Friday, December 23, 2011

Away from home for the holidays

I love to watch TV. It’s one of my weaknesses, for sure. But growing up, it was also something that we did as a family: my mom and I watched Gilmore Girls and Judging Amy; my dad and I watched Walker Texas Ranger and SVU marathons; you get the idea. So, the unknown TV situation in Japan was definitely something that made me nervous before I arrived. I assumed there would be something, but how much foreign language programming can one person really watch (completely without subtitles) before going insane? And what if Hulu didn’t work?!

Well, I am here to report that the situation is better than I imagined, though not great. First of all, Hulu works well. Second, the armed forces has one cable contractor, and we are basically subject to whatever channels they want to provide. That means that we have completely random and hysterical channels: E!, FX, Univision, MTV, Spike, A&E, ESPN International, CNN, Bravo, Animal Planet – you get the idea. Did you notice anything missing?

Ah, yes – there’s no network TV. Well, no traditional network TV. We do have the “Armed Forces Network”, AFN for short. AFN is funny for a lot of reasons. First of all, because we are living in the future here, all of our network shows are broadcast the day after they are broadcast in the states. How I Met Your Mother on Tuesdays, NCIS on Wednesdays, SVU on Thursdays. Second, shows are broadcast between 7pm and 10pm instead of 8pm and 11pm. I’m told that has to do with the shows being beamed from California or some such nonsense, but I don’t know what that has to do with anything. Third, the selection of shows (just like the selection of movies out here) is, shall we say, random.

But the funniest thing about AFN by far is the selection of commercials. Because AFN is not a traditional network, they are not allowed to show real “commercial” commercials. Instead, we get public service announcements, news updates from the Army and Navy, weather updates (though they barely mention Okinawa), and LOTS of dramatizations designed to teach Marines what not to do. Don’t skateboard without a helmet, or in your uniform! Don’t plug outside devices into military computers! Don't drink and drive – at all! Recycle! Plan your emails in advance to use less internet time! (I think that one is designed for enlisted people who possibly are not allowed to have their own computers, and have designated internet time.)

The selection of commercials I just described was accurate two weeks ago. Now that the holiday season is in full swing, though, about half the commercials are pre-recorded messages from high-up military officials and (usually) their wives, thanking us for our service. (Well, not me, but you know what I mean.) There are also taped messages from senators and congresspeople, sending greetings from Washington and words of thanks to all the active duty military personnel.

Most of these clips have the same theme: we know it’s hard to be away from home for the holidays, but thanks for all you’re doing to keep us safe, etc. I get the idea that these commercials are supposed to be comforting, as if Marines and their families are supposed to watch them and say, gee, we ARE far away from our families, but at least people out there appreciate us! And that message does come across. The whole idea is lovely, really. But the truth is, those commercials make me more homesick than anything else. I’m plenty aware every day that I’m away from home. All I have to do to remember is look out the window and see the East China Sea instead of 90th St and Central Park. I don’t really need the reminder from every commanding officer AFN can come up with and put in front of a fireplace decked out in Christmas decorations. So, while this isn’t really our holiday season (nowhere is that more apparent than here, by the way), I guess I’m just saying that I am very aware of not being at home for the holidays. I hope that this island will start to feel like home soon. In the meantime, though, please know that I am thinking of you all, and wishing everyone a very Happy Hanukkah and a Shabbat Shalom.  

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