Homestay in Yakage.

There are times when I find this university to be frustratingly unorganised. There are pointless compulsory classes and the teachers seem to be making it up as they go along, with little idea of how essays are weighted or what they are specifically asking for in exams. I have oddly missed the academic integrity of Edinburgh, the challenging topics but also the structured teaching. With a lack of any real academic classes outside of Japanese language learning, I've decided to just accept the strange style of 'academia' and take classes that give me opportunities instead. Luckily, there have been plenty of activities I can take part in off campus, namely the homestay programme.

The homestay programme places international students with families for a weekend, to practice speaking Japanese, learn about Japanese culture, and see what life is really like for Japanese people. I spent the weekend with the Torigoe family in Yakage (Okayama Prefecture) and until now, it has been the most valuable experience I have had since coming to Japan. My plan in terms of language acquisition for this year has always been to spend as much time living the language (i.e. not spending a whole year sat in a classroom) as possible, so it was a great opportunity to practice in a real life environment.

As to be expected, my host family and I were nervous. My host father looked quite serious at first and I was worried he would be strict, but as soon as we left the welcome meeting and entered his home, I felt much more at ease. We spoke extensively about our families, hobbies and lifestyle. My host father and mother were both interested in how I came to study Japanese, what my family were like, and life in England. We very quickly warmed to one another and they were keen to take pictures of me doing absolutely anything - for what purpose I'm not sure, but it was somewhat endearing.

It felt almost immediately like I was part of the family, which made me miss my own family. I haven't been homesick much since I've been here, but it made me long for a cup of tea with mum and an enormous catch up. They were keen to show me lots of different parts of Japanese culture, which I happily took part in. We practiced calligraphy, made origami, watched TV together and prepared dinner. My host sister's primary school class even made a video introducing themselves in English for me, and I recorded answers to questions they had for me on life in England. The amount of effort they put into hosting me was truly touching.

Making Okonomiyaki

Hand roll sushi evening 

I was in food heaven all weekend! Over dinner my hostfather wanted to see how much alcohol I could drink (Japanese people are amazed how much alcohol westerners can drink - they have one Smirnoff and fall over) so we enjoyed a variety of different wines, beers and sake. The drunker he got the more English he could remember, until we were speaking in an odd inbetween language where I was speaking Japanese and he was speaking English. That can only be described as a strange experience! Nevertheless, we were able to communicate with relative ease and I surprised myself on numerous occasions with my own ability to explain really complex things. I'm sure I made plenty of mistakes but being understood in spite of that was eye opening. Days like that I really feel like I'm getting better at Japanese. Fluency does still seem a long way off though, which frustrates me every day. But baby steps are still steps, and I'm confident that over the course of the year my Japanese will improve. To what extent I'm still not sure. Japanese just isn't one of those languages you can simply study at school and get by. It requires constant attention, in both speaking and reading and writing. While my speaking here has definitely improved, my writing skills (kanji in particular) have been all but neglected. Keeping on top of it all is proving challenging for sure, but classes like the homestay one are certainly helping, by simply forcing me to speak and make myself understood.

Traditional paper screen windows
Ornate wood and paper screens

 It was certainly strange to feel so comfortable around people I had only just met, and I imagine they felt the same. Yet when I left, I felt real sadness at the possibility of not seeing them again. In fact after being showered with gifts and even presented with a painting done by the grandmother, I burst into tears when saying my goodbyes. I'm not sure whether it was more in response to their wonderful care of me, the fear of returning back to university and studying, or simply emotion at feeling like I fit in somewhere. Japan for me, is a country which can be very alienating for foreigners especially. Similarly, not really having any British friends here makes me sometimes feel far from home. But when I feel like I'm on my own, I have to remind myself what an achievement coming on a year abroad is. I knew I would feel out of place. I knew there wouldn't be many foreigners. Acknowledging the feeling of loneliness is only useful as a catalyst to do something about it. And that's what I do - when I feel out of place I talk about it with friends, and we remind ourselves that moving to Japan is not an easy feat, and that we are killing it.

So perhaps, my first tears here in Japan being when I left the host family says more about what the rest of my time here has been like. I've been so caught up in being here I haven't had the chance to feel like I'm missing home. Missing home is okay. Missing family, friends, my cat, my car, even the carpet in my bedroom, is normal. Staying with a family for the weekend brought all that back. The experience was therefore valuable in so many different ways. I can't even imagine what it must be like to speak a foreign language, but it feels like every day I edge a little closer, with each new word learned or mannerism understood. I couldn't have expected to have had such a wonderful weekend and will be eternally thankful to the family who gave up their weekend to accommodate a strange, teary British gal.


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