Thursday, May 08, 2008

Good-bye, Okinawa

When I first came to Okinawa three years ago, I was miserable. It was so hot. The enclosed breezeway that connected our wing of the hotel to the main building was always dripping with condensation and as thick as a sauna, and the weather outside was even worse. Relentlessly bright, stiflingly hot. None of the streets had names, it was nerve wracking trying to remember to drive on the left side of the road, and we lost both the Snow White doll and, far worse, Purple Scarf (Atanasia's security blanket) in the confusion of the trip. Even throwing something away was an ordeal --- why were there two trash cans? What's burnable and what's not? Where do I put the diapers? The empty cans of Diet Coke? All of our shipments were delayed for weeks, and I sat in this empty damned apartment as it got dirtier and dirtier (because a broom doesn't really clean beach sand, and my vacuum cleaner was somewhere mid-Pacific), surrounded by the ugliest damned government-issue furniture imaginable, and every day I wanted to cry.

But, little by little, I found my way under the surface of this place. It turns out that, if you can get away from all of the Americans, the Alternate Okinawa that the Okinawans live in is a vibrant, laid-back, fascinating place. This is the tropical get-away of the Japanese islands, and the people who live here have almost nothing in common with the Salaryman and Office Lady from mainland. Nothing ever happens on time, and nobody cares. People make a living as starving artists here, playing music or throwing pottery or making jewelry or carving wood --- plus, of course, the occasional seasonal stint in the bamboo fields or apple orchards. People from mainland move here because they want to opt in to the funky, artistic, deliberately underachieving lifestyle. And I got to be a very peripheral part of that, be the only goofy gaijin shopping for handmade goods on the beach or sitting in the rain listening to Okinawan folk music or feeding my kids pieces of green tea cake and letting them run around with all the other Okinawan kids and dogs

while we wait for the festival to start (because the start time on the flyer isn't really the time things start, it's only a suggestion).

I've developed a craving for cold jasmine tea and hot cans of Georgia coffee, and I've finally figured out how to unwrap the cellophane on those triangular rice balls without tearing the seaweed. I can eat anything with a pair of chopsticks, and I automatically reach for the kleenex when I need a napkin. (That's an inside joke: if you've ever lived in Okinawa, you'll know that you generally don't get paper napkins, you get a package of kleenex at the table.)

Now that I've learned all of these West African djembe rhythms, and a lot of excellent technique, from Daiki-san, and contributed an idea for one of the t-shirts Mitzu-san silkscreens, now that I've learned all of the choreography for Marco Polo, Amira, and Veil (which I swore I hated, but, well, it's grown on me) from Etsuko-san and Sugako-san, now that I've filled my closet and my incense drawer with something new every week from my friend Mr. Victor's Indian store,
now that I've made all of these drummer
and dancer and general free-spirit friends, I feel.... Well, not that I don't want to leave, because I do. This past winter was very hard for me, it was so cold and rained so constantly. I was always cold and damp, and mold grew on everything in the house. And in another month, it'll be hot enough to knock you down. Although, strangely, it doesn't bother me now in nearly the same way it did on the day we arrived. And it will be nice to finally be someplace where I can read the street signs and the yellow pages, where I don't constantly feel the pressure to demonstrate that I am not a Damned Gaigin (spit on the occupying army!), I'm a funky laid-back peace activist just like you.

But, once again, I'm so sad I could cry.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Period of Reflection

News of the misdoings by Americans here on Okinawa lately has made it as far as CNN on-line (, so I'm not going to go through the sorry details here. For anyone who is interested, the BBC website has some very thorough coverage: An "alleged" rape case started this meltdown --- "alleged" in the sense that the 38-year-old Marine responsible hasn't yet been convicted, but "alleged-in-sarcastic-quotes" because no matter what the details of the incident turn out to be, he's 38 and the girl is 14. Let's be blunt: there just aren't any benign interpretations for a 38-year-old man having a 14-year-old girl alone in his company unless he's her parent, much less driving her around in his car for several hours in the middle of the night.

