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Celebrating Magnificence:
Phyllis and John Engstrom

By Sharonne Gracia

Have you ever felt like a puzzle piece without a perfect landing spot, navigating a world where belonging seems out of reach, unattainable? This sentiment, the quest for a place to call home, resonates deeply with me.

In the lives of Phyllis and John, two of our dear Members at Still & Moving Center, this deep longing became a central theme of their life together.

Growing up of mixed-race in different countries, Phyllis often felt like an outsider, searching for stability and a place where she truly belonged. Phyllis’ life began in Japan, where she learned Spanish in Catholic school. The challenge of her parents’ divorce led to a nomadic childhood marked by constant moves and a sense of impermanence.

Phyllis and John met in the 1970’s at Florida State University. A blonde white guy himself, John felt drawn to study Asian culture in college. Initially Phyllis and John’s connection wasn’t what some might call love at first sight. “I liked him but he wasn’t my type, with his laid-back style, raggedy jeans and hippy vibes,” says Phyllis. “I was more drawn to the disco scene.” Those types are pretty different!

Nonetheless, John and Phyllis did fall in love after cultivating a beautiful friendship. Their shared passion for Asian studies, the way they moved together on the dance floor and their desire to explore different cultures sparked a connection beyond the surface level.

In pursuit of adventure for John and with a desire for change and reconnecting to Phyllis’ roots, they decided to move to Japan. They intended to stay for just one year. Little did they know their journey would extend for over four decades, teaching History and Spanish to both Japanese and international students.

In Japan again, Phyllis still didn’t look Japanese or feel very fluent. John hardly spoke Japanese at all, so they had to rely on her mom for help with communication. Not knowing the language of the country where she had been born but never truly belonged, made Phyllis feel again as if she didn’t fit in.

The challenge to find a place to belong hits close to my heart. Phyllis’ struggles in Japan mirror my own challenges of losing my country of origin, Cuba, and trying to find a place in the world that feels like home. In the end, it’s all about being in that space where we can be ourselves.

Phyllis and John traveled to over 38 countries across Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Their journey wasn’t just about traveling, it was a profound experience to find their identity, exploring different cultures and connecting to people worldwide. They became citizens of the globe, but where was that place to truly call home?

One day while shopping in the streets of Japan, Phyllis and John entered a raffle and unexpectedly won a trip to Hawai’i. Hmmm…. Hawai’i? As residents of Florida originally, they hadn’t considered Hawai’i much as a destination. Florida already had nice beaches and palm trees. However, their first visit to Hawai’i changed everything.

Phyllis expresses with excitement, “We knew we would like it but we didn’t know we were going to love it this much!” Phyllis vividly remembers a specific moment while walking the streets of Waikiki: “One day someone asked me where the Post Office was, assuming I was a ‘local’. This brought me so much joy!” She mentions that seeing other mixed-race people and often being mistaken for a local, sparked a sense of connection in her heart. This was the first place in her life that Phyllis felt that she truly belonged.

Phyllis and John returned to Japan with the dream of coming back to Hawaii in the future.
After health issues became an area of concern with Phyllis’s mom dying and John suffering a heart attack, they decided to move to Hawaii in hopes of changing their life for the better.

Before their move, the couple researched where they might like spending time and meet new people, Still & Moving Center popped up on their search. Something about the photos drew them in….the happy faces, a variety of people, the dancing, meditation. It looked healthy, it looked inviting, it looked like home.

Landing in Honolulu, Phyllis and John found more than a home, they found a place to nurture their bodies, feed their souls and create friendships. That was 6 years ago, and they’ve been Members of Still & Moving Center ever since.

I’m so glad to have made the acquaintance of these lovely people Phyllis and John, who make me feel as if I’ve found part of my missing tribe!

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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)