Double Shot of Culture Shock

I wrote about my experience living overseas for a competition and thought I’d share it with you.

Those years held so much, and God used their ups and downs to teach me a new way to view and appreciate life. Often the most difficult times are the ones that change us for the better.

Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on

Double Shot of Culture Shock

I wanted to travel to merry old England. I love my Great British Baking, Masterpiece theater, and Midsomer Murders, not to mention Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Austen, C.S. Lewis, and the wonderful world of Harry Potter. In truth, I would have settled for anywhere in Europe. Instead, at the age of twenty-one, the US Navy shipped my husband and I to a small Japanese island, half a globe away from all we had ever known, where we would spend the next three years.

I had never lived on a military base before, let alone a foreign country. Boarding that military flight submerged me in a culture of strange political hierarchies. In this overseas environment, it is nearly impossible for a dependent to further their education or find a job in their field of interest. As a result, it is common to find identity in one’s military spouse, their rank and position. In this world of barbed wire fences and prison-plain buildings, numbered and drab, not only is your career a scrap bag, but every endeavor, recreational or otherwise, is a struggle. And yet, these resilient members and their families scrimp together what they can and build it into a life.

Beyond the utilitarian walls, the hardships, uniforms, and strict honor codes lives a society with a profound sense of community spirit. Individuals look out for each other in everything from navigating the endless government paperwork necessary to life on base, to giving literal directions in a country where Google Maps are practically useless. In this bubbled universe, clubs, chapel groups, neighbors, and even coworkers become family, filling the void in each other’s day-to-day lives: borrowing scoops of detergent because the sheets smell like moldy shipping crates, watching each other’s babies take their first steps, and sharing Christmas dinners. We spent half the time in sweatpants, the other half in ballgowns, and no one ever knew for certain what the next week would hold. 

My husband and I lived on the eighth floor of a tower overlooking the vast East China Sea. Beyond our base’s high gates, where protestors often stood asking us to leave their country, the tropical Okinawan island awaited. We found it a land of formal customs, nasal language, unique food, and scarred history. The inhabitants move through their sliding door world with a reserved air, bowing at the drop of a pin, continually respectful to any and all. Public places are hushed and peaceful unless other Americans are about. 

Red, shaggy shisa dogs protect every building, while enormous puppet versions dance at special occasions with men and women in traditional costumes, who move like porcelain statues to the pluck of twangy sanshin guitars. Restaurants and bars boast saki jars with the dead habu snakes still inside, and serve patrons mouth-watering garlic ramen and ocean-to-plate sushi. Street vendors sell matcha everything alongside purple taro tarts and taxidermy toad purses. 

Buildings are sturdy and plain to withstand the tropical storms, but pockets of tiny, immaculate gardens brighten the cement city. Vending machines offer heated tv dinners. Shopping plazas flash plastic arcades where lonely adults waste their lonely hours. In the rare spaces that the city doesn’t invade the shoreline, white sand beaches lead to startlingly clear water, but the summers are so hot and humid the windows fog like saunas, and the beaches turn to ovens. In the fall, tsunamis sweep through, so strong the towers waver in the sideways winds. 

Okinawa was secluded from western culture for many centuries. As a result, it developed its own rich culture, religion, and customs, but now these singularities are juxtaposed with more than a dozen Marine and Airforce bases. The whole place is a jumble of ancient beauty, glossy modernity, and 1940s souvenirs, where unexploded bombs left from World War II are discovered under a neighboring building and across the road ninth-century tea ceremonies are still being practiced.

Living in Okinawa was not the adventure I would have chosen, but did Dorothy choose Oz with its wicked witch and haunted forest? Certainly, Frodo did not choose his journey to Mount Doom. And yet, an adventure is an adventure wherever it may be. 

While my island life was fraught with trials, obstacles, and grief, it also gifted me with unparalleled experiences. I spent hours on a rocky hilltop beside a Shinto shrine overlooking Naha valley.  I stood on the walls of a palace garden, walked a cherry blossom trail, swam coral reefs, hiked to a jungle waterfall, and watched majestic thunderstorms explode over the East China Sea.

Friends were made, games were played, songs sung, anniversaries celebrated, explorations taken, odd jobs worked, certifications earned, stories written, a chronic illness developed, and despair overcome. Those years of living the unknown offered me many lessons, the greatest of which was learning to live through heartache and to understand the value of a soul. I grew to know that human worth cannot be boiled down to what we do, where we live, or what we look like. Our spirits transcend the complicated, mysterious lives we lead; in the words of Master Yoda, “Luminescent beings are we.”

Photo by cottonbro on

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