This incident alone was more than enough to strain U.S.-Okinawan relations, which were already stretched pretty thin by the continued wrangling over the relocation of the Futenma landing field (which, in a horrible irony, was initiated as a result of the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three American servicemen). But then, despite mandatory briefings about not causing any more incidents, two more Marines in two separate incidents got drunk and then stupid (although I suppose they must have been stupid even before they got drunk). One Marine got arrested for DWI, a hugely big deal on Okinawa, where the laws have recently been tightened and police are vigorously enforcing them in an effort to reform Okinawa's reputation as Japan's drunk driving capital. A second candidate for Idiot of the Year went out the same weekend, got blind drunk, walked into a local house, and passed out on the sofa. It's a little funny until you imagine waking up to find a gigantic drunk American has broken into your living room. Then there are the Marines arrested for trying to pass counterfeit bills, and the Army sergeant accused of rape.

So we're grounded. All of us: Marine and Air Force and Army and Navy, all of the civilians who work directly for the Department of Defense, and all of their spouses and children. All 45,000 of us.

Traffic patterns are different, since the Americans have to stay home (or on base) --- you can tell who we are because all of the license plates issued to anyone connected to the American military start with "Y." The parking lots at the 100 Yen store and at the Indian imports store and the drive-throughs at McDonald's and Starbucks are mostly empty. All of the little restaurants along the highway that passes the major bases must be hurting, not to mention the bars and tattoo parlors and nail salons. I hear that last Saturday, the wait for a table at the only civilian restaurant on base was an hour and a half. I can't even get a phone call through to the base beauty salon, and until last week you could practically get a walk-in pedicure. People waiting in line for lattes at the on-base Starbucks concession are starting to get snappy.

Strangely, instead of easing tensions between Americans and Okinawans, I have the feeling that things are getting worse. There are rumors that locals have started calling the police if they see Americans in public (maybe true, maybe not --- it's hard to credit that the Okinawan police would actually have the authority to enforce American military regulations). There are rumors that base MPs in civilian "plain clothes" are patrolling popular local spots like the 100 Yen store and the San-A grocery store, looking for errant Americans (probably true). There are rumors that some services (nobody said it was the Air Force, but everybody's thinking it) were so lax in their interpretation of the restrictions that within a few days they were back in the drive-through lanes of McDonald's and Starbucks on the theory that they weren't actually in any local establishments. (I think this one is true --- you'd have to see what passes for Air Force uniforms to appreciate the difference in attitude.) There are rumors that "someone high up" (variously identified as a colonel or a master sergeant) decided that the restrictions didn't apply to him, was caught doing business off-base, and processed through a disciplinary action and thrown off the island in record time (probably apocryphal, and maybe even planted).

What I notice is that, despite 2 1/2 years of being attentive to Japanese culture and making a conscious effort to be respectful of it, of taking dance and music classes for two years with Japanese teachers and students, and of experiencing nothing but politeness in return for my efforts to be a "good" (as opposed to "ugly") American, after a week of being lumped in with the worst of all possible Americans in the public eye, the public is eyeing me askance. Suddenly, I'm not myself: I'm "one of those Americans." And I feel guilty. I feel like apologizing to every Japanese person who will meet my eyes (which, right now, is pretty much restricted to the gate guards and the people working at the various base concessions). And I feel people looking at me as I wait for the children at the bus stop, as I drive from my apartment to the base library --- looking at me and wondering what I'm doing out, and wishing me hastily back into whatever hole I crawled out of. I know it's not "me" --- but it is "us."

Once again, I am deeply ashamed to be an American.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I'm Going to Hell

I was at the Commissary yesterday on my weekly supply run for string cheese, hot dogs, and Diet Coke when I saw that someone had wedged a flier under the windshield wiper of my car. Fliers are a very popular form of advertising here in Okinawa. Every time a new apartment building opens in the neighborhood, someone sticks a flier under your wiper just in case you’re in the market to trade up. I’ve gotten so many rain-sodden cards reminding me that there’s an Easier Way to Get Your Car Inspected (Just Call Kinjo!) that I sometimes drive around with one stuck to the windshield for most of the day before I’m bothered enough to pull it off. It looked as if mine was the only car in the Commissary parking lot to have one, but I really wasn’t paying that much attention. I didn’t even look at it until I’d gotten the groceries put away.

