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An old pile of photos, sitting on the corner of the desk, waiting to be scanned…
You know it well.
Last weekend, I finally went through my own version of that pile. Some of the photos were taken in a small city called Ishikawa, the first place we lived in the central part of Okinawa, Japan. The city has since merged with other local municipalities into a larger city called Uruma, so it only exists in our memories. I remember the day my Dad told us we were moving to Japan: wow! Images of toys my friends had received as gifts from afar when their fathers were overseas sprang to mind: Hello Kitty! Transformers! Gundam! I thought about my aunt’s car, a Toyota… I thought about Godzilla.
I remember being concerned as to whether or not there would be a Taco Bell. (No.) I thought about my friend Sherman, who was half Okinawan, and whose mother woke us up every morning chanting to Buddha at the family altar after I spent the night. I thought about the Karate Kid 2… would I see all those amazing things? Typhoons? Sliding doors? Tatami?
Our flight there seemingly took forever, and not because it was halfway around the world. We were flying Military Airlift Command (MAC) on the Flying Tigers, so our flight went from Los Angeles to San Francisco, to Anchorage, and then finally to Kadena Air Base. I didn’t know for a couple more years that there were direct flights to Japan, and that the military basically considered us cargo.
We were very tired when we arrived, blinking into the very hot morning.
We thought we’d be living in a hotel for awhile, so I unpacked and organized all the clothes and books I’d stuffed into my suitcase and several carryons. (For the record, I thought I’d finish almost all of Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber series on the flight over… the flight was long, but not that long.) A few days later, my father told us we’d be moving to “Riverstone”. (I was on book two of the series.)
Riverstone? That sounds… very American.
I didn’t need to worry. We looked at a few houses in “Riverstone”, far from any military installation, and chose the one on the hill overlooking a bay with the least amount of dead roaches in it. Of course, what we didn’t know was that they just hadn’t fumigated the place yet, and seeing it a few days later was disturbing: it was impossible to avoid stepping on a dead roach while walking around; it was like some avant-garde artist had decided to weave a floor from dead roach carcasses. Crunch, crunch, crunch.
There’s an opportunity for a Björk video, there.
Mercifully, the dead roaches were gone when we moved in, probably just swept out the door and onto the hill we lived on. Of course, at least one survived, and I had an epic, unconscious fight the first night we were in the house: I won, and found its massive carcass under the bed. It did not pass on its poison-resistant genes. Bleah.
As time passed, I learned to read and write Japanese, and learned that Ishikawa meant “stone river”, and finally, “Riverstone” made sense.
Okinawa didn’t seem to have zoning laws where we lived; we were surrounded by a mixture of houses, stores, a beach, sugarcane fields, the occasional vending machine conveniently located in the middle of a field, and tombs. Our neighbors were a mixture of Okinawans, American-Okinawan households, and a few Americans. Halloween wasn’t really celebrated, but the neighbors were willing to go along with it: I got rice crackers and seaweed.
The bus ride to school would take over an hour on occasion, and the route varied, depending on where families ended up living. Since there were Americans scattered in different places in town, they’d have the kids pile up in one place as best they could, but on occasion we’d stop next to a sugar cane field, and someone would hop on or off the bus. I spent a lot of time reading… and the extra hour in the morning was the perfect time to get last-minute homework done.
Games with the neighbor kids were a learning opportunity: it’s funny how a game of tag can quickly teach you the words for “wait!”, “sorry!”, “run!”, “just kidding!”, and “sorry for running in front of your car grandma!” in a foreign language. And of course, I learned the coarse words of swearing and economics before anything else. You need to know what people are yelling at you, and how to buy candy, right?
Living in the country that was the source of Nintendo games was thrilling, and honestly, expedited my acquisition of Japanese as a second language. How else are you going to read the magazines and cheat books?
We had weak air conditioning, and electricity was so pricey we had a flock of well-used fans scattered about the house. We had a barely functioning phone we rarely used—0989655135, and it always sounded like you were on the other side of the world no matter where you were—and heat came in the form of a kerosene room heater we moved around the house when necessary. Our house was built from concrete, which made it seem almost impermeable to the typhoons that would swirl outside—except for the hole in the ceiling in the bathroom, which was open to the world, and made it easy for all sorts of bugs and lizards to get into the house. While there’s no footage of me shrieking out of the bathroom after wrapping myself in a towel that included a gigantic, squirming roach, none of us will ever forget it.
On the way to school and home, I walked by myself past tombs, sometimes in terrible downpours, and sometimes in the dark. There are moments in Miyazaki films where one feels a sense of haunted wonder—it’s the closest thing I can describe to what it was like. There’s a summer festival called Obon, like a Japanese version of the Day of the Dead, and just prior, families return to the family tomb to clean it in preparation. Whole tombs would emerge from what I thought were hills covered in grass! Offerings would be left, and the tombs would be decorated. It truly felt foreign.
It made me question.
Shortly after moving there, and just before the school year started, I witnessed my first Obon performance. Okinawa’s Obon festival is slightly different from the mainland’s, and happens later in the summer. It was after dark, and I was in a neighbor’s yard, examining some weird plants, and I started my way towards home. I noticed a light coming from down the road, reflecting off the surrounding walls and earth. I crouched in some bushes as it approached, bearing a small parade of dancing people carrying lights and signs. I watched as they moved into the courtyard of a large mansion down the road. Suddenly, as though by magic, all the lights went on in the building, as though the revelers brought the house to life. I couldn’t believe it!
I sat, mesmerized, feeling far from anything I’d ever known, but welcome in this far-off land.