By Suzanne Kamata
When my son brought home a memo from school calling for families to host students from Australia, I hesitated to sign up. During college, I’d done a homestay in Avignon, because I was hoping to improve my foreign language skills and experience authentic French family life. Likewise, the visiting students were probably eager to immerse themselves in Japanese culture.
Our family, however, is hardly typical. First, there are the obvious differences. I’m an American, and my husband is Japanese, a relatively unusual combination in Japan. And although I’ve encountered more male nursery school teachers here than in my native country, household duties in Japan tend to be divided according to gender. I was reminded of this when, after my daughter told her teacher about the delicious risotto her father had prepared the night before, she was corrected: “You mean your mother made it.”
I worried about food, too. As an exchange student, I was eager to indulge in the pates, breads and cheeses that were famous in France. A visitor to our house, however, might be culturally confused at breakfast. The morning menu ranges from spaghetti pepperoncino to fried rice and Chinese pot-stickers. Occasionally we start the day with blueberry pie.
Language was another matter. In our family, we communicate in a combination of Japanese, English, and Japanese Sign Language. What would a teenager from Down Under make of our cultural mishmash?
In spite of my reservations, I volunteered to host a student. It would be fun for my own children, I thought, to meet and someone from another country.
A few weeks later, we welcomed Nikki. She told us that as part of a dance troupe, she’d traveled to other countries, and stayed with many different families. She settled easily into our home and quickly made friends with my daughter, who communicates primarily in Japanese Sign Language.
“How old are you?” My daughter wrote in Japanese.
Like many Australian students, Nikki had studied some basic Japanese at her junior high school back home. “Fourteen,” she wrote back.
“Do you like bananas?” my daughter asked via Japanese Sign Language.
I interpreted, and taught Nikki how to reply.
“Yes!” she signed.
As the visit wore on, I was reminded that Japanese culture is now a part of world culture. The video games Nikki played with our children were the ones she played at home. At dinner, we served Japanese-style curry and rice, which she told us she enjoys on the Gold Coast as well. And she related that her little brother was a fan of Japanese comics.
At the end of Nikki’s stay, we sent her off with an American-style hug, a copy of a popular manga, a few Japanese signs, and some warm memories of multicultural Japan.
Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.
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