USC’s Asian Pacific American Student Assembly will host former Star Trek star and social media guru George Takei at Bovard Auditorium tonight at 6 p.m. The event is part of “Breaking Barriers,” a series of events in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage month.
The actor and activist discussed his experience with Japanese American internment during World War II. Takei was five years old when he and his family were involuntarily transported to Santa Anita Race Track’s horse stables and later the Rowher War Relocation Center in Arkansas, as a result of former President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Under the order, the U.S. military forced U.S. residents and citizens of Japanese ancestry (and many Asian-Americans who were not Japanese) to be relocated to internment camps where they experienced squalid living conditions and abuse.
Takei elaborated on his experiences, his acting career and his social media presence in a phone interview with the Daily Trojan.
DT: I know you grew up in Boyle Heights and you went to UC Berkeley and then UCLA, so why did you decide to visit USC?
GT: Ah, the Trojan connection. Well I do have a Trojan connection — my brother went to USC. UCLA came into my life as a result of a deal with my father. My father wanted me to be an architect, and, like a good son, I started up at UC Berkeley as an architecture student. But both he and I knew that my burning passion was the theater and acting.
DT: I feel like Asian American actors are kind of underrepresented in the mainstream. Do you agree with that sentiment, or do you feel that there’s someone who’s going to carry the torch for future generations?
GT: I have been an actor for more than half a century, now. Back in those days, there were practically no Asians on TV screens or on movie screens, and when you did see one, they were all very shallow stereotypes. Either the villain, or the buffoon, or the servant. So what you see today is a vast advancement from back then, so you have to take this all in context. Yes, it’s true, we don’t have as full a representation, but judging the whole history of the representation of Asians and Asian Americans, we’ve come a long ways.
DT: You mentioned how you were one of the only Asian American actors when you were starting out. I want to go back to your time growing up in the [World War II Japanese American] internment camps at Rowher and Santa Anita Park, could you talk about those experiences?
GT: When internment came down, I was very young. My birthday is April 20th and I had just turned five. A few weeks after that, my parents got my siblings and me up early one morning and dressed us very hurriedly. My brother and I were in the living room, looking out the front window, and we saw two soldiers come marching up with bayonets on their rifles. They stomped up to the front porch and banged on the door. My father answered it, and we were ordered out of our two-bedroom home.
My father gave us luggage for our brother and me and we were waiting outside in the driveway for our mother to come out. When she came out she had the baby in her left arm and in her right arm was a large duffle bag. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. A child never forgets that. That’s one experience, one scene I have seared into my memory.
From our two-bedroom home, we were taken to the horse stables at Santa Anita Race Track. So can you imagine how humiliating, how degrading it was for my parents, to go from a home and be told that all five of us were to sleep in this narrow horse stall which still reeked of horse manure. It was horrific. You know, we were innocent American citizens. We happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, and that was the only reason why we were being forced into these circumstances. It was the most egregious violation of our U.S. Constitution.
DT: How do you go from something like that — being judged on the basis of your appearance — to performing, where your appearance is such an important part of your job?
GT: The acting passion is born in you. From the time I was a child, I was that show-off kid, who always performed. That’s not what parents would guide you to be doing. But as I described to you, the passion for acting made me want to at least try. And yes, it’s true, what I saw on TV and movies at that time were not very persuasive images. But I told my father that I will change it. You know, the arrogance of the idealistic teenager. But I had luck — that’s the amazing thing. Luck plays a big part of careers in this crazy business.
DT: You have a great social media presence. How do you generate social media content that’s so relatable? It seems like you get the best of the Internet.
GT: Well you gotta keep thinking, most people it’s about them. I had dinner at such-and-such restaurant last night. I’m wearing a such-and-such shirt. It’s not about me — it’s about them. It’s about your audience, your fans. I had an ulterior motive for going into social media. As you may or may not know, it’s been my mission in life to raise awareness of fellow Americans to that dark chapter of our history, where innocent citizens were incarcerated simply because of their ancestry, of their appearance … By trial and error I found that humor is what attracts people.
DT: It’s funny how it became so all-encompassing, in the way that there are people who share your links because they’re so funny. It’s very human, there are so many different facets to it. It’s not expressly one thing.
GT: Well it began with humor, but I sock it to them with various issues. Like the most recent one in Arizona where they tried to pass a bill saying “seriously religious people” in business can refuse service to gays and lesbians. And that’s outrageous. They mask discrimination under religion, you know?
DT: You’re pretty pluralistic about this religious problem. Do you feel that it’s not expressly a “Christian” problem, do you feel like it’s more of an ideological problem?
GT: Really, it’s bigotry, and using religion as a veil for it. In Christianity, for instance, Jesus served all people. He served the sick, he served those in jail. But these [lawmakers] are essentially trying to disguise their narrow-mindedness under the guise of religion. We can’t let people like that write their bigotry into civil law, or even their religious beliefs in civil law, which applies to everyone.
DT: It sounds like you’re a very strong proponent for the separation of religion and state.
GT: Absolutely. This nation was founded by people fleeing religious persecution, so these bigoted laws that they try to write into civil law, there’s no place for that. Not in this country. That’s why with humor, once you get a large enough audience, I entertain them with humor and occasionally serve them food for thought. We’ve got over six million people, that’s like what NBC, ABC and CBS was at one time when I was a kid.
DT: Then isn’t social media, in its own way, your own TV channel? You get to program what people get to see with a little bit of everything.
GT: Ain’t technology wonderful?
George Takei will speak at Bovard Auditorium tonight at 6 p.m. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and priority seating will be given to USC students with valid IDs.