A Boy Taken Away to Paradise - Discovering my Okinawan Roots
It was 1983. “We’re all going to Okinawa,” said my mom. I was only seventeen years old and Okinawa meant nothing to me. It was simply the name of some place in Japan where my mother was born and had spent a good part of her life. It was also the subject of many stories by my father. He met my mother while stationed there with the U.S. Navy in 1957. My father was a skinny eighteen-year-old American kid when he started dating my Okinawan mom, who was already twenty-three at the time. He loved to tell these old tales about Okinawa. “Dirt roads, thatched roofs, and the kindest and most generous people I ever met,” he would always say. My mother’s stories, on the other hand, were mostly about growing up extremely poor, hungry, and how she survived the war as a ten-year-old girl.
Despite my mother’s best effort to make me, my younger brother, and little sister realize that we would be meeting our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and many cousins for the first time, I was much more concerned with missing my last summer vacation with my New Jersey friends before all of us moved on to college and the world of jobs. It was supposed to be our final hurrah, a kind of last testament to our typical weekends of partying, which at the time seemed like the coolest life in the world.
When the big day of our departure came, some of my anxieties naturally turned into excitement, since it was the first time for me to board an airplane. Our flight was long, giving me plenty of time to think and conjure up images in my mind about Okinawa and the people I was about to meet. Thanks to television and Hollywood films, I pictured my grandfather as this “Fu Manchu” guy with thick, black-rimmed glasses, bowing with a camera around his neck. I saw my grandmother as this pale woman in a kimono serving green tea. In my head, the landscape was filled with manicured gardens and bonsai trees. I was about to find out, though, that all of my thoughts were very far from reality.
When we finally arrived at Naha Airport, our plane did not connect to the terminal. Instead, it stopped on the tarmac and we disembarked by descending a staircase that the ground-crew had brought to the aircraft. Stepping outside, the first thing I felt was the hot, humid air, but when my feet hit the ground, I felt something else, a feeling I had never experienced before. I sensed a strong connection to a part of me that had been hiding. All at once, this feeling I had been holding onto for most of my young life — a strange feeling of being different — had suddenly disappeared.
My identity crisis had developed over time and centered around my mother. She had a strong accent, which often made people ask if she was Chinese. I remember my mother not being able to correctly pronounce certain words. This led to my infamous statement of “I have to get my bennysuit.” This was what I heard whenever my mom tried to say bathing suit, which I confidently repeated to my 1st grade friends while the kiddie pool in my driveway was filling up with water. Of course, on the day when I blurted this out in front of my friends, laughter is what I mostly remember as opposed to the fun day we had afterwards in the pool. When my mother would cook for us, there were typical dishes that you would find in any American home. We had meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, steak, potatoes, and a whole bunch of other good-tasting stuff. My mom was a very good cook, but she also would often make something on the side for herself. She ate rice three times a day. She loved fish, and there was always tofu, tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and miso in our frig. This made for some interesting comments whenever somebody visited our house for the first time. Some of my mom’s eating habits also rubbed off on us kids. I thought eating a rice ball was normal, but my friends pointed out that it definitely was not. None of this was ever done with disrespect or with any tint of racism…It was just kids being curious. For me, however, these moments strengthened the feeling I had of not quite being “American” enough. Besides the cultural clashes, my mother also suffered from PTSD and would pull me and my brother into the closet whenever there was a thunderstorm. “Don’t leave,” she would scream while shaking with fear, “the bombs are going to get us!” My brother and I were very young, so as scared children, we listened and believed, but later on, I began to think that my mom was a bit crazy.
There we were, standing in line at customs with what seemed like about twenty suitcases, most of them filled with gifts. My mom was crying profusely, letting go of emotions that had been building up for decades. I remember glancing over at the final barrier between us and the new world that awaited. There were two sliding doors that would open and close as people left the customs area, and my father was tugging at my shirt while excitedly yelling in my ear that the old man standing on the other side of the doors was my grandfather. He looked nothing like I had envisioned. I stared as the doors opened and closed, catching glimpses of this dark, rugged man with piercing eyes. The customs agent was trying to ask my mom questions, but my mother was so overwhelmed with emotion, she could hardly answer. The agent was about to look through all our luggage, but then asked my mom how long had it been since she last visited Okinawa. My mom answered in between sobs, “I left here twenty-four years ago and haven’t seen my family since.” The customs agent looked at my mom and just waved us through with all our suitcases.
The feeling I had experienced when stepping down onto the runway soon turned into a deep profound love with each and every new moment I experienced after passing through those sliding doors. I remember being greeted with strong hugs from teary-eyed people I had never met, but it seemed strangely familiar. Just driving from the airport to my mother’s village of Maeda, I was struck with amazement. Everything we passed on the way was foreign, but I was mesmerized. After a few hours of driving, the noisy, neon-lit city of Naha was replaced by the unlit country roads of Maeda. I soon realized that this was the place my father had been trying to describe to me and my siblings for so long. The dirt roads had been replaced by asphalt, but I definitely felt the connection my father had to this faraway place.
When the taxi pulled up to the tiny broken-down house, it was quite late, but there were dozens of people standing at the entrance and in the garden waiting for us. It was another round of hugging and crying. My mother was so overwhelmed that she could barely speak, never mind translate for us, so I had no idea who anyone was. I later learned that many of the people there were not family but neighbors. They all came to welcome back my mother and father and to express their gratitude, which was something that was continuous throughout our stay.