Ah, but it’s a pamphlet, not a flier. The cover was no clue: “Party Girl.” I’ve seen posters lately for a new adult novelty shop carrying a line of “Women’s Lovely Friends” (whatever that is!) --- could be a promotion for that. Or maybe another of those “home party” schemes where you go to a friend’s house and buy stuff you don’t really need so that she can get a hostess gift.

Imagine my surprise when I realized what it was: a handy, pocket-sized tract warning me of the dangers of immoral behavior!

Why, I wondered, was I singled out for this timely warning? Then I remembered the bumper stickers.

When, against all of my single-girl oaths, I first found myself driving a minivan (you just can’t wedge three car seats into a sports car), I decided that if I was reduced to driving a Housewife-mobile, I would approach it as a giant canvas. So I started plastering my outsized, coolness-deficient vehicles with a rotating display of liberal iconoclasm. The current collection must have inspired this concern for the state of my soul. (I’m betting on the bellydancer sticker; everyone knows that belly dancing is only a step away from prostitution.) So, let’s examine what my car says about me:

Well, there’s a Japanese kanji that says “peace,”a sentence suggesting the practice of kindness, a sticker for a local group called “Hug the Earth” (self-explanatory, I think),

a symbol for Gaea (more Earth-hugging!),

a Sanskrit word for tolerance,

two drumming stickers, the word “bellydancer,” and the outlines of a family (with parents of opposite genders).

Clearly, this says …. no, wait …. I am going to hell! How could I have missed this before? Thank God some vigilant Christian pointed it out to me!

Now I have the opportunity to reform my life, so that I can later join all of my intolerant, environment-hating, rhythmically challenged friends in heaven.

Hang on --- those aren’t my friends. These are my friends.

In heaven all the interesting people are missing.

----Friedrich Nietzsche

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Nothing Ventured

In spite of my misgivings, I accepted the job at Venture Magazine. “You’ll love it,” said the woman at Human Resources. “They’re a very close group in that office.”

Well, she was half right.

I found the job by reading the Jumbotron on Kadena Air Base as I drove past at 50 kph.


There’s probably a lesson to be learned here, about the advisability of taking jobs advertised on large electronic devices. But I didn’t have my Hindsight Glasses on that day and so, balancing a piece of paper on the steering wheel, I jotted down the phone number.

In amazingly short order, I’d had an “informal” interview and an “unofficial” job offer. (You’re right. Both of those terms should have told me something.) The job was at something called Venture Magazine, generated by the Marketing Department of Kadena Services. The use of the word “magazine” implies that the publication involves actual journalistic content. In reality, the product is a 48-page glossy advertising supplement designed to attract members of the Air Force community to on-base locations at which they can spend their money. There was no actual writing involved, and precious little editing. My job was to take the material forwarded to me by the account reps (a handful of 20-something young women kept constantly busy making phone calls and generating email and promotional posters and buying each other lattes at Starbucks), edit it minimally to match the format of previous issues, and proofread the final product.

The work turned out to be a lot more interesting than I’d guessed, although the magazine only took up about half of my time. I could occasionally actually write something for the Services segments in the base newspaper, even though it had to involve selling a Services event. Every week, I also put together the Weekly Highlights email: truncated slugs of text headed with clip-art animation. I had great success with the blurb for a Seafood Spectacular dinner, which I headed “Bite Me!” with an animation of a crab. The Officer’s Club manager liked it so much he wanted to print it on paper lobster bibs, although I believe he was talked out of it. But into every happy marketing garden a little rain must fall. My particular cloudburst was the oldest of the Account Rep Girls.

