My first experience with host families was in the summer of 2007. I stayed with two families over the course of a month in Kobe, Japan. I was lucky enough to have two sugoi (incredible) host families and now a third.
My arrangement was different than any of the other student's. I lived with Tabata-san and Masako-san, two middle-aged people living together in a big house by Japanese standards. But they weren't a married couple; they were brother and sister. The family dynamic is still a mystery to me. Tabata-san has a daughter who is married and living in Australia, and his living room has many pictures of his daughter's family in Australia. She has a son and is expecting another soon which is why Tabata-san is going to visit her this summer. But missing in all these pictures is a wife. Sometimes Masako-san shows up though. I knew it would be extremely impolite and unacceptable to ask why or what happened; that's just how Japan is. Some things you can't be privy to if you're only there for three weeks.
Another fun feature of my home stay was that my family was hosting another student who was studying at the same university, but not from Pac Rim. His name was Mathias, a twenty-two year old Swede studying intensive Japanese. We immediately became what I imagine an older brother/younger sister relationship would be like: constantly arguing for the sake of argument and picking on each other but never actually meaning any of it. Having another person around my own age to stay up late to talk to and encourage procrastination with was great. Mathias probably enjoyed it more than I did, though. Mathias only speaks three weeks worth of Japanese study at the university so far, and our host family didn't really speak English. Tabata-san knew a few words, and Masako-san had a phrase book she loved to pull out, say a phrase, and giggle for a while. She was quite a card.
Another mystery of my family was what Tabata-san did during the day. Just to make my family even stranger, Tabata-san didn't have a job. In Japan, it is unheard of to have a family where the woman goes to work and the man doesn't. Because of the language barrier and some vagueness on his part, I only managed to gather that he is just taking a year off of work and will go back (I think...). He went to the bank a lot, sometimes multiple times a day. It took me a while to figure out that he was a secret smoker, too. I never once saw it, but every once and a while, I smelled it but couldn't figure out from where. Even more abnormal was the fact that Tabata-san always did the cooking. Masako-san worked at the bank, and during my stay, got transferred to a branch much farther away which she was understandably unhappy about. I wish I could convey the way she spoke. Sometimes it was like a very expressive cartoon. When she was excited, she had a bright-eyed face and spoke quickly and enthusiastically. When Tabata-san had shot down some idea of hers, she would use this dejected, pouty, sad voice that you might expect from an eight year old who wants something. It wasn't annoying though. It is the un-realness of Japan that I relish.
Tabata-san and Masako-san were very relaxed too. On my first night, Mathias invited me to go watch a Japanese horror film with his other Swedish friends. I asked Tabata-san when we should return home, and he just laughed and waved us on. Mathias explained that is doesn't matter as long as you tell them you'll be out late and to be quiet when you get home. Because they had a "big" house, I was able to host a little election-result-watching party. Tabata-san was downstairs in his room, watching TV on his cell phone. (Japanese cell phones are miles ahead of ours.) Sometimes he would come up, watch us staring intently at the tv, and laugh. The Japanese channel was showing some ABC live feed of the election, but every once and a while it had to switch back to Japanese. During one of the Japanese interludes, Tabata-san came upstairs and got out his cell phone and started showing us something... that Obama had won! We all freaked out because apparently in the last five minutes the entire west coast had come in, so we scrambled to double check with the internet. After we watched McCain and Obama's speeches, we went to celebrate out by the river near my house.
Our house had three stories. On the top floor was my room and Mathias' room. Mine was the more traditional style one, with a tatami floor and sliding doors and window. I also had a little balcony that I could step out on and hang my laundry up to dry. Mathias' room was more western - regular hinged doors and closet. This started our joke that our family liked me more because he wanted the more traditional room. On the main floor was the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Really it was more like a long thin room that had invisible borders between each section. On the ground floor was Tabata-san and Masako-san's room, the toilet room (just a tiny room with a toilet, no sink), and a little hall leading to the ofuro. Japanese baths are the best in the world. It's a fairly large room in which you first take a shower before entering the bathtub. Often you sit on a little stool and wash yourself. The room is like a sauna, so you're always warm. After washing your hair and scrubbing yourself clean, you can enter the bath. You have to clean yourself before before getting in the bath because everyone uses the same bath water. My host family's bath automatically kept the water around 40 degrees Celsius. The first time Tabata-san prepared the bath with bath salts for me, Mathias was jealous because Tabata-san hadn't ever done it for him. I had no idea how to use the bath because it's so automated. You can't get hot water unless you press an "on" button first. Because I was the youngest (and the preferred host student), I always got to bathe first and choose which bath salt I wanted. They weren't exactly salts but a powder that was supposed to make the water like famous onsen (hot springs) in Japan. Did I mention that the bathtub also had jets? I'm getting a Japanese ofuro in my future house.
Everytime I took a bath, Tabata-san or Masako-san would tell me to take my time and enjoy. We once had a discussion about how Japanese baths were better than American and Australian set ups. Because I could speak some Japanese, occasionally they thought I understood a lot more than I did, but by the end I think I could hear Japanese better. Tabata-san and Masako-san were a lot of fun, a little strange, and always generous. I hope they thought the same of me. As they dropped me off at Kyoto Station on my last day, they told me to be careful and chuckled a little as I walked away with my gigantic backpack.
(Article and photos by Marlene)