The night before I met my host family, I couldn’t sleep. I worried it would be the last time I would feel comfortable in my bed for a long time, so I snuggled deeper into the soft blankets of the guest house bed. Despite everyone’s assurance that everything would be “fine,” I had heard too many home-stay horror stories (and experienced enough of them myself) to be so sure. What if I got one of those families that only fed me cold noodles once a day? What if I was forced to babysit their little monsters all day and it took two hours to commute to school? What if they constantly compared me to their old exchange student, who spoke perfect Japanese? Worse things happen to other exchange students all the time.
I spent the majority of next day memorizing my introduction speech in Japanese. I had been forced to make a speech when I was an exchange student in Thailand four years ago, only that time I’d had to say it in front of the whole school. I remembered giving that speech with shaking hands, butchering the words so badly that the Thai teachers felt sorry for me and took the microphone from me mid-sentence. I had walked away with crimson cheeks, humiliated. I was determined not to let that scene repeat itself. All day I whispered to myself, “Hajimemashite, watashi wa…”
I gave my speech with a rapidly beating heart. No one else seemed half as nervous as me, and whether it was because they weren’t haunted by past memories or they were just experts at composure I wasn’t sure. Somehow I pulled through, and eventually found myself sitting across from an older woman who I would soon be going home with. Through bright, festive lipstick, she spoke words I had no hope of understanding, and I looked around helplessly for interpretation. Everyone was busy with their own introductions. She made a sign with her fingers, indicating that she spoke very little English. I was hopeful that perhaps she would have a son or daughter who spoke English, so I asked if she had any children. She said no. A husband? Dead, she said, and then asked me if I had children. Oh, no. Well, my last hope was that she would have a cat or dog. One can never feel lost or lonely in the company of furry animals.
When we arrived at her home, I was greeted by a young woman in her twenties named Kyoko-Jan. Since Oko-jan (my host mother) had told me she had no children, I was confused. Was she a caretaker? Maid? Relative? It took me a long look through the family photo album (at my insistence) to place her. She finally pointed out her older sister, whom Oko-Jan called her daughter, and I had an ah-ha! moment. When she said she had no children, she must have meant that her daughters were grown. Ah ha! It wasn’t so complicated after all. It also turns out that Oko-Jan’s English was not bad at all. She was just being modest when she told me she couldn’t speak it.
I presented the two women with gifts: a box of See’s lollipops, loose-leaf jasmine tea from China, and a necklace I had made for my host mother. Kyoko-Jan declared the lollipops “oishii!” (delicious) and Oko-Jan seemed pleased with her necklace. I suspected, however, that I was more fond of the jasmine tea than they were. They only drank it when I brewed it, preferring their English tea bags. So much for Japanese stereotypes.
My room was lovely. The floor was covered in straw matting, which doubled as a yoga mat and made it easy to clean. There was an excess of blankets, and the mattress was far cozier than the one in the guest house. It was the first time I had really had my own space since I’d left on Pac Rim two months ago. By the end of the day, I felt completely at home. I snuggled deeper into my blankets than I had at the guest house.
As Time Passed…
Oko-Jan admitted she was not very sorry that her husband was gone—now she could take it easy. He was a dance choreographer and she was his assistant, cleaning the studio and answering phones all day. She told me how he would bring big groups of friends home every night, how each of them would order something different to eat, and she would have to spend all night cooking for them and cleaning up while they drank sake. “Like a slave,” she told me. I was surprised at her honesty.
Oko-Jan declared that her new “best friend” was the television, and she spent a lot of time fading in and out of consciousness in its presence. At age seventy-two, Oko-Jan was mostly nocturnal. She woke up at 4 AM every morning and studied French. In the afternoon, she napped. All night the television blared lullabies to her as she slumbered on the couch. I wasn’t sure if she slept on the couch because the stairs leading to the bedrooms were too steep, or because I had taken her room. However, she seemed very comfortable with her situation, so I didn’t ask.
