Artist and writer Chieri Higa shares her story about visiting her grandmother Fumiko in Okinawa, hoping to find, through the rituals of food preparation, a stronger connection to who she is and where she is from. But the task proves more complex than expected and her grandma only reluctantly begins to reveal her history through the voices of her female ancestors – passed down in their kitchens over generations.
As it is for many who come from peripatetic pasts and immigrant backgrounds, meals are the strongest glue that binds me to my personal history. My mother was born and raised in Tokyo, my father in Okinawa (an island in the far south of Japan). When my mother was a child, her family relocated to Milan. When my father was a child, his family spent years in the United Kingdom and the United States. I was raised in the U.S. and Austria. The food that my sibling and I ate growing up carries traces of all of these culinary traditions, and my identity is reflected equally in glimpses of corn dogs and root beer floats at state fairs as it is in traditional Okinawan recipes passed down from my indigenous great-great grandmother to my grandmother.
In order to create a sense of belonging to any given place, I often have to hold layers of contradictions within myself. I discovered one such contradiction when we were visiting Okinawa on a summer vacation: driving northwards on the island, I could see huge swaths of lawn dotted with barracks and ringed in barbed wire fences, stretching to the horizon and covering all the hills. These were U.S. military bases, and they were built on the island of Okinawa as a strategic military outpost for the United States when they occupied the islands as a territory post World War II.
After the territory was returned to Japan in the 1970s, the bases remained on Okinawa in the name of Japanese national security and diplomacy (despite many bases on the rest of mainland Japan being removed due to local protest). As a girl who at that time saw herself as totally American and also pretty solidly Japanese (the American-Japanese identity is a whole ‘nother can of worms), I realised that the histories of Japan and Okinawa were less unified than I had presumed, and maybe even at odds with one another. In order to hold my whole identity, I had to reconcile my Japanese-ness with my American-ness and my Okinawan-ness.
As I got older, the food and culture of Okinawa kept bringing me back. I learned that the island group currently referred to as Okinawa prefecture was only formally incorporated into Japan in the late 1800s and was previously a mostly independent merchant nation, called the Ryukyu Kingdom, trading with China and nations all over Southeast Asia. Its culture, enriched with trade, grew into a unique amalgam of local tradition mixed with East- and Southeast Asian culture. Nowadays, it is known as the only place in Japan where a land battle was fought during WWII, and for being a “blue zone”, a place in the world with an unusually high number of centenarians.
The recipes that my grandma cooked were adjacent to the ones that were cooked in the Ryukyuan royal court, and ones that she had watched my great-great grandma cook for her family. This food was in many ways my closest connection to history. I was looking for belonging on this island full of complicated history and close-knit community, and to inherit the culture of my ancestors. At sixteen, I began recording the recipes my grandma showed us – from English scones to pan-fried bitter melon. In 2018, aged twenty-three, I flew to Okinawa to stay with my grandmother to learn the recipes that had been passed down to her.
You might assume that any grandmother would be more than happy to share her story with an interested grandchild, or at least this was my assumption. But grandma Fumiko seemed more perplexed than overjoyed to encounter my curiosity and burning questions about her upbringing in Okinawa. When I started asking her questions about her identity, the war, and her experiences, I often encountered a resistance that bordered on dismissiveness.
As I kept on pressing, it became apparent to me in listening to her anecdotes about the past that much of how she experienced growing up Okinawan was laced with pain. When I asked her about speaking Uchinā-guchi (the indigenous language of Okinawa), she told me about how the Japanese government brought teachers over from the mainland who would berate elementary schoolchildren for speaking uchinā-guchi, and how local customs and clothing were banned and shamed.
This kind of tactic is sadly not original to Japan, and has been used the world over by settlers, colonialists, and dominant political powers to strip locals of their language and culture. Even though uchinā-guchi was the language that she spoke with her own grandmother, and the language in which she can best express herself, she never taught it to my father, and the language wasn’t passed down to my sibling and I either, save for a few scattered words.
I went to Okinawa not only to learn about the food of my family’s history, but to seek to fit my own story into the building blocks of history; to create my own narrative by cobbling together bits and bobs from the past. I think that I encountered resistance from grandma Fumiko because she didn’t want her life to be seen in the context of all these traumatic historical events; events that contributed to the erasure of her culture and the erasure of her friends. She wanted her life to be seen as a personal timeline where the big events of history are incidental.
When my grandma and I were cooking together, not only would she correct my technique and give me advice, she would also tell me what her mother and grandmother would tell her in the kitchen as she was learning the family recipes. She would tell me what they might say to me as I was learning the same recipes. In many ways, my great grandma and great-great-grandma were in the kitchen with us, teaching me through grandma Fumiko. Learning about the formal and informal ways of slicing ingredients, that the sea snake for Lunar New Year soup can only be caught by holy women, learning which tree to pick leaves from to wrap potato mochi in, these are the details that connect me to a story of who I am and where I come from.
Grandma Fumiko’s Okinawa is not about pain. It isn’t about war. It’s about the joy of the close relationship she had with her own grandmother, of going down to the rocky seashore with her family in early spring, of the friends she’s kept for decades and the life she made with my grandpa for her children. And although I use the big building blocks of occupation, war, and indigenous erasure to navigate my position in history, my story isn’t about pain either. It’s about the responsibility and excitement I feel when learning a secret family recipe with my great aunt, it’s about the sense of rootedness I get when joining in on a year’s worth of traditions, and for the first time in my life feeling like I truly, indisputably belong.
Chieri Higa was born and raised in the US and Austria and is currently based in The Netherlands. She is a graduate of Design Academy Eindhoven’s Food Non Food department and is also a potter and writer. She is currently working on a cookbook with her grandmother about the evolution of Okinawan food and is looking for a publisher.