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A Rat in the Rafters and Life Behind the Slow Beat Lounge: My Interrupted Home Stay in Kyoto

posted Dec 15, 2008, 9:21 AM by Pacific Rim
    “Ah, sugoi!,” chortles my host mother, eyeing a photograph of my quaint  Midwestern home. She pushes a laptop towards me with a look of earnest anticipation. I have no idea what this woman is expecting from me. After a few uncomfortable moments of staring blankly at the screen, I decide to browse Google Maps, more out of anxiety than anything resembling understanding. Her face lights up when I type in my home address in Minnesota, revealing a map of my neighborhood. She looks more pleased still when I zoom in to the roof of my house. “It very big!” she observes, and I am made more uneasy by the comment. Should I accept the compliment, after all of our warnings about humility and formal behavior? My mind spun with confusion. This was a typical night with my home stay family in Kyoto, Japan.

    Over the course of a few weeks, I would get to know my host mother pretty well. I learn that she is a nursery school teacher who enjoys visiting Shinto shrines on her weekend “holidays.” She is very close to her family, and she loves to watch television, especially Japanese game shows, during all hours of the evening and early morning. The second floor of our house is home to the women of my new family. Besides Meguma, my host mother, there is Yumi, 24, Kana, 22, and a little rat who pays me visits late into the night. I am the silent wallflower who is barely able to say more than “good morning” and “good night” in Japanese. The language barrier proves to be a huge obstacle, but, despite the challenge, I learn to communicate my most elementary needs and connect with the kind people I had the great fortune of sharing a home with.

    I would spend nearly three weeks with my hosts, doing what they enjoy most: shopping, drinking tea, sightseeing, and making the occasional grocery store run. I now have a fragmented understanding of one family’s lifestyle in the historic “city of temples.” We shared photos of our travels and, under the kind tutelage of my host mother, I learned the family recipes for miso soup, onigiri, and many of her delicious stews. As a way of saying thanks, I even cooked a “western” dinner of linguine with clam sauce and bruschetta. Although it was kindly received, I was less than satisfied with the outcome of the meal. Helping my host mom with the cooking and cleaning kept me occupied and gave me a sense of usefulness that I was continually grateful for.

    A few days before our home stay was due to end, I came home to the somber faces of Megumi and my host sisters. Megumi’s father had been ill in the hospital that weekend and was expected to pass away before we left for our week of free travel. As a result of this extra burden on the family, I was to move out for the last few days of our stay in Kyoto and take temporary root somewhere else. I was heartbroken at this news, sad to leave the place and people I had come to know so well.

    After some discussion with Lisa Long on the phone that evening and a short struggle to communicate the new plans with my grieving host family, I moved into a cozy little apartment behind the “Slow Beat Lounge.” I was to share a living space with the two Lisas, their boyfriends, Professor Benard, and her husband, Nima. The apartment was little bigger than my living room at home (this is something you come to realize in Japan: how much space we have in the U.S.), and Lisa and Pase kindly let me squeeze into their limited living space. Although one expects to get to know one’s superiors well on such a trip as Pac Rim, it was a whole different matter to be snuggled up next to them, hearing their soft snores through the paper thin walls of our tatami mat rooms.

    After the move, my days were filled with finishing up term papers, doing laundry with Nima’s kind help, and baking cookies with the aid of Professor Benard. There was none of the awkwardness I had expected, nor was there any dubiety about how to behave appropriately in this unusual situation. I was the youngest member of their well-oiled team and I was glad for the company of these lively, good-natured souls for those few short days. Without them, I would have been homeless and a wreck with little more than a few unhelpful Japanese phrases on my tongue and my knapsack on my back.

    And so, this is the way my home stay experience in Japan turned out: a few weeks of foreignness and frustration all dissolved in the tender care of my host family, culminating in the spirited company of our directors and their partners. However unexpected and unforeseen this ending was, it is settling in as a perfectly imperfect finish to an equally imperfect beginning in Japan. I don’t know if I will ever be able to sufficiently thank my host family or my short-term roomies for their great kindness and generosity, but I will never forget it. I owe them many thanks and some help with the laundry in the future.

(Article by Anna)