Monday, January 30, 2012

Host Family: Decoded

My demanding, demanding fans (Ellen) have recently brought it to my attention that it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I wrote something up yesterday but I think I’ll save it for another time.

Without further adieu, let's discuss my host family.

It’s been over a month since I moved in with my new host family and I think I’ve more or less adapted, almost. Before I came here, I was sure that I knew what the hardest element would be: Host Baby, my 17-month-old host sister (this turned out to be far from the truth, but I digress).

Subject: Host Baby
Position: Baby host sister/cute behavior extraordinaire
Most endearing quality: Pulling down my shirt and yelling, “Oppai!!!” (Boobs!!!)
Fun fact: “Oppai!!!” was her first word.

When I’m not studying or writing or reading or whatever, I try to spend time with Host Baby. Recently she’s become real interested in the stuffed animals, all of which are bears, lined up on the dresser near the living room, so we’ve been playing with them as of late. At first I played the nice-bear game, where whenever she’d come close I’d assault her with the bear and make Japanese kissing sounds as its face smothered hers. Chuu, chuu, chuu, chuuu chuchuchu!!

However, I realized I wasn’t adequately preparing her for real life, so I recently switched from nice-bear to realistic-bear. Now every time she comes close, the stuffed bears assault her with Japanese eating sounds, illustrating that one should never trust a real bear. Mogumogumogu! Grrr! Oh, she laughs and squeals and throws her arms like it’s all just one big game. I don’t think she understands the complex life lessons I’m trying to teach her, but maybe she’ll understand someday. Then she can thank me.

She’s possibly the most well-behaved, cutest child I’ve ever met in my life. The only time she gets fussy or starts hitting is when she’s hungry, and frankly, I behave the same way when I’m hungry and people don’t give me food, so I can hardly blame her. It’s not one of my best traits. Regardless, really good kid. Host Baby, that is.

Which is why I’m not sure why I was surprised when we were playing the other day and her bright red balloon popped. I’m kind of surprised it lasted as long as it did – over a week, which beats my personal childhood record of not accidentally popping a balloon for five days – so when it happened, we stared at the shreds laying on the floor. Well, Host Baby stared, trying to comprehend where her balloon went, while I watched her, slowly edging away, waiting for the screaming tantrum not unlike the ones I would throw when the same thing happened to me at that age. But instead, she stared pitifully at where it was, and quietly went, “Buu-ah-Buu-ah.”

This “Buu-ah Buu-ah” was very unlike the ones I usually heard her say. Whenever the balloon would be around, she’d approach it happily and squeal, “Buu-ah Buu-ah!” So to hear her voice so sad and confused about her popped balloon could have melted the ice around even the Grinch’s heart, pre-Cindy Lou Who.

I nearly burst into tears in the anticipation of her reaction, which I imagined included bursting into tears. But no tears or tantrum followed. She went off happily to play with her bears, and I gratefully complied in attacking her with them.

It turns out she also knows words I don’t know, which is, you know, embarrassing. Just today at dinner, when Host Mom and I were talking (more on that later), I was trying to explain something I had seen on TV before but forgot the keyword to explain what the hell I was blathering about. When I forget words and try to get the receiving end of the conversation to figure out what word I’m looking for by more or less creating riddles for them to solve.

“People who are allergic to, uh…the thing…that’s in the sky? The biggest star…uh…it’s up there in the daytime, but not at night…the opposite of the moon…” Forget one word, and I’m left rambling through sentences to figure out three letters.
“Host Baby, can you tell Haley what word she’s looking for?” Host Mom did a baby sign with her thumbs and forefingers, making the shape of a wide circle.
“That’s right.  Taiyou.

Well, that shouldn’t even count, because ba is nowhere near taiyou. Minus two points, Host Baby. But then plus 52 because you’re too damn cute. Seriously, so cute that I’ve even reconsidered my position on whether or not I’ll have kids in the future. I am now at a tentative, If my husband is rich and he wants kids, then yes, whatever you want, honey. Now hand me the credit card, I’m going shopping. Which is an improvement from, Hellllllllllllll nawwwww.

Speaking of Host Mom, my first impression of her was that she was a dictator in the shape of a housewife and housed no desire to talk to me what so ever…

Subject: Host Mom
Position: Ruler of the apartment
Endearing quality: Cooking me amazing, delicious food with her god-given talent, piles of cook books and cooking magazines, and clear aspiration to be the best Japanese-food cook on the planet
Fun fact: Her New Year wish was to make a younger brother or younger sister for Host Baby.

This was the case until just recently (read: three days ago) I realized that fearing her and making myself miserable is obviously a step in the wrong direction, and that obviously I misjudged her, and worrying about stepping out of place has made me step out of character, and that if I try harder and don’t get offended by things, then we can get along just fine. I mostly created this theory of the sake of my sanity and because I seriously don’t want to move all my shit from the apartment to a dorm room.

