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The Hand I Fan With
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Long Rope


Okinawa, Japan

August 6 – October 2005

By Karen Strawn


Long Rope


Okinawa means long rope in Japanese, which was placed in the East China Sea to rescue me. From what I didn't know but I was grateful it was there to save me when I began to drift away and sink into disillusionment and despair from the weight of parenting, finances and lack of traveling.

I moved to this 72-mile island off the coast of mainland Japan surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea so I could watch the sun rise and set and listen to the rhythm of the waves against the shore. But sometimes I go for days without seeing the water. We found ourselves in the middle of a natural world packed with history of recent battles and ancient dynasties. But the tours are sold out, the events so crowded and expensive we haven't been able to travel yet.

I know I'm expecting too much too soon and I need to give this Asian experience a few years to steep like the green tea so common in this area. I've been told that the warmth of this sunny island will wrap itself around me and I will fall in love with this place. But right now I feel chilly from being unwrapped and I'm not an island person. So far with each negative experience there is a positive and vice versa. I will continue to grasp the rescue ropes and keep afloat.



While I was busy setting up my classroom, immersing my mind in new grade level curriculum, fighting the DSO (District Superintendent Office) for TQSA (Temporary Quarters Sustenance Allowance) and searching for a house, my 13-year-old son William was connecting with a “curbside” peer group that has caused a decline in his overall character and academic career.

Within 65 days my son has replaced proper English with fragmented Ebonics and began a relationship with a girl named “KiKi” whom I've only seen via web cam while she was taking off her sweater for my son's eyes only during an email conversation. Today William is serving time at school on Saturday for kissing this girl in the courtyard on school grounds.



Large, Orange Contraband


After flying over one ocean, two seas and three continents with our large, orange dog, US military greeted us by rejecting our pet's required paperwork on a technicality and informed us that we would have to quarantine our beloved family member for a period of 180 days at our expense for $35 day. But, through a series of miscommunications, misunderstandings, military personnel PCS and miracles, we were never separated from our dog. We held her as illegal contraband in our off-base temporary lodging and nobody from the US military veterinarian office ever called us back.

Omura House in Chatan Cho

One day I received something from the past and future - My grandma Lola's antique furniture from the family farm in Lakin , Illinois and cutting-edge fiber optic Internet service from a Japanese satellite company.

The antiques are very precious because I used to live with my grandparents when I was a young girl and I remember my grandma teaching me to read at the desk I now have in my yellow forest-home on an island more than a dynasty away. I've been rubbing the antique pieces with Old English rags to refurbish them. But what I'm really doing is rubbing the pain from my life.

Our 3-2 yellow forest-home is called Omura House in Chatan Cho which means little village in Japanese. It is stunning. It sits on top of a hill in the middle of the island overlooking a quaint Japanese neighborhood nestled among forests of trees and ancient shrines carved into the hills.

I don't have an ocean view which was difficult for me to accept. But my back patio is very private and has an unobstructed view of the forest hills. The morning and evening sounds of the locusts keep me grounded. The house, with all my worldly possessions from Turkey and the Illinois farm, is one of my rescue ropes.

However, I purposed to settle on a house with a fenced yard for Sadie the large, orange dog. I imagined her romping around her own yard protecting her environment and being more independent. But she refuses to take poop in her own yard and has developed a problem from holding it for so long. She scoots along my Turkish rugs to itch poop and I'm still a slave to early morning and late evening walks with this animal. She will pee in her yard but the Japanese grass turns brown whenever an animal's urine soaks into the ground. So now I have this stunning Southwestern/Asian home with brown spotted grass that looks like a leopard's coat.


Hello Kitty?


Coming from a country where toilets don't flush to a country where toilets flush two different ways was not a culture shock. But what is a culture shock for us is the carnival-like atmosphere that serves as a backdrop to what seems to be a perpetual Disney World existence. It seems that Japanese adore Western ways but adopt them in peculiar ways.

For instance, Japanese drive cars, as little and narrow as the streets, equipped with high-tech GPS computer systems on dashboards and DVD screens on sun visors but their homes don't have dishwasher hook ups.

