Having chosen to live in a dorm as opposed to a home stay meant that I was choosing to live a totally different experience, one where I would be on my own almost completely in terms of navigating Tokyo and just living in the city. However through CIEE, I was granted the opportunity of meeting and spending time with a home stay family for an entire day.
This amazing family encompassed Okaa-san (Mother), Otou-san (Father), and their three children K-san (the eldest brother), H-san (the middle sister) and Y-chan, (the youngest sister). After learning who they were, their ages, and their hobbies, I was very excited; even more so because I would be able to spend time with the kids. K-san is 12, only one year younger than my brother. H- san is a year behind him and Y-chan is only 3 years old. It's been a while since I was surrounded by such small children because most of my family is already well into their teens.
Prior to meeting the family, I had mixed emotions of excitement and nervous dread. What if I accidentally offend them? What if the kids don't like me? What if my level of Japanese is insufficient for the family? What if I just have a bad experience? These questions haunted me as I rode the train to meet them. However upon arriving, I was able to quickly dismiss those worrisome questions. Despite being half-hour late, thank you Tokyo train systems, Otou-san and H-san met me and led the way to their home. I was able to talk in Japanese about where I am from, how long I have been studying Japanese and what else I was studying. To be honest, it helped a lot that Otou-san also spoke English, kind-of like a safety net for my Japanese at times. Mid-way, Okaa-san and Y-chan met us with high spirits. Together, we walked the rest of the way back to their home.
From 11am to 8pm it was none stop fun, at least in my opinion. The first thing I did was play with H-san and Y-chan. K-san currently plays soccer, so the plan was to meet him for his game later on in the evening, as he was at practice all morning. I helped the girls build a house out of play mats. I don't think I've done anything like that in years. After that, H-san and Otou-san taught me how to play table tennis. I don't usually play sports of any sort, though I am always willing to try. It was quite a struggle at first, and I'm pretty sure Otou-san and H-san were a lot better at it than I was. But it was fun nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Okaa-san was getting lunch ready. We wound up having dipping noodles for lunch. So delicious! It was during then that I learned from Okaa-san that she was starting to learn English. She spoke very little English, so at times we had Otou-san translate. But, that did not discourage me from trying to speak in Japanese. The language barrier turned out to be a great motivation for learning and practicing from each other.
Afterwards, I went with Otou-san and the girls to their school which was literally down the road. There, we were able to make use of the gym and play sports. So, the next game of the afternoon was badminton. Again, I don't usually play sports and I know for a fact that Otou-san and H-san were a lot better at it than I was. Nevertheless, H-san and I competed with valiant effort, counting out loud in Japanese how many hits we could make before accidentally missing, and dropping, the bird. I think our highest was 11, but between her and her father it went as high as 20!
We returned home about an hour later to head out for K-san's game where I at last met the older brother of the bunch. The game itself was an interesting cultural experience because I got to see how the Japanese community interacted with one another in this kind of setting. It made me think about when my brother was on a soccer team many years ago. Unlike America, where everyone is usually screaming and shouting and cheering, everyone here was very quiet until someone scored a goal. Otou-san explained it to me as not wanting to put extra unnecessary pressure on the kids. But, I'm sure everyone was beaming with pride when K-san's team scored a goal. I, too, was very caught up in the spirit of the game. At the end, when K-san's team had won, we left without K-san. Another difference here is that the teammates all return home together. They’re not picked up one by one by their family immediately following a game. I understand it as a way of building strong ties with the team.
On the way back, we stopped for groceries. H-san and I by now had agreed that the cold weather called for some hot cocoa. And so we asked Okaa-san for permission before picking up the sweet Christmas-in-a-cup cocoa. Finally we made it home. In the process of getting dinner ready, I helped H-san fold laundry and then watched the Japanese version of Spirited Away, without subtitles. I was still able to understand most of it!
K-san had returned home just in time for dinner. And what was on the menu?
Homemade sushi, where everything is prepared for you and all you have to do is assemble your favorite combinations: Rice, chicken, egg, three kinds of fish, cucumber, with Japanese mayo, seaweed, and soy sauce. First, H-san and K-san taught me how to properly assemble the sushi so that nothing would fall apart. Then, Otou-san showed me his favorite combination. This was my first time having real Japanese sushi, and let me just say that I had zero complaints. It was such a wonderful meal and I ate so much! Usually, a sign of respect is the fact that you ask for seconds, but I enjoyed it so much that I still feel like I over-ate. No regrets though.
After that, I was surprised by my host family's incredible gesture of singing me happy birthday and bringing out a cake of cream puffs for dessert.
With my birthday being the Monday after, I honestly had no idea that they would do this for me. I wasn't even sure what I was doing for my birthday! But this was incredible. It made my heart melt.
Actually, by the end of the night I found myself almost unwilling to leave. I realized by now that this family had accepted me into their home, into the routine of their daily lives. It made me long for my family, in a good way I suppose. There were so many parallels between my host family and my actual family that I wound up reflecting on it all throughout the day. When H-san and I asked Okaa-san for hot cocoa, watching K-san play soccer, enjoying a family meal, helping with chores before watching TV; these were all little things that made me really appreciate my family even more and hope that I can remain connected with my host family in the future.
I encourage everyone to at least try a home stay experience, even if it's just for one day like mine was.