Sue Isonaga
A Different View

Work

To supplement the income earned by her mother and brothers, Sue works at the King Kamehameha III School cafeteria.

Later, she is offered the chance to attend cafeteria school. Her family reassures her that they will manage without her and urges her to go.

In Honolulu, Sue works as a live-in schoolgirl with the Jones family. In exchange for room, board, and $9 to $12 a month, she does light housecleaning and other household tasks.

Cafeteria Work

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But then the cafeteria manager of [King] Kam[ehameha] III School, where I attended, said, “Why don’t you come and work in the kitchen for us and then we’ll pay you nine dollars a month,” which I did.

I worked there, but then, for me, I was contributing because rice was three dollars for a hundred-pound bag in those days. So with my nine dollars, I could buy three hundred pounds a bag, which was what our family needed with five boys and two girls, so that’s how we managed.

Family Life

My mother worked at the [pineapple] cannery when it was seasonal and my brothers worked in the plantation but still that did not bring in enough because I know our pay wasn’t good enough. But somehow my mother managed.

I remember on the day we got paid, she would sit us all around the table and we would give her the money. She would empty all the bags because they used to pay with coins. So she has all this money here and she said, “All right, now, this much goes to the rent, this much goes to the store, this much goes to the other store,” and finally, by the time she came back, there was hardly anything left, so she gave my brother ten cents and my two brothers ten cents and that was it. But, she really was amazing.

When she sat down to dinner, before my father died, we always sat down together as a family. You know, we didn’t eat until my father was seated. And of course, that changed. But, when we had our meals, my mother portion controlled. The oldest got a bigger percent, serving, and she said she did that because the slow eaters will eat so slow that they’ll go away hungry.

I remember when we make meat loaf, the oldest brother always had the biggest piece and then it gradually came down to us. Since my mother wrote a lot of letters [and] she would not accept money, the vegetables, the avocados and fish and clothing, I mean, material, everything came [as a token of appreciation or informal exchange for letter writing], so we were doing fine.

Attending Cafeteria School in Honolulu

Our cafeteria manager and home economics [teacher] must have said something to her [Mrs. Edwards who was with the Department of Public Instruction] because Mrs. Edwards came to our house so many times asking my mother to send me to cafeteria school here in Honolulu.

At that time, I was only fourteen, fifteen, so I knew that I cannot do that. She came and finally, when we were sort of thinking about it, then my stepfather died. So I think, good thing I couldn’t go. You know, I would have had to come back, anyway, again. So, I stayed home.

Then the following year, Mrs. Edwards came again. So my oldest brother called me and told me, “You know, we’re going to let you go to school, so you go.” I said, “What about home then?” He said, “No, we’ll manage somehow.” So was my brother said I could go. My mother said, “You go,” so that’s when I came to Honolulu.

When I think about it now, how could I have left home? Seventeen, not knowing anyone in Honolulu and get on the steamer. Then I was kind of thinking, gee, something must’ve been wrong with my mind, to leave home.

I think my cousin had some relatives, so they wrote to them. So I stayed with them for a few days. In the meantime, I had to look for another place to stay because whenever Mrs. Edwards send people from the outside island, she made arrangements for them to have a place to stay. You know, live-in schoolgirl.

Honolulu

[My mother] only told me to select your friend [carefully]. And then, to study hard, you’re not to do anything to bring shame to the family. That's what my mother told me [before I came to Honolulu].

Diamond Head
Diamond Head, Honolulu, Hawaii

I think it was [an emotional time for us] because I was going to Honolulu, where I didn’t know anyone. And then I was going to school. I was thinking, was I ready to take an entrance exam? I didn’t know about the entrance exam until I went over there. I had to go to school and compete with the other people, who had high school education and all that. I had my worrying thoughts.

After I got [to Honolulu], I was kind of worried too, being in a stranger’s house and not knowing what’s going to happen when I go to school. But it all worked out fine. I didn’t have to worry. But I’m a worrywart, so I worry about everything. (Laughs)

[The entrance exam was] mostly math. Increasing and decreasing recipe and different portions with different measurements and all that. So, I was very happy about that because when I was in school, I liked math. That helped.

I’m sure I must’ve made a lot of mistakes [in spelling and grammar]. But, I just live and learn. The Shivers were very helpful in that area.

Gee, I don’t know [how my English was], maybe I spoke enough to be understood. Of course, lot of pidgin was spoken, but I knew at that time, we had to learn to speak properly. Proper English and all that.

Working as a Live-in Schoolgirl

[The Caucasian family I worked for as a live-in schoolgirl was] Mr. and Mrs. Jones and their son, Eugene. So, Eugene and I used to go to movies, too.

[They lived] up Saint Louis Heights on Robert Place and I had to walk up that hill, end of every school day. By the time I went home, I’m all drenched.

But they were very nice people, too. He worked at Pearl Harbor and she a beautician. Treated me very well. You know, we’re up on the hill and I could see [interisland ships] Waialeale, Hualalai went pass back and forth.

I would get so homesick. So, I would write to my mother and say, “Samishii” [I’m lonely.] I would say, “Omoshironai” [It’s not fun.]

[My mother] sure put me back in my own place, that I wasn’t there to play, I was there to study, so just buckle down.

I used to clean up after they leave in the morning for work. I clean up the kitchen and make the beds or cleaned the rest of the house and do whatever I needed to do. But I think Mrs. Jones did the cooking. I would help and clean up. Sometimes, we did laundry but I very seldom did laundry. They had a machine, so they took care of that.

[I was paid] nine to twelve dollars a month.

I ate [meals] there. I think I was eating with the family, because they were very informal people. So, I was eating with the family, I think. I can’t remember.

They had a room for me. And the Shivers, too. There was a room. You know, a long wing? And then my room and then the two Shivers’ room. So we had a live-in quarters right there. I know some homes have basement [schoolgirl or maid quarters] because I think most of the girls who came from the island to go to school for food service, they all had to stay, unless they had relatives who’d keep them but most of them, Mrs. Edwards had to find a place for them to stay.

Living with Caucasians

At first, I felt very uncomfortable. [In plantation communities] the Caucasian people were all managers, so we were afraid to even speak to them.

[The Joneses] made me feel that I shouldn’t be afraid because they just as nice as anybody else. So, being with them made a lot of difference in my life. I was able to accept people of different races without thinking that, “Oh, they’re superior than I am.” So, that was a good experience for me.

And then, when I went to the [Robert] Shivers’ [household], it was another thing. Something else. Another type of living. But I realized that the higher the person is, the nicer they are.

Mr. Shivers [special agent in charge of FBI’s Honolulu office] had all these military [visitors]. They would all come but they would always speak to me like I was there and treated me with nice respect and everything else.

One day, when I was in my room, Mr. Shivers came to call me. So I went out and he said, “I want you to come out here and shake the hands of Mr. Morgenthau.” He was the treasurer [Secretary of Treasury] at the time. The treasurer of our U.S., [Henry] Morgenthau, [Jr.]. So, I got up and I shook hands. There were a lot of other people, like Mr. [Edwin G. Arnold]. He was the head of [Division of] Territory and Possessions. He came and stayed with us for a while. Later, when I went to visit New York, he came and took me out to dinner. You know, met his family, very nice people.

Sue Isonaga's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Library of Congress.

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