Ep. 6: Preserving History with the Okinawa Memories Initiative
A blog post by Sean Torralba
Hi, I'm Sean Torralba and I graduated from California State University, East Bay with a degree in Media Studies. I'm currently based on the island of O'ahu in Hawai'i. I enjoy a good conversation, a good film, or a good meal. I can be reached at @star_tribe on Instagram.
How did you get involved with OMI?
My involvement with OMI began when a professor at my then university’s communications department had posted a summer internship opportunity to visit Okinawa as members of OMI’s media production team. The key faculty member overseeing the project, Dr. Anita Chang, earned her doctorate at UCSC in Film & Digital Media and now teaches at California State University - East Bay, specializing in visual culture, film production, and critical media analysis — to name a few subjects. Dr. Chang’s involvement with the UC Santa Cruz community focuses on her role as OMI’s creative director, though also extends out as a former faculty member at UCSC. After finally entering my upper division classes for my major and concentration, media studies, it became evident these same fields of interest overlapped with what became a strong series of lifetime pursuits. So I felt rest-assured knowing I earned a spot for one of two availabilities for the summer internship with OMI.
It was me and another student, Ailing Cheng, who were always hyping each other up, reminding each other of how much we deserved to be there and had a clear purpose on the team. Being two of four non-UCSC members invited onto the project brought its own unique set of challenges so Ailing and I would usually debrief on the offshoot. Though we seldom found any difficulties, a majority of the OMI team embraced us with open arms. Ailing and I helped with documenting photo exhibitions, facilitating meaningful discussions, aiding with the media production elements involved with the oral history interviews. A lot of the more visual technical work required with documenting and cataloging the breadth of speaking to, speaking about, and speaking of the Gail photos in any sort of relation — direct or indirect. Historicizing the historian, if you will. And yes, there were a lot of fun photos Ailing and I both took outside the professional sphere of the project.
What has been your favorite experience or memory in relation to the project?
There are so many. I remember my time in Okinawa with fondness and I’m glad that I catalogued so many songs that I heard throughout my entire stay because that private playlist captures a more sonic picture regarding the summer I spent there. I’ve established so many amazing friendships through OMI — I mean, Stephen and I are close homies to this very day. It’s so difficult to choose just one so I’ll choose two, a more professional one and a more personal one (for lack of sharper terminology).
Throughout the entire trip, I found myself having these very intellectual conversations where everything I learned regarding visual culture and media, Asian-American identity, cultural production, and race relations were unifying into a more robust converging point. Seeing the forest for the trees. These conversations were had in the most casual of settings with the most tactful and diplomatic usage of words. I didn’t set out to hanker nor lecture anything down into anyone’s heads in any way, rather encourage and empower, uncover and inquire. It’s a really illuminating experience — we’re largely these people of color from the States now in Okinawa, putting ourselves in these situations where these really nuanced and complex matrices regarding identity would arrive to the fore. Instead of learning about these dialogues from a theoretical, abstract standpoint in an academic setting, engaging with these said concepts are so much more tactile.
There’s a student we met from the University of the Ryukyus, Riku, who shared how his professor introduced these seminal works on critical race theory, specifically Anzaldua and Fanon, through a summer course. (It’s been a while, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t have all the exact specificities — there’s a strong chance Riku sought Fanon himself if memory serves me well). And he had all these amazing questions regarding the crystallization of racial politics into a framework beneficial to his positionality being in a country that’s largely culturally and ethnically homogenous. When you’re in the United States, we often forget that relative to so many other countries, we’re discussing or responding to racial identity broadcasted on a constant, resounding pace and at such a public level. So transposing said conversations into a setting where such topics are seldom discussed offers a newfound awareness. Our struggles are so much more interconnected and interwoven than we’re lead to believe. Although the Internet shrinks that distance, the immediate discussion of these topics in-person generates this feeling of global unity where that physical mediation really exudes this palpable solidarity.
Besides what I shared, I always treasure the balcony of my assigned team’s rental apartment. Watching the sunset over the Naha skyline whilst drinking a tall can of beer listening to the jazz CDs on the disc player I both purchased at Book-Off. Those evenings for myself were my favorite way to decompress from completing the day’s tasks.
What does it mean for you to be able to go to Okinawa or talk with Shimanchu in the diaspora and connect to the communities through the project?
What does it make you feel?
After getting to know Stephen over a handful of years now and hearing Lex’s responses to the questions asked, their involvement with OMI means so much to them. Visiting Okinawa alone has this tonality and reverence comparable to a rite of passage. I mean yeah — there’s also the excitement of travel, that’s a given. It’s just that, as children of people who emigrated to the United States, we often speak of the meta-narrative where visiting one’s homeland carries a deeper, intimate gravity with an underlying intention always involving some variation of, “I’m uncovering a greater part of myself and my own identity.”
