At Home with Strangers

The cicadas buzzed in the trees, humming along with the pulse of the summer morning air. Bees loathed about in the air, hovering as if danged from the clouds by invisible threads, swaying to-and-fro like little toys on a jostled mobile. We boarded our bus, waving goodbye to those who hadn’t signed up for a weekend homestay experience. It was also my birthday; I had just turned 20.

I was (once again) mortified—meeting strangers once again, except this time I was supposed to practice my Japanese and be a perfect guest so that this Japanese family wouldn’t regret letting some American girl into their home for the weekend. The family that had been selected for me was beautiful: a mother, father, son, and daughter. The children were both very young, the brother maybe in primary school and his sister even younger. I had received a picture of them, printed onto plain stock paper, and the entire family smiled politely into the camera in front of their picturesque home.

We arrived an hour or so later at a community center building, in which we were arranged into rows on one side of an aisle while the host families slowly filed in and sat on the other. Both sides craned their necks, heads bobbing up and down above others, to see if they could find their assigned match. After a short presentation, students were one-by-one called up and handed off to their families, a photo opportunity at every moment as grins burst across everyone’s faces. Yet, at the end, there I was, sitting alone on one side of the aisle, family completely missing.

After some time of simply being forgotten, a program leader came up to me and reassured me that my family was coming; they had just been running late. In the moment they hadn’t appeared, a blossom of hope and relief had budded inside me, ready to bloom, waiting for a ray of sunshine or news to tell me I was free of the responsibility of meeting new people and trying to live with them as a guest for an entire weekend. When the program leader tried to reassure me, I felt that soon-to-blossom relief wither in my gut and begin to fester in proverbial mud. The fear returned.

My anxiety has always been crippling, which I say time and time again, I know. However, it must be emphasized that at every turn of life I try to get involved with new experiences, but the moment the hour approaches, I do my best to find a reason to remove myself from the obligation in order to maintain a picture-perfect comfort zone. Meeting this family was an exceptionally stressful concept to me, and I regretted every second of having signed up for it until I met them.

We were standing outside, people dressed in beautiful traditional clothing danced precisely in the setting sun. The air had cooled with the disappearance of the sun behind the horizon, and the once steamy air refreshed itself into the physical embodiment of relief. I knew them from the picture the moment I saw them—the mother and son.

The mother, Chiyo, came up to me, grinning, and introduced herself in beautifully correct English. I immediately felt my tension begin to break, simply knowing I’d be able to communicate with her. Her son, standing next to her, a little behind her legs, peered out at me as children tend to do when they first meet someone. After a few minutes, however, he decided to practice his English.

“Hello, my name is Koji, and I like to play the piano. What is your name?” he spoke rigidly, obviously rehearsed, but it made me smile nonetheless, to know that he’d also appreciate my English more than I had expected.

“I’m Ainsley, and I am happy to meet you.”

“I’m happy to meet you.”

And so on. When we returned to their home—as beautiful as the picture had led me to believe, with two stories and an expansive living room and kitchen—we were met by my friend Jackie’s host family as well as her, a surprise to both of us, and my host family’s daughter Yuki. She hid as far from me as possible, and I felt a pang of anxiety return as I wondered how Chiyo would have stress over making both me and her daughter happy. We ate a marvelous dinner of raw fish, white rice, and seaweed wrappers. In addition, bowls of fruit welcomed us home with their gentle sweetness, and I discovered a particular love for Japanese cherries.

It was after dinner that surprised me. I caught a glimpse of Chiyo peeking around the kitchen doorframe at me, and I made a silly face, crossing my eyes and sticking out my tongue. In that moment, she giggled and immediately flew towards me, landing in my lap and hugging me around my neck. That’s the moment when my heart changed, melting frigid terror into something indescribably tender.

Babysitting was always terrifying to me; kids and I never got along. One time—I think it was my first or second time babysitting—one child grew angry after losing a round in Monopoly and took off running up the street, and while I chased him down his older sister managed to call and disrupt her parent’s night away from the house. In the end, the couple came rushing home and apologized profusely to me, but I felt like the one who had let them down by losing control.

This girl, however, took to me as I took to her. That weekend I spent most of my time playing with the kids—watching them, playing with their toys, reading books (in English) to them, and even feeding Yuki little pieces of watermelon with chopsticks for breakfast while her mother had gotten up to prepare more food. We took a trip to Mother Farm, which is a place where a children’s theme park meets tourist farm life up in the mountains. The vistas overlooking the ridges with hydrangea bushes surrounding in bloom were breathtaking.

On that first night, however, I sat with Yuki in my lap. We spoke small words in Japanese and English, sharing little by way of verbal communication. The lights went out, and I looked up. Someone had turned out the lights! And then they turned the corner, all of them—my host family, my friend’s host family, and my friend. Chiyo was carrying a cake.

As the candlelight flickered before my eyes and Yuki sat in my lap, I smiled brightly at the candles and welcomed in a new year of life and promised myself something—a promise to keep for the remainder of my trip: that if something frightened me, I would try it, treating these words as a mantra. I blew out the candles.

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