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The Other Side of the Road

I recently came back to Japan after a 7-week-long trip to America, in which I watched two of my best friends get married and met another one’s new baby girl, among many other things. I am just now adjusting to my own life here in Okinawa again, and am finally ready to get back to blogging!

The most difficult thing this trip forced me to unlearn and relearn is driving! There are so many differences related to driving in Japan and America. First of all, in Japan, we drive on the left side of the road. When we moved here almost 9 months ago, Casey and I had to take a written test in order to receive our SOFA-status drivers’ licenses. We had to learn the laws of the road, but no one held our hands through learning how to navigate this place. The switch to the left side of the road was difficult because (duh), we had been driving on the right side since we were 15! I was so terrified to drive out here, that Casey had to force me to start driving about 2 weeks in. (We went out with friends and he decided to drink, meaning that I became the de facto designated driver. I wasn’t happy).

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Some things to “unlearn and relearn” along with this transition:

1. In Japan, there is no “right on red,” and there are actually different laws out in town and on certain military installations for taking a “left on red.”

2. Fast lane, passing lane, bus lane: all different.

3. Where to look when making a turn at a stop sign: right left right, or left right left? This one still confuses me. 😉

4. Parking lots. Yes, they are backwards, too.

5.The driver sits on the right. Sometimes, I still try to get in on the wrong side. (It’s been 9 months).

6. Most difficult of all: the wiper blades and turn signal are on opposite sides of the wheel. It is common to see new people on Okinawa turning on their wipers when they mean to signal that they are turning. We call this the “Oki wave.”

Fortunately for me, I’ve had an adorable car in which to learn all of this. This is “Turtle car.” She is a 2003 Daihatsu Naked. Yes, Naked. (The Japanese love English words, and often show little regard for the meaning of the word when they choose it. More on that in another post)! She has a whopping 750cc engine, which for you less mechanically intelligent (like myself) out there, means the engine is smaller than the one in Casey’s Harley Sportster. In short: tiny. She has a difficult time making it up hills, or going over 60km per hour, which for you Americans out there is only about 37 miles per hour.

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She is like a mini Hummer, complete with golf cart tires, a rubberized interior, removable backseats, retractable side mirrors (very common in Japan because the roads and parking areas are so narrow), and lots of love to spare. You might be able to see Casey’s Toyota Camry Gracia parked next to Turtle car. As you can probably see, the Camry is much larger, which is why we do not often drive it around Okinawa. While not a large car in America, in Okinawa it is like driving a boat. It has a normal-sized engine, but a bad turning radius and we often have a hard time finding a parking space big enough for it! Also, my car is much cheaper to drive because it is awesome on gas and the road taxes are so cheap because the Japanese government subsidizes efficient cars! Small, or “kei” cars with yellow license plates are common in Japan because the road taxes are about 90% less than that of more American-sized vehicles, like the Camry!

Learning to drive here was much easier than I expected. However, a few things will continue to be difficult, no matter how long we stay here. Roads can be so tiny that you will have stop and sometimes back up in order to allow cars to pass in the opposite direction. The Japanese often do not name their roads and highways, so we rely on landmarks when giving directions. Sometimes, highways have the same name. For example, there are two highway 58’s on Okinawa. Sometimes, the signage can be pretty confusing:

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Overall, however, it can be a beautiful place to drive.

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After spending 6 months in Okinawa, it was time for me to go back to the states for a visit. The idea of driving back in the states was terrifying to me for a few reasons.

1. I would need to relearn to drive on the right, and Americans would be much less forgiving than the Okinawans, who are used to Americans driving on the wrong side when they first arrive on island.

2. Everything moves a good deal faster in America. The fastest speed limit I’ve seen on Okinawa is 80 km, which is about 50 miles per hour!

3. American drivers are significantly less courteous than Okinawan drivers. Okinawans are much better at merging because they actually let people in, and then they often thank each other by flashing their hazard lights quickly in a gesture of thanks. (This is my favorite thing about driving in Japan). 🙂

4. America is much more dangerous than Okinawa. In Japanese culture, it is very uncommon for women to get kidnapped, raped, or mugged. I was going to be driving by myself through some cities which are known for the frequency of these crimes, and could not help but be worried after feeling so safe on my little island.

5. Worst of all, I would need to stop at red lights again. In Okinawa, it is safer to go through a red light than stop short because everyone behind you is already planning to run it. Yeah, sure, you have to wait a few seconds before driving when the light turns green, but it feels so good to run those red lights!

To be fair and balanced, for all you Fox News fans out there, America does a few things better than Japan:

1. Turning lanes. These are important, and Japan should install them.

2. Roads sized large enough to fit cars. It’s easy to forget how nice this is.

3. Fair arbitration of car accidents. In Okinawa, an American involved in an accident will always be at fault. The accident would not have happened if you weren’t on Okinawa, period.

4. Road and highway names make life so much easier.

5. Motorcycles aren’t… terrifying! Out here they drive like maniacs in flip flops with unbuckled helmets! They do wheelies at stop lights, drive in between lanes to speed past traffic, and drive up to the front of the line at stoplights. To deal with them safely, you have to view them as suicidal so that you remember to steer clear of them, literally.

