Karleen C. Chinen
(This story was first published in the Nov. 21, 1986, edition of The Hawai‘i Herald following my first trip to Japan. Parts of it have been re-edited.)
I should have been bursting with excitement: I was on my way to Okinawa — my first trip to my ancestral homeland. Everyone who had visited Okinawa had raved about the beauty of the land and the warmth of its people. But as I stared out of the window of my plane and watched the city of Hiroshima grow smaller, and smaller, until it finally disappeared from sight, I knew the hour of reckoning was near.
This would be a bittersweet journey “home.” Not quite a year had gone by since Mom had passed. She was born on Maui, but at 10 months old, her mother had taken her and her brother to Okinawa so they could care for Mom’s widowed father-in-law. The first steps she had taken as a baby learning to walk were on Okinawan soil. And the first words she spoke and understood were Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language). The first place she recognized as home was her house in Okinawa.
In 1930, when Mom was 12, her mother — who had remarried after her marriage to my grandfather had dissolved — put her on a ship back to Hawai‘i to live with my grandfather, who also had remarried. She was accompanied by a calabash relative named Ansho Uchima, whom we grew up calling “Big Uncle.” Big Uncle was like a big brother to Mom and like a grandfather to my siblings and me as we were growing up. I think my grandmother decided that Mom should grow up as an American citizen.
Mom would not see her mother again for 30 years. They may have communicated through letters, but I don’t know that for sure. I do know that Grandma gave her youngest daughter from her second marriage the same name as Mom: Kiyoko.
In the 30 years they were separated, Mom grew into womanhood, trusting only her good sense and her gut. She married my dad, a man her mother never met, less than three months before America would enter World War II with Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor and then watch him ship out with the 100th Infantry Battalion nine months later. In 1945, American troops would invade the island home in which she had grown up, putting innocent civilians like Grandma and her family in the crossfire. In the 30 years she and Grandma were separated, Mom would give birth to four children. Only the youngest, my brother Carlton, had a chance to meet our grandmother when Mom took him to Okinawa so Grandma could see him with her own eyes. Carlton was not even 2, and too young to remember the stress he put her through as a woman traveling alone with an active and squirmy toddler. Three years after that trip, Grandma died in Okinawa at the age of 71.
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