"Honey?" I ask timidly, "Are you on the wrong side of the road?" We both just got our licenses to drive on the island, we're in our new car driving as a family for the first time, and my husband is behind the wheel. He doesn't respond right away and I can tell he's considering.
"Yep!" He replies a few seconds later. He quickly corrects the car by moving onto the left side of the 2 lane road. I giggle nervously. Funny, sure. But thank goodness there wasn't a car coming from the other way. As we approach the stop sign, which by the way is a red upside down triangle here, he puts on the right turn signal. Only the turn signal doesn't go on. The windshield wipers do. The signal lever is on the right hand side of the wheel, not the left.
"Aw, crap." These are the only words running through my head. I haven't driven yet. I don't even have a car. But I will tomorrow, and I'm going to have to drive at some point.
Upon arrival on the island, the thing that freaked me out the most was driving on the left. The ride from Naha Airport to base was a harrowing journey for me. Every time we would make a turn, the U.S. driver in me wanted to shout, "WAIT! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?" as we turned into the "wrong" lane of traffic. Our sponsor had picked us up and his driving was fine, but I couldn't silence that loud voice screaming in my head as we violated traffic laws as I knew them. Over here there's a whole new set of rules.
I won't get into the details of all the different signs and Japanese driving laws. Most of them are pretty self explanatory and come down to plain common sense, but there is the occasional bout of confusion such as the difference between "the blue arrow on the white background" vs. "the white arrow on the blue background". I still don't remember the difference without having to look it up. Or the fact that the center line isn't always yellow, though it can be a solid yellow, or a dashed yellow, but it can also be a solid white, or a dashed white.
And then there is the driver's test. When we arrived we received a booklet from my husband's command that was the Japanese driver's manual. We studied it and took our test the next day. That is, we took a written test. For experienced drivers over the age of 25 with a valid US license there is no driving portion of the test. If you answer 30 questions correctly and miss no more than 6, BOOM!! You can drive on Okinawa. A terrifying prospect during your first week here. Especially with the realization that there are others like you on the road. There is no practice. Just that manual, and your memory.
I was assured by my friends who have been on the island a while, that there would be incidents of turning into the wrong lane of traffic or trying to signal with my windshield wipers, an apparent right of passage for us island newbies. When your windshield wipers are going on a clear, dry day, you may as well just hang a sign on your car that says, "Hi! I'm new here!"
While I've only had one brief incident of turning into the wrong lane of traffic (unlike my husband who has had many), trying to signal with my windshield wipers is a frequent, nay, daily occurrence. However the adjustment period is brief and you figure it out. You go from nervous to pretty comfortable quite quickly, and now it almost seems wrong to drive on the right.
And the final challenge of driving around here. Pretty much everything is written in Japanese. Thats with the characters, not letters. There is the occasional english thrown in for main highways, but otherwise you'd better learn to navigate, give, and receive directions in landmarks. For example. Our favorite Soba restaurant is in Yomitan. Go over the red bridge, straight past the Starbucks, and its on that main road. Look for the place with the purple flags on your right. Yes, seriously. Those are the directions. And pretty much everyone here will know what, and where I'm talking about.
But I've got it now. I'm down to only one quick absent minded flick of the windshield wipers when I get flustered. And if I get lost because everything looks the same, and I can't read Japanese, I know that it's an island. Eventually I will find my way back!