To the left, to the left!

When my hubby (who will forthwith also be called “B,” “the hubster,” or any other ridiculousness that comes to mind) was a wee lad, and just starting to learn to write, his mother was delighted that he took after her, by holding the pencil in his left hand. Alas, the gods conspired against her pride, and soon little B broke his left hand in a fateful monkey bar accident. Not to fall behind in his studies, he was forced to learn to write right-handed like the other 90% of the population, much to his mother’s disappointment.

Who DARES to challenge what Zeus wants RIGHT?!

Who DARES to challenge what Zeus wants RIGHT?!

But that didn’t mean B abandoned being a southpaw altogether; it’s still his dominant hand. He uses it for brushing his teeth, shaving, and navigating his iPhone, and his right for power, throwing the Frisbee around, and of course for writing. He’s not really ambidextrous, more like, er, mixed-dextrous?

This post would be finished already if I could do this.

This post would be finished already if I could do this.

I recall this little anecdote to explain what was for me, and most likely thousands of others, the scariest, most sweat-inducing aspect of living in Okinawa. No, not the humidity. It was the culture shock of living in a foreign country where no one spoke English, none of the signs were in English, and I was continually lost, confused, and unable to communicate, which forced me to learn fluent Japanese after just months of cultural immersion.

noisy kanji

Ha! No. Just kidding. Fact is, you could spend 10+ years living in Okinawa and never have to learn nor say a lick of Japanese, much less any of the Okinawan languages (which are quickly disappearing). Why? Well, lots of reasons, but that’s another blog post altogether. Suffice it to say for now that there’s lots of English written and spoken here, so for me, there was virtually no culture shock (and sadly, very little progress in my Japanese studies).

If I jam this pencil into my brain, maybe the Japanese will come pouring out.

If I jam this pencil into my brain far enough, maybe the characters will make sense.

And the scariest thing wasn’t the knowledge that banana spiders and deadly habu snakes could be lurking in any of the nearby foliage. Although, to be fair, this took a close second in scariest “tings” in my imagination, and I did make B walk closer to the trees/tall grass/jungle-looking parts alongside the sidewalks. But this only lasted for about a year or so. Okay, okay, I still keep a good distance from them.

The only picture of a banana spider that won't give me night terrors.

The only picture of a banana spider that won’t give me night terrors.

The scariest thing, for me, was learning to drive on the left. Had I lived in Oki before 730 (Nana-San-Maru), I would’ve never had to worry about this whole driving on the left business. Having only seen cars drive on the right all my life (except for a few days in London), I thought cars driving on the left looked strange, and well, just wrong. My eyes and brain just had to agree to disagree, the way they do when I’m sitting at the car wash and it looks like my car’s moving, but really it’s the apparatus with the giant foaming muppets that’s moving.

You're not fooling me this time, Select-A-Wash.

You’re not fooling me this time, Select-A-Wash.

Driving on the opposite side is further complicated by the fact that everything about the car you’re driving is on the opposite side, too–steering wheel, ignition, blinker, windshield wiper lever, shifter, and glove box. Everything. Feel my pain yet?

I don't care if it's Hello Kitty, it's still a deathtrap.

The cuteness of this car will not matter when I get us all killed.

If you have to learn to drive on the opposite side of the road in such a vehicle (with or without the Hello Kitty accoutrements), then you will, without fail, do the following:

1. Walk to the passenger side when you’re supposed to be driving, and walk to the driver side when you’re just a passenger. Because your brain. does. not. compute. And that spatial-muscle memory is really hard to break.

2. Turn the windshield wipers on when you meant to signal left or right. (Here we call this the “Oki wave,” and it signals to other drivers to stay as far away from you as possible.)

3. Look for oncoming traffic in the wrong direction. This is pretty dangerous, and a car of brand-spanking new newcomers almost crashed into me by doing this and then turning onto the road just as my friend (who was driving) was approaching. Fortunately, she swerved just in time, and here I sit to tell about it.

4. Try to turn onto the wrong side of the road (but the right side to your brain!), directly into oncoming traffic. And then possibly have to reverse to get back to the correct side, while the drivers, pedestrians, and animals around you laugh or are annoyed and inconvenienced by your horrendous mistake (or so you think).

5. Reach for the shifter with the wrong hand.

6. Want to get on a highway using the off ramp. Yep, those are on the opposite side, too!

You might also:

7. Hit, scrape, or otherwise damage the left (or passenger) side of your front bumper, because your brain hasn’t figured out this new, opposite-side spatial relationship yet.

8. Actually drive on the wrong side of the road for a good while, because there aren’t any cars around indicating otherwise.

9. Try to reach for your seat belt on the wrong side.

10. Cuss, scream, cry, and/or vow to walk or get rides from other experienced drivers. This applies whether you or your spouse is driving.

I had serious doubts I would ever be able to drive on the left. I watched new friends and acquaintances in awe as they sped, wove in and out of traffic, and held a conversation all at the same time. For my first two months with a car, I cautiously drove from my house to places on base and back, never daring to venture anywhere else on my own. I annoyed other drivers behind me by waiting until there were absolutely no cars coming from either direction for a good two minutes before I turned. I insisted the hubster drive when we went anywhere together, and because of it, he became more comfortable more quickly.

So what helped me break out of my driver timidity? Necessity. On a whim, I replied to a mass email from the equivalent of the local military radio and TV station manager, explaining my experience in media and offering my services as a volunteer. I received a call back immediately, with the request that I come in for an informal interview. And of course, that interview was to take place nowhere near my limited traffic route. So, I sucked it up and drove, and I haven’t looked back since. Not literally, folks–I do check my rear view mirrors and blind spots often! Two years later and after four trips back to the States (which also required necessary adjusting back to right side driving, but not as much), I can say that aside from a few initial “Oki waves,” I’m officially an ambidextrous driver. Woo hoo! I think I should add it as a bullet point to my résumé.

What’s the scariest thing you experienced (in another culture or country, or your own)? Have you ever had to learn to do something on the opposite side?