For those of you planning a move to Okinawa soon, we hope Marie’s descriptions of the process of their travel and first months of settling in can help you with a few of the “unknowns.” To read more of their story see links at the bottom of the post.
CONTRIBUTED BY MARIE LEWIS
Riding with our sponsors from Kadena Air Base to the West Pac Lodge on Camp Foster, I was too tired to absorb much of anything. I stared at the road ahead and tried not to flinch every time we turned left or right…driving on the left side of the road would take some getting used to! I was struck by how dense the area seemed–so many brightly lit signs, businesses, restaurants, and hotels lining Route 58. My mind was a blur. Thankfully, our check-in at the West Pac was a breeze and we were asleep in no time.
We woke up the next morning to pouring rain. The rainy season was just beginning and we were getting a good dose of it already. Our room was small but comfortable: full bed, desk, cable, internet, kitchenette, mini fridge, and bathroom. Our sponsors (the Meltons) had stocked our room with drinks and breakfast food, which is awesome when you wake up at 4 a.m. and realize you aren’t going to fall back asleep! The room was a little on the warm side, about 78 degrees (we didn’t have any control over the air conditioning in our room.) Later that morning, our first stop was the commissary. We picked up a few essentials and noted how expensive the produce was–almost six dollars for one carton of strawberries. But that’s what the COLA’s for, right? The Meltons drove us by the post office, PX, and other landmarks to familiarize us with Foster. Then we went to town — our first look off base in daylight.
We ate lunch at a noodle place on 58 between Kadena and Camp Lester, called Marukame Noodle. I had no idea what I was ordering; I just pointed at a picture on the menu that looked like it was worth a shot. Kenny ordered something that looked totally different from mine. We always sample things off one another’s plates, but we learned we had to be careful about our table manners here. The Meltons told us that you weren’t supposed to pass food from one person’s chopsticks to another person’s. I later read that passing things from chopsticks to chopsticks is part of the funeral process in Okinawa. Instead, you are supposed to use your chopsticks to place food on a plate. Also, we learned never to insert our chopsticks into a rice bowl and leave them there (this is only for offering rice to the recently deceased.) I expected I would have to take off my shoes here, which we did beside our table. However, I was surprised to learn that it is not customary to tip off base. Having worked as a waitress in college, this felt awkward to me. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew about the way of life here. It was overwhelming, but I looked forward to the challenge of understanding it all.
The Meltons had planned to take us to American Village (sort of like New York City’s Chinatown, but with Okinawan shop owners marketing to Americans and locals alike.) Mother Nature, however, had other plans. The rain here was intense and unpredictable; it was pouring one minute, drizzling the next, with a piercing ray of sunlight in between the bouts of rain. We stopped at an indoor mall whose name I couldn’t read or pronounce, and whose location I forgot as soon as we left. I was hesitant to take pictures inside the stores for fear of being rude; I wasn’t sure what was or wasn’t socially acceptable yet. I was so awestruck with my new surroundings that I couldn’t retain basic information.
What I do remember were the colorful signs that seemed so daunting. Would I ever learn this new language? I remember the dresses and unique fashions that all seemed tailor-made for a petite woman like me (I’m a towering 5 foot 1 and a half.) Most of all I remember the smiles from strangers. They seemed to understand I was among the clueless island newbies, but they didn’t seem to mind. They met my quizzical expressions with encouraging nods. I respected their patience.
The biggest thing thing we accomplished this first day was getting cell phones. There are two local carriers with stores at Camp Foster: AU and SoftBank. Both offered free phones with a 2-year contract (basic phones, not smart phones.) Both offered similar plans, but AU seemed to have more reliable coverage. It was tough to make this decision so quickly, but I’m glad we had local phone numbers right away. For us, it simplified the check-in process (i.e. providing phone numbers in paperwork.)
We fell asleep early that night, but my eyes didn’t stay shut for long. I was suddenly wide awake, expecting daylight any moment. Then I rolled over and saw the clock: 2 a.m. It would be a long night. I laid there and stared at the dark ceiling for the next three hours, then gave up. Kenny couldn’t sleep either, so we had another early start to the day.
The Meltons offered to take us to their church that Sunday morning. We happily obliged. They drove us to New Beginnings International Christian Center. What an experience! Almost all of the families there had some connection to the U.S. military, and they were incredibly welcoming. It felt great to be in an atmosphere like that on our first Sunday in Okinawa. As far as I was from my family in the states, I didn’t feel so alone. Everyone there treated us like their own family. Although Kenny and I like to explore several churches before we settle on one, this was an exceptional place to start.
That evening the Meltons hosted us for dinner. They showed us around their multiplex home, giving us a rough idea of what we could expect if we were offered similar living quarters. (More about our housing experience is yet to come!) It was a relaxing evening, and the perfect way to unwind from a whirlwind of a weekend. Great food, wonderful company. We ended the night with a little taste of home, stopping by Baskin Robbins on base. I’m a sucker for vanilla soft serve with rainbow sprinkles. It reminds me of my childhood summer nights after a fishing trip with my dad. I missed the people back home, and I think in a strange way, that ice cream cone made me feel closer to them.
I know that I’ll miss my family for as long as I’m here. But I also know they’d be the first to scold me if I didn’t take advantage of all this island has to offer. And so far, it’s been simply amazing.