Also, did you know that the Hello Kitty, Sonic and Pokemon originated on this island? Well you would after spending one day here because the Japanese dangle these stuffed animal characters on car rear view mirrors and suction cupped to their windows like Turks display their beloved “Evil Eye.” Instead of pink flamingoes and plastic deer, Japanese display large statues of Pokemon characters in their yards. One billboard advertising a local dentist features a large cartoon beaver mascot. In the middle of elegant Japanese script will be a green martian-like animae character with a word bubble.

During the past month while walking my dog though our quaint, ancient Japanese neighborhood I passed a modern vending machine that seems to have its own mascot. A stuffed mouse wearing a Santa hat has been sitting on the ground near this vending machine. In the States it would have been mutilated, set on fire or stolen for someone's little girl to hold at bedtime. But for more than three weeks now, nobody has stolen or vandalized it. I've been told that the Okinawan's have their own religion separate from Shinto and they believe everything possesses a spirit. Maybe this is the vending machine spirit sent to protect and keep the area safe?

Near our home is Okinawa's trademark Ferris-wheel that continually revolves above a Thai restaurant and a Starbucks in the middle of a popular shopping area called “ American Village .” This Ferris-wheel landmark, which lights up and flashes different colors at night, combined with vending machines at every corner serving coffee drinks and beer makes me feel like I should order cotton candy and yakatori from street vendors and try to win a stuffed Hello Kitty at a toss-the-ball game. This is every night.

On this island is a gigantic propeller that I named “God's ceiling fan.” They say this windmill devise is designed to generate power to the island. I don't fully understand the dynamics of this concept but I do know that I depend on the rhythm of the revolving movement of this giant fan to measure the reality of my life on this carnival island. And during typhoons, it stops.


The Few, The Proud, The Traffic


It is lonely on the island even though we are surrounded by eight US military bases packed with American families. The largest US presence on the island is the few, the proud, the Marines. I teach sixth grade on a Marine base at a school that literally sits on the beach. I enjoy teaching children of Marines because they have been raised on fear-based discipline and behave very well in school.

Learning to navigate between, through and around the bases is confusing. Each base has its own Commissary, BX, Shoppette, housing projects and up to seven different gates each. Thank God I don't live in on-base housing and I won't say anything else because the subject leaves me speechless.

Our favorite gate to travel through is Kadena Gate 1 because there is a large billboard featuring the number of days it has been since a DUI conviction.

If young airmen make it 30 days without a DUI they get a day off from work so they can drink. Will and I enjoy counting the days with them whenever we pass through the gate. One time the count was 28 and then the next day it was 1. We pity the person who got caught because every person on the island is counting. At least they don't display their names on this board!


Sushi & Weather


My two favorite things about Okinawa are the sushi and the weather.

This plate of sashimi, which is like sushi without the rice, came with the fried head of the fish they cut for us on a plate. It cost $18 and Will and I split it.

Almost everyday we get a thunderstorm that rolls in over the Pacific Ocean inside big, puffy, black clouds that burst with hasty rain for less than twenty minutes. I love the smell, sound and look of an impending storm. It reminds me of being inside reading a good book by a fire in the winter but we are on an island in the middle of two oceans. The sky gets black and gives us a daily reprieve from the sun. It's like being in a Rich Mullins song, “I can feel the earth tremble beneath the rumbling of a buffalo's hooves…As the storm gathers I hear the earth calling out your name…” The weather has been a surprise because I thought an island would be perpetually sunny and humid. But so far, that isn't true.


Looking Back and Beyond


Okinawa isn't like my beloved Turkey but I'm willing to give it my best shot. I love living overseas and exposing my son to one of the leading cultures in the modern world.

But sometimes I wonder if the decision to move to this expensive, fast-paced culture, where spirits are shaped like Pokemon characters, small people drive even smaller cars on narrow roads with big mirrors and ice cubes are in the urinals, was best?

My greatest concern is that I've moved farther away from my dream of living in the Middle East where I left my heart in the caves of Cappadocia. Why would I have moved clear across the world from where I want to be?

I will embrace this question with an attitude of adventure and hope that Okinawa, the long rope sent to save me, isn't the rope that hangs me.



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