A week after arriving at Kansai Gaikokugo Daigaku (Kansai Gaidai University) outside of Osaka in Japan as an exchange student, it was time for those of us who opted to, to vacate the temporarily overcrowded dorms, and move in with our new homestay families. I’m not sure how we were paired. I had ticked the box which said I didn’t mind if my family had little or no English despite then not being a confident speaker or listener. Many others were not so brave or… stupid?
Meet the parents
We all herded into a large room in the International Seminar House and waited as each other’s new homestay families came to claim us. We each watched on with curiosity to see who our new found friends would go home with. I watched them go off one by one. Some went with young, cool, hip parents with young kids. Others went with older, more serious looking people with sullen teenagers. Mine were late.
I was one of the last people waiting when an older couple walked in. Wizened is a word that comes to mind as my first impression. One of the University staffers brought them over to my table. They most certainly had absolutely no English. Awesome! My Japanese was going to get really good, really fast, I thought.
We did our introductions and it turned out they were in their early 60s and had two grown up girls. One was a very beautiful, perfect daughter who was married to a perfect man, and had three perfect children. The other one was a bit overweight, husbandless, jobless, and not spoken about so fondly by her parents as they sat in front of me. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the way Mum in particular was describing her girls, but I guess we were getting to know each other, right?
Home sweet home
We went home to their two-storey attached house. By attached, I mean it was like the English terraced houses in that it was one giant block all stuck together, but without any of the lovely terracing. I would later find out this was quite a decent sized place as far as houses went in Japan. They also owned the little stationary shop next door.
When you first entered the house, there were stairs on your left leading to the second floor, and a small hall to the right. A short way down the hall there was a TV room with tatami mat floors and seating on the ground. After that there was the bedroom Mum and Dad shared, which was wide open to the hallway. Further still beyond that was a kitchen with a small table, and to the left and behind the staircase, the large singular bathroom.
Upstairs there was my room and another two rooms which I never entered. We put my things upstairs then headed down to have dinner at the small kitchen table. It occurred to me if I needed to go to the bathroom in the night, I would be coming down past their open bedroom, so would need to be quiet and hopefully not cop an eyeful of anything I didn’t need to see…
A family meal
Dinner was an assortment of things I had never seen before. My parents in Australia were not so adventurous with international foods when I was growing up, so a lot of it was completely alien to me. Of course white rice, but lots of interesting pickles, fish, and different vegetables.
Dad’s table manners were a little… unconventional compared to what I was used to, but Mum didn’t seem to notice or care. There were lots of noises…
Luckily I was adept at using chopsticks or I would have been in trouble. We tried to make small talk with my terrible Japanese and they seemed to think my lack of language ability meant that I was a little ‘slow’. It felt a little like how I imagined it would be putting a 19-year-old Japanese kid with a bogan/red neck/chav family in the West.
Time for the teev
When dinner was finished, we adjourned to the TV room. As I was the chief (paying) guest, I got to sit at the head of the table with a chair on the floor that had a little back to it. There was a low, rectangular coffee table in front of me leading to the TV directly a the end of it. Dad sat on a cushion to the left of me, and Mum sat on another one next to him closer to the TV.
We turned on the TV and on every channel there were only pictures of Princess Diana and a mangled car in an underpass. Words spewed out of the set I could not follow, and familiar characters were jumbled together on the screen in ways I could not decipher. I could join the dots on what was happening though.
In case I couldn’t, Mum made her first attempt at English for the evening.
I nodded my head and told her in Japanese I understood.
Thanks for sharing
We were watching this horror show play out when suddenly Mum picked up this wooden kebab skewer type thing, and started fiddling around in the side of Dad’s head. I didn’t have a clear view of what she was doing because of the angle they were sitting.
What was she doing? Was she cleaning his ears out or something? I wondered… And by the way, thanks for sharing! This is what? Night one? I looked back at the TV. The skewering activity continued.
The next time I looked back, Mum was scraping some yellow, mucus-y stuff off the stick.
Whooooooargh… Instantly I felt my dinner rising in my stomach. Oh GOD! Now I REALLY didn’t want to know what was going on. Focus on the telly. Pictures of Princess Di, mangled car, all very sad…
This went on for what seemed like an eternity until there seemed to be a consensus it was over. Dad then turned to me, pulled back his ear, showed me a hole about half a centimetre wide in the side of his head, and asked me very slowly in Japanese if there was anything left in there.
Oh God. Was my food going to stay down? “I don’t think so,” I offered in Japanese and then said I had to go up to my room to do some homework.
