Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Think I've Turned Japanese

The Flag of the Okinawan Prefecture of Japan
 I love my country.  Although America will always be my homeland and my primary patriotic love, my home has been elsewhere for a long time, now.  Okinawa and her people have been very good to us for the past three years, and we are leaving her in a matter of days.  There is both sadness and joy in this.  This little island has been my first experience as an expatriate, and I have both hated and loved every day of it.

I felt a sort of vertigo when we moved here.  I was displaced and dizzy in a foreign country that was truly alien to me in every way.  The language, the food, the architecture, and even the toilets were strange and intimidating to me.  Since that shaky first impression, however, Okinawa has become my home.  The people are open and kind and generous - astonishingly so.  The food has grown on me, and now I can't imagine being without it.  My tiny concrete house has become my home.  I am in my element here.

There is a very third-world feel to Okinawa.  Everywhere you go, you see the rubble of abandoned buildings, unkempt and overgrown fields, empty lots piled with rusty rubbish, and narrow streets filled with simply-dressed people on foot or bicycle.  Large portions of the island are covered by the overwhelming stench of chicken, pig, and cow manure when the fields are spread and the wind blows just right.  The heat and humidity are just stifling about 8 months out of the year.  The appearance of relative poverty and overcrowding are all around you from clothing hung to dry off of every high rise balcony to the narrow, pothole-filled streets to the homeless beggars gathered under overpasses and on the sidewalk corners. 

Despite all of this, there is also a wild sort of beauty to Okinawa.  Miniature farms with tiered fields strung up in fairy lights to protect the tropical crops from chilly nights.  Huge, jutting hills covered with a dense tangle of jungle trees, vines, and underbrush.  Massive, sheer-faced cliffs descending hundreds of feet down into the waves of the Pacific Ocean.  Little fishing boats.  A man walking a bull down the street.  Ancient stone Shinto burial temples covered with moss.  Young children playing baseball in perfectly manicured parks.  Majestic ruins from the Ryukyu Empire dotted all over the island.  Incredible sprays of carefully-cultivated orchids, lilies, and other extraordinary flowers.  The sea is also, literally, all around.  In some places violent, with white waves crashing on jagged rocks, in other places clear and cerulean and calm.  And, then, there are the Okinawan people.

The Okinawan people seem almost childlike to an American at first glance.  Their culture is open, truthful, and incredibly polite.  Doors are routinely left unlocked because theft is practically unheard of.  Everyone from the manager of a bank to the man who landscapes the public medians takes pride in his job.  There are uniforms of a sort for every type of work here, and the Okinawan people always look clean, pressed, and professionally intent on their work.  This kind of personal pride in even the lowest wage work is almost totally absent from today's American society.  Watching it still takes me by surprise, sometimes...even after three years.  There is an obsession here with anything cute (kawaii) or decorative.  The Japanese gift-giving traditions are complex and puzzling.  The appearance of the gift is just as or even more important than the contents of the package.  The importance placed on gift wrapping and presentation crosses over into the service industries.  Even at the 100¥ store, any fragile item you purchase will be neatly wrapped in newsprint and tied or taped into a little gift shape.  Everything is wrapped in rice paper or tied with beautiful ribbon.  No opportunity for decoration or artistic presentation is overlooked.  Okinawans delight in children and family.  Complete strangers will take a young child from her mother and entertain her with games and play or treats out of the blue.  American mothers are often taken aback by this kind of behavior, but it is born of a cultural love for children.  There are no looks of angry annoyance at childish antics in public.  Everyone in every age group is patient and accommodating to both the children and the families moving about in society with them.

All of these things, the good and the bad, have become a part of my space - my new natural habitat.  I see them and am surrounded by them every day.  Now, all of that is about to be over.  America has chosen a new home for us, and because we serve The United States in this family, that is simply that.  Our new home will be Dublin, Ireland.  I don't know how we're going to adjust to the culture shock of being Okinawanized Americans living in Europe...but I know we will find a way to manage.

Today, my husband, our daughter, and I are packing suitcases and preparing for the last TMO shipments (military movers, basically) that will be taken from our home.  They will come for the next two days, handle everything I own, pack it up in wooden crates, and put it all on a ship for Dublin.  I'm ready to go, but I will be very sad to leave.

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