“Maybe you recognize her?” the manager said to me when he introduced us. “The host of the Services Highlights television show?” Um, no. The show doesn’t run off-base. But she was obviously the Big Fish of the staff (every office has one). And it was pretty clear that she didn’t exactly warm to me. Surreally, during my second week in the job I was talking to a manager at one of her accounts who said to me, “You’re a lot nicer than I thought you would be. When I asked about you, she said, ‘Oh, her, nobody likes her.’” Really? It took me a lot longer than that to realize that I didn’t much like her, either, and even then I omitted the step where I spoke badly of her to people with whom she worked. Maybe that was in the Phase 2 Customer Service Training class that I didn’t get to. Ah well, I thought. I’m 15 years older than she is, I didn’t go to either of the drink-until-you-puke celebrations after work, and I’m not all that interested in the affordability of plastic surgery in the Philippines. We just don’t have a lot in common. Foolishly, I relied on my previous professional experience, which led me to believe that you don’t have to be best friends with your coworkers as long as you conduct yourself professionally and courteously. What was I thinking?

My eminently sensible plan of doing my job well and treating my coworkers like professionals was completely derailed by my ignorance of the Avoid Conflict at All Costs school of management. As it turns out, in the metrics of the office as high-school microcosm, one irate Girl Bully outranks a newly hired pseudo-writer/editor, no matter how professional. With a refreshing lack of ceremony, I was fired. Here are the official reasons: I didn’t consult sufficiently with the advertising reps (well, it’s true that I did decline to let Fish Girl decide how to do my job as well as her own), and I wasn’t creative enough (I’ll let you be the judge of that).

So. Did I gain valuable real-world experience from taking this job? Truly, yes, I did. I learned a lot about how a monthly glossy magazine-substitute is made, about format and layout and graphics. I also learned a lot about what an office looks like in the absence of actual managerial oversight, which is not a pretty thing. And I learned that being good at your job is often not what, in the end, you may be evaluated on. Now there’s a Real Life lesson worth the pain of admission!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Typhoon Man-Yi

Typhoon Man-Yi is the first big storm in two years to actually hit Okinawa. We've had so many distant misses in the past years, so many false alarms, that there was some question whether this one was worth all of its press. Well, Man-Yi was pretty spectacular. It took close to 20 hours to pass completely over us, and the rain continued for another entire day after it was gone. The Japanese meteorological agency recorded wind speeds of 100 mph on Okinawa, with gusts up to 145 mph.

The great thing about typhoons, as opposed to tornadoes, my personal least-favorite disaster, is that you can see 'em coming. We knew Man-Yi was on its way for several days. Other storms in the past two years have veered before hitting the island, dumping a lot of rain on us but not really inconveniencing anybody all that much. But by Thursday morning we all knew we'd better get ready. Since my new job is located on the air base, I have access to better weather updates than offices on the Marine bases (military weather information for the Pacific comes from the air force "weather flight"), so we knew by 9:00 Thursday morning that Man-Yi wasn't going to slide around us. Some of the air force weather maps are great --- in the hemispherical satellite capture, you could see Man-Yi like a smudged fingerprint in the Pacific. By lunchtime, the rush to the commissaries was on, as everyone suddenly realized that they didn't have enough diapers or Diet Coke to hold them through the storm. (Liquor sales are halted on the bases once you go into TCCOR-2, I think it is, in an effort to prevent bored, drunk servicemen from doing stupid crap like something I just heard of: squirrel surfing, where you lay on your back in a flooded field with a blanket tied to your ankles, holding the top corners in your hands, and let the wind pick you up and literally fly you. Until you hit a rock. However, the smarter squirrels among us know that Japanese stores will sell you alcohol, too, and they don't close for bad weather. Not that I'm condoning drinking your way through natural disasters!)

