A very small percentage of Americans currently serve in the US military, which means that there is also a very small percentage of Americans who know what it is like to live overseas as an active duty military family. Obviously, everyone has a different experience with living overseas and has a different outlook on it. Maybe this will give you a little bit of insight as to what it is like to have this unique experience.
If you wanted to, you could stay on base for the whole tour
A military base is essentially its own little city and most things that you would find in the US you will also find here.
Schools, a grocery store, shopping stores, a gym (with a 50 meter pool!), a church, a firehouse… we have it all. We even have a skateboard park, movie theaters, multiple restaurants and fast food places, a dog park, athletic fields, a Christmas tree lot, a used car lot… and the list could go on and on. If you didn’t want to, you really wouldn’t ever have to leave (and some people don’t). But as you would imagine in a relatively small place, there is only one of everything and sometimes you aren’t going to be happy with what is available or find what you want. Want to go furniture shopping? Well on base there is just one place to go. Want to see a movie? Better hope it is the one the theater is showing that day. Commissary out of canned pumpkin during the fall? Grab your pitchfork and complain on Facebook with the rest of the villagers (this actually happened last month).
There are also numerous activities to do on base – running races, kids sports teams, cooking classes, woodworking classes… sometimes it begins to feel like you are at the worlds longest summer camp. This base really does do a nice job of trying to make sure people are happy and have things that will remind them of being in the US. The Harlem Globetrotters just came last week and musical artists (mostly American Idol runner ups and 90s pop stars) come around to give free concerts. Even if you did choose to never leave, you would have things to keep you busy.
Having everything so easily available on base is certainly nice in the first few days that you have moved here. However, as you get more comfortable with living in a new country going off base to do errands and do activities on your own seems less and less intimidating. Off base markets have much better meat and produce anyway!
It can be isolating
When we tell people in the US that we live in Japan, this is probably what they imagine…
The reality is that a military base is pretty plain looking and if you did not know where we lived or had never been here, you would really never be able to guess where this is.
As you can see, it doesn’t look like you are in Japan (I can see Mt Fuji on a clear day by walking down the street though), yet it doesn’t look or feel like you live in the United States either. You very often have the odd sensation of being neither here nor there, not in Japan or in the US. That is why it can be isolating, the feeling that you are just kind of in this other place is strange, and while it is starting to feel like home here, it still doesn’t feel like I entirely belong.
Technology and social media has made it much easier
FaceTime, Facebook, smartphones… these things have made moving halfway around the world so much easier. I talk to family just as much as I did when we lived in the US and sharing pictures and seeing people on FaceTime makes it seem like you are just as close to people as you were when you lived in the same country as them. It really is amazing that I can talk to people instantly who are thousands of miles away from me.
Social media has also made it easier. There are tons of Facebook groups for people here. Everything from pet owners, foodies, officer spouses, to runners. These groups can be really helpful in trying to learn about your new host country and people are (usually) very helpful in sharing knowledge, mistakes, and tips with others who share their same interests. As with all social media, drama does sometimes pop up and people aren’t always there to be helpful, but overall they are great to belong to (just ignore the people looking for Yokosuka Facebook fame).
The internet has also made the physical separation from my favorite stores much more bearable. Thank goodness for online shopping! Most things get shipped here in as little as ten days. Even though I can’t get Trader Joe’s shipped here (umm they would make a fortune if they shipped non perishable goods), it is still possible to do online Target runs and get Amazon prime items (minus the two day shipping).
There is a language barrier (duh)
When we got orders to Japan one of the first questions everyone would ask was whether or not we knew how to speak Japanese (no). The next thing people would say was “oh well, everyone there speaks English”. I can say for certain this is not true, and really why would it be? Of course there are some people who speak English, but people speak Japanese… because we are in Japan.
So, how do you live with the language barrier? Well for one, I have lessons with an absolutely awesome, amazing teacher who has made me feel way more comfortable with day to day things like running errands and asking for help. I am very, very, very far from fluent but I hope to eventually have a fairly good vocabulary that will allow me to have easy conversations with Japanese speakers.
Technology has also made it significantly easier to live with the language barrier. I seriously do not know how people got around before smartphones. Need to know how to get around on trains? Google Maps can help!
Unfortunately, when it comes to driving, Google Maps is not as helpful…
This is so frustrating because signs actually are usually also in English…
There are also lots of apps you can use to communicate with people. Google Translate is usually fairly dependable (I think). Just type in what you are trying to say and either show your phone to someone or try to say it out loud. Although Google Translate did lead me to accidentally buy my mom kelp tea instead of green tea (sorry mom). They are both green I suppose.
There are also apps that you can hover over Japanese writing and it will translate it in real time. These work some of the time, but shouldn’t be relied on for accurate translations…
So, overall the language barrier is sometimes hard. However, it is not impossible to get around and definitely not overwhelming on a day to day basis. If you have a smartphone and know a few key phrases then getting by is easy (well, easier).
You have great opportunities to see amazing things
It really is pretty awesome to live someplace that people in the US consider a once in a lifetime vacation spot. In the few months that we have lived here we have taken quite a few really fun day trips to close by areas. Here are some of the examples of things you can do near Yokosuka:
Hard to believe but all of these things are within two hours of Yokosuka and seeing them is for sure a perk of living here. If you are willing to leave base for a day you can see things that you would never see in the United States.
So, overall living overseas is an amazing experience and I am really happy we made the decision to come here. Does it occasionally have some challenges? Absolutely. Do I get homesick? Of course. But I also love doing something that growing up I never imagined I would be doing.