Mashed Potato Mount Fuji

Cheri Crenshaw

In 1997, my husband was stationed at the Naval Hospital in Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa is a beautiful place. The green-blue ocean can be seen from almost any place on the island. White clouds rush through a sky untainted by smoke and fog. Flowers and riotous green plants line the streets. Butterflies abound. Even the scenes not so pretty often intrigue. Apartments, condos, and houses crowd together so close that it is possible to hear one's neighbor snore. Small white cars line Highway 58, but no one ever honks during the frequent traffic jams. Miniature, bright-purple bulldozers idle along the single main road. And although the news media like to cover demonstrations denouncing the presence of the American military in Japan, these incidents are rare.

Shortly after we arrived, I was encouraged to join the Okinawa International Women's Club (OIWC). Most American women whose husbands were stationed in Okinawa found OIWC a good experience. In theory, Japanese women and foreign women, who were usually American, met once or twice a month in order to become culturally enlightened. In practice, women of both cultures struggled to eat the strange foods the other found irresistible. As the Japanese rarely eat anything very sweet, the double chocolate fudge brownies at my house were as troubling to the Japanese as the cold mashed potato Mount Fuji decorated with lima beans at Kayoko's home was to us. We also shared information regarding our native crafts, holidays, and customs - only to find these cultural aspects very difficult to explain, much less understand. The Americans fumbled to explain how Easter bunnies deliver Easter eggs, and the Okinawans never could tell us the origin or meaning of the words, "Moshi! Moshi!" - the standard Okinawan telephone greeting.

These cultural encounters also challenged the club members' willingness to endure various, well-meaning indignities. For instance, the Japanese women once decided to dress the American women in kimonos and to conduct a green tea ceremony. Kimonos are expensive garments used only on special occasions, and the green tea ceremony is usually a solemn ritual. However, on the appointed day, it took a great deal of pulling, twisting, and giggling, before the Okinawan kimono "expert," an elderly woman invited expressly for this meeting and whose name the Americans never did grasp, could wind the much taller and wider American women first into a white undergarment that resembled a thin hospital gown and then into the petite, colorful kimonos. Mine was the largest kimono that the Okinawans could find. Yet the edges barely met in the front, and the rest of it stayed in place only if I took small steps and drew shallow breaths. The kimono expert, dark eyes amused behind her black-rimmed glasses, actually patted my protruding bosom and made an incomprehensible but undoubtedly ribald comment that left the younger Japanese women red-faced and giggling and the Americans dumbfounded with curiosity. I joined in the laughter - with unfortunate results. The edges of my kimono flew apart, exposing my thinly clad bosom to the roomful of women. Grinning, the kimono expert silently pulled together the edges of the yellow kimono and retied my orange obi - much tighter.

While the Americans were dressed in kimonos and pictures were taken, an OIWC member named Hiromi prepared the green tea ceremony in the tatami room, a large unfurnished area covered in tightly woven, light brown reed mats that was separated from the kitchen and the living room by fragile paper walls. Inside an alcove in the corner of the room, a single white flower rested in a vase on the floor and a long weathered scroll covered in black kanji, a style of Japanese writing, hung on the wall.

Keiko, another Okinawan member of OIWC, had agreed to lead the Americans through the green tea ceremony that Hiromi was conducting. So, one hand covering her smile, Keiko gestured to me to follow her into the tatami room. She stepped into the small room and knelt in front of the alcove that held the flower. I followed, remembering not to step on the seams that joined the tatami, as we had been instructed previously not to do. In an olive-green silk kimono, Hiromi already knelt in the corner of the tatami room. In front of her, wisps steam rose from a miniature cast iron stove.

We were to admire the flower to achieve peace, the proper state of mind to undertake a Japanese tea ceremony. It was only as I walked to where Keiko knelt that I wondered what would happen when I knelt. The kimono's hem reached only to the middle of my calves, and the orange obi straight-jacketed my middle. Bowing to the inevitable, I held my breath, bent my knees, and toppled knee-first to the ground with an audible thud.

Giggling, bent-backed Miyoko, one of the Japanese women watching, scuttled into the room to cover up my now-exposed upper thighs with a small blue-flowered towel. Keiko rose, swayed nearer to Hiromi, and then knelt once more. I rose, losing the towel in the process, hobbled on already numb legs to my place beside Hiromi, and thunked back to the floor. Miyoko scurried into the room and rearranged my towel. My legs tingled. My borrowed kimono grew soggy with sweat.

Then, solemn in her green kimono and golden obi, Hiromi began to mix the green tea. Her shadow moved across the wood and white paper wall behind her. The iron brazier steamed beside her, pushing curls of vapor through air. She prepared every cup separately but in the same manner. She tapped the same amount of tea into each cup of water and turned the bamboo whisk the same number of times in the porcelain cup. Her hands arranged the bamboo whisk, porcelain cup, and lacquer bowl upon the black lacquer tray in ritualized grace. Eventually, she bowed her head, and with both hands, handed me the tea. I bowed my head and cradled the hot cup as was proper in Japan, left hand underneath and right hand at the side. I knew that I was to turn the cup and then drink the tea in three sips but I wasn't sure which way or how far to spin it. Sensing my hesitation, Keiko knelt in front of me and coaxed my hands with hers until the cup had been turned, the bitter green tea had been drunk, and the American woman had been solemnized. At that moment, that one time, there was a connection between us. It was a moment of grace. After that, I felt real affection for these Japanese women. And, despite any report to the contrary, most of the time, Okinawans tended to smile at the foreigners who lived among them, imagining, perhaps, more too-tall American women struggling to kneel gracefully after being squeezed into petite yellow kimonos.

© Cheri Crenshaw

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