I turned away from the neon lights flashing by outside my window to see that the little girl sitting in her aunt’s lap had spilled over onto mine. “Mushi!” she screamed. I didn’t know how to respond. “Mushi,” her aunt said. My new host-mother repeated the word: “Mushi.” I looked to the final member of my new family crammed into the tiny taxi on our way back to my first night at what would be my house for the next year, praying that she spoke a word of English.
“Mushi...” I guess not.
The ensuing awkward silence finally ended at the mercy of our taxi driver who broke out into uncontrollable laughter. Next my host-niece, then host-sister, then other host-sister, and finally my host-mother. It took me a second to realize that they were all laughing at me, and at that moment, I too began to laugh uncontrollably.
After finally arriving at my new, hundred-year old, entirely wooden, and, during the night, slightly terrifying home for the year, my five-year-old host-niece, Suzu, ran and grabbed a giant picture book. “Mushi!” she screamed, this time pointing to a picture of a giant beetle. “Oh! Bug!” I yelped, and the rest of my family repeated my English translation with wry smiles on their faces.
Throughout my four years at Oberlin (three on-campus, one in Japan), I found myself disagreeing with many campus policies, and at times feeling slightly claustrophobic on such a small campus in the middle of Ohio. I considered transferring; there was nothing wrong with Oberlin, it just may not have been the perfect fit for me. I thought I wanted to live in a big city, or go to a school with a larger student body, or maybe even (gasp!) go to a slightly less intensely liberal institution. But, by the end of one evening with my host family, I knew that I had made the right choice.
I entered Oberlin as an intended physics major, and as soon as classes began I started to struggle. After a year of academic uncertainty, I decided my sophomore year to take a language course. I put four pieces of paper into a hat; one said ‘French,’ one said ‘Chinese,’ one said ‘German,’ and one said ‘Japanese.’ When I picked the lucky slip of paper with the word ‘Japanese’ on it, thus began a love affair with a language, culture, and, most importantly for me, department at Oberlin, that has indubitably shaped my future.
I have dozens of hilarious stories that encapsulate a year of cross-cultural misunderstandings with a group of genuinely caring people, who went out of their way on an hourly basis to make sure I was happy, comfortable, and almost unbearably well-fed. I have since spoken at several meetings, trying to get students to study abroad in Japan, recounting hilarious encounters, and extolling the kindness of my host-family in hopes that other students, too, may experience what I did. No single story, however, embodies what that year in Japan meant to me.
Every night ended in exhaustion. I got lost nearly every day, freaked out when crammed into trains and couldn’t get off, ate some questionable meats, missed my last train and slept (or didn’t) in the streets, and couldn’t figure out how to operate a Japanese shower for several weeks resulting in the dirtiest few days of my life. It would be overly platitudinous to say the obvious remark here, “But I learned from every experience,” and furthermore, it wouldn’t be true. I didn’t learn from eating horse for the first time, I wish I had been able to take a shower for those few fetid weeks, and many of my nights spent on the streets of Osaka or Kyoto or Kobe or Tokyo ended in a freezing headache. But every experience at least gave me the opportunity to come back to a home full of people, whose very existence was unknown to me for all twenty-one years of my life prior to my time in Japan, who cared for me without hesitation.
My host family renewed my faith in humanity; something most college freshmen and sophomores (myself included) intentionally eschew for more fashionable early life-crises like amoralism and existentialism. Had I transferred from Oberlin, I never would have ended up studying Japanese, let alone pursuing it to the extent that I would willingly throw myself into the home of a group of strangers in a country halfway across the globe surrounded by a language I barely spoke. I never would have met my host-family of three sisters, a niece, two brothers-in-law, an overweight Dalmatian named Bell, a father, and a mother who has actually changed the very foundation of my thought process. The most important aspect of my life that a year in Japan created for me, however, is the possibility that I may one day return to Japan (and I will; I’m moving back for two years starting this September), and visit my family on the outskirts of Kyoto, and somehow begin repaying them for the invaluable hospitality, affection, and sense of optimism that they instilled in me.