– October 2005
By Karen Strawn
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.
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.