“Stranger in Paradise!”

A California Teen Discovers His Okinawan Connection

“Hi family here’s our California Derek-san!”

Anticipation was high and the Okinawan banquet hall filled with excitement as fifty-some relatives of all ages rose as one from the room’s traditional tatami floor to welcome their distant teenage kin from California for the first time.

Never before in his life had the 16-year-old Derek been lavished with so much attention: especially being welcomed and adorned with a gorgeous garland of tropical flowers from the island paradise.

Derek, or “Dee” had first experienced the island’s gracious hospitality at the airport on his arrival, but nothing like this with all eyes of his family focused on him.

Living and nurtured by his Okinawan grandmother in California since childhood, Dee grew up learning much about his distant Okinawan clan.

Gigantic Whale Shark encounter.

Gigantic Whale Shark encounter.

Following the dinner and welcoming words by family elders, the whole room’s islander spirit let go as relatives, young and old, began singing and dancing shoeless en mass on the banquet room’s tatami floor.

Of course, Dee was invited to join in the dancing. And after a rough start, he soon kept up with the joyous clan.

Attired as Okinawan entertainer..

 

A week of visits to various island landmarks followed Dee’s welcoming banquet. These included an up island exploration of Nago and its world-famous Okinawan Churaumi Aquarium and Nago Historical Museum.

Also a visit to the Nakagusuku Castle Ruins, a World Heritage Site on the return from Nago .

Next day in the Okinawa capital of Naha, the chief curator of the Okinawa Prefectural and Art Museum personally gave Dee and grandmother Maria a guided tour. In the museum’s special Touch and Experience Room Dee was donned in a traditional kimono and given a classic three-stringed Shinsan banjo with a decorative snakeskin body to be photographed with.

Dee along with Grandma Maria also visited Naha’s acclaimed Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum dedicated to the WWII sea tragedy which took the lives of more than 1,500 children and the elderly: more than the Titanic disaster. Miraculously, Dee’s own grandma Maria at his side was aboard as a 13-year-old in 1944 and today is the oldest living survivor.

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A stranger in paradise no more, Dee departed for California totally fulfilled and proud of his amazing Okinawan connection.

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