Journals from Kanto Gakuin University
2009-10-12 Host family!
Today's stories are mostly related to my wonderfully goofy host family, though I may mix in a few other stories as well, such as when Jeff found his Tokyo hotel all by himself and proudly texted Naoki to say, "I made it!" and Naoki (thinking Jeff was perhaps cooking dinner for him) answered, "What did you make?" Oh, and when a car stalled at an intersection and made everyone behind it miss the green light, and no one beeped! I couldn't believe it; if this were Boston or Ecuador, there would have been a chorus of horns. The politeness here is impressive. Oh, and when we taught the buddies how to use their fingers as quotation marks in the air during conversations and they immediately started applying it as often as possible ("Naoki is 'tall'!" " he's 5'5"). Also, last week I chatted with a Nigerian in English at a Japanese Costco. And there was the time when I got catcalled at a train station " in Spanish! " and I was so happy to hear someone speak Spanish that instead of acting offended I did a huge double take, then went over and asked incredulously, "Did you just speak Spanish?" I bet that was the first time that a catcall had turned into a cheerful twenty-minute conversation for those two Peruvians, especially a conversation in Spanish in Japan!
Ok, let's move on to host family stories. KGU's International Programs Office thoroughly prepared us for the move from our Hayama dorm to our host families' homes: we were shown videos on Japanese manners that taught us when and how to bow, what to do about shoes (take them off at the front door, put on slippers, take those off and put on other slippers when you go in the bathroom, don't forget to switch back from bathroom slippers into house slippers, take all slippers off when you enter the tatami mat room, put them back on when you come out, always leave slippers facing out from whatever room you just went in), how to politely use chopsticks (classic example: don't ever leave them sticking up in your rice bowl, because that's a funeral ritual), and of course, how to bathe.
I like the Japanese bathroom system much better because it's cleaner than ours: first of all, the toilet is in a completely separate room from the bath. When you do bathe, you shower first, get all nice and clean, then hop into the bath, so that you're not soaking in dirty water. And oh my goodness, bathrooms are high-tech. The bath has a little TV screen above the button pad that controls the water, and it will automatically heat the water only to a certain temperature, when it will shut off. The toilet is computerized and has all sorts of buttons, including a seat-warming button, a "big flush" button (for number two) and a "small flush" button (for number one). When you do figure out the buttons and flush, the water comes out of a faucet on top of the toilet where you can rinse your hands, then runs into the toilet tank where it is reused.
Sorry, as you can tell, I am impressed with Japanese bathrooms. Let's move on to talking about actual Japanese people We met our host families two weeks ago (one week before move-in day) at a KGU lunch. My host family is adorable; I think all four of them have dimples. The dad, Reiji, is 41 and does something related to engineering and airplanes (I'm not sure on the specifics; it was difficult vocabulary). He sort of (rather unsuccessfully) pretends to be serious in public, but at home he laughs and jokes and rolls around on the floor with Ayumi, my six-year-old host sister. Ayumi is a goofball, always giggling, often at jokes that apparently only she understands. Her sister Maho is nine, and she is definitely the older sister: she is always ready for school first, and she actually enjoys studying kanji with me (we are at the same level! In Japanese I'm a third-grader!), and she has an amazing memory. She also has a bubbly, contagious laugh, usually provoked by her younger sister's antics. My host mom, Kaori, is 38 and looks 28; she used to be a flight attendant, and now works part-time on the KGU economics campus as a secretary. Partly because flight attendants get great deals on airfare, she has been all over the world (Canada, Seattle, Nepal, Thailand, India, Arizona, Hawaii, Guam), and she has also been sky-diving and bungee-jumping. She is an excellent jump-roper, and can also walk on stilts. All of them are so much more laid-back and comfortable than I expected, and they're cheerfully patient with my Japanese. It helps that the girls are also learning " when we are riding in the car, Ayumi proudly puzzles out signs in hiragana and Maho and I compete to read signs in kanji. When we're eating, Ayumi has just as much trouble getting her noodles to stay on her chopsticks as I do, and Maho giggles and explains the best way to approach each new dish.
They all seem to get a kick out of my eclectic collection of interests. The first day I met them, my host mom said, "We weren't sure what to expect from your application, because we saw that your hobbies were baseball and soccer, but you're a girl. Then we saw that your third hobby was salsa, and we thought, 'Baseball, soccer and salsa? Hmm I wonder what kind of girl she is?' Then you came today, and you're you're cute! With all those sports we thought you would be bigger, but you're cute!" I laughed, not sure what to say. "Thank you?"