Where the hell was I? Who were these people? Was this normal? I felt sick.
The morning after
When I went down for breakfast, it seemed to be the same thing we had for dinner. Okaaaaay, dinner was quite nice but it was weird for me. I just had these really gross vibes from the night before. How clean was this place? They were chatting away and laughing. I had no idea what they were talking about.
Dad was going to show me my route to Uni this morning. Basically I was to take a bike down the narrow, busy streets to their local train station. It was about a 20 minute bike ride if all went well. The streets were not like the ones I was used to in Australia. If you had told me before I moved to Japan I would have recurring dreams about my wide, expansive street with huge footpaths in my leafy green suburb, I would have told you that was a weird thing to dream about. But that’s what happened. There were no footpaths on these streets. The streets went right up to the attached houses. Cars, bikes, pedestrians and whatever else somehow mingled together on these comparatively tiny roads. Two large cars in opposite directions would struggle to pass each other.
Once at the station I had to park my bike at a special, paid bike parking place with a special lock, then get on the train for a few stops. Dad left me at the train station after explaining the bike lock situation and I was off on my own. I was not quite frantically looking around for another foreign face, but almost. We were getting close to the University. SURELY someone was going to get on that I could speak with in sweet, sweet English??
Speak to me in sweet, sweet Engllish
I got off at the station for my Uni and saw a tall, lanky, blond kid I had never seen before. I went up to him and said, “Oh my God, I just need to talk to someone in English.”
“Aaaaaaah. First night with the host family?” he asked in a familiar Aussie accent.
He was from Tasmania and had already been studying at the University for six months. He knew what I was going through. Until I told him my story.
“No way, man. That is just weird,” he said convincingly.
“Are you going to be alright? I usually bike from here to the Uni but I can walk with you if you want.”
I told him I would be fine now and would catch him later. I had gotten that off my chest and knew the way to the Uni from my many escapades with my new comrades from our week in the dorms.
The grass sometimes IS greener
I got to Seminar House and found my posse who were all chatting excitedly about their nights with their families. One had scored big-time. His family was rich, had a huge house, and took him to some amusement park after giving him the brand new camera he showed off to us. Another guy asked his family what made them decide to take on a foreign student.
“We thought about getting a dog, but we thought we would try a homestay kid instead,” they said.
We all killed ourselves laughing at that. Makes sense. Dogs are forever. You get rid of your homestay pet after 6 months…
I listened quietly to the many tales from people with nice, interesting families, some of the discussion about how shocked everyone was about Princess Di, and then saw my moment.
“Do you want to know what happened with MY homestay family last night?” I asked ominously.
Everyone stopped and looked at me in silence as if feeling the weight of the story that was about to come.
I told them the story of my first night and they were all sufficiently horrified.
“You’ve got to get out of there. Get a new family,” someone offered.
No, no. I wasn’t there yet. I had to give it a chance, right?
Give them a chance
I did give it a chance. They wouldn’t give me a key and I had to be back before 10pm or they would lock me out, they said. When I told them I was going out with my friend Ben, but it was cool because he was gay so they didn’t have to worry, Mum laughed maniacally for about five minutes. This is a long time to stand and watch someone laughing maniacally, only to occasionally stop to clarify that he liked sex with other boys and not girls, before starting again.
One night I came downstairs to go to the bathroom and found my homestay Mum naked on a vibrating mat in front of the TV masturbating to porn… Another day I came home to find the fan in my room broken. Mum accused me of doing it and asked me to pay for it. I assumed she did it ‘cleaning’ or rather ‘snooping’ through all of my stuff which she liked to do. I somehow dealt with the repulsion of their hygiene habits, and their Japanese red-neck equivalent taunts I didn’t understand except through their red-neck tones…
After about a month I thought, “No, these guys are crazy and I have to get out of here.”
I went down for breakfast. It was absolutely bucketing down with rain outside. It appeared Mum and Dad already had their breakfast, but Dad was sitting at the table anyway. I started selecting the things laid out for me and had just eaten a little egg when Dad, who was sitting around half a metre from me at this small table, plopped his elbow down on the table with his forearm facing me.
On this forearm was a huge, yellow, puss-y scab that took up almost half of his forearm.
Thanks for sharing!
“Mmmmmmmmm. Thanks for sharing that over breakfast, Dad! That is about the colour yellow of the egg yolk I am eating right now!” I thought somewhat maniacally.
