The following entry is submitted by Ankita, a YFU exchange student who spent six weeks in Japan on a Japan-America Friendship Scholarship.
I didn’t worry much about my exchange in Japan until a few days before my departure, when I paused to think “Oh. I’m going to be staying with complete strangers for six weeks.”
I was terrified.
YouTube became my temporary solace–I began to binge-watch as many “host-family experience” videos as I could find, and eventually stumbled across the horror-story portion of the collection. These videos showed me just how much could go wrong in one exchange experience, and my unease skyrocketed.
To address my numerous concerns, I scrolled through countless “homestay experience” blogs and even completed a homestay tutorial online. I also spoke with a few fellow YFU-ers, who reassured me that my host family wouldn’t reject me right off the bat (in fact, they had volunteered to host an exchange student!!) Despite this, I continued to wonder if I’d be able to get along with my host family, or if there would be friction between us due to the language and culture barriers. Indeed, how could I live for six weeks with people I'd never met before? How long would it take to be treated as a family member–if it ever happened?
Thankfully, these worries were short-lived; I was immediately welcomed into the family. Everyone was extremely supportive–they listened attentively to my broken Japanese and offered help whenever I paused to grope for a word. I was startled at their kindness and constant attentiveness to my needs. I began to appreciate the small interactions we had; even playing cards with my sisters or having dinner as a family of five made me incredibly happy. I felt like a bumbling and culturally-unaware youngest daughter, but a daughter nonetheless.
I didn't want to take my family’s kindness for granted, so I made a conscious effort to observe my family members and adjust my behavior to adapt to their lifestyle. Applying the things I had learned in my “research” impressed my family; my host dad told me that the family had worried if the homestay would be a failure, but I sat in “seiza” (a formal Japanese way of sitting) and passed food with the opposite ends of my chopsticks, things Japanese people don't usually do. They laughed about how I was “more Japanese than an actual Japanese person,” and were reassured.
With effort from both me and my family, I was thoroughly assimilated within a few days. I almost got too close to my host sister–we had baths together and slept in the same bed almost every day. Although I observed that my family members didn't show much affection, I installed a system of “oyasumi(good night) hugs,” which everyone loved. My grandmother once commented, “when Ankita is here, the house is bright and warm,” which was really touching.
Leaving broke my heart. My host sister, mom, and me all wept for almost an hour–it was absolutely heart wrenching. My host sister made me a collage of memories we made over the month-and-half, and I cried several more times by just looking at it. Six weeks had truly passed in the blink of an eye. I was touched by the kindness of my family, and felt blessed that I had been given the opportunity to meet such incredible people.
My experience taught me a lot about myself and Japanese culture, and I couldn't be more grateful. I visited my host family the next year for a mere five days, but they sent me home tearful and present-laden regardless. A year apart had done nothing to affect our relationship–in fact, it had strengthened it, as we exchanged text messages, postcards, and gifts that revealed parts of our lifestyles that we were unable to share during my six-week exchange.
Homestay may seem daunting, but it probably will be one of the best decisions you'll make. By placing yourself in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people, you'll learn how you deal with conflict and adapt to change. Cultural misunderstandings are inevitable, but all it takes is the right mindset to overcome them. If you're plagued with worries before your exchange, keep in mind that your host family is looking forward to learning from you as much as you are from them. They also may be as stressed as you are–it's up to them to give you a great experience. As for language and culture differences, have no fear; with time and effort, you can surpass any language or culture barrier. Language, indeed, is one tiny knick-knack in the toolbox of communication, and has no influence on your potential to make lifelong bonds with others.