An East-meets-West romance: Asian woman falls for American military man. It’s a story we know well as “Miss Saigon,” “Memoirs of Geisha,” “Madame Butterfly,” and so on. And it’s a story we’ve been taught to romanticize as Asian women ourselves. Ending in a heroine’s death or being whisked away to the land of opportunity, this genre of historical fiction continues to live on. Yet this history is not so long ago, and these tales are not so far from fact.
Author Elizabeth Miki Brina is the offspring of one such relationship. Her memoir, “Speak, Okinawa,” pulls back the curtain on these military occupation couplings. She dives into what happens before and after her Okinawan mother immigrated to America. Covering over 700 years, Brina traces the historical circumstances that led her parents to meet in the first place, alternating between her personal narrative and the collective history of the island of Okinawa. Going beyond the tragic endings and the happily-ever-afters, Brina ties past and present together, a journey she herself does not embark on until she is 34.
In 1974, an American serviceman and Okinawan club waitress meet and marry by chance — or so that’s what we are trained to think. Interspersed within her family’s story, Brina works backward and uses the first person plural to walk us through the multiple colonizations of the Okinawan land, drawing from sources like “Okinawa: the History of an Island People,” an academic tome by George Kerr, as well as memoirs — such as “The Girl with the White Flag” and “A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus” — and anthropological studies about the island.
Okinawa comes to life in Brina’s memoir as a vibrant place filled with thriving island people. Through the centuries, the island and its people are ravaged through war and violence. At its height, during what will come to be known as the Battle of Okinawa, she narrates,
Many of us want to surrender. Here, in Okinawa, we believe that life is precious and must be preserved at all costs. We don’t believe that dying for one’s country is an honor. We don’t believe dying is an honor. So the Japanese lie to us. They tell us the enermy will rape us, torture us, skin us alive and feed us to the dogs if we are captured.
Although the Okinawan suicides are often mentioned in surveys of WWII history, the Okinawan people as different from the Japanese is not a nuance that most recognize. It is the push and pull of colonization that runs throughout these historical chapters, in which Okinawa truly speaks.
Toward the conclusion of Okinawa’s story, we learn of American occupation, the violence against women that occurs with it and the women who marry American soldiers, looking to leave behind their history. Among them, we find Brina’s parents.
In Brina’s case, the beautiful Okinawan bride becomes an alcoholic mother cared for by a doting husband. At multiple points in the book, Brina narrates the tenderness with which her father carries her mother from the bathroom to the bedroom, reflexive of the common belief that these military brides were saved and continue to be saved by American military men. But the truth is far more complex, and Brina admits her own complicity in framing this narrative around her mother.
It is not until a 30-something-year-old Brina is invited to her mother’s baptism, a small community of similar women, that Brina realizes what her mother has suffered from all along: Loneliness. Isolation. Distance. And when Brina finally decides to take steps to better understand her mother and that side of her family, we meet a family made strong through centuries of survival under colonial rule.
“The epiphany that I felt when I saw her church and all these women together, and how almost all of them were married to white American men who served in the military. That punch of how I felt when I saw that and the realization I came to that this story is not an isolated incident. It is not unique,” Brina shared with me in an interview. “That’s where the idea for the two forces came from: the collision of the personal history and the collective history. It is just so intertwined because until I learned my mother’s history — Okinawan history — there were so many things about myself that I didn’t understand, so many things about my mother I didn’t understand.”
When I asked Brina, why as Asian Americans it is difficult for us to access these histories — histories that white Americans share frequently — she recognized that in immigrating, many of our families experience a tremendous loss, and that pain comes from all angles. “It is painful in the sense that there is a reason for why they immigrated, a reason why they chose to leave everything behind. There is a lot of pain there, but [at the same time it’s] painful to be missing it, longing for it,” she said.
Brina went on to say that, for a long time, she herself was ashamed of her mother’s family history, and that she turned to her dad to fill that void for her — a role he was happy to take on without thinking about the power dynamic between him and her mother. She shared, “My dad had all the stories, and he wanted to tell me all the stories because he was proud of it. He was like ‘This is important.’ And me taking that on when he would tell me stories from his side, I looked at him with so much respect and admiration. I was like ‘You can give me stories, you can show me who I am, and you can guide me,’ and then I was very disappointed in my mother for not being able to do that for me.”
In “Speak Okinawa,” Brina not only gives voice to her mother’s story and her own, but also her ancestors. Untangling this herculean knot of colonization, survival and complex family dynamics is a huge undertaking, which Brina accomplishes over the course of 300 pages. What began as an essay about her mother’s baptism takes us on a journey about family, deep into the intimacies of a mother-daughter relationship, weaving together what most would only view as inconsequential threads.
You can purchase “Speak Okinawa” from your nearest bookstore or buy it here.
Additional photos courtesy of Elizabeth Miki Brina
This article is part of the Summer 2021 issue. The Summer 2021 issue centered on the theme of Family, scratching the surface of what it means to be an Asian American family, whether that’s from queer families growing to the ways our AAPI community comes together. Check it out here!