Okinawa and the Bucket List.
By Garry Parker
In recent months, I’ve spent considerable time reflecting on my past 25 years since I first stepped onto Okinawa, and in the process, have found myself drifting into semi-lucid thoughts of what the next 25 years will hold. From a purely selfish perspective, there are lots of goals that I aspire to accomplish, and whether they are realistically achievable or not, seems to have no bearing on my thought process.
After a few years in Okinawa, I had intended to make it my home; everything that I had grown to love (with the exception of my American family, home-made buttermilk biscuits, and muscle cars) was right there on that tiny island in the Pacific. The tropical way of life, the friendly nature of the the native Uchinanchu, the fresh salt air, and abundant sunshine, complete with the total absence of winter, was a dream come true for me. After I got married and had a child in Okinawa, I was intent on become one of the many ‘expats’ living the dream in Okinawa. I had already received my honorable discharge from the USAF, been granted a visa, gained status as a ‘senpai’ both at work and at the dojo..and all this within six short years from the day I arrived.
As I mentioned, I was being selfish. I was there for me. Yes, it’s true that I was sent to Okinawa courtesy of Uncle Sam, but staying was my choice; being in Okinawa made me happy, and I really wasn’t concerned with how others felt about it, including my family back in America. My mother and father were having a difficult time understanding how I could just ‘abandon my home and culture’ as they called it, and live in Okinawa. I spoke to them a few times about it, and explained my feelings, but they didn’t share my excitement. Those who have been where I’ve been will understand the feelings of happiness, acceptance, and belonging that I experienced in Okinawa; although I was born in United States, Okinawa felt like home.
Growing up in Columbus, GA, my life was mediocre; of course I had a great family that loved me and a few good friends, but I was never a social butterfly, or the popular kid in school, nor did I excel in team sports. Sure, I played little league baseball, and played football and basketball pickup games with my brothers and friends too, but I was no athlete nor did I have aspirations to become one. I did enjoy art, reading and writing, and in my teen years I enjoyed the individual challenges of judo training. In the dojo, all of my results and improvement were a direct result of the effort that I put into my own training. There was no team to build up, no team-mates or coach to let down, no star players or stats to compare myself to… I suppose ‘loner’ and ‘dreamer’ are not the most desirable labels, but those are what I heard the most when people described me as I was growing up. Oddly, those terms didn’t negatively impact me at all; in fact, I felt pity for those that mindlessly followed the status quo, and had no autonomous thoughts or dreams to call their own.
To an extent, we all have to be at least a little selfish if we are going to be bold enough to follow our dreams, and I was, and I did…for a little while.
In the summer of 1996, with a newborn baby and lonely grandparents on the other side of the globe, I began to think and feel a little differently. Part of it was genuine homesickness, part of it was a guilt trip being laid on me heavily by family members back in America. You see, one of the undesirable traits of a ‘dreamer’ is the willingness to care less what other people think, including those that are the closest, and those that love us the most. I would suppose that this type of sociopathic behavior serves as an insulator from those that would detract and distract us from following our dreams. From the the time I was young, my father always called me a dreamer, and not always in a complimentary tone, yet he never discouraged me from dreaming, nor following my dreams. I suppose that most kids are dreamers to an extent; sadly, their dreams die an invisible death shortly after puberty, when the reality of life begins to be ingrained into their brains. Parents are notorious for encouraging their children to ‘get serious about your future…start thinking about college, career, real life, etc.’ Following your dreams is often left out of the new equation of adolescence and young adulthood. So, years after high school graduation, I was following my dreams; I lived a life that was far beyond ordinary, and one that no-one in my family ever suspected would happen. I was an American veteran turned expat, living in another country with my new wife and child; I was speaking another language, and I was happily living a life that fulfilled me and brought me joy every single day. Having recently earned my black belt in karate, life was good, and my wife and I were making plans for my future in Okinawa with my new family. Leaving Okinawa had never entered my mind until that summer; in fact, I was certain that I would live a long, happy life, and retire right there on that little island.
Now, having been back here in the United States for nearly twenty years, I find myself reminiscing about the island that became my adopted home and my second culture. Even now, I would still rather live there than here, but life has a way of changing our priorities. Here in the United States, we embrace the Okinawan way of life as much as we can; we speak both Japanese and Uchinaguchi at home, we maintain friendships with other Okinawan expats here, and of course we enjoy the cuisine and keep in touch with the culture. But I have also began accumulating an ‘Okinawa Bucket List’ of things that I want to do and see in my lifetime. I also realize that most of the items on my bucket list will require me to be either very close to a thriving Okinawan community, or living in Okinawa. Tucked away for the past couple of decades, the thought of retiring and living a happy life in Okinawa with my wife has began to re-emerge. Perhaps change is inevitable..it’s certainly at the top of my bucket list.
I learned lessons in Okinawa that have helped shape my life; Like so many others that adopted Okinawa as their home, I found it hard to resist the magnetic culture, and as I made my way back to my homeland, I realized that I left a piece of my heart on the island. Because I actually find myself homesick for Okinawa, it’s apparent that I also carry a piece of Okinawa with me now in my heart. So, as I look back on all of the wonderful memories and experiences of my last 25 years, I’m also looking forward to the next 25, and I’m excited to see what will unfold, and how many items I can mark off of that list.