Fellow Leileihua High School Alumni Was My Neighbor In Nagahama, Okinawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
“Okinawa is such a beautiful place, not just the ocean and scenery and culture, but the people. I’ve been treated well and taken care of by many people here in what has become ‘My Hawai‘i.’” — Colin Sewake
Although I’m separated by over 4,600 miles and 26 years from the sands of my birth, my original island home doesn’t always seem that far away. Every summer, I spent six months performing Air Force Reserve duty at Robins AFB in Georgia from 2011 to 2015. During my off duty time, I would travel around the Peach State pleasantly surprised to be approached by others who also graduated from Leilehua High School (home of the Mighty Mules) — one at a gun show in Macon and another at an auto garage in Warner Robins while waiting for my rental car engine oil to be changed.
I didn’t have to travel 7,900 miles away from Okinawa, however, to find another fellow “Mule.” All I had to do was walk to my next-door neighbor’s house in Nagahama, Yomitan.
When I returned home in the fall of 2011 from my first trip to Georgia, my wife, Keiko, told me we had a new neighbor. During their introductory conversation, the lady said she was from Hawai‘i; Keiko mentioned that I was also from Hawai‘i, raised in Wahiawä and graduated from Leilehua High School in 1989. “I was also raised in Wahiawä and graduated from Leilehua High School!” responded Alfi Velasco.
Alfi was born and initially raised in Germany where her mom remarried a Hawai‘i man with the last name Pihana when he joined the U.S. Army and was assigned there. The stepfather moved them to Hawai‘i in 1968 after receiving orders to serve a tour in Vietnam during the war.
Alfi’s first memories of the 50th State include three generations of her new ‘ohana living in two houses on one property on Nakula Street in Wahiawä and a bowl full of poi, chili pepper water and green onions always on the kitchen table.
We reminisced about hometown spots such as Topper’s Drive Inn and Big Way Burger that are long gone and had a chuckle when we connected the dots and realized my cousin is her classmate and that her nephew is my classmate.
Starting her education in the United States in the 8th grade at Wahiawä Intermediate School, Alfi enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Leilehua High School in 1973. She served two years at Elmendorf AFB in Alaska as the only female jet mechanic in the maintenance squadron before returning to Hawai‘i to work for a year to save up funds for further adventures.
From 1976 to 1979, she traveled around Micronesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia. She even returned to Stuttgart, Germany, in 1977 for a little while, where she worked as an interpreter in the U.S. Army’s legal office. After returning to Hawai‘i, Alfi got married, worked as a photographer in Waikïkï and obtained her U.S. citizenship in 1989 before leaving the islands once again in 2003, this time to Bamberg, Germany, where she started her career in the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) in the area of special education. She transferred to a school in Savannah, GA, in 2006. It’s possible I crossed paths with her my first time in the Peach State in 2011 as she was heading to Okinawa to work as an educational assessor at Zukeran Elementary School and Kubasaki High School in Camp Foster and Lester Middle School in Camp Lester.
Upon arriving, she thought, “Wow, am I in Hawai‘i?” as she saw so many orchid plants at Naha Airport and listened to the sounds of the sanshin (the Okinawan three-stringed instrument) coming over the speakers. Interested in the history, customs and the languages of various cultures, Alfi studied a book on Uchinäguchi prior to her arrival. She tried speaking the original Okinawan language as she met local people but came to the realization of how the language was on the decline as few spoke it and understood the words she used. She took the opportunity to encourage those locals to speak Uchinäguchi and shared her idea of establishing language-immersion schools like in Hawai‘i since she could relate to how her uncles and aunties back home weren’t taught and, therefore, couldn’t speak the Hawaiian language.
Alfi’s upbringing in a Hawaiian family and the Hawaiian Renaissance movement of the 1970s inspired her to attend a few traditional dance workshops at the National Theatre Okinawa in Urasoe where she noticed similarities to hula. She hopes that funds will continue to be dedicated to these and other cultural programs for their perpetuation.
Similar to her childhood in Hawai‘i, Alfi spent much time outdoors camping around the island in places like Kunigami, Ogimi and Nakijin which brought back memories of days long ago when permits weren’t required, campfires crackled all night and the environment was safe. The only difference between Okinawa and Hawai‘i and danger, according to her, are habu, venomous pit vipers that she sometimes came across on her walks around Nagahama.
One observation Alfi made is how well the older generation of Okinawans could speak English. Whenever she asked people how they learned the language, they typically would attribute it to the occupation of the U.S. military before reversion in 1972. She believes the older generations’ language skills are better than the younger generations’ even with the continued heavy Western influence in later years.
Bise in Motobu with its traditional houses and fukugi trees was one of Alfi’s favorite locations on Okinawa’s main island together with one of the similar houses located just down the street from us in Nagahama. The openness without air conditioners and closed windows allowed people to communicate freely with each other, something she cherished from her days in Hawai‘i. Another cherished memory of Alfi’s is when we sailed in a Micronesian outrigger canoe built by Tom Bunkard — also from Hawaii — to celebrate her 2019 birthday. It was a bumpy but unforgettable ride.
After clocking a decade here, Alfi retired and returned to Hawaiʻi where she decided to settle on the Big Island which is closer to her father, children, and grandchildren than she has been all these years. She feels privileged to have lived here among the people, but, noticing the decline in culture and language over her 10 years on island, she hopes they will be perpetuated and thrive again.
I’ll miss her and her big-bearded collie, Kai, who would visit me whenever I tended to the front of my house. I’ll also miss the times we spent together on weekends listening to her cousin, Stanley Albrecht — playing bass and six-string slack key guitar with my friend, Johnny Valentine — on Facebook Live during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most memorable, we recently stood side-by-side during the game point “Aloha Ball” and watched the University of Hawai‘i men’s volleyball team beat Brigham Young University to win the 2021 NCAA Men’s Division I Volleyball Championship.
I wish her great times with friends and family back home as I hope and await the day for another Mighty Mule from the same alma mater to move in next door.
Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘äina from Wahiawä, who was assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in December 1994 to fulfill his U.S. Air Force ROTC commitment. There, he met his future wife, Keiko, and decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin is now retired from the Air Force and the Air Force Reserves. He and Keiko have two children and live in Yomitan.