating plans for a smartwatch that can help elderly people communicate with their doctors. He intends to find new people to interview to expand his website and would like to find a way for others to contribute to it, too.
Choy says it’s important for young people to “take a step back and learn about their past.” This is not merely to learn about their family history, which is essential to understanding ancestral roots, but also to “form bonding connections with grandparents,” he says.
He takes pleasure in letting elderly people know that their voices are being heard and passed on and feels that young people can benefit greatly from their words of wisdom.
On his website, he has a page dedicated to “life lessons” on topics including love, marriage, finding your passion, hard work and ethics.
“The advice that they give is just a small glimpse into all the experiences that they’ve had. It’s the words that sum up and best express: ‘I’ve lived through all this and here is what I want to tell you. … Here is a set of morals to live by,’” he says.
“If we don’t learn the stories and about the past, then we won’t be able to pass that information on.”
Dealing With Dementia
If a loved one has dementia, you’re not alone. Half of people 85 years and older have dementia, and up to 20 percent experience mild cognitive impairment by 65, according to the Cleveland Clinic and the Alzheimer’s Association. It can make recording memories daunting, but it may also bring a sense of urgency to your plans. Here are some tips from Story Corps’ Memory Loss Initiative and from Bryson Choy, a recent graduate of ‘Iolani School and creator of the website Stories of Kūpuna.
- Schedule interviews when participants are most alert, which is usually in the morning.
- To avoid frustration, focus on events they remember well, such as childhood, marriage, children and favorite activities.
- Don’t worry about recording facts, names and dates. Instead, create a positive, “no wrong answer” environment where stories can be shared.
- Be patient. Don’t worry if the person is repetitive. You can gently redirect the question later.
- For more tips and examples of family members successfully interviewing their elders with memory loss, visit storycorps.org/discover/memory-loss-initiative