“I like the idea of creating a home as an idea and not just a place.”
Anna and her husband, Mark, a photographer and motion graphics designer, live with their two daughters, Amelie and Mila, in Saseno, Japan. She teaches high school on an American military base. Previously, she had taught in Chicago.
Anna and I spoke during her family’s winter holiday visit to Chicago to see Mark’s family for Christmas.
We live on the island of Kyushu. We’re about an hour outside of Nagasaki. There is a naval base here and a small military school where I teach. We have about 250 students at the high school, and two elementary schools as well.
How did you end up there?
I had been teaching in Chicago and loved it. I was gutted to leave, but at the same time, I have terrible wanderlust. I heard about DODEA, which is Department of Defense Education Activity, the school system that oversees the schools on the military bases. So I put my application into a huge database.
Was it a big decision to leave the U.S.?
I have the philosophy that you should always say yes when you are presented with that type of opportunity. If someone were to land here right now and offer me the opportunity to go to the moon, I would say yes. But, yes, it was a big decision, and Mark and I definitely were a little bit shell-shocked that it just landed in our laps. But at the same time, I don’t think there was really ever any question that we would do it, only how we were going to work out the logistics.
We’ve been here five years, now. I love teaching in this school system; I love living overseas, and I think we’re probably going to stick with it for the foreseeable future.
How did you feel about the idea of working on a U.S. military base?
Oh my gosh. The military culture shock was worse than the Japanese culture shock. I’m from northern California, a pretty liberal area. I certainly never grew up knowing anybody that was in the military. It wasn’t part of my paradigm. I think that some of the people that I grew up with thought that I was crazy. Because to them it was maybe akin to joining the military, which was something that, as a lifestyle choice, they wouldn’t agree with.
I was intimidated at the beginning. It’s the military. There’s places you’re not supposed to go because it’s government property. It was a little bit intimidating, having had no exposure to that. And there’s funny things that, as a civilian, you would never think about, but now are totally second nature to me. Eight o’clock every morning, they play the national anthem and the Japanese national anthem. If you are driving or walking on base, you stop and you face the nearest flag. So being on base for the first time at eight AM and seeing all the cars just stop driving was a little strange. They play Taps in the evening when the sun goes down.
I actually was pleasantly surprised by the amount of diversity, politically and culturally, in the military. I knew that in terms of socioeconomics and racially, the military is diverse, so that was not a surprise to me. But the breadth of political opinions that are represented by the military community is a lot broader than what I would have thought. It’s certainly more conservative than where I grew up, but I would have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The stereotypes that I had about the military community from having grown up in such a liberal area whose knee-jerk reaction to anything involving the military was “No!” I was really pleasantly surprised that a lot of my stereotypes were unfounded.
What do you think is the biggest misconception the general liberal American population has about the military?
That people in the military are uneducated and Southern and maybe fanatically religious. And I’ve just not found that to be true. That element exists in the military, but there’s people from all over and all political stripes. We did a mock election during the last Presidential election cycle. And it was interesting. Among the teachers, Obama lost, and among the students, Obama won. I was very surprised.
What has it been like to adjust to a faculty that was more conservative than you were accustomed to in Chicago?
I don’t mind it at all. One of my best friends on the faculty is a Mormon, which is not something that I was at all exposed to growing up. I love his entire family. They’re fantastic. There’s a large Mormon community on our base. They’re fantastic. I don’t mind being around people that have different views than I do. We just know that there’s certain things that we don’t agree on.
I love the guy who was, up until this year, my across-the-hall teaching neighbor. The two of us both teach social studies, so we’re both getting the news from different sources and different people. I go to him when I’m not sure whether I’m having a knee-jerk liberal reaction to something. I check it out with him because he’s really smart, he’s really smart. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him academically, and he’s given me tons of teaching resources. He’s said to me that he, too, appreciates having people who are on the opposite end of the political spectrum. It broadens your perspective.
Do you have a sense of how your students feel about being here?
Well, it’s a mix. You can tell kids that come from the States and have never lived on a military base before. We get kids who come in who have never been outside of their state, let alone outside of their country, and they are like deer in the headlights. You can always see them coming from a mile away, because they look so confused.
But a lot of them are military brats, and that’s how it is. It’s funny to hear them talk, because they say, “Well, when I lived in Italy, we checked out these historical ruins.” “Oh yea? We went and saw this Holocaust Museum when I lived in Germany. If you ever get stationed over there, you should check out.” These kids have no concept that normal teenagers haven’t had these life experiences.
