Diving into an overseas assignment means a complete change of environment. Everyday activities feel upside down and backwards: shopping, driving, parking, eating, even speaking. It can be disorienting, but with the right gear and guidance living overseas is one of the great adventures of military life.
Terri Barnes, a military spouse and author of Spouse Calls: Messages from a Military Life, has experienced four overseas assignments. While stationed in Guam, she took scuba diving lessons. Later, after living in Japan and Germany, she realized how her scuba lessons mirrored the adjustments she experienced when moving to other countries.
Living overseas, like learning to scuba dive, offers access to the wonders of an unfamiliar part of the world, Terri says. She also says being immersed in a different culture can be as challenging as learning to breathe underwater.
“I was a fish out of water, but in reverse,” she says, recalling her first scuba experiences. “It was hard to trust my regulator and breathe naturally. I had a hard time distinguishing up from down from sideways, but the more time I spent in that unfamiliar environment, the easier it was.”
Adapting to life in another country is similar, says Terri. She applies some of the principles of exploring life under the ocean to loving life in another country:
Know your environment: Before my first dive, I took classes to learn how to use scuba gear safely and what to expect under the ocean. Before an overseas move, do some research to get familiar with a prospective home country. Get advice from military friends who have lived there. These insights will help make sense of the differences you encounter.
Start shallow: Twelve feet was deep enough for my first scuba experience. I was able to go a bit deeper in each successive outing. When adjusting to a new place, start small. Walk to the corner bakery or noodle shop. You may feel a bit out of place at first, but each trip will get easier, and you’ll be ready for deeper waters.
Draw strength from friends: Every diver needs a buddy, for safety and companionship. This is true on dry ground too. Connect with locals, or friends who have a bit more experience in the location. Ask them to show you around and give you advice.
Don’t panic: I was anxious and claustrophobic during my first dive, but I became more comfortable in time. I focused less on my own breathing and more on the beauty all around me. Life in a strange place is uncomfortable, like breathing underwater, but your confidence will grow with each new experience.
Worth the weight: Diving requires some heavy equipment. Lugging it to a dive site was not easy, but in the water it was nearly weightless–and vital. Similarly, a new language, driving rules, and exchange rates are burdensome at first. When you learn to use them, they become natural and essential parts of daily life.
Take your time: Getting to know a new environment takes time. Expect difficult days. Separate your frustrations about the adjustment process from your feelings about your new home. This is what culture shock feels like, but it will get better.
Go deep: My first twelve-foot dive was frightening, but I went ten times deeper just a few weeks later and loved it. I was still out of my element, but now I was comfortable with my gear, my training, and my dive buddy. Give yourself some time to acclimate to a new culture. Start by splashing on the beach, but get ready to take the plunge and explore the new world around you.
Terri Barnes is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life. She also wrote an essay about living overseas titled “First, You’re Gonna Hate It” for Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom, and Strength in Military Life.
Feature photo: Market day in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Photo credit: Terri Barnes