For some context, I’m a second generation Filipino-American born and raised on O’ahu. Both my parents are from the same hometown in Ilocos Norte, Philippines. My mother’s immediate family chain-migrated since the 80s and once she gained her citizenship, she soon married my father so he could migrate over. Fast forward to me — I grew up on O’ahu for eighteen years of my life before I moved to Hayward in the San Francisco Bay Area for college and lived there for roughly half-a-decade before moving back due to the pandemic. I mention this because what I’m about to share requires brief context necessary in understanding the statements I’ll be sharing, including the strands of my own identity functioning in the background.
I’m always advocating for interethnic solidarity. You could chalk that up to the widespread albeit complicated rhetoric of unity so indicative of growing up in Hawai’i. Complicated being that said rhetoric requires a necessary update and refresh in the way local Hawai’i in its entirety discusses identity politics, but that’s a separate conversation. You could chalk that up to my time in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area has such a rich, compelling heritage of political activism. We have to consider the breakthrough establishment of ethnic studies as an entire field of study began in the 70s throughout public universities across the Bay Area, first beginning at San Francisco State. You also could chalk that up to the current political climate of the United States. With the visibility of #BlackLivesMatter throughout the mid-2010s, discussions regarding Black identity and police brutality have launched so many important and necessary conversations about the history, present state, and trajectory of race relations. I’m certain that these geophysical locations and national events have nurtured such interests and passions, leading me into the person I am today.
Stateside involvement with OMI means so many different things for so many of its members, yet keeping in line with the question, I’m just grateful I have the opportunity to help validate Shimanchu experiences on a project with tremendous importance. On the trip — that always felt like the underlying feeling Lex and Stephen respectively saw and respected in me: that I have so much awareness on why indigeneity and decolonization guides so much of their personal frameworks without those words being explicitly stated most times. It’s really special to develop a more immersive, physical relationship to your homeland in a way that illuminates your identity beyond the abstract or piecemeal. All the pieces connect in this comprehensive way that positions lineage amidst the ancestral rather than the immediate. Without getting too sappy, yes, it’s this really special experience.
I’m just grateful that I got a chance to be there! Rather than focus predominantly on the seriousness, I do believe in a moment of respite and levity. And I’m so happy to hear that Lex’s class has to deal with maximum capacity issues! It sounds like a pain — but wow, you’re doing something right if you have twice the number of enrollment on a course crafted with so much drive, passion, and diligence. The autonomy in telling your own history with accuracy means so much — and to do so in a way that illuminates the multi-faceted nature of narrative makes the experience even better.
As someone who isn’t Shimanchu, what is your relationship to the oral history, photographs, and places that you’ve experienced?
How did these relationships impact you or them in terms of representation and connection?
It felt so apropos to be involved with the project immediately after taking an enlightening and eye-opening course on identity in media during the semester prior to the summer trip. Throughout my time in college, I always found myself gravitating towards articulating the nuances and breadth of Asian-American identity and cultural production beyond fundamental subjects like the “model-minority myth or “assimilationist politics.” Considering the nature of my degree, I sought after critical evaluation of the mechanics involving cultural production during all of its phases – pre, during, and post. So, with my involvement with OMI – it really opened the door in analyzing the historical processes and methodologies involved with understanding identity and culture from a different academic discipline.
Because I am not Shimanchu, I actually gained so much insight on Shimanchu identity from actually talking and befriending Stephen. It’s one thing to say, “Oh I went to Okinawa. I met the locals. Took really cool photos and made so many cool friends.” I think over time, such as tagging along with him on any related OMI errands when we returned back to the Bay Area, gave me a more rich, supplementary insight as to what it meant to be Shinmanchu. In addition – we’re usually responding to each other’s ideas on ethnic identity in a scientific and open-ended, yet casual space where we break down and dissect anything stimulating we’ve discovered since we last spoke.
Because what I recollect from the trip, one of the big takeaways I’ve gained was that there are so many countless experiences and narratives which go into being Shimanchu. That you could grow up within the same period of history, consume the same pieces of media, grow up in the same areas – but small details like different schools, different parenting styles, your relationships to your native tongue and cultural practices, your understanding of colonization or indigeneity – still creates these really vast differences. From these experiences, I’ve gained that identity and representation are so much more ordinary and quotidian. We could theorize and formulate these fantastic webs composed of all these academic explanations – they help us see the world, yes, that’s always important in establishing a structure to hold onto. Though, we must also give due credit towards any ordinary experiences which even allow us the opportunity to even formulate and graft these ideas onto each other to begin.
That’s what I’ve learned about oral history that I deeply admire – akin to how I also view the discipline of anthropology. It’s that supporting and generating personal autonomy amongst a specific group of people helps to span a much more comprehensive scope of what it means to be this said group of people. And it’s from a more organic rather than calculated pace. As corny as this sounds, letting someone embody all parts of themselves from the sum of its parts helps propagate this fuller conversation around identity which feels so much more edifying.
Go-to karaoke song?
Blah Blah Blah by Kesha (ft. 30H!3) OR Give It To Me by Timbaland (ft. Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake)
Literally cannot go wrong with late 00s or early 10s pop music. If it’s music you could find on a fourth generation iPod nano, they’re certified crowd pleasers.