Inside my grandparent’s house, we sat down on some tatami mats around a table, where there was tea and a plate of Okinawa sata-andagi. The best way to describe sata-andagi is to say that it’s like a doughnut, so being the son of a baker, my first bite of something in Okinawa was actually a taste I was familiar with! The house was simple, and although much of the village had modernized over the years, it basically remained unchanged from the time my mother had lived there, except for some repairs and renovations, such as the wood floor in the kitchen that replaced the bare earthen floor from before. The toilet was still a hole in the ground outside. There was hardly any furniture. An old and rusty fan rotated back and forth in the corner of the room, working hard to circulate the humid night air. Hanging on one of the walls, was a framed black and white wedding photo of my parents, which had been taken in Okinawa many years ago. My father was in his U.S. Navy uniform and my mother in a kimono. Sitting there on the floor while eating this Okinawan doughnut and staring at my parents’ wedding photo, I felt like this was the best place in the world to be.
During our entire trip, despite not understanding a word being said and being surrounded by so many things that were alien to me, everything began to make sense. I could finally understand my mother’s way of thinking. It was as if all her hardships were being shown on a live movie screen in front of me. She showed us the river where she used to bathe, swim, and wash clothes. She pointed out the area where she and other kids would go to gather fallen branches, bundle them, and carry them on top of their heads back home to start a fire in order to cook. And, she talked about the war. I asked questions. I wanted to know more. I was no longer the kid who had been embarrassed by the way she talked or what she ate. When I walked down the street with my father, people came up to him to shake his hand and bow, saying arigatou. The characters in his stories came alive and I could now clearly see everything he had been talking about. How he had helped a young girl covered with skin sores by getting a corpsman to come with him to the village and give her medical attention. How he supplied half of Maeda with canned food and garden hoses that were “borrowed.” I found out that he and my mom continued to send things for the entire village even after they left for the United States. The villagers remembered and expressed their gratitude. I also met the woman who had the sores as a young girl. She had beautiful skin. My father cried. He cried more than once.
Everything was so utterly beautiful in Okinawa. The landscape of sugar cane fields and green jungle that surrounded my mother’s village was a tropical paradise, and the beach that we walked to everyday was filled with white sand and exotic tones of blue that my eyes had never seen before. Prior coming to Okinawa, the sea had been a scary place for me. The only experience I had with it was at the Jersey shore, where you could not even see your feet while standing in the water, but here, in Okinawa, it was a completely different world of clear, electric blue. Underwater, there were tropical fish and colorful coral gardens. Swimming was like moving through liquid glass. I fell in love with the sea because of Maeda. The nights were festive gatherings with many people coming and going. My uncles were always in charge of setting up everything, and they would enlist the help of me and my brother. Sometimes we would go fishing by boat. My uncle would dive into the deep blue with a spear and come back up with a fish. Using his knife to perform skillful strokes, he prepared fresh sashimi. (There is nothing more pleasant than sashimi washed down with a cold Orion beer!) There was also plenty of sazae and tiraja, two types of local shellfish, and octopus. The table would be overflowing with seafood, Okinawan pork, beef, tempura, fried Okinawan tofu, pickled vegetables, and homegrown watermelon. These were feasts, and there was always Okinawan music with lots of traditional dancing. The smaller kids, including my little sister, were always playing outside in the yard. My sister was the center of attention for my aunts, who put her long hair up and dressed her in colorful Okinawan kimonos. I would sometimes just stop and look around at these scenes and think how wonderful everything was. I was not missing New Jersey at all.
Some of my best memories are of times spent at my grandparents’ house, sweating from the tropical heat on a lazy afternoon after a day at the beach and just sitting with my grandfather. He was like a character from a book. His skin was dark brown and leathery from years at sea under the hot sun as a fisherman. He usually had this mammoth bottle of awamori, Okinawan sake, by his side and would sing while playing the Okinawa sanshin — a three stringed instrument native to the island’s rich musical heritage. In between songs, if my mother was nearby, he would talk to us through her. They spoke in the Okinawan language. My mother translated his stories of how he had been sold when he was a ten-year-old boy to work at Itoman and later at Miyako Island under dangerous conditions, fishing at sea in tiny boats with other boys for years as slave labor. You could always hear the anguish in his voice whenever he recollected his childhood years, but as soon as he began playing his music again, it brought him back to the present. He would pour me and my brother some of the awamori, which we accepted gracefully. The way we drank, however, was anything but graceful! Being teenagers, we drank like teenagers, which was much too fast. After a short time, we would both be horizontal on the tatami floor as the pleasant sound of the sanshin and my grandfather’s voice kept me teetering back and forth on that fine line between sleep and wakefulness.
In the background, my sweet grandmother was always working. She was tiny and wiry thin with wrinkles that were more like cracks throughout her face. I think that each line represented a certain trauma in her life, and there were many. Her life had been anything but easy, but her laugh always filled the room. She always made sure that we had plenty to eat, and was definitely was the backbone of my mother’s family. Her presence blended in with everything that was beautiful, such as the soft breeze that flowed through the house, the birds singing in the garden, and the sweet smell of ocean air.
As the days went by, I knew I had changed. I had gained pride about my Okinawan heritage. I wanted to share this with the world. At first, it was definitely more about the exotic sights and sounds that were flooding my senses, but in the end, it became more about my family and my heart-felt connection to the Okinawan people. Through them, I discovered my roots, which enabled me to face the world. Eventually, we had to leave. My heart was heavy, and I was never the same. I left New Jersey less than a year later to attend college in Hawaii. For me, it was one step closer to my dream of returning to Okinawa to live. It took a while to accomplish that goal, but I finally made it back in 1992 and I have been living here ever since. Of course, those idyllic days of vacation as a teenager have been replaced with the reality of life, but Okinawa has always been my home. Even to this day, although that old broken-down house is gone and my grandparents passed away many years ago, whenever I hear the sound of the sanshin, it brings me right back to that first time when I was taken away to paradise.