By Anthea Xiao
At a young age, I was introduced to and fascinated by Japanese culture through the channel of Japanese animations such as Studio Ghibli films and Doraemon. Eager to learn more about the Japanese language and customs, I enrolled in Japanese as my foreign language class and took the initiative to study Japanese culture on my own. My Japanese teacher recognized my passion and introduced me to an exchange program, which allowed students to live with host families and experience life as a Japanese High School student. I quickly seized the opportunity, and in the summer of 2016, I embarked on an unforgettable journey to Kanazawa, Japan.
Prior to flying to Japan, I diligently memorized Japanese phrases applicable for specific situations, read countless articles regarding Japanese etiquette, and even watched host-exchange “horror-stories” online from other students to prepare myself for any undesirable scenarios.
My heart was leaping out of my chest with anxiety and excitement when I saw my host-family waving the sign “ようこそ, アンセア!” (Welcome, Anthea!) at airport gate. During the initial stage of my stay, my host-exchange experience was exceeded beyond my imagination and expectations. I tasted a diverse array of authentic Japanese cuisines (a superb bowl of ramen was only $5 USD!), I quickly bonded with classmates through organizations such as the student acapella and traditional tea ceremony club, and I was able to improve my language ability through practicing colloquial Japanese outside of a classroom setting.
However, despite enjoying my host situation, I found it difficult to feel completely at ease with my host-family. I had read in textbooks that it is impolite to address Japanese people in an intimate or casual manner upon initial greetings. Therefore, although my host-parents asked me to address them as “mother” and “father” just like my host-sister did, I insisted on calling them Mr. and Mrs. Yoshida in fear of breaching their existing family structure.
The phrase “迷惑” (meiwaku) means to burden or to cause inconvenience for others. In Japan, a collective and harmony-focused society, causing meiwaku is a taboo and could signal a person as self-centered and uncouth. To avoid being seen as a meiwaku to my host-family, I refrained from seeking for help when I had trouble finding the way home from school or did not understand how to operate machine devices at home.
Knowing that my host-parents were busy with work obligations and that my host-sister was preparing for college entrance exams, I politely declined when they offered to assist me with transportation to tour the city. As a result, I accidently rode the train heading towards another province. Lost in the train station, I forced myself to calm-down and find the correct route to my city without contacting my host-family. However, my confidence in my abilities proved to be flawed after hours of failed attempts to reach home. My host-family called me out of concern for my safety and were shocked when I shamefully admitted my situation. As I expected, they were visibly upset when they brought me home. Yet instead of showing disappointment in my inability to be independent, they confided that my distanced attitude had hurt their feelings.
From this experience, I learned that although generalized cultural differences do hold validity to some extent, people of all upbringing share many universal methods of communication and relationship cultivation. Although I originate from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, my host-family did not treat me as an “other,” but as a member of their family.
No longer viewing our differences as a barrier, I became more comfortable being my true self around my host-family, and we were able to establish a mutual-learning experience as I shared my culture with them as well. The relationship I still maintain with my host-family years after the program concluded speaks volumes to how cultural differences can actually be a catalyst for creating lasting human connections.
Featured image from Wallpaper Crafter
Anthea is an undergraduate Sophomore pursuing a double degree in Business Administration and Accounting. She was born in the San Francisco Bay Area but raised in Macau, China until she moved back to the Bay when she was fourteen. Anthea loves traveling abroad and meeting people from different backgrounds. She speaks fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and Japanese and is looking to pick up a new language soon! In her free time, Anthea enjoys being involved in on-campus student organizations, cooking, watching films, and exploring L.A.