The scene vaguely resembled old war-time footage of evacuee children standing on a station platform, clutching their belongings and waiting to be paired off with their temporary families; the new JETs sat in a large lecture room, excited and nervous to meet the people whose home they’d be staying in for two nights, and wondering what staying in a Japanese household would be like. As each JET’s name was called, they stood and made their way over to a large crowd of Japanese people—babies, excitable children, high school kids trying to look cool, beaming parents, and retired old people—where they were introduced to one or all of their host family members and promptly left the building together.
Five minutes into the drive to my home-stay family’s house, I felt sick. Really sick. Sweat was collecting on my forehead and I could almost feel the colour draining out of me. Successive late nights, one too many “welcome to Japan!” parties, and the heat of Japanese summer were something of a lethal cocktail and my stomach wasn’t happy at all.
With a gesture to the window I asked my newly-acquainted host mother, a woman in her mid-thirties who had been introduced to me as Yuka, if I could “ano… open the… mado?” Yuka let out a tiny gasp of apology and immediately switched the air-conditioning to full blast so that my eyes stung from the cold.
“Arigato, Yuka-san,” I said, discretely wiping away a tear.
“No problem,” she replied with barely a hint of a Japanese accent, before bringing the car to a halt at a junction. Then, turning to face me, she tapped me gently on the knee, smiled and said: “Anyway, I should probably tell you now – I’m not really Yuka.”
I looked at her in silence for a second. Perhaps I had misheard?
“I’m not really Yuka.” She repeated in a calm voice. “I’m not your host mother. I just told them I was.”
A quick survey of our surroundings – a small boy on a bike; an old man cleaning up his dog’s poo; a road-sign I couldn’t read. There was no getting out of this one easily…
“So… who are you?” I ventured as the lights turned green and we moved off again.
“I’m Keiko. Yuka’s friend,” she replied with a check of the rear-view mirror. “Yuka was busy this afternoon, but we’ll be at her house soon. Anyway, nice to meet you!”
So began my home-stay in Aizu Wakamatsu.
When I finally met them, my actual host family comprised of host parents Yuka and Taro, 6-year-old Tamako (who could recite the names of all the Harry Potter characters) and 4-year-old Soichiro (who just looked terrified when he saw me). From the moment I entered their decidedly cool and modern house, they ushered me to the sofa and told me to relax as if I were in my own home. I did my best relaxing impression and flicked through TV channels with Tamako while Taro tried his English by asking what sports I was interested in and Yuka cooked (and cooked and cooked) in the kitchen.
It has to be said that the vast majority of my home-stay time was taken up with eating and drinking. I attempted to play video games with a shy Soichiro and had Tamako test my knowledge of hiragana, but the rest of the time I was holding a drink, fork, or pair of chopsticks. Dinner on the first night was comprised of easily five or six courses, breakfast the next morning was huge, and on my second night, my host family’s neighbors joined us outside for an enormous barbecue party. At both evening meals I was provided with an infinite assortment of alcoholic drinks, and by the time Yuka told me to have “one last drink before bed”, I was already bleary-eyed and teetering on my chair. In Japanese class the morning after my first night, my teacher asked if I was feeling OK. I responded by asking them how to say ‘no, thank you’ to offers of a top-up. Lesson learned: in Japan, if your glass is empty, it is an indication that you want more.
Thankfully, Yuka could speak enough English to get by and with Keiko around, the conversation was rarely labored. A wide range of topics were discussed (the ‘gold’ hair on my arms; slurping noodles – why foreigners think it’s rude and why Japanese people do it; chopsticks and the use of; my big nose; Japanese women vs. English women; religion; my ‘spacious’ forehead…) and, although feeling a little bit embarrassed that most of the conversation had been conducted in English, I learnt so much about Japanese attitudes and ways of thinking during my two nights with my host family. When I asked Yuka why she opened her home up and invited foreign strangers (strange foreigners?) like me to stay, she told me that it was mainly for the benefit of her children. Although they couldn’t really communicate with me, she said, they would benefit from being around foreigners and – unlike a lot of Japanese kids who never meet a non-Japanese – would be less likely to be apprehensive about communicating with foreigners in the future. It was nice to meet someone who so evidently saw the importance of internationalisation.
Despite my best intentions, I didn’t keep in touch with my host family after my home-stay. No doubt they’re still inviting JET participants into their home and filling them up with food and drinks, and chances are one of this year’s new JETs will get to spend time with them. I still have a photo of me and them, and recently found their address details after nearly three years of them being buried in my apartment. Having now had a chance to sit and recall the events of my home-stay, I think I might even venture to use a bit of Japanese and send them a letter…
Enjoy your home-stay, newbies.