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Getting a Driver’s License

May 16, 2006

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Day 12 in Japan

The morning was productive. I took the driving class at Camp Zama to get my driver’s license. During the first 15 minutes of the class an MP (Military Police) told us the pitfalls of drinking and driving and how much it costs to get parking, speeding or DUI tickets here. A parking ticket will run you about $160.00. Speeding can be upwards of $380.00. He had a few pieces of information that were helpful, but for the most part, what he said was pretty useless for me since I don’t drink.

I didn’t realize that his presentation would be easy listening until the next speaker came up. This man was in his late fifties with a royal blue, polyester blazer and greased-back, black hair with a swollen belly presumably from drinking too much beer. As it turned out, he was also from Alabama, and he talked about that extensively (God help me!) He even made sure to tell us he was a Roll Tide fan. How in the world did I get all to way to Japan and then run into someone who could talk about nothing but Alabama? Why me? It was like a reminder of the hell I thought I had escaped! Spending those six months in the Boll Weevil capital of America just wore me down, and now I’m getting continual reminders of it on the other side of the globe. Next, he went around the room to a few of the soldiers and asked where they were from. “Oh, Texas? How ’bout them Longhorns? Well, they still can’t compete with Rooooolllll TIDE!” I’m screaming silently in my brain, “Aaaaah! Make it stop!” Sports talk and alcohol lectures — I’m not joining a fraternity, just trying to get a freakin’ driver’s license!

His entire boring, monotonous, redundant, torturous, 35-minute presentation was about drunk driving and alcohol. It was all I could do to sit there through it. Slides of drunk driving accidents, stories of death and dismemberment, ways to drink responsibly, what to do when you accidentally drink too much, how to get home in a Japanese taxi, the cost of a taxi service versus the subway — it reminded me of driver’s ed class in high school. I suppose it was good information for those prone to drinking too much, but it was just not applicable to me in any way and I found it condescending. [Update: later I found out that DUIs are a problem among young soldiers here and that gate guards regularly have to stop someone at gate entry for bring drunk while driving and entering the base. There’s actually a sign at the gate that counts the number of consecutive days that there have been no DUIs. It has yet to hit 30.]

The final speaker at our class turned out to be a real treat. I liked him a lot. He was a Japanese man with a great sense of humor. He had us laughing through the whole class. He really went into depth about driving in Japan, rules of the streets and finding parking. He was very informative and interesting. It helped me feel more comfortable with the idea of driving on the opposite side of the road here in Japan. I’m sure it will take a little getting used to.

After about two hours, we were ready for the driving test. I was amazed that I didn’t miss any of the questions, especially those on street signs that were foreign to me, and I was ready to pick up my driver’s license. After class, Slade picked me up in our new van. We bought an old, junker minivan for a few hundred dollars so that we’d have something to drive until we have time to find something better. The military families sort of pass around these old beaters for really cheap, but they’re not exactly luxury travel — good enough to get you around though. Honestly, I’m not sure you’d want a nicer car here because driving on the roads is to treacherous. Our driving teacher told us there are between 160 to 200 accidents DAILY just in our part of the city. The roads are unbelievably narrow and winding, and bicyclists come out from every alley and sidewalk. Also, car dealers seem to be hard to find around here. We’ve found a few very small used car lots, but no one there speaks English so you can see how buying a car from someone other than another military person can be a bit challenging.

With our new, used car, we headed, with map in hand, to find the Japanese Land Travel office where we would need to register our vehicle. After driving through strange and new streets, we managed to find the office. Slade went in while the kids and I stayed in the car. There were no English speakers inside and he said it was so difficult to communicate. Because all the writing is in Japanese symbols, we find ourselves completely illiterate. Not a good feeling!

Across from the Land Office we spotted a neat-looking restaurant called “Joy.” The sign outside read in English, “Restaurant and Coffee Shop.” This looked promising as a place to stop for lunch, we thought. Inside, the shop was empty except for the three people working. They were so friendly and accommodating even though we had no idea what they were saying. The first thing we noticed was how short all the chairs and bar stools were. Everything looked mini. We sat at a nice wooden table with a circular cooking pit in the middle of the table. The waitress politely distributed steaming hot wash cloths for each of us. We picked up the menu hoping to find something we’d like. So far, the restaurants we’ve visited have all had picture menus so we’re able to just point at the dish we want. No such luck here! The menu was entirely in Japanese with no pictures at all.

It’s hard to get across just how difficult it is to be in a place where you can’t communicate with someone. Here we are, well-educated, relatively intelligent people, and we can’t read or speak a word. It’s really hard not to feel stupid. I keep having to validate myself — “I’m not a moron. I’m not an idiot.” I have an entirely new respect and empathy for immigrants who come to America with no English language skills. You can be an ivy league scholar and probably still feel inadequate if you’re put in a restaurant in the middle of a foreign country with no native language skills. It’s just plain tough. You feel awkward, silly, embarrassed and a little scared. I definitely need to keep studying Japanese. After 12 days, I know about a dozen words, but I still can’t read anything.

So, we built up our courage and decided that the safest thing to do in light of our inability to read the menu was to just order noodles. We asked for “Yon Ramen” — four bowls of Ramen Chinese noodles. The waitress asked us some question that we didn’t understand. We think she was asking what flavor or ramen we wanted, but she gave up after a minute and probably just assumed it was a hopeless cause to get that answer from us. After what seemed like a very long wait, our noodles came out in LARGE soup bowls with a spoon and ohashi (chop sticks.) Spoons aren’t something you get often so you tend to notice when you do get one. I had no idea what kind of Ramen dish they were serving. Ramen in Japan is nothing like the freeze-dried ramen noodle cups in the US grocery stores. It has several toppings and lots of dark broth. It’s downright gourmet compared to the stuff people eat in college. So, we all dug in and the kids really enjoyed it.

[Ok, I’ll tell the truth. I didn’t really like it. I don’t know if this just wasn’t a quality restaurant or if I was just not yet used to the flavors, but I was a little hesitant about eating it and I thought it was a bit strange. It’s also true that I’m a little nervous about what I’m eating since I’m pregnant. All the food is so different and I’m not sure whether it’s healthy or ok for me to eat.]

I came to find out the next day, while reading a Japanese children’s book I’d purchased, Squeamish About Sushi, that the dish was called “cha shu-men,” grilled pork, bamboo shoots, spring onions and spinach in a soy-flavored broth. Ok, so nothing dangerous about that. I could eat it again.

After our meal, the waitresses doted on our children for a few minutes. Western children get lots of attention here. We managed to communicate that the kids were “hachi” eight, and “sen” three. They seemed to enjoy knowing this information and we said good-bye with lots of smiles and a little bowing.
Later in the day, I started to come down with a bug. I went to sleep about 4pm and slept through the night. People have told us that all of us will probably get sick within the first few weeks of our visit here. So, that takes care of youngest daughter and me.

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