6. Shoulders, bicycle lanes, HOV lanes, parking lots for businesses, and the Jersey Turnpike. (Just kidding, folks. Seriously, it was a joke).

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I dealt with all of my concerns, but in end I made it through my travels. I drove over 3000 miles in my parents’ trusty Subaru Forester, only breaking down once. I sent Americans the “Oki wave” a few times, resisted the urge to thank/thoroughly confuse courteous drivers with a flash of my hazards, and kept the doors locked at all times. I dealt with stop-and-go traffic, speed demons, and road rage just like the old days. And then I came back to Okinawa and learned it all over again.

Love always, Amanda

PS. The turn signal makes so much more sense on the right side. That is all!

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Categories: Okinawa Life, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

Home

Home is a funny concept. For (I’d venture to say) most people, it is fairly simple. For everyone, it is ideally a significant source of comfort and identity; a collage of memories of time, place, and people which centers you. Home gives you a sense of who you are and who you’ve been, maybe even who you’ll be. It encases a world that is purely yours. For much of my life, home has been quite complicated.

My first home was in New Jersey, although I have no memory of it, as we moved to Virginia when I was an (adorable) two-year-old. My parents bought a house in the suburbs, where I lived for the next 13 years. In that house, I lived the happiest of childhoods: wrestling as Pokemon characters with my father and younger brother; playing with frogs at the creek behind our yard; and having Easter egg hunts, trick-or-treating, and waging stink-bomb wars with the neighborhood children. When I was 11, my parents decided to separate, and I’ll never forget the time they sat us down on our old couch to give us the news.

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After that moment, home became more complex. My mother moved out and into a fairly rough apartment complex in the city. In the afternoons after school and weekend days we spent with her, I came to love it there. I remember my father’s reaction when I told him that I didn’t have a home anymore, since I now had two houses, each with one of my parents. Nonetheless, we made new memories in our new home and our old one. While I was introduced to violence, racism, and poverty in that apartment complex, my experience there imprinted me in a way I cannot separate from who I am today.

A few years later, as a freshman in high school, I watched both of my parents remarry. My mother moved in with her new husband and my brother and I struggled to feel at home in his house, despite his initial attempts to welcome us. My father then moved with my stepmother into a beautiful log-cabin style house on a dirt road in the outskirts of town. Neither place really felt like home, or at least they don’t now, as I look back on what was only a few years of my life. Those houses didn’t last long, as my mother divorced her second husband, and my father and stepmother moved yet again; this time into a bigger house with more land to suit their growing family (I now have two beautiful half-sisters).

Within the next few years, my Dad dropped me off at the University of Mary Washington, my new home for the next 4 years. In that time, I met some amazing people and learned a lot about myself. I survived living in a house with 5 other women, and made some incredible memories with them on our picturesque campus. A little over an hour away from my hometown, I was able to develop my independence while still being close enough to home to come and visit over the holidays.

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While traveling with the debate team in college, I met my husband. I knew that he was a big deal, but I had no idea that he would change my life as I knew it. After graduating from UMW, I moved with Casey to Pensacola, FL. Saying goodbye to my family and friends was really difficult, but I was excited about the adventures Casey and I had in store for us.

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In our 900- square foot home in Pensacola, Casey and I learned a lot about each other. Within a few months of living there, the Marine Corps promptly sent Casey to San Diego for a temporary assignment while he was awaiting flight school. I have never cried the way I did when I put Casey on that plane out of Pensacola, as for the first time in my life, I was entirely alone. Except for Barley, our 4-month-old beagle mix, I did not know anyone in that part of the country. I had to learn to get around the city, find a job, and start a life on my own.  Barley and I enjoyed walks along the bayou each night, and I came to love our new little home. Within weeks I found a job and was on my way to independence. When Casey came home, I felt complete. Then we moved again.

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After 9 months in Pensacola, we moved an hour north to Milton, Florida. We adjusted quickly to our new home, painting and unpacking in record time. Barley loved his new backyard, and we adopted our cat from beneath a dumpster near the house. After another 9 months, it was time to pick up and move again. Casey and I got engaged, and then headed to Texas! We spent the next year in Corpus Christi, where we planned our wedding, bought cowboy boots, got married, and then prepared for our move across the world! Corpus Christi never really felt like home to us, as we did not plan to be there long and Casey moved to North Carolina for training during our time there. While I came to enjoy parts of living in Texas, it always felt like a place in between homes (although it will always be the place where Casey and I said our wedding vows).

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After 6 months apart, Casey in NC and I in Texas, we were reunited right before we picked up and moved across the world: to Okinawa, Japan. In our concrete tower apartment on a military base, we have adjusted to life overseas, with Casey traveling the world while I hold down the fort at home. Making Okinawa home has not been easy. There is no Target to run to when I need affordable window treatments, and I can’t just pick up the phone to call family back in the states. After about 6 months of life overseas, I started to feel like I needed more, that I was missing out on all the action back in America. Fortunately, I had the perfect opportunity to come back to the states, as 2 of my best friends were getting married.

