Every few years the military sweeps us from coast to coast and sometimes even OCONUS (Outside Continental United States). For a woman who grew up with a very defined hometown (hands up for Dallas, Texas!), a cosmopolitan upbringing, and extensive travels, I thought I had this in the bag.
I didn’t. You don’t.
I mean you might, but I doubt it.
My husband’s first duty station was Nellis Air Force Base in sunny Las Vegas. We were there for five years. That is a good long time to become a local somewhere. Now we were young and childless, and I joke that both my liver and credit score suffered for being a young twenty-something living in Vegas. But the truth is, we sunk in, we planted roots, and it was HOME. That concept sometimes just evaporates in the military lifestyle … home.
During my time in Vegas, I went from brunette to blonde; my clothing style and personality became bolder; and West Coast rap crept in where once only Country music played. We took weekend trips to Cali (I called it Cali), we went to casino premiers and implosions. We belonged to Las Vegas and that valley belonged to us.
Cue the military PCS (Permanent Change of Station) orders.
We received orders to Hanscom AFB, just outside of Boston. It’s a little hamlet buried in the woods between Concord and Lexington that is rich with history and just plain rich. If you are military and reading this, you know the hardships of a PCS — the tears, the homesickness — but that’s not what this article is about.
We arrived in Boston and although we were sad to leave the West Coast, we were mentally ready for a new adventure. What I was not ready for was how shell-shocked I would be by the cultural differences. Everything was different.
People were more clipped. Not rude or mean, but not effusive. I knew that might happen. I felt that same change from Texas to Nevada; it was just another step away from what I’d known growing up.
When you travel that far across the country, food tastes different. Not just regional cuisine — the milk tasted different! I remember freaking out that normal food tasted so strange because it came from different farms and factories.
The trees, the veritable jungle that is the Northeast, blocked everything! You have to know where you’re going because you’re not going to be able to see it from the highway. And even if you did, it would be a cloverleaf exit anyway, and then you’d be lost again.
The climate … y’all. I know you don’t need to be a meteorologist to know that different regions have different climates. You’re stationed in Florida and get orders to Alaska, it would behoove you to buy a coat and maybe some shoes, ya beach bum. But it was June when we moved from Vegas to Boston (aka summer). We were in our new teeny tiny townhouse (not our sprawling ranch), and I was taking out the trash in some shorty shorts and a tank top, and I came sprinting back into the house chattering about the cold. How could we possibly survive winter there if summer was already too chilly?!
On the first night my hubby and I went out in Boston, we went downtown for a drink and to mingle. I put on my Vegas best. A neon tube top and a miniskirt with some sky-high heels. It was practically modest attire in Las Vegas. Now, I wouldn’t wear it at my current age of 33, not to mention that I’m now the mother of three kiddos. But when I was 25 and out on the town with my husband, it felt juuuust right.
Wrong. So wrong. Where on earth could I hide?!
I’m pretty sure there was a woman in that bar wearing a blazer! It was a sea of subdued colors and maybe not chaste but certainly more demure and much more low-key than my ‘look at me’ getup. And all of a sudden it occurred to me, no one was wearing a tube top — or even something close to what I was wearing.
I was a bottle blonde in a tube top who had no idea where I was or what I was doing. Now, I’m sure it wasn’t that kind of dramatic existential crisis, and quite possibly no one cared but me, yet it hit me like a ton of judgmental bricks. We all shift styles and seasons of life over time, but sometimes the military lifestyle uniquely makes you do it all at once.
And it’s not just me. I have a dear girlfriend who is a Pennsylvania country girl, and when she showed up in Las Vegas, she looked buttoned up both in clothing and comfort level. We went out to an ‘ultra lounge’ when we were new friends, and I could tell that Vegas had jarred her. But cut to our last week together at that duty station … relaxed and happy, we fit in. The two of us slapped our shoes in a parking garage (it’s a thing) and soaked up the sunshine and pulse of the city. We had become locals. We had adjusted to the culture of that city.
Culture shock is a real thing. And being military makes sure that once we are at the top of our game at a duty station that we are suddenly someplace not just geographically unfamiliar but culturally unexpected.
How to conquer PCS alienation?
Here are five tips I’ve gleaned over 14 years of being a military spouse and partner:
- Read up on the place you’re heading. I know you already do that: best school districts and neighborhoods, etc. But ask about dress and cuisine on social media platforms; locals are always happy to share how they do things.
- Be a joiner! There’s no faster way to sink into a new community than to participate in it. If you’re a runner, find a running club. Of course you’re a reader, so volunteer at the local library. So you’re a foodie? Try the mom and pop shops first. You’ll feel more in tune with your new culture much more quickly.
- You’re a stranger in a strange land, embrace it! A good attitude will serve you well (in pretty much all aspects of life). I find that no matter what faux pas I’m making, if I do it with a smile and a sense of humor toward myself, it softens the situation.
- Shop! Well, just a little bit. I find that buying a piece of tourist swag or region specific gear makes me feel like I belong just a little bit more: Red Sox socks when we moved to Boston, cowboy boots for a San Antonio PCS, ‘the mountains are calling’ tote when we got to Colorado Springs … it helps.
- Be yourself. Your style may adjust; your slang will change; your tastes will develop; but always be you! You’re wonderful.
Me as a blonde in Las Vegas and then embracing the winter and going skiing in New England.