August 2016

Sushi and Sayonara: How a Japanese Homestay Impacted Our Family

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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.image

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.image

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.

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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.imageimageimageimage

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.image

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).imageimageimage

imageimageOver 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.

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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.imageimageimageimage

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.imageimage

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.image

New Mom Club

Surrounding us were young, fresh faced moms. Shrill squeals and eager baby babble floated through the air like a fresh breeze. Fashionable moms feverishly diced their little one’s food, while Petunia Pickle Bottoms gently bounced on the back of their chairs. Newbie moms with their babies and toddlers enveloped us.image
We’d popped in for a quick lunch. It was a day that my youngest had stayed home from school sick. So, we were outsiders to this young mom luncheon club. There was a time, not long ago, that I ran the club. Of course it’s a fictitious club, built on the pillars of younger mom’s novice status. It’s a club that all moms belong to at one time or another though.image

I’ve barely graduated from the club. My youngest just began his 16 year educational journey this week. He’s now officially a kindergartener. I’m new at the alumni status thing. I was the mom always afraid my babies and young kids were the loudest, the messiest, the most unruly or the most complicated. With four kids born in five years, my fears were largely not unfounded. I became accustomed to older restaurant patrons whispering requests to their server to be moved away from our clan’s table. On airplanes we’d receive cold glances and stoney smiles. Sorry about those crushed eggs in the dairy section, my missing toddler was apparently quelling his curiosity. At restaurants we’d try to clean our dining area, then leave a little extra ”damage control” tip and quickly dash out the door.

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As we sat there, quietly munching on our chicken nuggets, an active young mom club member hurriedly approached me. She reached under my chair, and her eyes met mine. Apologizing about her child’s sippy cup that had been hurled our direction and lay under my chair, she indeed looked embarrassed. As I smiled and admitted I hadn’t even noticed the flying sippy, there was so much that I wanted to tell her.

I was suddenly overcome by emotion. It was emotion that I did not want to acknowledge at noonish on a weekday in a crowded fast food joint with my five year old. Unwelcomed tears seem to kick up at the most inconvenient times.

I wanted to tell that flustered young mom that it is ok. Her kids are ok. She’s ok. It’s really going to be ok. Ok? Seriously, it does get easier than launched spill proof sippies at mealtimes. The no sleeping at night issue? It will improve. I know all about babies on the go — gnawing on chords, and crawling into anything dangerous and off limits possible. One day soon all that baby proofing will be unnecessary. Tantrums? Well, just wait until your daughter is a tween or teen. You’ll think the toddler tantrums were a serious cake walk.
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Although I’ve phased out of baby, toddler and preschool land, there are many phases ahead for me. I have yet to sail the tumultuous teenage sea or navigate through uncharted territory as adult kids leave home. The idea of handing over the car keys to our teen driver sends chills down my spine. Dating and puberty are high on my OMG list too. I may have mastered the art of changing a squirmy baby’s diaper in the trunk of a mini-van at Costco, but I’m still trying to unlock the secret to communicating with my tween.image

As this small chapter of my life as a mom closes, I know that many chapters have yet to be written. I look forward to what lies ahead. It’s been said many times, and it’s true. The days are long but the years are short. It goes fast. Be present. Join the the club. Hold on tightly. It’s a wild ride.image

Camping is for the Birds

Every summer families eagerly pack up their belongings and head out to the wild blue yonder. They pay good money to rent a dusty plot of land in the dirt where they pitch a tent and pretend they’re homeless for several days. It escapes me why people love this odd ritual.

At this year’s multi-family campout we decided to go big or go home. We forked over the big bucks to rent an overpriced 28’ motor home. After last year’s tent camping experience at the annual family campout, I thought so called “glamping” might ease the pain of camping for me.imageimage

I’ll admit that it was indeed a step up from flimsy tent camping next to the constantly flushing, mega loud restrooms we endured last year. At 5 every morning no fewer than 5,000 squawking black crows descend greedily upon the camp ground. Campers are rudely awakened. Sleep ceases.

Rangers seem to overlook their self imposed rule of 10 pm to 8 am quite time. Campers are noisy until late at night. Since the primary goal of that particular campground is to cram as many motorized vehicles and electronic devices into its vast concrete jungle as humanly possible, it’s not your average getaway-from-it-all trip in the woods.

After two nights in the motor home with our four kids and their two friends, I’d had quite enough. Whoever coined the term glamping, should know that there’s really nothing glamorous about it. The impending dirt that constantly threatened to overtake every square inch of the minescule space combined with the stinky toilet, the ever shifting temporary home on wheels and piles of filthy clothes, is, in my humble opinion, overrated.image

As an adult, camping seems like endless work. There’s the packing. Clothes for all types of weather and situations, meals, snacks, sleeping bags, swim gear, bikes and toiletries are just the beginning. Then there’s that matter of cooking over an open fire or a does-this-thing-still-work portable stove. Trying to keep the camper or tent swept and filth-free is impossible.

Growing up, our family camped. We’d camp where showers and paved roads didn’t exist. Stinky port-o-potties packed full of human waste or digging a hole in the woods were the only options when nature called. We’d swim all day in the river and relax by the campfire before crawling into our faded green canvas tent to sleep at night. I’m not sure how the adults involved felt, but we kids loved camping.

There was one camping trip in my adult life that I truly enjoyed. Our family joined forces with another family who were avid campers. Their favorite type of cooking was over a campfire using a big black rustic caldron. We reaped the benefits of camping with experienced campers who, even as adults, enjoyed camping. They brought most of the necessary camp supplies. Our site backed up to a secluded, gently flowing river that our kids played in endlessly. The majestic scenery that surrounded us was almost surreal.image

Kids these days have far too much screen time and not enough stream time. Phones and other devices seduce our children into hours of inactivity. Camping is a way for kids to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. It allows kids freedom and opportunities they may not otherwise have at home.image

My husband still enjoys camping. Adventure Guides, through the YMCA, provides the ideal outlet for him to take the girls camping monthly. He also takes the boys camping each month with their group. While camping may not be the most desirable activity for me as an adult, it’s a kid friendly, fun adventure for children.image