When I think of kids I’ve taught who talk to each other about the places they’ve been in the world, it’s often the kids from families with more money. Your students have that experience, but for a whole different reason.
Well, it’s interesting. Part of the reason that I like DODEA and I intend fully to stay with it is because we have the opportunity to travel. We’re making a pretty middle class salary, but we’re able to do things that most middle class families would not be able to do, which is amazing to me. And wonderful for our kids. Amelie is about to turn three, and she’s probably been to eight different countries, and that’s pretty normal. She kind of speaks three languages, which is just not a gift that I could give her most places in the States.
From where we happen to be in Japan, you can go to Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines. You can go all over the place, and so we’ve taken advantage of that. I know a lot of our friends have, too. It’s definitely a different lifestyle. We joke all the time that we never want to sound snobby and Jetsettery, but that’s really kind of the lifestyle that we live, and we love it.
I remember one of my friends told me a story. His kids are older, in high school. They’re civilians, but they’ve been with DODEA for years, so this is the life their kids know. They went back home to Utah over the summer, and my friend said he watched his son trying to explain to other kids where he was from. He said, “Okay, so you know Japan? I live in southern Japan.” His friend says, “I don’t know where Japan is.” “Okay. So do you know Asia?”
He was trying to place himself geographically, and his friend just didn’t have that in his vocabulary. When you think about what the average fifth or sixth grader learns, it’s the 50 states. Then you learn a handful of countries in Europe. Kids living in Japan and Germany and Turkey and Cuba, it’s just not the same. I think they’re more globally aware that other countries and ways of life exist, certainly, than kids that live in the States.
I do know that it’s a struggle for my students to explain where they’re from, because they’re not from anywhere. They’re from all the places they’ve lived.
Tell me about the fear some of your students have about returning to the U.S.
They think it’s scary and dangerous, and it is scary and dangerous. It’s in the news all the time that there’s school shootings and things like that. And they’re afraid that they’ll get swallowed, I think, by anonymity. Our school is very small. There are some bigger military schools, but everyone on a military base has a vested interest in the success of the community. I live two minutes’ walking from my school. My neighbors are my students.
When I taught in Chicago, I lived in Lakeview. I drove straight from where the white people lived through some black and some Latino neighborhoods. That’s just not the way that it is where we are. Everyone is a part of the same community. There is some stratification; there’s separate housing for officers and for enlisted, but everybody goes to the same school. So everyone has a vested interest in the community working. That doesn’t exist for a lot of kids when they go to the States.
How might you prepare your own children to come back to America?
I don’t know if I want my kids to come back to America. I mean, I do think it’s important to come back to the same place over and over again so that you have a connection to the States. For us, that might be California where my family lives, because all my family lives in more or less the same place in California. We’ll go back and know places and people and customs and things that people do, but at the same token, I would not be disappointed if my two daughters decided to live overseas forever. Even if that meant that they were countries away from me, because I think that that’s such a valuable thing. I really like the idea of being a global citizen.
I think that that’s something that the military community shares, this sense of, I’m not from one place. Yes, it says on my driver’s license which state I am from, but there is no Home there that I am attached to. I think it’s important to have roots, but personally, I like the idea of creating a home as an idea and not just a place.
Even though you’re philosophizing about it and creating a new sense of Home, how much is a need for Home part of our DNA, do you think, that we don’t realize? I don’t know, myself.
Yeah, I don’t know either. I grew up in the same house for 18 years and that house is still there. I can go there whenever I want to. So in a sense, I have the luxury of being able to go home if I want to. I don’t know how emotionally scarring it will be for my kids if they don’t. That’s why we’re trying to create something like that for them by going home to California or to Illinois regularly to see the same people and the same things. We want some sense of stability. Even though her home of record is Illinois, Mila’s only been there once. But she will still, over time, have some sort of a connection to where my parents live in California or to here in Chicago. So that’ll feel kind of like home to her, even though she’s never lived there.
I have made a point of starting traditions with our family that can be taken with us where we go. For example, I lived in the same house for 18 years when I was growing up. My dad has a board in the house where I grew up where he marked how tall my brother and I were, a two-by-four; it was always in the same place in our house. I have a board where I’m marking my daughters’ heights as they grow, but it is portable. (Laughs)
On June 20, 2015, Anna wrote to me with the following update:
In April we learned that we received a transfer to Incirlik Air Base just outside of Adana Turkey. We had put in for ‘send us anywhere’ even though we love Japan dearly. We were one of a lucky few who got a transfer (funding is slim). I’ll be teaching geometry, U.S. history, and ancient civilizations starting in the fall. The adventure continues!