Many people who study abroad, especially high school students, usually do so while staying with a host family. I've always been a little jealous of these people. It sounds so cool to go home every day to a family who is delighted to have you and your foreign-ness there. Plus you have people who are actively invested in your study abroad experience, as opposed to being entirely responsible for your own experience. As you know, I stayed in the dorms during my study abroad. Of course, I had my roommate, Mai, there to hang out with every night, but, being a student herself, she never felt really responsible for the experience I was having.
However, just because I stayed in the dorm does not mean I lacked a host family. In fact, AIU had a host-family system set up, where you signed up and they matched you with a family who had also signed up. I immediately put my name on the list, noting that I didn't mind if they only spoke Japanese. (My Japanese is pretty good.) This program was on a first come first serve basis, but I think because the earthquake had reduced the number of exchange students severely, everyone who signed up got matched up. Justin, being shy, did not sign up, but luckily my host family adopted him with open arms.
The experience of having a host family varied between students. I had one friend who did a lot of fun things with her host family, but she said it was awkward because she spoke no Japanese, and they spoke no English. Sadly, a few people were never even contacted by their host families. Fortunately, I could not have imagined a better host family for me and Justin.
Our host family consisted of an 8 year old girl, Miu, and her parents, whom we called “Miu-Mama” and “Miu-Papa.” On our first visit, merely a preliminary interview-style meeting, they eagerly asked us where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. They spoke no English, and although my Japanese skills were meager at first, they were patient and easy to talk to, and over our subsequent visits my language abilities increased substantially. Justin and I first just wanted to get to know them, and so we proposed a meal together. It was determined that we should eat the local Akita specialty, a dish called kiritanpo, at their house.
Kiritanpo are rice dumplings made by pounding cooked rice until lightly mashed, and then molding it around a wooden skewer and cooking it over an open flame or grill. These can be served on their own, or are commonly added to a stew along with vegetables like cabbage and carrots, as well as chicken. This country meal is very popular and famous in Akita, and you can find prepackaged kiritanpo to send to your relatives at nearly every tourist attraction in the prefecture. Despite the fact that it was already quite warm in Japan, Miu-Mama happily agreed to make the dish. At my request, she even cut off the chicken skin that seems to plague all supermarket chicken in Japan.
(An assembled kiritanpo hot pot. The white tubes in the middle are the kiritanpo. This is a public use photo.)
On the day of our first real visit, our host family picked us up in the tiny parking lot at AIU. There they met my roommate, and I secretly relished in watching their very Japanese introductions, with all the bowing and the “hajimemashite” (nice to meet you) phrasing that I practiced for hours in first-semester Japanese class. Justin and I got into the backseat of the car with Miu, to discover they had brought along their adorable miniature poodle named Mocha (for his coffee coloring). To my delight, he instantly curled up on my lap.
Our host-family’s house was gorgeously clean and simply decorated. It was quite big for a Japanese house, but that was to be expected in a country-town like Akita. Miu showed us her room with childish enthusiasm, and then Miu-Mama brought out a plate with cheese and crackers, as well as a platter of expensive cookies. (Japanese people often buy pricey cookies and hors d’oeuvres for the sole purpose of hosting guests). Then, while the kiritanpo cooked, we played Wii bowling and Justin showed Miu a rhythm game on her Nintendo DS called Ouendan (which is very fun and highly recommended). Miu instantly became a wiz at it, and could barely tear herself away to eat.
Joining us to eat was a family friend who quickly became another member of our host family, the beautiful Nepalese Rashmin and her adorable, 2 year old, half-Japanese daughter, Koena. Rashmin was a welcome addition, not only because she was friendly, but also because she spoke English and could help me with phrases I didn’t know how to say in Japanese. Together, we sat down and chatted over our kiritanpo, which was warm and delicious. I loved the texture of the rice dumplings soaked in broth. Miu-Mama and Miu-Papa told us about their jobs, and Miu told us about school. Justin and I talked about AIU, traveling after the earthquake, and the United States. We all cooed over Koena, especially whenever she tried to do the hand-sign for peace, a beloved gesture in Japan and absolutely necessary in any photos. Koena knew to do it whenever a photo was taken, but she could only hold up her thump and first finger. Her utter confidence in the gesture made us giggle every time. The whole scene was simultaneously ordinary and exhilarating. I felt like I lived there, and the day seemed much too short when we finally were driven home, with promises to meet up again soon.
(Me, Justin, Miu, and little Koena. You can see her here trying to make a peace sign. <3 )
In various subsequent posts, you’ll read about more meet-ups I had with my host family. Each visit is a cherished memory, and I feel uncommon warmth whenever I think of them. I hope to stay in touch with them, though I have been quite terrible at it so far. Life gets in the way, but I really want to maintain our friendship. I know that they added richness and delight to my trip abroad, and I hope that Justin and I returned some of it. Japan can seem a very unwelcoming place to foreigners, especially in the countryside where many people have never seen a non-Asian face. However, Miu and her parents proved that there are some who will welcome new people and new cultures with smiles, and believe the exchange to be an act of both giving and receiving. I think that eager openness is at the heart of traveling, and what I think AIU strives to embody and promote.
(All of us around the delicious kiritanpo. Miu-Mama is holding Koena.)