Tuesday, March 6, 2012

And I thought I was a long-timer

Been in Japan since 1994, 17 years now, and I am a super gaijin - fluent, literate in the language, knowledgeable, settled, and... growing more and more unsure of where I fit in.

I went to the H&R Block office near Camp Foster, one of Okinawa's many US Military bases today. It was the closest I have been to a base. There were two elderly women in the waiting room with me. One asked the other, in Japanese, "Are you Okinawan?"

"No, I'm from Hokkaido," the other answers.

The first woman was Okinawan, but she was also very loud, very impulsive. The woman from Hokkaido avoided a conversation with her, keeping her distance with silence and short, definite responses that left not a thread to pull, nothing to grasp onto to build a conversation.

The Okinawan woman finished her business and left, but she was paying US taxes, so she must have been either a US citizen or a spouse of one. It was so strange to be in this space - a US tax accounting office - with these two very senior Japanese women.

"Excuse me, I couldn't help but overhear, but you said you are from Hokkaido. If you are not an American citizen, then why are you paying taxes? Is your spouse American?" I asked the Hokkaido woman in polite standard Japanese.

She stood, coming much closer to me than I had become accustomed to in Japan. While she had avoided the other woman earlier, she was now instantly engaged in talking to me. "I am an American citizen, so I pay taxes in Japan and in the US. It's a real burden, isn't it? I took citizenship in 1951... married to an American."

"So that is why you are here in Okinawa? To have been married to an American in your generation must have been very difficult at times, in those days. You have lived through a great deal and experienced quite a lot, I'm sure."

"Yes, it was much more difficult then. My husband was in the US military. We got married, and I became a citizen. We moved to Okinawa, but he died in 1968. Over 40 years ago."

"Then why are you here, in Okinawa? You can move to the US or back to Hokkaido, or anywhere. Why Okinawa, if you have no family or roots here?"

"I have been an ikebana teacher for many, many years, and I was teaching here when my husband died. I decided to stay here and continue teaching. However, I don't teach anymore, either. But still I live here. I don't see myself moving anymore."

"You decided to stay in Okinawa?"

She paused for a minute and said, "Sometimes it is not a decision. It just is so. You don't decide. It's more like you discover. You find out what you are going to do, but you are not sure why or who or what decided. I am in Okinawa, and that is all I can tell you."

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