I HAVE EATEN Japanese curry, and I have tried Yakitori style chicken hearts. I’ve had habu-sake and chu-hi, and I sang Bruce Springsteen karaoke very late at night.
I cook miso soup from scratch and use chopsticks to eat rice, even when no one is looking. I ride the train and pay for ice cream sandwiches from vending machines using my Suica card.
My nextdoor neighbors dry seaweed on the public beach next to my house and my other next door neighbor is a community garden. I signed a lease that forbids shoes to be worn in my house. I have a license to drive a car here, and a tiny car.
I have experienced a typhoon.
But I’m no fearless expat.
A couple of weeks ago I ate a baked potato at a Memorial day barbecue that I attended bearing bratwurst and Anchor Steam. When I first got here, and lived in a hotel room on the Navy base, I watched a lot of House Hunters International and some VH1.
When we moved out of said hotel room, it was because translators, that work for the Navy, helped us find a place to live. I’ve eaten at the Chili’s on base at least four times and I drank Fat Tires at the Officer’s Club three times.
I commute on the train with my husband three days a week so I can use the gym and the library on base. When the gas man came to turn on our electricity and gas, I had to use Google Translate on my iPhone to tell him how I planned on paying my bills.
So I’m actually pretty lame.
I Skype home and tell my family about our Japanese adventures, but I also sometimes feel a little guilty for not “immersing myself more in Japan.” I feel like I haven’t really experienced Japan as a visitor because I’m too busy living here.
Almost one year ago, my husband selected a job in Yokosuka, Japan and, some time in the fall, we received the official military orders to transfer from San Diego.
For months all we could do to prepare was read about Japan, tell our family and friends we were leaving, and make hundreds of to-do lists that we couldn’t start for months so they all just got lost or thrown away.
Then, when we finally began a 6-month-til-departure count down, Brant left for an Afghanistan deployment and I burned a hole in my power-of-attorney planning our move.
The paperwork was exhausting. I found great resources online that build checklists to help make sense of all the crap you have to do before you can move overseas with the military, but every office I had to coordinate with had different hours and different requirements and, because of their overuse of acronyms, some days I felt like they were possibly all speaking a language I didn’t know. I started taking naps.
When Brant came home safely, we had a month before the movers came and we emptied out the first apartment that we both called home. It was a strange, and bad, feeling sitting in a rental car outside the building that I no longer had a key to. Then I remembered that we rented a brand new Mustang convertible to drive cross country and our first stop was Vegas.
I cheered up immediately.
Brant took 30 days of leave so we went on a long vacation. When we finally arrived in Japan, it felt like we had been “moving” for a long time. I told everyone it was jet lag that had me sleeping so much at first. But my bones were just tired.
My first image of Japan was the view from a bus window. It drove my husband and I and 20 or so other people from Yokota Air Force Base, where we entered Japan, to Yokosuka Navy Base, where we would live. I will always remember waiting for the bus to leave, watching a few people laughing and joking, and smoking outside. They boarded the bus still talking, but as we left the base and drove slowly through the streets where we were all suddenly functionally illiterate, they got quiet. The silence was like a collective, “Holy Shit.”
I told my brother, who lives in China Town in Philadelphia, that sometimes being here feels like a China (but obviously Japan) Town in the US. But it never ends. I walk down the street, passing ladies shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas, and vegetable and seafood stalls, and people on bikes, and signs in Japanese, and everything is almost familiar but not quite.
Nothing here is as different as I thought it would be but nothing is ever quite the same when I want it to be. And everything is hard because of the language barrier.
We stayed on base for almost three weeks before we moved into our house 8km from the base, a 40-minute drive by car or 10-minute train ride. When my husband was working, I wasn’t sure how to spend my time.
Some days I walked around the base getting a feel for the location of important buildings, like the hospital and the Starbucks. Some days I took more than one unnecessary trip to the Commissary just to have something to do. One day I rode the on-base shuttle for its entire loop around the base because it was air-conditioned and I was bored. Every day I tried to evade the housekeeping staff who pushed their way in and made the bed while I uncomfortably watched or remembered I needed another cup of free coffee from the lobby.
We went to a week-long mandatory orientation, which should be called, “How to not make a fool of yourself and/or get arrested in Japan.” One of my favorite presenters showed a picture of a sumo wrestler bending down, buying something from a vending machine. Next to him was a little Japanese girl at another vending machine minding her own business.
Everyone kind of laughed and groaned when he showed it. The presenter said, “Here in Japan, sumo butts are cool. Be careful about using American values to judge the Japanese in their own country.” I have thought about that a lot.
I found a house with the help of the housing office on base. The first day, before looking at anything, I wrote down a list of “must have” items. I wrote “traditional single family Japanese house close to surfing, grocery store, and train station,” which seemed pretty reasonable.
I looked through a binder of available houses and sort of blindly pointed to three of them that looked promising, and a translator set up appointments for us to view them. I have talked to some people who looked at dozens of houses here before signing a lease so I don’t know if we’re lucky or just very trusting because we went with the first place we liked after looking at just three houses.
We have two traditional tatami rooms (one we use as a bedroom), traditional Japanese circulation heat in the bathroom, and one crazy toilet with a remote control. We can walk to a bus stop, grocery store, post office, and a bunch of restaurants, and we are a short bike ride to two train stations. The only problem is that my husband is too tall for all of the doors.
I ended up spending a lot of time in the translator’s office and I overheard a few interesting conversations that helped me get a feel for how people feel about living off base in Japan.
A lot of people are as pumped as I am, ask a lot of questions and smile a lot. Some people would rather be in Virginia Beach or Pensacola and they hate everything the agent shows them because it’s small and old. And some people are totally nervous and don’t know what’s going on.
One of my favorite things to do here is grocery shop. The language barrier can be frustrating when I’m looking for something specific, but if I’m going to make one mistake today because I don’t speak Japanese, I’d rather it be at the grocery store than the train station. If I think I’m buying cereal and I somehow end up with dried fish (an extreme example, I can’t see that ever happening) I just won’t buy it again. Figuring out how to get home would be tougher.