At 6 AM, a neighborhood stray cat would meow for food outside Oko-Jan’s window. She always had fish ready. She used to have a pet cat, which she slept with every night for four years, but Kyoko-Jan had given her an ultimatum: “Either the cat goes or I go.” Oko-Jan was very sad, but she didn’t want her daughter to leave her. Grudgingly, she gave the cat to a friend. Now Oko-Jan’s morning rendezvous’ with the tabby was hush-hush. “Kyoko-Jan will be very mad if she know I feed the cat!” Oko-Jan told me. I woke up early one morning to help feed the kitty, who was very skittish and shy. We were both desperate for the company of cats, so we took what we could get.
Kyoko-Jan was around twenty-five, though I can never be sure because Japanese people prefer keeping their ages secret. I only know Oko-Jan’s age because she said she was ten when the bombs dropped on her hometown, Osaka, which was sixty-two years ago. Kyoko-Jan was studying at home to be an accountant. Like Oko-Jan, she slept most of the day and woke up in the evening to eat dinner.
One of the ongoing jokes that I had going with Kyoko-Jan was her tendency to pour ground fenugreek seed all over her food. Apparently, some all-important TV God of Japan told people that eating this bitter Indian spice with your food was the equivalent of going for a post-meal run. Now fenugreek was sold out in all the markets of Kyoto, Kyoko-Jan told me, a fact that I confirmed on my visit to the International Foods Market. Kyoko-Jan hated the taste of fenugreek, but ate it religiously with every meal. She was also a big fan of “Billy Boot Camp” exercise videos. We did one after eating one day, but Kyoko-Jan had a hard time with the moves and we giggled our way through most of it. Billy, a large black man from the States, used stretch bands in his videos, and apparently those have also been sold out in Kyoto ever since the Billy Boom hit Japan. Kyoko-Jan even went to see Billy when he visited on a promotional tour. However, she only made it to Day 2 out of the 7-day workout program.
Oko-Jan was an excellent cook and she taught me to make okonomiyaki, also called Japanese pancakes.
I fell in love with the sushi, obsessed over the mochi, made seaweed a part of my daily existence, but I think the best thing I ate in Japan was this okonomiyaki. I am including the recipe as I wrote it down during the process. Even if you can’t find all the ingredients because your neighborhood may not be blessed with an Asian grocery store, I am sure even just a few of these ingredients combined would be quite delectable.
Big bowl of shredded cabbage
Potato (grated or pureed)
Little shredded shrimps (optional)
Sauces (I suppose you should ask at an Asian grocery store)
Japanese mayo (optional)
Add flour and egg to the bowl of cabbage and mix.
Meanwhile, cook the fish as you like and fry the shrimp.
Add the potato, shrimp, green onion, fish and little shrimps to the mix and stir well.
Clean the pan from the shrimp and heat new oil.
Add the whole mix to the pan and let cook 5-7 minutes. Flip over like pancakes.
Wait 5-7 minutes again, and then test with a toothpick. It should come out clean.
Squirt on the sauces and sprinkle the spices.
Cut into squares and serve.
What struck me the most about my home-stay experience was how flexible Japanese culture was, and how, at the end of the day, Japanese people are just people. I had learned all the Japanese cultural rules, and then seen them all broken. They didn’t bathe every night, they left their dirty dishes around, they weren’t perfect—but to me, they were as perfect as they needed to be. They were like Americans in many ways, though they certainly had better toilets and food. By the end of my stay, I was sad to leave my quiet new life and the two people whom I had come to feel so comfortable with. It was hard to believe I had been so baffled and almost scared of them only weeks before. I resolved to learn to welcome new experiences with open eyes, and not allow them to be tainted by past struggles such as my less-than-positive experiences in Thailand. My Japanese family was entirely unique, and yet not so different after all.
(Article and photos by Lindsey)