The infamous peace sign; jam-packed trains with hardly enough room to scratch one’s nose; three-hundred-pound men in diapers slamming against each other; school girls in stylish uniforms. All of these stereotypes I once thought to be an exaggeration became a reality during my six-week summer home-stay in Japan.
As a gaijin, or foreigner, I was privileged to experience life in Japan outside the tours. As an exchange student, I was placed with a family of four in the prefecture of Akita and lived in an apartment-sized house without air conditioning. Though it was a bit confining, I thoroughly enjoyed sharing that space with the people who so willingly took me into their home and contributed to my transformation into a more understanding, global person.
During my first week at the all girls’ high school, I was swarmed by squealing girls wanting to touch my blonde hair. It took some time to adapt to the attention I received while in public. Regularly, I helped bashful English teachers instruct their grammar classes, or aided in the editing of essays written by students who looked to me eagerly for guidance. During lunch, the time allotted for eating was miniscule; each class took the initiative to rehearse their song for the chorus competition during any spare time. As I had joined the class late, catching up with the lyrics and choreography was challenging, but I devoted myself completely to this rigid schedule.
Everyday after school, clubs gathered to practice and socialize. Being interested in the traditional aspects of Japanese culture, I joined the tea ceremony club. From the angle one must hold the whisk, to the number of clockwise quarter-turns required before handing guests their fresh green tea, the ceremony is a very delicate process. This dip into an imperial, Japanese pastime allowed me to better connect with my classmates on a personal basis.
After an eleven-hour day away from home, my host sister and I squeezed off the train at 5:30 p.m., and ran to the house eager for dinner. Dinner was the most wholesome part of the day. It allowed me and my host family the chance to communicate. It regularly consisted of open dictionaries and flailing arms enthusiastically attempting to illustrate a story, and everyone chuckling at me for continuously dropping my squirmy tofu into my lap; my chopstick skills were not quite polished. Our evening feast was never dull. My host father, a fisherman, was always bringing home various types of mystery seafood, and I became very familiar with the motto: “Eat now, ask later.”
Japanese etiquette intrigued me the most. Gone were the days of my mother instructing me to be “lady-like.” In Japan, one must not sip quietly, but slurp noodles. Instead of sitting with legs crossed, a true lady must have them close together, feet flat on the floor. Though Japan is a progressive country, I often witnessed traditional gender roles. These rules of etiquette stem from the expectation of women to serve. She must be able to respond quickly on command. Though I don’t agree with this mentality, I am able to understand the lives and struggles of Japanese women today.
Along with my suitcase full of souvenirs, I brought home countless memories and perspectives. It is a remarkable feeling to have formed close bonds with the people who befriended me in Japan, and to know they will be life-long friends. It takes great strength to open up to complete strangers, let alone live with them. I feel that this trip demonstrates my personal motivation to get out make a mark on the world. My stay in Japan was an adventure that will always remain with me.
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