10 Tricks to Max Your Overseas Assignment

by Brittany P. Bolin, Guest Contributor

So you’ve received the news that you’re headed overseas, making you the envy of your friends, family and fellow milspouses or quite possibly scaring you to death. However excited or squirmy you may be, your move across the pond (whichever pond that may be) is a fantastic opportunity to experience new cultures and grow and bond as a family (yes, even a family of two).

According to the latest DMDC Department of Defense report, more than 140,000 military members and 22,000 military dependents are serving in an overseas assignment. I’m blessed to be part of it.

You won’t always feel blessed, though. There are times when you’ll fixate on some cultural component you despise, miss a family event back “home,” yearn for television you understand (both in language and comedy– ever watch a Japanese or Spanish game show and wonder what the heck these people are drinking?) or crave some boxed macaroni & cheese. I’ve been there. I get ya.

But with some pre-move training and 7 months in-country, I can promise you the gain is worth the slight discomfort. And with these tricks, you’ll one day look back on your tour overseas and smile.

10 Tricks to Max Your Overseas Assignment

1) Start a travel journal a week before leaving the United States.

Why, you ask? Two reasons.

First, you ‘ll have a place to write down all those “this is weird” or “I’m hating not having any Internet!” thoughts. An outlet for your initial feelings of discomfort is extremely helpful. Also seeing your frustrations written down in simple black and white sometimes helps you realize how silly they are.

Secondly, you’ll appreciate looking back and seeing how the experience has helped you grow and mature.

2) Get OFF BASE.

If you’re attached to the base or live on it, fine, but get away from your military installation as often as you can! You’re not stationed overseas to be in “Little America” and you certainly sell yourself short by staying in a comfort zone of English-speaking cultural sameness. Which brings me to…

3) Learn the lingo.

We Americans pride ourselves in superior schooling and chances are you took some Spanish/French/German/etc. in high school, if not in college. Chances are that you can’t speak much of it or maybe your high school foreign language isn’t the same language spoken at your new host country.

News flash. We’re the minority in not fluently speaking more than one language. So catch up–enjoy it. You may never be fluent, but you’ll gain valuable language skills, not to mention confidence!

4) Grocery shop locally.

This isn’t a “be green, shop local” spiel. It is a “don’t use the crutch of your local commissary” spiel (if you have one; I’m not near one).

Learning the culture comes significantly through the food. Part language skills and part experimentation with local cuisine cooking will give your family a significantly richer insider’s understanding to your host country’s culture.

Related: Be a Local in 10 Easy Steps

Chances are, you’ll fall in love with a local favorite and crave it once you’re back in the States. I’ve come to appreciate a morning breakfast tostada (toasted baguette with chopped tomatoes and olive oil), while another milspouse friend of mine still wishes for some delicious Japanese food she had at Okinawa.

5) Learn the history of your host country.

Read up on local history. It isn’t a test, but it certainly helps make sense of your surroundings not to mention improve your understanding of their culture and how we, and our base, fit in.

10 Tricks to Max Your Overseas Assignment

Visit historical sites. Take tours. I can promise you’ll learn something new and you’ll come away understanding your host country at a deeper level.

6) Experience a local custom.

In Okinawa it may be a dragon boat race and in Spain it may be a Flamenco show (or classes!). In any case, search out a local custom or festival and experience it firsthand (and write about it in your travel journal). If possible, sign up for classes in “it” through your base’s MWR office.

7) Don’t run “home.”

Use your new geographical location as a stepping off point to see new things. Jump in to the cultures. If you only have 2 years at this duty station, with this experience, max it by staying (or traveling) nearby, not back to the States. Yes you’ll miss Christmas or Thanksgiving, but when you look back in 20 years my bet is those 2 different Christmas experiences will be worth it.

With that said…

8) Include your family in your experience.

The technology age is amazing isn’t it? Skype, FaceTime, Google+ hangouts, WhatsApp group chats– you name it, it exists. And this technology keeps you connected with your family.

While in Guam, one milspouse shared Christmas morning present opening with her family via Skype and says it was a great way to spend the holiday together without the $1,900 plane ticket expense.

Personally, I’ve loved FaceTime and Google+ hangouts as we have a new little one and these virtual chats keep grandparents up to date on her newest crawling/walking tricks. We also send postcards and trinkets from our travels.

9) Leave room in your HHG for memories.

If you have an option to leave some household good furniture in long-term storage, do it. Then, while overseas, you’ll have room to buy a memorable piece to bring home for your next station and eventually for your “forever home.”

Maybe it is an art piece, serving dish, Japanese tea set or a cowhide rug. It’ll be a memory that lasts. Not to mention an awesome conversation starter for that future dinner party.

10) Travel, travel, travel.

Chances are you’ll never be this close to your new part of the world as you are now. It will never be this cheap to travel to these places as it is now. If in Europe, see as much of the continent as you can. In Guam? Explore Asia and Australia. In Japan? See the beauty that is Asia. Go. Go. Go.

Have you been stationed overseas? How did you maximize your OCONUS experience? 

Bolin head shotBrittany is an Air Force wife, new mom to an adorable chubby baby girl, and full time travel junkie. Fueled by her love of writing and traveling, she attended Texas A&M University (go Aggies, Whoop!) and received a BA in Communication and MS in Tourism.  Nowdays she and her family fit in as much travel across Europe as possible during their overseas tour. You can follow along in the adventure at vamosyall.blogspot.com and circle her on Google+.

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