Sunday, November 7, 2010

Doing my bit for international diplomacy

Senior year is well under way for our college-student daughter, Katie. And from what Elena and I can tell, the study-abroad trend that proves such a rich educational experience hasn’t taken hold in this college household. I guess we’ll have to learn some other way how to go broke under dual monetary systems.

Nobody was talking about rounding out my college experience once I enrolled full-time. With a 2.59-mile drive to campus from where I spent my entire youth, what was to round? But when I look back on the break between high school and college, I guess my Asian vacation qualifies.

I was barely older than Katie is today when I decided to take four weeks’ leave and visit Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Singapore while I was in the Coast Guard, stationed on Guam. I’d saved a few bucks that I figured would do. I had my passport and somehow learned enough about getting visas. I even had a few notions of where to stay, if not what to do—at least in the first two destinations. And I had all my flights arranged.

Arranged, that is, in the only way you could arrange government flights. MAC flights—the acronym stood for Military Airlift Command—were a way military personnel could hitch along on flights headed for another air base. They came and went when they felt like, on no pre-announced schedule. And as long as you were okay with spending, oh, six to thirty-six hours hanging out in a terminal that didn’t even have a candy machine, you could fly thousands of miles for ten bucks.

From Guam, it was a short hop to Japan once I got a seat, actually some canvas stretched out on a frame, on a mail flight. My plan, or what passed for one, was to get from Yokota Air Base to Tokyo. I’d stay at a U.S. military-run hotel; I had the address, if not a reservation. I would just head for the subway and….

Wouldn’t you know it, people spoke a completely different language over there.

English has taken over much of the world by now, but the same wasn’t true in 1981. Another fact not yet true, even today: I’m willing to try any food. I couldn’t have guessed that in the following year, on a dare to the class from an anthropology professor, I’d eat a grasshopper from a jar. Because once I hit Tokyo, with no way to order from a Japanese menu, I quickly accepted that American fast food was the way to go.

Somehow, I navigated the subway system. I resisted the urge to teach those primitives how to properly shove their way onto a train, but only because my growling stomach would have drowned out their complaints. Once I reached what I understood to be my stop, I needed lunch. I looked around. Exactly what did someone who spoke English look like?

Across the street and down the block stood a white-haired man. I stepped gingerly into the street, since cars there went the wrong way, and approached the gentleman, who didn’t budge from his position. “Excuse me, sir, but do you speak—”

Fortunately, nobody seemed to notice I was speaking to a life-size Colonel Sanders statue in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. And a short while later, my stomach amply full, I decided Japan was an okay place after all.

But my studying abroad had only begun. Having eaten fried food for lunch, I realized I needed something more nutritious for dinner. So, after careful research, I settled on a McDonald’s. This wasn’t going to be easy, notwithstanding a digestive system weeks into adulthood. I wanted a burger, make it two, with no cheese, ketchup, pickles or onions—everything put on McDonald’s burgers back home. Plus fries and a shake. Would you please, I asked my bilingual hotel clerk, write all this down in Japanese?

It went smoothly—at least in the few seconds before the “What is…hamburger?” question. But once I put my drawing skills to work, the clerk understood and wrote out my order. Which I didn’t need because I found a cashier who was delighted to use her English. In the end, I got almost exactly what I was after: burgers with nothing on them. The world was becoming as small as my mind.

I indeed learned more than how to eat like a traditional low-class American in a culinary paradise. From running out of cash in Okinawa before I could get to the Philippines or Singapore, I learned how to plan spending before my next trip. And from having to run back to my Osan, South Korea, hotel before the 9 p.m. curfew, when the soldiers began patrolling with orders to shoot, I learned that I'd lived something of a sheltered life. Something in my time in the service, including this four-weeks vacation, mattered once I hit full-time college: I earned a half-semester of credit for “life experience.”

I suppose students who’ve studied abroad are later asked to write about their travails—what they liked and what they didn’t. What would I write, for instance, about what I’d have done differently?

That’s an easy one. I’d have gotten those burgers without mustard, too.

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