Let’s take a quick trip across the world to learn an interesting perspective about life abroad in the military. I asked my cousin, Michael Spoelstra, who is a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and based in Okinawa, Japan, to provide us with insights about living as an expat deployed in Japan. He provides a thoughtful and honest perspective about the challenges of living abroad. Thank you, MP (my nickname for him!), for writing for inspirNational!
It is difficult to put together the sentiments one feels. I think there are stages people experience in being removed from what they’ve been so accustomed to, so I’ll try to address the three stages which I’ve experienced – the Vacation, the Rut, and Reality. Keep in mind this disclaimer; my experience is not the same of the typical traveler. I had no choice where I ended up, due to military orders, nor any say in the duration of my tour. I’m also writing this on a birthday, alone, on a grey, gloomy day – so some context may shed light on the tone of this post.
Stage one, in relocating to Okinawa, Japan is the Vacation phase. I am approximately 7,307 miles, 14 hours in time zone, and thousands of years steeped in culture away from home. Fighting through jet lag one is overwhelmed by the alien feeling of it all. The sun feels different. Flora and fauna are different. The stars in the night sky seem rearranged. And for once in my life – I am the one who is different.
Excitement courses through your veins – you want to try all the food, you want to see all the cultural sites, you want to engage these strange new people. The deeper, more complex human needs are shelved while you figure out how to get places, what your routine is, how to stay out of trouble, who to go to for help…etc etc etc. This phase lasts approximately 3-4 weeks, or as some say, long enough to break a habit. Stage one is a “yes” stage, a stage overflowing with optimism, opportunity, and adventure.
A routine is developed, novelty erodes and a foreign national enters into the Rut phase, developing a deeper understanding of where they fit in this new culture, and what’s expected of them. This second stage is highlighted (or low lighted) by the fact that a routine is developed. Loved ones from home message less – the novelty has worn off that you are away and messaging is inconvenient and sporadic. The time difference is most debilitating. Everything familiar that you followed back home is on an opposite schedule. The distance you feel isn’t just physical, it is a cultural and emotional distance – you hear about an epic football game with a close ending – the world could end for those poor fans on the losing end – yet it is inconsequential here. You wonder whether those same people that stopped messaging you think of you often – if everything will be different when you come back. Coping with this comes in the form of planning travel, understanding new people and melding with new social groups. These friends aren’t just friends. They replace your family, friends, and are the tie you have to what you have always known. The uniqueness and cultural differences among the locals you once found humor in suddenly becomes obnoxious. This stage persists for different amounts of time among different individuals, and sometimes the lines between the Rut and stage 3, Reality.
Reality is, I think, the most mature stage there is in being so far from home, a long term resident in a different part of the world. A self-subsistent state occurs when you are alone or so long. You become emotionally hardened, locked-up, and accept the world as you’ve observed it. The differences between myself and the Japanese are nothing to be annoyed with. Annoyance is a form of refusal or inability to understand why people do what they do. The reality in being away from home here is the same it would be if you moved 80 miles down I-94. Change is inevitable in life, and the attitude you bring to the table shows what substance will come from the heat of your crucible, whatever that may be.
I miss home. There are great opportunities here that I cannot miss despite that. The experience of living in Japan has been humbling, it has been challenging, and it has been acculturating. It tests your mettle, your mental fortitude, and the relationships you have had. While this isn’t a ringing endorsement for relocating across the world, it isn’t a damnation either. I am thankful to understand myself more. I am thankful for the mental toughness I’ve developed. I am thankful for my parents. Mostly, I am thankful to have become the person I am through these experiences. You can never know your country’s greatness until you have truly experienced another country. On the flip side, you can never know your home’s faults until you have made another home.
Michael’s last point is what really “hit home” for me. I think it is so important for all of us to experience travelling (and ideally living) abroad to appreciate our home country and become open to other ways of living throughout the world.