Arriving in a new place

Last evening I walked through the lobby of the Navy Gateway Inn and Suites here in Misawa. There was a group of six or eight young men waiting to register at the front desk. They looked pretty tired. I recognized the look and the feeling. It is disorienting to travel a long ways to a place where the time zone is so different than home. They got up in the morning, excited about a big trip, went through the normal morning adventures, boarded a plane and traveled for about 10 hours to reach Japan, where it was the next day and a couple of hours later than when they had departed. After clearing customs and immigration they took a bus from one airport to another and that took a couple of hours. By that time, they didn’t really know what time of day it was. Then they boarded another airplane for an hour’s ride to their new duty station where it was already dark. At this point, they had been up for at least 24 hours with a little dozing on the airplane. They were met at the airport by someone who gave them a ride to the hotel. They didn’t know where anything on base was located and they couldn’t see much during their brief drive to the hotel because it was dark outside. It was hot and muggy and they needed sleep. All they had to do now was to get registered, find their rooms and get some sleep.

I headed towards the vending room, where I purchased a bottle of sparkling juice. Most transactions on the base are done in US dollars and it is easy to know what you are getting. There are plenty of US brands and there are the normal fast food chains that we recognize. Vending, however, is all in Japanese. There might be a recognizable cola among the choices, but there will also be several cold teas and some sparkling waters and juices that we are not used to seeing. And everything is written in Japanese, so for those of us who don’t read the language, there is a guessing game based on the pictures on the labels, which often don’t give much a clue as to what you are getting. A green bottle might be green tea, but it also might be a very sweet beverage that doesn’t refresh. And the vending machines take yen, so a typical price will be 130 with no provisions on the machine to take bills. You have to understand the coins to use the machines. There are coins in up to 500 yen which is a little bit less than $5.

I wondered how the tired young men, just arrived at their new duty station, might react to the vending machines. Imagine being tired and ready for sleep, but just wanting a cool drink before retiring. You’ve just been assigned a room that is hot because it has been shut up all day long and has no air conditioning. You open the windows and turn on the fans, but it seems like it will take a while before things cool enough to sleep. You decide to look for a vending machine to get a cool drink and encounter a machine that is different from any you have ever seen. You might have a few Japanese coins in your pocket, but you have to figure out how many and which ones to insert and then you have to make a choice and none of the items looks familiar.

These are bright young people and within a few days they’ll adjust to the time change and find their way around the base. They’ll figure out where to get a car and where permanent housing is located and they’ll learn about the money and figure out how to live with two monetary systems. The ATM machines on base all give the two different currencies and work with USA bank cards. The BX and Commissary have the brands and items they need.

Our son in law has greeted four new airmen this week. They are all fresh out of tech school, which means they have completed basic training and then a specialized school in airframe and engine repair. Then they are assigned to this air base. They are staring a new job with new responsibilities in a new country with a new culture and many of them are facing their first time of living away from home for an extended period of time. It can be a rough adjustment for some of them. “Where am I going to live?” and “Where can I get a car?” seem to be the most common concerns as they arrive on base. Air Force bases are big places and having a car to get around can be pretty important. In the case of Misawa, they are still in another country with different rules for driving. They drive on the left side of the road here and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. We’ve been entertained watching those new to the base as they approach their cars in the parking lot, instinctively going up and unlocking the wrong side of the car, then having to walk around to the correct side before driving.

Humans are remarkably adaptive creatures. We’ve just been in Japan for a week and we have already adjusted our internal clocks, figured out which side of the car to sit, and learned which way to look before crossing the street. (Both ways, of course, but the pattern is right, left, right instead of left, right, left.) Figuring out which side of the sidewalk to walk is a bit of a challenge because crowds in Japan are not consistent about that particular pattern. Sometimes they’ll walk on the left, like they drive, but if we try to use that pattern all the time, we find ourselves working against prevailing traffic sometimes.

The new arrivals will adjust to their new circumstances. Some will be adventurous and have a lot of cross cultural experiences as they explore Japan. Others will stay on base and have a less multi-cultural experience. All will learn and grow through the experience, just as we have. It’s a big world and getting out into it is a great experience.

For now, however, I just hope that the new arrivals were able to get some sleep.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!