By 10:00 on Thursday, the schools dismissed kids in summer school classes; at 3:00, government employees were sent home. We were in pretty good shape --- we happened to have a full fridge and pantry (and freezer) and we were stocked on diapers and toilet paper, so Ed ran to the Commissary for more apple juice and milk, and to the PX for a dozen new videos, and I ran a tub full of water when I got home. We brought in all of our outside things (the patio furniture, the kids' bikes, the sunflower plant Atanasia grew for Mother's Day and the bean plant Sebastian grew for his last science project) and made sure all the windows were closed. I pulled both cars into our space under the building, thinking that they would be more sheltered from flying debris there. And that was pretty much all we needed to do.

Other than the adrenaline rush of knowing the typhoon was coming, Thursday was a regular day. The sky was a solid pack of clouds, and the wind was already strong enough that it was hard to walk through, but once we'd finished our storm-prep chores, things went on as usual. We had dinner, watched the Disney channel, and put everyone to bed at the regular time. I woke up at about 3:00 Friday morning to that freight-train sound I remember from the last, nearest miss --- it's the sound the wind makes as it smashes against solid objects like the building you're sleeping in. But by the time everyone was awake Friday morning, the rain was slacking off and the wind wasn't as strong, and it seemed as if we'd slept through it.

Turns out, this was the eye, and in another hour the back wall of the typhoon passed over. I'd wanted to see how high the surf got during the typhoon, but there was so much rain, all slashing through the air sideways, and the wind was thrashing the trees around so violently, that really you could only see maybe 30 feet into the park across the street, and not as far as the ocean.

We didn't lose power, although since you don't have "cable" tv service in Okinawa but satellite service instead, you lose that in any moderate rainstorm, so we lost television reception most of Friday and part of Saturday. The armload of new videos kept the kids happy, but they were pretty tired of being stuck in the apartment by Friday afternoon. We let them go up to the 4th floor to see if they could visit a friend --- turns out, the 2nd floor gets a lot more shelter from nearby building than the higher floors, and they got some flooding in the upstairs apartments.

By Friday night, Man-Yi was past us and on its way to mainland, where a lot of people got stuck at Kansai airport. We still had a solid mass of clouds all day Saturday, and so much rain that anything that had already started leaking got a lot wetter. As I drove to Okinawa City on Saturday morning, most of the storm damage I saw was broken tree limbs (now I see why they keep the trees so severely pruned here --- they keep the branches trimmed so that the tree is compact) and some smaller trees uprooted.

A few businesses that left their awnings out had them shredded, and the places that left their advertising banners out had some of them tangled, but apart from one light truck that Ed and the kids saw flipped over, and the damage that some cars got from being parked under trees (silly Americans), the damage here was very light. Okinawa has a system of "rivers" (concrete-bedded streams) leading from further inland to the sea that channel storm surges and prevent New Orleans-style flooding. All of the coastlines near urban areas are studded with huge concrete breakwaters (they look like 10-foot-tall concrete jacks), and most of the beaches have artificial breakwaters further out in the ocean, as well. The expression "safe as houses" could have been invented to describe modern Japanese architecture --- even during the occasional earthquake, our building is flexible but solid, and it didn't so much as budge under 100-mph winds. All we really needed to do was come home, close it up, and stay inside.

But finally, this morning, it's all blown away and we woke to another startlingly perfect island day.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What the War Has Cost Me

My husband has been an active-duty Marine for the past twenty years. Last year, a week before Christmas, he was deployed. I was lucky: my husband’s field is finance, and he ended up in a support billet in the Gulf instead of on a patrol in Baghdad or Al Anbar Province. Although his job has taken him to the Green Zone twice so far, I don’t have the daily fear of his being shot by a sniper or riddled with fragments from an IED, or of his vehicle or helicopter spiraling through the air trailing smoke. I can’t complain. I don’t. Military wives (and husbands) live in an atmosphere of unrelenting stoicism. But I’m not writing about my fears or my rage or my politics. I’m taking stock of what this war has cost my family.

