We weren’t even sure a foreign student would want to stay with our family. I mean let’s face it, our kids are pretty rambunctious and not the most well behaved young humans. What if we couldn’t pull off “normal American family” for three whole weeks? We had our distinct doubts and fears.
Japanese culinary student, Urara Suzuki, stayed with us in our home for three weeks this Summer. The 17-year-old lived amongst craft supplies, Legos and plastic toys, in the kid’s playroom, on the pullout couch. It was an incredible experience and our family will always remember it fondly.
Before her arrival we attended a homestay meeting where we learned about rules, cultural differences and general guidelines. It was a helpful starting point. Months earlier, the program coordinator had visited our home. She’d needed to confirm that we weren’t hoarders living in a one bedroom ramshackle trailer with boarded up windows and cockroaches wandering freely. After passing that test, we were allowed to choose our student.
It felt like an adoption process of sorts. As the kids and I hovered around the plastic three-ring binder holding all the prospective home stay student’s information, we searched for a suitable match. We scanned the applications for adjectives such as: outgoing, adventurous, energetic. Soon, we’d found our girl. As the oldest of three sisters and conforming to our requirements — Urara seemed like the perfect match.
Finally, the day arrived when we were to pick up Urara. With our homemade welcome posters in hand, we set off to meet our Japanese daughter/sister/friend. A couple of our family members were unable to attend, but luckily and a little laughably, we had stand-ins.
We received Urara with open arms and huge smiles. Understandably, she seemed a little confused. Overwhelmed, maybe. Immediately we were aware of the gaping language barrier. Simple communication was no longer simple. Soon, though, we learned to communicate via charades, Google translate (which, brings new meaning to the term “lost in translation”) and a free smartphone app called Line that translates texts.
Throughout the next several weeks we visited many Southern California tourist destinations and local hot spots. We bonded. We laughed together. We learned about each other’s cultures through cooking and spending quality time together.
Did you know the 80’s surf brand Stussy is all the rage in Japan right now? Neither did we. While we were in Los Angeles we side-tripped over to a Stussy store in which Urara had expressed interest. As we walked up, a handful of surgical mask wearing Japanese counterculture youth sauntered out of the shop. Sexually explicit graffiti-like “art” adorned the walls, that my cackling sons quickly (and loudly) pointed out. No more than three simple garments on heavy wooden hangers sparsely hung on each clothing rack. It didn’t look like much of anything special to me, but what do I know? Compared to Japanese prices, these seemingly overpriced items were a bargain for Urara. She was gleeful.
One of the highlights of the home stay experience was the Japanese cooking. We shopped for all of the ingredients at a popular Japanese market together. Later, we eagerly watched and learned as Urara showed us how to cook various Japanese meals. First we made sushi. All the kids bravely sampled the sushi, although they didn’t all approve of consuming uncooked gill-bearing aquatic craniates (aka: fish).
Over the next couple of evenings we learned to make Sukiyaki and Okonamiyaki. The kids enjoyed fumbling around with their chopsticks at dinners. We were surprised to learn that our 5-year-old is an expert in the area of chopstick usage.
The prospect of driving to school and home from their daily field trip seemed a bit daunting at first. But, after joining forces with two other local families, we organized a carpool. In fact, the driving requirement was my main fear (just beneath the fear of my kids’ behaving badly) about the homestay. In the end, the driving wasn’t so bad. It all worked out.
Before we could say domo arigato, it was time for Urara to return home to Japan. The tears began flowing on the eve of her departure, during the student performance. Saying goodbye isn’t easy. This was no exception.
Dropping her off the next morning proved to be painful. One of our daughters was crying uncontrollably. Other families around us cried and hugged their Japanese daughters. Through tears and with heavy hearts we said our goodbyes. We know we’ll meet again. Our home will always be open to Urara, her family and her friends. One day our family will visit Japan. Urara and her family have invited us to stay at their home.
Our four kids have learned that compassion and patience are necessary components of communicating with someone who speaks another language. Hosting a Japanese student was an ideal way to introduce our children to another culture. Oh, and our kids did not behave like model citizens the entire time. Nope. Not at all. I suppose that’s all part of the real life American family experience though. Until we meet again…sayōnara.