When Christine Permatsari arrived in Okinawa this August, she found it to be not much different from home.
The humid climate was the same. The town of Haebaru, where she now lives, with its shaded streets overflowing with tropical vegetation, was similar to what she knew in Indonesia. As for the pace of life, it wasn’t much different from Jakarta.
The cultural similarities, however, are what particularly fascinate the 24-year-old Indonesian, now working as coordinator of international relations at the Haebaru Cultural Center on the main island of Okinawa.
Since her arrival, she has discovered surprising likenesses between the traditional textile designs of the Ryukyu Islands and those of her native Java. Then, there are the “houses on one of the outlying islands that have a surprisingly similar style to homes on my father’s native island of Sumatra,” says Permatsari.
But perhaps her most unusual discovery so far involves the giant python. In Okinawa, python skins are prized for their use in covering the resonant chamber of the sanshin, a local precursor of the shamisen. The three-stringed musical instrument was introduced to Okinawa from China more than 400 years ago and eventually spread to Japan. “Since being in Okinawa, I’ve learned that python skins from Indonesia have traditionally been prized for their size and strength,” Permatsari explains.
When not exploring the cultural wonders of the islands, Permatsari is hard at work at the cultural center. Her duties include giving introductory Indonesian cultural workshops at local elementary schools, organizing cultural exchange programs and interpreting for foreign visitors.
“Soon after I arrived, I found myself interpreting for a visiting Canadian ice hockey team. During their two-week stay, it was my job to guide them around the island,” recalls Permatsari. The most stressful moment came when she was suddenly asked to be the English master of ceremonies at the opening of one of their games.
“You have to remember that English is just my second language,” Permatsari remarks with a whimsical smile.
Just a little over two months have passed since Permatsari arrived in Japan. With her playful personality, she has swiftly won the heart of the local community.
Another cultural center has asked her to start giving Indonesian language classes and to lead culture tours to Java. Her Indonesian cookery program will soon be aired on local television. The core of her work, however, is teaching English at the local elementary schools.
“It is a good experience for the children to learn English from a non-native speaker,” Permatsari explains. “They feel less intimidated by a fellow Asian, perhaps, and I believe I can be a model for them.”
When asked about the difference between English-language education in Indonesia and in Japan, she points out that “English is considered the second language of Indonesia. For anyone who has gone to school, it is naturally assumed that they can converse [in English]. Whereas, here in Japan, English seems to be treated as just another subject to be learned in preparation for exams.”
This is not Permatsari’s first experience of living in Okinawa. In her junior year at the University of Indonesia, where she majored in Japanese studies, she was awarded a one-year scholarship to advance her language studies at the University of the Ryukyus.
“I thought that learning Japanese would open up a lot more career options after I graduated,” she says.
When asked about her future plans, Permatsari comments, “I’d like to stay here for the next three years and then do advanced studies in communications or public relations at a Japanese university, perhaps in Tokyo.”
In the meantime, Christine Permatsari is enjoying the subtropical lifestyle and cultural discoveries of Japan’s southern islands.