Man sitting with dog on dock

Overseas Adventures: Managing Cultural Differences

Overseas Adventures: Managing Cultural Differences


You can prepare for living overseas by reading websites, blogs, articles, and talking to people, but to truly understand the gravity of living in another country you must experience it yourself. In the months leading up to our move to Okinawa, I scoured the internet for cultural and lifestyle information, tried to learn some basic Japanese phrases, and talked to friends that had lived in Okinawa. I even tried to prepare myself for culture shock. On our first trip out in town, seeing everything written in Japanese while driving on the “wrong” side of the road made me feel like Dorothy in that scene of the Wizard of Oz: “Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

The military offers an incredibly helpful Newcomers Orientation brief to help service members and their families acclimate and understand their new surroundings, rules, and local customs. During the presentation, an Okinawan liaison told us basic information about some cultural differences and expectations. For one, it is considered rude to point with your index finger to other people or objects. Instead use your whole hand to gesture, but you can point with your finger to yourself. In America, eye contact is expected to show that you are listening and engaged when someone is talking. However, in Okinawa, too much eye contact is considered disrespectful or rude. There are also rules for using chopsticks. Chopsticks should be laid across the top of your bowl when they are not in use and absolutely NEVER stuck into your rice bowl because of a meaning associated with their burial ceremony traditions. And then there is the bowing, which left me pretty much confused. We have all seen the bowing in movies, and we all know it is to show respect when meeting someone, saying excuse me, or thanking someone, etc. I am pretty sure the first couple of months, I walked around randomly bowing. In fact, when I was shopping at a mall out in town I had an elderly Japanese woman smile and chuckle at me when I bowed as I excused myself out of her way. I think she could tell that I was not used to this gesture and that I was just trying to be respectful. As she smiled at me, she said something in Japanese that seemed reassuring. At least I hope it was reassuring.

A cultural difference that I was excited for was driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I felt like a nervous, newly licensed teenage driver the day I got my SOFA license. As I slid into the “wrong” side of the car to assume the driver’s seat, I felt giddy with excitement, and kind of paralyzed with fear. I had my husband as my “copilot” to help me navigate and assist with driving reminders. For example, we recited this verbal cue for turns: “Wide Rights, Tight Lefts,” because I was scared to death of turning head on into oncoming traffic. As I pulled out of the parking lot for the first time and reached for my turn signal, my windshield wipers started going. That caused my husband and me to burst out into laughter. That is when we realized the obvious: everything in a Japanese car is a mirror image of a car in the states.  This includes the volume dial on the radio. I kept tuning the station instead of adjusting the volume for a while.  Along with driving, we had to figure out how to navigate. Small problem: all the road markers and signs are in Japanese with a little bit of English sprinkled in every now and again. In recent moves, as technology has progressed, we have had a GPS system to help us. Unfortunately for us, the maps of Okinawa for our GPS are all in Japanese. So literally, trial and error and getting lost was the name of the game for us for a while.

Since we were driving and mobile we could explore the local world around us. That meant that we needed to convert our United States dollars into Japanese yen. Not a problem since there are plenty of ATM’s at each installation that allow you to withdraw yen at the accepted exchange rate. Speaking of which, I remember wondering: “what the heck is an exchange rate and what does it mean to me?” In simple terms, it just tells you the value of local currency as compared to the United States dollar. If the yen rate is 76, for example, it means that the Japanese equivalent of a dollar is equal to $0.76 United States dollars (aka-everything is much more expensive out in town). My wise friend advised me to get a separate wallet for my yen money so that I wouldn’t have a big ole’ mismatch of dollars and yen in the same wallet. That tip has proved very useful!

Some people feel overwhelmed by all of these changes when moving to a new country, and it’s easy to understand why. You cannot read the signs at stores, you have to have a calculator or app to assist you in figuring out how much something costs in United States currency, and the language barrier can be frustrating. When you add that up it can equal a very stressful situation.  I have learned to take it all in stride and enjoy learning and appreciating my surroundings. To be honest, half of the fun is not having any idea what is going on but trying to figure it out. The local Okinawans have consistently been helpful and so kind, and they truly love when you make an effort to embrace and respect their culture. I have learned to err on the side of caution in my interactions and always show the most formal respect. Remember, when in doubt just flash a smile, because that translates across any culture.

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