I spent much of last summer there feeling like a sleepwalker, bumping into things and confusing reality with dreams. I thought maybe it was the sun and humidity, the stifling subtropical heat, that weighed heavily on my lungs and limbs and rendered everything a little hazy. By e-mail from the States my friend offered another theory: it’s something about being in the ocean with so little land around, she wrote.
But there was something else, too.
Shopping at the corner grocery store or slurping noodles at ramen stands, I attracted the same sort of attention I’d received on “mainland” Japan, where my features, dress, and manner somehow marked me as foreign. Strangers would pause and stare. Some would test out a little English. But here in Okinawa, American G.I.s with beer on their breath would stagger over and spit out pickup lines in almost unrecognizable Japanese. Konnichi wa, kawaii, they’d say, words whispered and passed along through their barracks like a magic spell. Good afternoon. You’re cute. “I’m American,” I’d reply, and the response was usually the same: “No! You can’t be! Where are you really from?”
In Okinawa the Japanese thought I was American, and the Americans thought I was Japanese. As the child of a Japanese American mother and a WASP father, I was not entirely shocked by this. I’ve been referred to as Korean, Latina, Hawaiian, Chinese, and Caucasian. After studying in Kyoto my junior year abroad, I was used to being the gaijin, the American, the foreigner. In the United States, I often have to explain that, although my first name is Japanese, both sides of my family have been in this country for generations. But it was in Okinawa that the two sides of my ethnicity stared at me so glaringly, day after day.
Okinawa itself seems a portrait of contradiction. Hulking U.S. military jeeps nudge tiny white Japanese hatchbacks through traffic. Along the shore strip malls encroach upon white beaches and achingly blue water. On this island opposites meet and wind around each other—the paradise and the parking lot, the pale-skinned mainland vacationers and the tanned locals, the Japanese civilians and the American soldiers. The island is charged with conflicting elements that seemed to echo my own sense of being both Asian American and Caucasian—and, at the same time, neither.
Driving to work, I passed elderly people in wide-brimmed hats outside the U.S. consulate. They yelled into traffic and thrust up signs: No More Bases, Go Home Troops. Elsewhere the two cultures had begun to melt together. Japanese girls hung around American clubs and bars, some drunk on Hollywood movies, others just looking for a different kind of Saturday night. Latino G.I.s brought smoky salsa clubs and Spanish words floating somewhere between Japanese and English. One of the most popular local dishes was taco rice—a bed of Japanese sticky rice covered in taco sauce, ground hamburger, shredded cheese, tomatoes, and lots of iceberg lettuce.
In this Okinawa I saw a mirror of myself. For years I’ve tried to figure out where my two names meet, how to be both an Akemi and a Johnson. I’ve walked through the crumbling, low-ceilinged halls of a 350-year-old English manor that whispers of privilege and lingering ancestral ghosts. I’ve touched the soil in Hiroshima, where 100 years ago my great-great-grandparents toiled as farmers. At Brown, I’ve studied Japanese and learned to write my name in kanji, as if to balance out all the years I wished my parents had named me something else.
Not until this summer did I truly begin to understand the richness of a mixed identity. As I grew hypnotized by Okinawa’s vibrancy, I began to see that contradictions are to be celebrated, not solved. Although different cultures can clash in conflict, they can also act in harmony, pulsing together to forge things that are intoxicating, alive, and utterly unique.
Okinawa confirmed this everywhere I looked.
Akemi Johnson is an East Asian studies concentrator from Marin County, California.