Thursday, July 19, 2007

Return to Oki!

Who am I? I always like to say that I define myself by the people I've met and the places I've been. Anyone who knows me knows that Japan has of course played a big role in the "who I am" part, but some of (all two of) you might not understand how important a role Okinawa played in my life. I came to Okinawa in 2002, deployed with my first team. Upon finishing my study abroad in 1997, I had only spent a week or so in Japan until then, and was focused on other stuff making Japan pretty much a non-enitity in my life. Somehow I was still able to speakum Japanese when we arrived, and became a defacto tourguide/translator for my team. "Don't let on that you speak Japanese" they'd say, thinking (like everyone else) that Japanese people sit around pondering with one another the actions of roundeye in the vicinity. This lasted about 5 minutes into the first bender we went on (which coincidentally was about 5 minutes after we arrived) and I set about getting to offend know the locals.

It was as if Japan had been waiting for its prodigal son (me) to return, and I felt the country (even though it was Okinawa) and its people welcomed me with open arms. Everyone was friendly, appreciative that I spoke the language, and whenever I'd roll up they were happy to see me. Even though the unit we were with in the Marines pretty much sucked, after a month or so I wrote back to my parent unit and asked to stay for an additional six months. I thought about re-enlisting but the stupidity of things in Okinawa and the experience I was having made me realize that I had a calling outside of the USMC, and that calling was Japan. If I couldn't stay in Okinawa or Japan within the Marines, it was time to get out, which I did. Fast forward to now -- past 5 months spent goofing off in Tokyo, 6 months spent collecting unemployment at my parents' house, 7 months in Afghanistan getting an inappropriate salary for getting drunk, and 2 and a half years in Tokyostan leading up to a marriage with my looovely wife. Four years later I make it back to Okinawa for a conference; back to the place that jarred me back to reality and awakened a lost love of adventure and human interaction.

It's always hard to go back. As I rode up Okinawa's route 58 coming from the airport I saw my old haunts; places from a different where and when, inseparable from the people I experienced them with. There was the curry house I went to with Chazriel, Durl, little Joe and everyone else. That's the parking spot we dropped the van off in when we shanghai'd a humvee and goofed off in starbucks all morning. There's the parking garage Kev passed out in after sprinting out of an establishment without paying (which was awkward, considering we knew the owners). I imsgined all of us as we were on those spots, like black and white ghosts on a color backdrop, and I felt like an imposter violating the purity of how I remembered things to be.

After the conference I knew I had to make it up to Kinville -- back to the tiny area of bars where we spent so much time, just to see it again. Kinville itself is a lot different, as they've "beautified" it. Where there used to be a parking lot there is now a little park, and they've made some of the streets pedestrian only. This is all well and good, if you care to ignore the scummy buildings and buy-me-drinkie bars lining the streets. I went on Wednesday night at around 10:30pm, which was good because all the lower enlisted folk have a 12pm curfew and nothing's going on on Wednesdays anwyay. When I walked into the bars it was instant reaction. It was like Kinville was sitting there waiting for me to come back. As if they were expecting me to walk in at any time but were just as surprised to see me nonetheless. The three major usual suspects where there (for those of you who have been there, that would be Meg, Erika, and Miki), as well as the owner, Rika, and her half Taiwanese husband named Hito (who we used to call Lao Ching Wan simply because he was half Chinese). Miki is the owner of Edgar, pictured below.

I asked her where he was, and she said he was at home. Apparently he was running around on the bar one night and took a crap on the bar, alarming one of the Japanese customers, and was subsequently banned. :( Since there were no customers it was nice to go between Rika's three establishments and catch up with whoever was working there. At each place there were pictures from another life, usually Eddie and I, eyes at half-mast, on one of our weekly benders.

At the end of the night I had one last stop -- King Tacos. Taco Rice with Cheese (and sauce!) was the traditional post-drink food, particularly from King Tacos, and I had to get some. I turned the corner and headed down and stepped on an enormous piece of glass. It was one of those situations where you're half in the bag and pain doesn't so much register as an "owie!" as much as you brain says, "hey, knock knock man, there's something in your foot." So I stopped and pulled the large chunk of glass from out of my foot and through my flipflop from which it protruded and threw the glass away. "Man that sucked," said my mind, as I plodded onward towards the red and yellow sign. My foot was getting slick and my brain was telling me, "Hey assface, we have a situation", so I paused and checked out my flipflop, which was now covered in blood. Yeah, it hurt like a bitch, but not hurt-hurt cuz I was drunk, but more in the "FYI this is your brain speaking, your foot hurts" sense, so I continued on and ordered my taco rice. Yeah, I was bleeding like a stuck pig, but I didn't really see why that should keep me from getting some food. I remembered the lady who gave me my food -- once 4 or 5 years ago we had drank until 10am or so, me, her, and the owner of some hole in the wall bar, but I didn't expect she'd remember me and I'm pretty sure she didn't. An Okinawan fellow was asking me about my foot and I said it ought to be alright, because I was more interested in hopping in a cab and gorging myself on this Mana from Kinville on the way home. The cabride was shorter than the way in because we took the expressway and he delivered me to my door, so I cleaned off the blood and scrubbed my wound and reflected on the nights transgressions.

Okinawa is a part of me, just as much as the scar I'm bound to have on the bottom of my food from a shard of filthy glass in Kinville. It might seem a little pathetic that I make a trip far from where I was to see a few people who are still working in the same dingy bars and remember a crepster like my friends and I, but they were a huge and important part of my Okinawa experience which ultimately led me to where I am today. They were our cultural brokers and picked us up when we were (physically) unable to do it by ourselves, but most of all they are just kind, generous, and patient people who will never forget us as we will never forget them.

Kyle, Eddie, Little Joe, Erika, and Rika.



Blogger Hammer said...

Creating a sense of place in the minds of people who have never been to the place being described is the great aspiration of all travel writing. You've succeeded admirably with this post - nicely done.

12:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you really outdid yourself on this one Paul. It may sound a bit cheesy but it took me about an hour to get over your story. It stirred up a lot of memories and reminded me about what a UNIQUE experience the whole thing was.

Kudos Sir.

-Joe cs:TRIPOD

6:15 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

hammer -- thanks, it's kind've hard to imagine what kinville is like unless you've been really drunk there and/or witnessed a lot of fights there, during the course of which you may or may not have taken a shot to the face just because you were present. if you ever make it to okinawa i wouldnt suggest actually going there, unless, i dunno, you happen to be in kintown at midnight for whatever reason. :)

joe -- glad to hear it -- you were present during a lot of those adventures (and more, since you were there 2 cycles before my first one). it was weird being there by myself and not not walking into east coast, bounds, myplace, or osakas and seeing 5 or 6 drunken idiots on the verge of being kicked out/beat up, but it was awesome nonetheless because i was one of 3 people at each of rika's bars so i could catch up with them.

7:28 AM  
Anonymous placito said...

Paul, Erika is my ex-wife (and the mother of my daughter). Is she still at Rock America? I've been trying to reach her. Please contact me at This is very real. Her name is Erika Miyagi and the Meg is Megumi.

2:16 PM  

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