May 2, 2017
By Crystal Lewis
Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan
“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.
The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.
The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.
I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.
“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.
With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.
Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.
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About the Author
Crystal Lewis is a mother of 2, a military wife, an adjunct professor, a bibliophile and a writer. She recently moved to Japan with her family. Crystal holds a master’s degree in Communication.