Waning wanderlust

by Sgt. Erica Earl
5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

There is something vital lacking in many service members, and that is curiosity of life outside of America’s borders. The first time I directly noticed this was during a training exercise in Japan. The day after the closing ceremony, we were given one day, or about ten hours, to take a train into the nearby city of Sapporo to explore. I had been looking forward to the chance to get a taste of the local culture and had been talking to our native counterparts about their recommendations. By the time our free day was near, I had the train schedule and a list of things to see and do. The problem was, I was seemingly the only soldier with wanderlust. 

Here we were, with an opportunity to explore the sights of another country, try authentic food and experience a culture wholly different from our own, and I was struggling to find anyone willing to leave the barracks. 
Responses ranged from reluctant hesitation (What if I don’t understand the trains?) and unreasonable worry (What if there is a strike on the public transportation?) to flat-out apathy (I just want to stay in and watch Netflix).

When I finally found a small group interested, the most junior Soldier asked, unironically, “So can we please eat at McDonalds? I don’t want to try the food. It seems weird.” Somehow I knew this was going to be the precursor to the rest of the trip. 
Once in Sapporo, the fifth largest city in Japan and host to many temples, marketplaces and gardens, it was a losing struggle to get any of my peers away from the train station, which boasted a large, Western-influenced shopping mall. I only managed to get them about a block away to try a restaurant that wasn’t American fast food. The one who had commented about the food’s weirdness refused to eat and sat with his arms crossed in protest the entire meal. 
On the flight back two days later, another exasperated Soldier said, “The first thing I’m doing in America is taking a huge bite of a Big Mac.” 

We had only been in Japan one month, and he was sounding like he had been incarcerated and sustained on only bread and water. All I could think was perhaps it was because he had confined himself. 
I couldn’t help but feel frustrated, but that eventually gave way to empathy and even a bit of sadness. Would some of my peers, either weeks or years later, be filled with regret about being so close to experiencing the culture of Japan but choosing not to? I felt bad that they passed up having a new adventure and creating those “remember when?” moments of exploring the Sapporo streets with their unit, missing the potential of creating new inside jokes and capturing photos and being immersed in something that was unfamiliar and didn’t have direct American influence. 

It is easy for me to assume that this is purely driven by a lack of curiosity, or a lack of interest in our foreign counterparts, but I’m willing to admit there is more to it. It could be a fear of going out in big crowds, for example, or wanting to stick to a budget. Maybe it is a case of discomfort of the unfamiliar. Navigating a foreign country’s transit system, in another language no less, can be intimidating. However, these concerns are not insurmountable. 

One way around this is to have genuine conversations with counterparts about their country. In many cases, locals are excited to get a chance to show off their home and get excited about giving travel advice. This involves reaching out to have that conversation and, again, being curious. Many soldiers who I have seen leave post, not just in Japan but in Europe as well, haven’t strayed far from Western comforts, such as shopping malls and movie theaters, and expressed doubt and hesitation about traveling beyond such places. But there’s so much else to see! Natural sites, like hot springs and beaches, cultural and historical sites, like temples or castles, even a simple city block in another country may look very different from what is at the perimeter of the installation. By only sticking to the familiar, soldiers are robbing themselves of an authentic experience that may not come later in their lifetimes. I don’t want to see anyone regret missing that chance in favor of video games and American chain restaurants and big box stores. 

It is also true that soldiers may be discouraged from the wonders of travel. Horror story hyperbole from briefings ensure safety by discouraging any exploration. It is like the cliché: a ship is safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships are for. Only staying on the American base can also be seen by hosts in a foreign country as lack of interest or cultural respect on our part. There is a line to draw between traveling safely and responsibly and being completely fearful or dispassionate of experiencing our allies’ and partners’ cultures and an environment outside the familiar. 

These are not war-torn areas I am talking about, but countries with high safety ratings from the State Department’s recommended areas of travel. The military grants opportunities to service members to stay in some pretty beautiful and awe-inspiring places, and I am a huge proponent of seizing the chance to venture outside the gates and enrich myself in another country’s traditions once the mission is over. But I almost always find myself at a loss for a partner to explore with, which is usually a mandatory requirement when overseas. So what I am asking of everyone is, simply, “Why?” Is it truly apathy? Is it just needing guidance for making travel plans and navigating a foreign city? Is it their commands instilling fear to not engage in another culture? I don’t know, but I feel like too many soldiers miss out on authentic experiences that will educate them and strengthen host nation bonds when they travel overseas for work. 

Understanding our allies, after all, is a formidable part in strengthening our connection with them and forging trust, and actually experiencing their country and expressing interest in their culture is a great starting place. 
American Soldiers stationed overseas already run the risk of natives forming and maintaining the opinion that Americans only want Westernization and to rob them of their cultural identity, or that we are there for ourselves more than for them, ideas instilled and perpetuated by anti-military media or potential adversaries’ propaganda. In truth, our goal is shared training, cultural understanding and security of our allies’ and partners’ regions. Choosing not to engage in another people’s lifestyle, customs and way of life or culture identity has the potential to disrupt diplomacy, public image and trust. 

From food to dress to mannerisms, things in a foreign country may seem strange, but this is where curiosity and authenticity with our counterparts come in to play for a chance to lean in. Ask questions about the things that seems strange. Foreign visitors in America likely think the same things about our dress and culinary options. A Romanian local once told me he would never forget trying a mac-n-cheese stuffed burger in the states. There is a joy in the shared experience of doing something outside your personal norm. Try that dish that seems unsettling; it could create a funny memory or be your new favorite thing. Try to pronounce that new word. Learn another nation’s history. The willingness to try something new is a sign of bravery, a memory maker and a bridge between all humans. 

There is no mandate that Soldiers have to love every overseas station to which they are assigned. Chances are, they won’t, and that is alright. But close-mindedness or refusal to leave the boundaries of comfort zones should not be the norm. Years down the road, when reflecting on foreign travel, those who don’t leave the installation gates are likely to regret the missed memories, photographs and cultural and linguistic knowledge that could have been gained. In other words, you don’t have to like the sushi, but please, be a gracious guest and give it a try.

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