The day I moved in, the sun was out and so were the neighbors. Ranging in age from two to sixty, they were in the street playing badminton, jumping rope, walking on stilts, riding unicycles and generally enjoying the sunshine. I walked around on my hands a bit and did a few walkovers, then jumped rope with the girls and met the neighborhood kids: a baby, a two year old, two nine year olds, an eleven year old, a twelve year old, a couple of fourteen year olds, and more that I'm probably forgetting. I loved it! It was like Honduras all over again, except it required more concentration because it was in Japanese.
This weekend, my host family took me on a trip to Hakone. I didn't altogether understand when they explained where we were going (all I really understood was that we would be able to see Mt. Fuji), so I was amazed when we arrived at a spa in the mountains. The hotel room had a yukata (summer kimono, sort of) for each of the adults, including me, so Maho helped me figure out how to tie it and we took pictures of the gringa in the yukata. We did, however, have to ask the front desk for "the biggest size available" so that we could find a yukata that would fit me! Really now, I'm only 5'7", 140; I've never been an extra large before.
We then went downstairs to the onsen The onsen was basically a really big hot tub in a covered area outside, with water piped in from natural hot springs further up the mountain. The catch is that Japanese onsens do not involve bathing suits! The men's onsen and the women's onsen are completely separate, but still The girls made it a bit less awkward, because they are still little and have no problem with nakedness. I was a little more nervous Luckily, we went right before dinner and no one was there. It was just my host mom, the girls, and me, which made me feel a bit better. So we all took off our clothes, covered our fronts temporarily with a little tiny towel, showered in one big room with four or five shower heads, and (squeaky clean) got in the very toasty onsen. I turned bright pink, probably from the hot water but maybe also from the lack of clothing. But I did it!
It was a weekend full of new experiences, from playing some intense ping pong with my host dad while wearing a yukata to using chopsticks to eat fish for breakfast. Meals involved ten or so small plates each with a small amount of a different kind of food, each involving a different way of eating. Some of it was cook-it-yourself food: chopped-up vegetables and sliced meat which you swirled around in a dish of water set over a flame. A lot of the dishes seemed to be pickled, some of which I liked and some of which I didn't.
After we left the hotel, we took a ski lift over the mountain ridges to look at the scenery: the first leg of the trip was mostly trees, then we topped a ridge and suddenly the mountainside to our left was covered in hot springs. We topped the next ridge (after a station or two), and got a beautiful view of a mountain lake, although sadly clouds blocked Mt. Fuji. We took a pirate ship across the lake (it's a tourist town, and the ship reminded me of something you might see in Disneyland, only the signs were in Japanese), where we ate lunch. I'm glad that I went with Japanese people, because alone I never would have figured out how to eat! Soba, for example, is a kind of noodle, which sounds simple enough, but they give you a little bowl of brown (soy?) sauce and a plate with sesame seeds, onions, and wasabi. Apparently you put the seeds, onions and wasabi in the sauce, dip the noodles in, and enjoy. When you finish your noodles, the waiter brings a tea kettle full of the water the soba was boiled in, which you pour into your sauce, seeds, onions and wasabi mix. Then, apparently, you drink that mix! I never would have guessed. It was actually tastier than I expected, and the wasabi cleared up my stuffy nose a bit!
Now we're back in Kanazawa, where my host family lives. We're about a half an hour walk from school, which is a nice change from the hour-long walk/train ride/bus ride/walk back and forth from Hayama to school. The house is big, yellow, and on top of a hill, so it is easy to find when I get lost on the tiny, curvy neighborhood streets. I get to speak Japanese all day, every day, and there is always someone to ask if I need help decoding a text message or a homework assignment. The girls are fun, but well-behaved, so if I have time to play we play, and if I don't, they let me study. We all wake up at six thirty or so on school days, eat breakfast together at seven, and leave the house around eight or eight thirty. I study in the library before and after class so that I can come home and chat with my host family stress-free before and after dinner. When the girls go to bed at nine, I have time to study for an hour or two before bed, and the cycle starts over again. My host family is a wonderful balance between being fun and understanding my need to study, and they are always offering to invite my friends over for dinner. On Sunday Yuusuke came over for dinner, on Wednesday Shunsuke dropped by, and last night Brandon and Jeff joined us. Exchange students are great entertainment at the dinner table " we are so often confused by food!
All right, I think that's everything for now. Thank you for reading!