A month ago, I boarded a big plane in Naha and headed for home. America. I’ve seen about half of my favorite people in the world, eaten at all the requisite American restaurants, enjoying such quintessential comfort foods as sweet tea, Vermont maple syrup, potato salad, and black bean soup in a bread bowl at Panera (about 10 times). I’ve been to Target, Old Navy, Walmart, Michael’s, PetSmart, H&M, you name it. I’ve spent time in Vermont, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Needless to say, it has been a busy month.

I stopped by the last home I lived in with my family, and felt empty when I saw someone else’s car in the driveway. I walked around the campus at Mary Washington, and realized that I’m not the only one who’s changed. My hometown, Richmond, is not the same place it once was. While I have enjoyed my time here, spent with the people I love, I have realized how lucky I am. I miss my home, my husband, my sweet dog and cat, my friends, my daily routine, all of it. I thought that I belonged to Virginia, to Mary Washington, to America. This time here has shown me that what I thought of home was too complicated.

Home doesn’t have to be where you go after a long shift at work. It’s not where you cook dinner, or go to sleep at night. Home is where you love. Where you love your family, and the sunrise, where you love yourself. The location will change. You will change. And that’s ok, because home is where your life is. Every place you call home becomes a part of you, but you make it home. My home is over 10,000 miles away, and I just can’t wait to get back there and fall in love with it all over again.

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You can’t always choose where you land, but wherever your life is, love it.

Categories: Family, Friends, Military Life, Moving, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

Earth Day, Nippon-Style

In three days, I am getting on a plane in Naha and making the long journey over to the US. I could not be more excited to see my friends and family in the states, but I must say that this trip makes me very nervous. I am an awful traveler; I worry about leaving my husband, furry children, and my life for almost 2 months; and, regretfully, I’m not sure I want to be in America right now. Don’t get me wrong– I am a proud American military spouse who believes in freedom, sweet tea, and the American way. But the last week has left me glued to the news, biting my fingernails in concern over the events that have transpired: potentially homegrown terrorist attacks, the explosion of a poorly regulated factory, a failed attempt on the President’s life, and a Senate that is more concerned with the NRA than the people they represent. I believe that we will pull through all of this, but watching the process unfold in such frustratingly terrifying ways from almost 10,000 miles across the world has been difficult, to say the least.

On a lighter note, I wanted to celebrate something the Japanese do very well: protecting the Earth. As today is Earth day, I thought it appropriate to discuss the Earth-friendly things I have noticed during our 6-month love affair with Okinawa.

First of all, as I discussed in my earlier post on the variety of flower festivals on Okinawa, the Okinawans celebrate their plant life like none other. With beautiful gardens and fancy tropical greenhouses dedicated to orchids, fruit trees, lilies, and many other plants; there is no shortage of daily celebrations of Okinawan flora. The Japanese have even made an art form out of cultivating beautiful little bonsai trees.

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In addition to this obvious reverence of the Earth, they are in general very conscious of reducing the impact of their daily routines on the Earth. Here are just a few examples: Japanese toilets have two different flushing options, depending on the type of business you’ve made there. I’ll leave the details out, but as you can imagine, one of these options uses less water than the other, making for a more Earth-friendly flush. (Now, if only I could figure out which is which)! Another common bathroom tactic they employ is to not use paper towels. Some bathrooms have hand dryers, while others have nothing at all. I realized recently that people carry hand towels in their purses to use when drying their hands, so they will never have to use paper towels! I am not so big a fan, however, of their half-ply toilet paper…

The Okinawans typically do not have what they consider unnecessary appliances in their homes, such as dishwashers and dryers. Every day I drive past tall apartment buildings with elaborate laundry hangers they use to dry everything from rugs to socks. Finally, their “do more with less” mantra manifests itself in the cars they drive. The government of Japan subsidizes driving smaller vehicles with better gas mileage through their road tax system. For example, Casey drives a Toyota Camry, which is going to cost us about $230 a year in road taxes. I drive a Daihatsu Naked, which is designated as a Kei (mini) car, and will only cost us about $30 a year because of its tiny engine. As a result, most cars on Okinawa are tiny, adorable, and environmentally friendly. Read more on this here!

Most importantly, the Okinawans recycle everything. There is a mandatory, very complicated system of recycling on the island, which on base military only kind of have to abide by. Everything placed in the trash must be burnable, and everything placed in recycling must be clean and label-free. Here is a picture of a McDonald’s trash can, where they have clearly noted the baskets each piece of your trash belongs in:Image

Everywhere you go, businesses do what they can to recycle and reduce their impact. We visited Orion brewery yesterday, and they indicated that they recycle 100% of their waste by donating, reusing, and recycling. If running a road race on Okinawa, the race workers will hand you a water cup and then pick it up off the ground where you left it so that they can dip it in bleach water and refill it for the next runner. (I could do without this one, however, because some people have gotten very sick from drinking too much bleach while trying to run a marathon…)

Overall, while not perfect, the Japanese work together to do their part to keep our Earth clean today and every day. What are you doing for our Earth?

Categories: Culture, Nature, Okinawa Life, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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