Under the sea ... or over it
Published: August 6, 2012
Claustrophobia was closing in. All I could hear was my own labored breathing. I wanted to escape but was too afraid to move. I pushed down the rising panic and looked at the people around me. If they could survive this, so could I.
It was not a hostage situation, just a class in recreational diving.
I and the other novices in my class knelt on the sand with 12 feet of clear blue ocean over our heads, dependent on our scuba gear for every Vader-like breath. Diving masks gave us tunnel vision in the unfamiliar environment. Communication was limited to gestures, as we experienced the undersea world for the first time.
A creature designed to function above the water, I was out of my element — namely air. Conditioned to hold my breath under water, I found it hard to do the opposite. I felt betrayed by gravity, barely able to distinguish up from down. I was a fish out of water — in reverse.
Adjusting to an overseas assignment can feel like that, too. The way I’ve been conditioned to live, speak and function seems suddenly upside down and backwards. I am out of my element, disoriented. Not knowing the language, sometimes I can only communicate with gestures. Occasionally, I feel the urge to escape, to feel familiar ground underfoot.
My military family has discovered, in several overseas moves, that the challenges and the rewards are great. It’s that moving time of year, so perhaps some of the lessons I learned exploring under the ocean could help families who are transitioning:
Study your environment: I spent time in a classroom learning about the underwater environment and my scuba gear before my first dive. Learning about your new country will help make sense of the differences. Take advantage of newcomers’ classes or outings to learn customs, courtesies and how to use public transportation.
Don’t panic: My first minutes underwater were scary, but with each dive experience my comfort level increased. I focused less on my own breathing and more on the amazing undersea world. Life in another country can be uncomfortable, even frightening, like breathing underwater. The discomfort is normal and temporary. Confidence will grow with each new experience.
Start shallow: Twelve feet was deep enough for my first dive. With each outing, the instructor took our class a little deeper. In your new environment, make small ventures. Walk to the corner bakery or noodle shop. Don’t be surprised if you feel a little anxious at first. It will get better.
Have a buddy: Every diver needs a buddy, for safety and companionship. This is true on dry ground, too. Friends with positive attitudes are a necessity, not a luxury. Invite a new friend to try the local gelateria.
Bear the burdens: With heavy air tanks, cumbersome flippers and a mouthful of regulator, at first just lugging my scuba equipment was exhausting. Once acclimated and in the water, I felt nearly weightless.
Language barriers, new driving rules and exchange rates in another country will seem burdensome at first. Soon you’ll get used to them and learn to use them to explore your surroundings.
Take your time: Adjusting to a new environment, under the sea or over it, is not instantaneous. When we were preparing to move to Germany, an experienced military friend shared a helpful paradox.
“You’re going to love it,” she said, “but for the first three months, you’re going to hate it.” While I was adjusting to my new life, her words reassured me that the tough times were normal and temporary. I gave myself permission not to love it, and even to hate it on particularly difficult days.
Take the plunge: My first dive was shallow, but within a few months I was able to explore the edge of the Mariana Trench — still out of my element, but prepared and ready for adventure.
Like scuba diving, an overseas assignment offers access to a new and different part of the world. Give yourself some time to adjust. Enjoy wading in your new culture, but don’t splash on the beach too long. Dive in.