When my husband’s first tour was coming to a close, he asked me where I wanted to go next. Anywhere but Japan, I replied.
Guess where we went.
I don’t even remember why I had a mental block against Japan. Maybe because I had never been out of the country, and Japan seemed too much of an extreme for my first international experience. A place like Europe would have been like dipping my toes in to test the overseas waters. Japan? That was more like parachuting into the Pacific Ocean with both my arms tied behind my back. The language was too hard to learn, I’d be way too far away from family, and there was no way a 5’7 blonde female could possibly blend in. I would stand out like, well, an American in Japan.
But once I got over the initial culture shock and gave myself a swift kick in the skirt, I realized that three years in Japan had the potential of being the most unforgettable time of my life. It was up to me, though. I had the choice to either sulk at my personal pity party or embrace the adventure.
Thankfully, I chose the latter.
I know I’m not the only Mil Spouse wanting to make the best of an overseas tour. In fact, when we asked our readers on Facebook what duty station they would choose if their family could get stationed anywhere in the world, the majority of responders were praying to the PCS gods for overseas assignments.
As exciting and exotic as it sounds to hop on a plane and immerse yourself in a culture you know nothing about, it might not be as dreamy as it sounds. At least at first. Here are some do’s and don’ts for making the most of an overseas PCS.
Don’t skip class. I spent my first 2 weeks in Japan inside a classroom amongst a group of jet-lagged new arrivals. We were schooled on everything from the Japanese words we needed in our vocabulary, to how to translate road signs, to the differences in certain customs. This is very important information that saved me from embarrassing myself on several occasions. Although, I really wish the teacher had warned us Mil Spouses that the Japanese aren’t cool with public breastfeeding. I had to learn that the hard way.
Do take baby steps. If you’re anything like me, you need some warm-up stretches before you’re off and running. Don’t think you’re ready to venture out to a traditional Japanese restaurant and practice that dining etiquette you studied? Then start off sipping green tea at a more laid back joint, like the Sushi-Go-Round. (Yes, the sushi really does travel all around the restaurant on a conveyer belt. It’s awesome.)
Don’t hide in the fishbowl. For most of the time we were stationed in Japan, we lived on base. Living in that fishbowl was easy. It was a microcosm of the life we were missing back in the States. And that’s exactly why you shouldn’t hide there. Why move to a foreign country only to try to re-create life as an American? Hop in a cab and see where it takes you. Poke your head in cute little shops and buy outrageous knick-knacks. Eat local cuisine. Snap photographs until your camera battery dies. Get out of the fishbowl.
Do join the crowd. By the end of our time in Japan, we were practically on a first name basis with the employees at the Information, Tickets and Travel (ITT) office on base. We signed up for group outings and let a bus driver whisk us off to different cities to tour castles and cheer at baseball games. Eventually these trips made us courageous enough to venture out on our own with the highlighted maps and sightseeing advice our ITT friends handed out.
Don’t let opportunities pass you by. Besides not climbing Mt. Fuji, one of my biggest regrets was ignoring the opportunity I had to teach English to Japanese women. Several of my friends who jumped on the chance to volunteer later told me how rewarding the experience was because they learned just as much from their students as their students had learned from them. If an interesting opportunity presents itself, go for it.
Do befriend the brave and the bold. If not for a handful of the most adventurous women I’ve ever met, I never would have done half the amazing things I did in Japan. Their unfettered curiosity offset my fear of the unknown. All I had to do was follow their lead, and before I knew it, I felt comfortable branching out and exploring on my own.
Would you want to live in a foreign country? If you’ve lived in another country, what advice do you have for taking advantage of what an overseas tour has to offer?