Infiltrating the Japanese Family Unit (Part 1)

I know it’s strange to introduce you to my host family ten weeks into the program, but it’s taken this long for me to go from ‘honored house guest’ to ‘(host) family member.’ It wasn’t that the family excluded me. They’ve been nothing but friendly, polite and sensitive to my needs. As I’ve mentioned before, it can take a longer time for me to sense closeness with people, and it didn’t help that I wasn’t particularly assertive about spending time with them. I was just existing in their home, trying to be as less of a disturbance as possible until my inevitable return to the States.

At first I was extremely uncomfortable living under the eagle eye of parental figures again. Not that I was doing anything unsavory, but one would naturally feel uneasy if people were watching and assessing your every action, down to the way you fidget with the hem of your sweater. During the first month I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without some sort of instruction. Apparently, the students they’d hosted before had never been to Japan, so they were just used to teaching them about how things are done. Even though I told them I’d studied abroad in Japan last summer, they still took it upon themselves to lecture me on every little detail about living in Japan, including how to use the buttons on the toilet, use the subway, which side of the sidewalk to walk on, how to eat sushi, so on and so forth. Somehow I’d gone from a somewhat capable young adult college student to someone’s overly protected child. My host mother knew my schedule at school better than I did, down to the minute and gave me a rundown on what I was supposed to do everyday. I thought it was simply because I was a foreigner and she didn’t think I was competent, but I noticed she does the same thing to her daughter, always knowing where she is, who she’s with and what she’s doing. My host mother takes running her household very seriously, and to do that as efficiently as possible, she has to know everyone’s schedules so she can best meet their needs.

My host parent’s marriage runs like a well-oiled machine. She handles the home, and he handles outside business matters and brings home the bacon. Maybe it’s the result of being married for so many years, but they are never affectionate with each other. (To be honest, Japanese couples in general aren’t as affectionate with each other as say Western couples…but that’s a topic for another day.) My host dad makes out more with his dog than with his wife, responds faster to the dog’s whining than what his wife says. (That dog is disgusting anyway, why would you want to kiss it, of all things? The face-licking that happens in this house is vomit-inducing.) Strangely enough, my host father reminds me of my real father– a stern penny-pincher, practical even at the cost of others comfort or feelings. Incredibly stubborn, with a knack for doing things the old fashioned way. Short tempered. Stir it all together and you’ve got a carbon copy of my real dad. And if my host sister has been living with a Japanese version of my dad all her life, I can understand her irritation.

With two very controlling and parents (one with a dangerously short-temper), I can understand why my fourteen year old host sister lashes out so much. These are the parents who go through her flip phone when she’s not home because the cellphone bill was high and they want to see how many emojis she uses; they won’t let her use LINE and other social media apps because it’s dangerous and could possibly be used as a medium for bullying; they made her stop eating ham completely because of a special on TV that reported processed meat could increase the risk of cancer. I can completely understand why she would feel irritated, but at the way she speaks to her parents is appalling. I wouldn’t be here today if I’d said half the things to my parents that she says. My mom would’ve slapped the caps off my knees and I’d be bed-ridden for life, if I was lucky. Slapped into next week? I would be perpetually flying through the months if I’d even fixed my mouth to say the things my host sister says. She also cries at the drop of a hat. She cried because her parents said she couldn’t have a smartphone, cried when she wanted spaghetti for dinner instead of ramen, and even cries to get out of studying. Sometimes I understand her feelings but most of the time I think she’s just bratty. And her parents let her continue her bratty behavior.

I’ve only seen them get stern with her two times. The first happened when we were at a kaitenzushi restaurant and had placed an order for a particular dish. When you place a specific order instead of taking something random directly from the conveyor belt, the plate comes out on a red platform. Thinking our table had ordered two of the same kind of sushi, my host sister took both of them instead of just the one that belonged to us. For which her parents immediately and profusely berated her, saying she was an “idiot” and “inconsiderate of other people’s things” “Where is your head? Maybe you should pay attention every once in a while.” It went on and on. When they called the waitress over to tell her what had happened the waitress simply said, “put it back on the conveyor belt” and everything was solved. Did something that can be solved so simply really call for such a harsh tongue-lashing in public? The poor girl looked like she was going to cry.

The other time made me inexplicably happy. One morning my host sister left for school while I was eating breakfast. By the time I was done, the intercom was ringing because she had come back, telling her mom that for some reason she couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t hear most of it because the intercom is very static-y, but my host mother didn’t seem too bothered by whatever situation. While I was waiting for the elevator to the bottom floor of the apartment building, I saw my host sister walking towards our unit. My host mom met her at the door; as soon as the door closed my host mom let my host sister have it. I don’t know exactly what she said because she was shrieking, but I definitely caught the words for “idiot” and “no excuses” and “next time, you’d better do (something something something.)” To hear this tiny yoga-practicing woman absolutely go IN on her bratty daughter was beautiful and terrifying. I was mashing the button for the elevator before she opened the door and still saw me standing there in the hallway. (I didn’t want to be next!) But the sound of a mother yelling at her daughter, being slightly scared for your own life, somehow all conspired to create a beautiful sense of nostalgia. Ah yes, the sounds of home sweet home. I never felt like such a part of the family as I did right then.

 

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