If you’re lucky enough to be stationed abroad with your family, and are the kind of person who considers getting stationed abroad lucky, then you’ve probably suffered from the “I really should be out doing something cultural right now” form of expat guilt.
I get it. I’ve spent five years of my adult life living outside my native U.S. My husband and I spent our three honeymoon years in England when he was stationed at RAF Mildenhall. Now, we live in Japan with our young son. I realize it’s not the kind of stress that keeps you up all night, but cultural angst can still weigh heavily on your mind.
It’s that nagging voice chastising you for spending a Sunday afternoon shopping at the commissary and cooking comfort food instead of attending that local festival happening a short train ride away.
It’s the guilt you feel when you prefer curling up on your couch for the evening with Netflix or AFN Movie instead of heading out to experience a night life friends back in Ohio can only dream about. It’s the ache when you realize you’ve barely left your neighborhood in the past month, let alone explored a new museum, visited a castle or hiked a trail on a nearby mountain.
In England, we rented a house in the city center of Cambridge. Our neighborhood included 15th-century chapels, a world-renowned art museum, exquisitely manicured college gardens and more than enough pubs to keep my husband and me tipsy and well fed year-round. We traveled a ton, both inside and outside of the UK, but even when we chose to stay close to home we still experienced the local culture. Just turning on the television was an education, thanks to the BBC. Regardless, I still struggled with feeling like I wasn’t exploring Europe enough.
It’s even harder in Japan. Now, we live in base housing. If I don’t leave my neighborhood, it means I’ve essentially stayed in a mini-America, one that bears only a limited resemblance to the Japanese world buzzing just outside the gates. If I want to experience the local culture, it takes extra effort.
We wanted to be stationed overseas and, consequently, I feel a lot of pressure to take advantage of the opportunity. My husband’s orders are for three years. That’s three years we have to experience Tokyo, to travel throughout greater Japan, and to hop on planes to see more of Asia while it’s relatively convenient to do so. I want to see every festival, dine on every regional dish and tour every shrine, temple and sake brewery. There’s simply not enough weekends and vacation time to manage it all. My Japanese bucket list is overflowing with the places I’d like to see. It grows—not shrinks—the longer we live here.
But then there’s real life. I may live abroad, but I still have the usual responsibilities. My life is not a vacation. I drive the kid to school, I cook dinner, I pay bills, and I get the car repaired. When the weekend hits, once the errands are done, sometimes the only choice, the best choice, is to simply be. Sometimes, relaxing in our own home fulfills us more than dragging ourselves out into the wider world. We need time to recharge.
There’s an art to finding the right balance between your real life and your adventure life. Some military families I know are extraordinarily good at getting out and about, traveling at an almost breathtaking pace. I feel tired just tracking their activity, but they’re the best ones to ask when we are plotting our own next outing. Others choose to error almost entirely in favor of real life, ignoring as much as possible the foreign aspects of their life abroad. They rarely stray outside the military bubble and dream only of vacations back to the U.S.
Many of us, like myself, fall somewhere in between. We may only stay in hotels every few months but many Saturdays find us in a new corner of Tokyo, getting a taste of local life. Through the week, we might grab dinner at our favorite sushi conveyer belt restaurant or head to a Japanese DIY store for flowers for our garden. My friends and I pool our knowledge, sharing tips for upcoming festivals or new exhibits, and carve time out of our schedules to go on outings.
I’ll continue to put myself out there in the world, absorbing a new culture and embracing the sights and sounds that differ so much from where I grew up. But I’ll also do my best to accept that life doesn’t always have to be about exploring. I may not manage to silence the nagging voice constantly urging me out the door but I can at least lower its call to a whisper until I’m ready again to go seek adventure.
Susan Dalzell is a freelance writer and Air Force spouse. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal’s Expat blog, the Dayton Daily News and Tokyo’s Metropolis magazine. She is working on a book about her experiences as a 30-year-old newlywed living in England after her husband’s new military career upends their comfortable life in Ohio. Susan blogs at susandalzell.com and tweets at @susandalzell.