This war has cost my children the joy of sharing Christmas and each of their birthdays with their Papi. My son turned 9, and my daughters 6 and 3, while their father was away. This war has cost me the help of another parent when all three children had the flu at the same time, and the level head of my husband when the little one was vomiting so severely I took her to the emergency room. This war has cost my children 200 days of playing Ride the Horse and Gotcha and What’s That on Your Shirt? and The Ceiling Fan Is a Tornado with their Papi. We will have missed 200 dinners together by the time he comes home, and all of the pancake breakfasts he would have made. I will have missed all of those nights of hearing my husband breathing next to me, those mornings watching him brush his teeth, those evenings laughing over a bad movie or planning our future after he retires. And all of the times I’ve been tired, or sad, or lonely, the war has cost me the comfort of my partner, and the advice of my dearest friend. It has cost my husband his son’s school awards ceremony, the chance to watch his daughter wiggle her first loose tooth, the elusive moment when his toddler stopped being a baby and became a kid. As great as the effort he puts into staying in touch by phone and web cam, he will still have missed 200 days of coming home after work to the excited yells of “Papi!” and the sound of running feet.

Worst of all is the price that we will continue to pay after my husband returns. Even if, through great good fortune, he comes home never having been shot at and never having had to try to kill another person, my husband will still not come home the same person who left. War changes those who experience it, from whatever perspective. How could it not? The question is only in what ways, to what extent. The Marine who comes back won’t be exactly the same friend, the same husband, the same Papi who left. Our efforts to find ways to make ourselves into a family again are the last, unknown costs of this war for us. Others have paid prices even higher, and I grieve for them.

I suspect that people reading this may be saying to themselves, “That’s too bad, but this is what she signed up for when she married someone in the military.” And of course that’s true although, from the time we were married until now, my husband has never served at a duty station from which he could be deployed, so we never prepared ourselves for it. We simply never imagined a conflict lasting this long, one that would dig so deeply into the heart of the Corps. At the end of January, the Commandant of the Marine Corps issued a message, ALMAR 002/07, saying that the Corps intended “to allow every Marine [the] opportunity” to deploy and “to identify Marines who have not yet deployed…and facilitate their reassignment to rotational units.” Marines with various non-combat specialties --- food service, finance, logistics --- are finding themselves deployed as frontline troops. After all, “Every Marine a Rifleman.” But even families who have known from the beginning that their Marine would deploy are not less affected by it. In ALMAR 008/07, the Commandant wrote, “The current operational tempo of the long war has resulted in strain on our Marines and on the Corps as an institution…. I am…concerned with the stress of multiple deployments on our Marines and their families.”

So far, the war in Iraq has cost the United States around $700 billion in direct spending, meaning not counting things like the lost productivity of deployed reservists, or how much that money would have improved the U.S. economy had we spent it at home, or the war-related increase in the price of oil. Divided by the current U.S. population, I get $2,320 per person. Of course, my pocket calculator’s screen can’t show 700 billion (a 7 and 11 zeros), so I rounded. Even if you never know someone who fought in Iraq, this was has cost all of us. I believe that General Conway already knows what the war has cost my family. I bet Mrs. Conway knows even better.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Heart and Star: A Romance

Once upon a time, two beautiful girls, a Heart and a Star, both wanted to marry the same Heart boy.

So they had had a competition, and the Heart boy picked the Heart girl to be his wife.

But the Star was very angry, and she and the Heart had a fight (there was smoke).

The Star tried to marry the Heart boy and he didn’t know it was her, so the Star married him.

Then the Star mixed up a potion and pretended to be nice to the Heart.

The Heart drank the potion when she was at the beach, and the potion turned her into a mermaid.

The Heart was sad, but then she met a mermaid boy and she wasn’t so sad.

He showed her a room she could sleep in, and she went to bed and went to sleep.

When she woke up, she found the potion that the Star gave her, and she thought about who it belonged to.

She had an idea that it belonged to the Star, and she was very mad.

So the Heart made her own potion, and drank it.

Her potion turned her back into a human.

She went back to the Heart boy’s house, and they hugged each other. (The Star was so mad, she had a volcano coming out of her head.)

And then the Heart girl and the Heart boy got married.

The End.

Pictures and story by Atanasia Rives, age 5-but-almost-6. Here's what the whole thing looks like.