I’ll admit, there were a lot of things that bothered me about her simply from the shock of things she said or did, including, but not limited to: telling me to look up the pronunciation for a complex character myself; demanding I say thank you when I retrieve my dry clothes from the laundry, but not always thanking me when I do the dishes; not saying certain words in front of Host Baby; leaving a note on the toilet seat that says, “Let’s close the the lid after we use the toilet!” after I forgot to put the lid down, once; Getting condemned for not facing her when I say the obligatory, “I’m home!” or “good morning!”, etc.

My side: Asking her about the pronunciation was A) a much faster way than looking it up myself and B) an attempt to talk to her after a day of silence; I was too nervous around her to remember to say thank you at the time; I like the words you tell me I can’t say in front of Host Baby (they’re more or less manlier versions than the ones I’m supposed to use, but they’re way more fun to use, and I understand that they’re mostly used by guys, but teenage girls have started to use them as a fad and I want to show you that I understand that, ugh); Why, passive-aggressive note, why; I had no idea saying a greeting in passing was considered unacceptable, thanks for the lesson.

Her (hypothetical) side (that I have created for the sake of my sanity, so I won’t have to move, etc etc) : Looking up the word yourself will help you remember it better in the future; saying thank you is easy to do and polite and you are in Japan, for Christ’s sake, it’s the nicest country in the world so act like you belong, and I am the mother so I don’t have to say thank you back; Host Baby is at an impressionable age and just started talking and she likes you a lot and I don’t want her to say words that aren’t feminine, it’s not cool for little ones; the note is a helpful reminder because you sometimes forget things I tell you, and look, you haven’t forgotten since the note’s been up, have you, now; Just teachin’ you things you should know about greetings, especially since they’re so important in Japan. You shouldn’t look ignorant.

So there you have it. As irritating as the occasional reminder is, and as uncomfortable as my chagrin is when I have to be reminded, I’ve at least managed to explain her side of the story without flipping out about it (Okay, I flipped out a little, but only to my friends and they didn’t mind). And so, I’ve started putting forth a lot more effort to talk to her at dinner as she tries to persuade Host Baby to eat the foods she doesn’t want to eat, and have succeeded in making her laugh on a few occasions. Smiles are becoming less rare. It’s definitely progress. I have never been a quitter, so I won’t start now. And anyway, if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the way to my Host Mom is through Host Baby. If that kid is happy, she’s happy, because she’s the most doting mother I’ve ever met in my life. And I think that’s a good thing.

Subject: Host Dad
Position: Drama and movie extraordinaire
Endearing quality: Owning all of the Ghibli movies and letting me watch them whenever my heart desires (read: all the time)/renting three new movies and sitcoms every week
Fun fact: His eyes practically popped out of their sockets when Host Mom told us her New Year’s Wish

And on Host Dad, he works from early in the morning to late at night, like all Japanese men. It’s more or less required of the Japanese businessman’s job to go out and get drinks with coworkers afterwards (I’m seriously not making that up, it’s part of establishing the very important, “in-group” and “out-group” in Japan. Like how people greet each other in their neighborhoods, or in their own apartment building, but not to anyone who isn’t part of the same “group” as them. Actually it’s fascinating), so I see him more on the weekends than anything. He rents movies a lot, which I like because I haven’t watched a lot of Japanese movies, or seen a lot of dramas or movies in general since coming to Japan (though I have had my fair share of Japanese variety, cooking, and comedy shows, all of which are hilarious by the way). And it’s nice to see that he waits for me to watch them, so he must know I enjoy them, and to be able to spend time with him is a plus, too. Unlike his wife, who I usually have to pry conversation out of, Host Dad is a conversationalist and engages me in chats on varying things (usually stuff that's on the news; the divorce rate, the declining population in Japan, or what he thinks about variety shows, or what I think about basically whatever). He’s really easy to joke and talk with.

People always ask me what my Host Dad does for a living, but I honestly have not a god damn clue. One of the first things I asked him was that very question, and he said, “Ah, that’s boring stuff, Japanese people don’t like to talk about work when they get home after a long day of it.” So pretty much since then I’ve firmly decided that he’s a member of the Yakuza. Which explains why he’s willing to comply to Host Mom’s wish of having four (!!!!!) children total despite living in, I don’t know, JAPAN where even tiny houses are super expensive and people don’t have more than one or two kids usually, and why he supports a kid in Africa (to make up for the fact that he's in the Yakuza, obviously), and why he wears such nice suits and nice cologne and only watches the news and my God the evidence is all there.

So the beginning wasn’t easy, and adjusting never is. But little by little I’ve learned to get accustomed to the rules and the way things work around this place, and I’m pleased to say that I’m making the best of it.

And that I’m totally living with an inside member of the Yakuza.

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