Nikki Chinen
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

During the summer of 2014, I participated in the HUOA’s Hawai‘i-Okinawa Student Exchange Program. Despite my shy and quiet demeanor, I’ve always been the adventurous type, wanting to gain new experiences. Whether it’s food, people or other aspects of culture, I’m eager to learn new and different things, and traveling allows me to do that.

So as I sat in my airline seat with a 2-inch-thick binder on my lap, I realized that going to Okinawa, my ancestral homeland, would mean much more than simply being reunited with my homestay sister, Keiko, whom I had hosted just four months earlier. As I looked through the binder, I came across a simple handwritten family tree with photos from my father’s trip to Okinawa in 1989. As I traced the family branches with my finger, I sensed a deep family connection.

I knew this trip touched the heart of my dad, who before his 1989 visit, was stationed in Okinawa as a U.S. Marine in 1973-74. The Vietnam War was winding down and his mother thought a wonderful opportunity awaited him, that he’d be able to visit both his paternal and maternal grandparents’ families.

Soon after his arrival, his unit’s supply sergeant, upon learning that he was from Hawai‘i, asked if he was Hawaiian. Dad explained that although he was born and raised in Hawai‘i, his grandparents were from Okinawa. The sergeant responded curtly, “So, you’re nothin’ but one f – – – kin’ gook.” “Gook” was the derogatory term used for the Vietnamese people.

Coupled with the fact that Okinawa was then a very poor prefecture, my dad began to feel ashamed of being Okinawan.

Upon his discharge in 1975, he enrolled at the University of Hawai‘i and took Ethnic Studies courses. His shame was soon replaced with a positive ethnic identity and he eagerly returned to Okinawa and proudly visited his relatives in 1989. He now wanted me to do the same.

My host family drove me to my relative’s house. I was about to meet some of the people my dad was ashamed of in 1973-74, but whom he was overjoyed to visit with 15 years later. I felt excited, nervous and worried — how would they feel and act towards me? As we entered the driveway, I noticed that the building looked familiar because of the pictures Dad had included in my binder. I saw a man walking towards us with open arms and a warm smile. I was confused, however, because I didn’t recognize him from any of the photos. Upon entering the house, I saw an elderly woman sitting in her rocking chair, and I recognized her! She was Furugen-san, my paternal great-grandfather’s first cousin and Dad’s grandaunt.

I couldn’t believe that this was actually my family! I was eager to ask so many questions, but the language barrier made this difficult. They didn’t speak any English and my host family spoke the bare minimum — the same as my Japanese ability. Still, the communication we lacked in words was trumped by the connection we felt through family ties. When it was time to leave, Furugen-san wanted me to stay with them! I was in awe at how easy it was to transcend the language barrier and feel connected to her.

During my two-week visit, I spent five days with Keiko at her high school, Kyuyo High, one of the most prestigious high schools in Okinawa. Her classmates were so welcoming and friendly and they were so eager to spend time with me. The Uchinanchu Spirit — their version of Hawai‘i’s Aloha Spirit -— overwhelmed me!

I picked up and used more Japanese than I ever did before. I also learned some of the native Okinawan language, which is withering away, similar to how the native Hawaiian language was dying in Hawai‘i three decades ago.

The student exchange program afforded Nikki the opportunity to meet her father’s relatives in Okinawa, including his aging paternal grandaunt, Furugen-san. (Photos courtesy of Nikki Chinen)
The student exchange program afforded Nikki the opportunity to meet her father’s relatives in Okinawa, including his aging paternal grandaunt, Furugen-san. (Photos courtesy of Nikki Chinen)

During a tour of one of the sites of World War II’s Battle of Okinawa, I met an 85-year-old survivor. She was only 14 years old when she was pulled out of school to help with the war effort as a “nurse.” One day, she was sent out of the cave she was staying in to take a letter to another cave nearby. After she left, a bomb destroyed her home cave, killing everyone in it. Because of the Battle of Okinawa, the island was left in shambles with tens of thousands killed and many more walking dead. The survivors, however, endured the suffering, persevered and rebuilt their homeland. Learning about their perseverance filled me with pride! So did learning about their music, language and the fact that karate originated in Okinawa.

Okinawa has its own unique foods, and trying the different foods really tested my palate. Goya champuru consists of two things I dislike, goya (bitter melon) and eggs. However, I knew that I had to at least try it once. To my surprise, I enjoyed it! Taco rice — a bowl of spiced ground beef, cheese and salsa served on top of white rice — quickly became my favorite dish.

I also participated in a traditional tea ceremony, but before I could take part in it, I had to learn how to correctly put on a kimono. My host mom, Naomi, taught me how to do this step-by-step. At times, it was frustrating because everything had to be so precise! When I was fully dressed, I looked at myself in the mirror and felt a sense of accomplishment. I also learned how to do calligraphy since my host mom is a calligraphy teacher. We spent hours perfecting different strokes in order to produce beautiful penmanship.

In conclusion, my experience was priceless. I am very grateful that my parents encouraged me to participate in the homestay exchange program. On a simple level, the language barrier taught me to become more patient during my conversations with everyone. On a deeper level — and the one I am most proud and appreciative of — learning about my ancestral culture and meeting my Okinawan relatives has provided me with a positive ethnic identity, making me a much stronger person. The difference between my father’s ethnic identity and mine, at similar ages, is like night and day, one that I humbly appreciate.

Nikki Chinen is the daughter of Stephen and Emi Chinen. The 2015 Mililani High School graduate is starting her freshman year at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.


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