Then I looked again and no…. no… he wasn’t going to do it… he wasn’t going to…
Yup, he started scratching the scab, and blood and puss started coming out.
There went the appetite! It was funny though. In that moment I knew I had made the right choice. I was wondering whether it was too harsh to leave or not, but now a wave of relief joined my waves of revulsion.
He then asked me if I had an umbrella. This may sound like an innocent and rather responsible question given the bucketing rain outside, but to me it was the biggest joke ever. They had a car and could drop me at the station just this once if they wanted to. But there was no way I was going to be able to get on that bike, on that tiny, busy street with one hand on my umbrella and one hand on my bike, and not die.
I had already mentally located the garbage bags, decided to pack a change of clothes and wrap them up with my bag, and get into Uni this way.
Making it official
When I made it to Uni, I went straight to the Office and told them I wanted to leave. Was there any sort of mediation they could offer? No. Did I want to give it a few more days? No. Did I want to try with another family? No. I wanted to move into the dorms and get my brain back, and I wanted to do it tomorrow.
Of course these people were crazy. I had no idea how they were going to react. Would I get home and they had thrown all of my stuff out onto the street? Would they lock me out? Would I have to make conversation and tell them why I don’t want to live with their crazy arses?
That afternoon, my dormitory residing friends decided I was stressed and needed a drink, and because they were SUCH good friends, they would keep me company in this endeavour. We went to the local vending machine, each got our three litre bottles of Asahi beer, and proceeded to make light work of them. In the stress of it all, I somehow got legless enough that Diego and Kerry (RIP sister xx) basically had to carry me to the train station when it was time to go home.
I got on the train and promptly passed out. I have no idea how many trips I made between Osaka and Kyoto before I woke up. But when I did, I was on a local train heading towards my station from the opposite direction I should have been, so I suspect not TOO many. I realised it would be quicker for me even now to get off and take an express to get back.
My curfew was rapidly approaching, but somehow I decided NOW would be the PERFECT time to call my, until now oblivious parents, and tell them I was moving out tomorrow. It was late there too and not a time I would usually call. I told them about some of the antics which lead to my decision. I was happily, drunkenly talking away now the relief of the decision had been made, not really thinking about how they would take the news, the hour, and my particular state.
I then got on my bike and flew back to the house. Curfew had indeed past, the lights were off, and the door was locked. Hmmmmmmmmmm. Mercifully it hadn’t rained since the morning. Maybe I would have a little snooze on the doorstep. My schoolbag made a great pillow in my particular state…
I woke up some time later, and there was a black cat’s face right in my face.
“Fuckers! They can’t do this to me!” I thought. I got up and scaled the side of the house to where I could see my bedroom window was ajar. I then climbed in through the window. DAMNIT! I had left my bag outside and would have to go down and get it.
I came down the stairs, opened the door, picked up my bag, turned around to come back in, and there was Mum.
“How did you get in?” she asked in Japanese.
“I climbed in,” I responded.
She started loudly saying things very fast I was never going to understand, particularly in my somewhat less than spritely state, so I said goodnight and walked up the stairs to the sound of her voice still going.
The next morning I was expecting a pick up from one of the staff members from Uni. There were traffic problems. He was stuck. For hours. I was missing my first classes he was that late. AND I was stuck making small talk with my soon to be former oldies with the effects of yesterday’s inappropriate stress response consumption not aiding matters. We all knew this was the end of our relationship. I would not be darkening their doorstep again.
When I FINALLY got to the University VERY late, I was called straight into the Office. Not only had they been apprised of my previous evening’s behaviour, they had a fax from my Aussie parents stating they wanted urgent contact with me, and were extremely concerned for my welfare. They were freaking out. I was to contact them straight away. Oh, and with behaviour like last night, climbing into the house after curfew, they might not find me another family in the future.
OH what a shame. Their vetting techniques were CLEARLY awesome…
How good was life in the dormitory? I was master of my own domain again. Yes, there were teething problems going to the supermarket and working out what everything was. Who knew soy sauce came in a milk carton? How did you cook what they had there anyway?
And remember that asthma I was getting every day, multiple times a day from my earlier post, Whatever you do don’t go to the doctor? It completely stopped. It turned out the stress of living with my psycho homestay parents was the cause, and after I left, I no longer had any need for my preventative puffer, and very little need for the Ventolin.
Don’t get me wrong, there were MANY more ‘adventures’ in the months ahead in Japan, and I even went BACK and stayed with another, lovely family a year later, but the stress of living with THIS family was no longer my concern….
Until next time!