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Patty Kleban: Wowed by Okinawa – Traveling Abroad to Discover Your Home Base

by on August 18, 2011 6:00 AM

There I was, sitting in the Tokyo airport, waiting for our flight to Hawaii and our return back to the United States.

During those quiet moments, I had the opportunity to reflect on a week spent across the world and immersed in a culture that is very different from mine back in State College.

We arrived to the Marine Corps base at Okinawa late due to the typhoon that had settled over the island. Much like our snow days, the residents of Okinawa stay in their houses for the duration of the storm. Warnings are announced on local media and via e-mail.

The typhoon had stalled over the island for the previous three days. On that particular Saturday night, we waited for the storm to pass. Our flight was eventually permitted to leave after repeated delays. We arrived on the island of Okinawa at approximately 3:30 a.m.

We were thrilled to see the young civilian in his Marine Corps Community Service shirt – his sign in hand, welcoming trainers from Penn State and providing us a ride to our hotel on the base.   

His kindness and patience as he returned to the airport in the middle of the night to pick up strangers who had been scheduled to arrive hours earlier, during a typhoon, set the standard for what we came to see as the culture of the Okinawans.

The Okinawans, who view themselves as separate from the Japanese, have many similarities with their neighbors on mainland Japan.

Like the Japanese, the Okinawans are polite, helpful, peaceful and very warm.  A friendly smile when they don’t understand what one is saying and the inevitable bow upon greeting and or parting from an interaction reflect the level of respect that is so inherent in their culture.

Similarly, the Americans who live and work in Okinawa follow the local customs -- and the culture. Tipping is frowned on in Okinawa. Providing good customer care is considered to be part of the service that they provide. 


At the risk of feeding a stereotype, it offered an opportunity to look in the mirror for this potentially “ugly American.”

I became very aware of a different pace of life and a different way of interacting -- waiting in line at the airport, getting on the shuttle to take us to immigration, receiving the pleasantries on the airplane and accepting the greetings everywhere we went.

As an American in Asia, I had the opportunity to reflect on some differences.  First, if I lived in either Okinawa or Japan, I would probably have to order my clothes over the Internet – particularly my shoes.  A Japan size medium does not match an American medium.  A size 9 shoe for a woman of my height isn’t exactly big.  (I did manage to feed my shoe habit at the Marine exchange).

Size, especially in this case, mattered. In Japan, almost everything was smaller. I took a picture of my 5-foot-10, red-haired colleague on the shuttle bus to the airport in Japan. It was quite the sight. It was also true about cars, houses, restaurants and just about everything – except the food portions. The tray of tempura, chicken teriyaki and soup that I was served at Yoshi Haichi could have fed a small family.

Do we as Americans really need big huge cars, houses that are have more rooms than the people who live in them and more, more, more of everything?

As we waited in line for more than an hour to go through security to get on our international flight, I was very much aware of how I was keeping my patience (and related comments) in check. It would have been grossly inappropriate for me to throw my typical, “I’m in a hurry and have a million things to do” hissy fit.


There was a general sense of safety and of helpfulness in Okinawa. We repeatedly heard “It’s very safe here” and “Women can walk alone at night and not feel concerned.” On one drive through town, I saw two children who looked like they were walking home from school. It was early evening and they were without adult supervision; they looked to be about four or five years old.

At one point, my colleague and I were standing in the middle of the square – ironically, near the American Village -- and we were trying to find a cab to take us back to our hotel on base. We knew to look for a cab that said “authorized on-off base,” but we didn’t know where we could find those particular cabs. We were approached by a group of teenagers who asked, “Can we help you?” It was funny -- two middle-aged women lost in Okinawa -- and their reaction was quite different from what we might see in the United States.

Later in the week when my colleague and I got separated in the shopping district, I would have had no qualms about looking for a cab and traveling back to base at night, solo. In Okinawa, crime is largely non-existent except in situations of domestic violence, alcohol-related issues and among Americans on the bases.

American employees of the base, as well as the Okinawan natives, did everything they could to make us feel at home. I haven’t done a lot of traveling abroad but must admit that I felt enlightened by how our American standards for living, excess, size and sometimes self-absorption seemed rather silly in comparison to the efficient ways that others live. Did I really need more shoes?


Travel of any kind offers us the opportunity to experience how others live as well as provide a lens on how we may be viewed by others. Northerners visit the South. Easterners visit the mid-west. West coasters visit the central mountains. Americans go abroad.

After a week of being away, I have to admit I felt a sense of comfort when the plane landed in Hawaii. Even though Hawaii is an incredible paradise and feels like a world away from central Pennsylvania, it’s still one of the 50 in this United States of America.

I know the rules here and understand how things work. I can make change, ask directions in a language that people understand and know (for the most part) what I’m ordering on a menu. It’s comfortable.

I can’t wait to travel again.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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