A host family feels like a simulation, like we were all playing into our respective roles even though we had just met.
In some alternate, arguably ideal universe, you can choose your family in the way that you can choose your friends. I once shouted this at my mother in premature anger, that I had no say in who my family was so how could my love be unconditional? She looked at me hollow, nodded at my point before leaving the room. I later found a wordless plate of peeled tangerine on the kitchen table.
In this sense, then, it feels as though there exists for me two universes: my family in New York being one, and my host family in Kyoto the other. One by blood, the other by choice. They are unlikely to ever meet, separated by bodies of water, with no mutual tongue – two entirely different lives. But occasionally I would experience something of the uncanny while I was abroad, that my host mother eerily resembled my own mother, my host sister with my own sister and so forth, and it was as though, briefly, my universes were conjoining. A ripple in the water. A resounding heart for home, maybe, but where was that, really?
I couldn’t pick which host family I lived with directly, but the process was close. In my study abroad application, I was presented a questionnaire: what sort of host family did I want? What were my interests (so mine could be matched with theirs)? Hobbies? Foods I like (maybe they will prepare these things for me sometime)? Did I want pets (dogs, cats)? Small children? Upon its completion and during the months leading up to our first meeting, I recurrently dreamed of a nuclear family with a predilection for the arts, owning possibly a dog, or a cat, or two, living in a modest Japanese home, and somewhere among them was me.
They say that your earliest conscious memories are from around the time you were four. It was about mid-June, the advent of summer and lethargic humidity. I was a chronic nose bleeder as a child; my hands were clumsy and crimson from attempting to curb the overflowing blood from my nostril, and my teacher was futilely handing me tissue after tissue as our kindergarten class observed the spectacle. When my mother came to pick me up, however, she was, without question, coming as my mother. Which is to say through some indescribable sorcery – whether it was her reassuring me that it was going to be fine, or her fingers clenching the bridge of my nose with gentle force, or simply the magical act of her arrival – the bleeding had ceased. My mother had been there, always, before I could remember, so really, it was as though my one universe could not be sound without her in it.
I have conscious memory of meeting my host family for the first time, however; I was twenty. It was pouring that day, and I was waiting with the other students in a hotel storage room for them to pick me up; we were like lost children in the mall in search of their parents. When my host mother finally arrived she was visibly frantic in her haste, umbrella in hand, scanning the room for the face of her to-be child she had not yet met nor seen. “Sylvia!” she exclaimed when our eyes met – somehow we recognized each other – and then we were running in the rain to her car, where my host sister Risako was waiting behind the wheel.
A host family feels like a simulation, like we were all playing into our respective roles even though we had just met. The first night in my host family’s house, we were preparing for dinner, my host father was passing the bowls and utensils to my host mother, who then passed them to Risako who passed them to me as we set them on the table. My host mother told me to call her “mom,” my host father “dad,” and Risako asked to call her by just her first name, formalities and honorifics dropped. “Make yourself at home,” they said, “and treat us like family. You don’t have to be so polite.” But despite their kindness my room was not yet my room (it was actually that of their son who had moved out years ago), my house was not yet my home, my host mother was not my mother.
During the first few weeks, I would wake up to the sound of a family at breakfast time: the news was on, the coffee machine was running, and my host mother was reminding Risako not to be late for her job interview. Some days I’d spend a bit of extra time in the morning laying in bed, or sitting on the toilet, idly listening to their conversation and my host father pouring food for the dogs. I was also bracing myself to be social and presentable and get into Japanese-speaking mode, which still required conscious effort to do; it became draining quickly. It was the furthest thing from family, this conscious effort, the unfamiliarity, taking what I am given but never asking for too much.
And so, when did it all become routine? Second nature? I would wake up promptly a little past eight, study for the daily Japanese quiz while shoveling rice into my mouth, and shuffle out of my slippers and into my shoes as I leave the house with an ittekimasu. Some days Risako would practice her makeup skills on me, others my host father would help me with my homework, and some nights I would be sitting at the kitchen table with my host mother, talking aimlessly for hours in between cups of tea. My host family was coming to resemble a real one, something like my own, and it felt as though I had established a home in Kyoto. On the days I went out, my host mother would text me to get home safe, and when I sent her pictures with friends and the places we’d gone and the things we ate, she would respond saying that I was making memories, and that when I was happy, so was she. And I felt it.
For a few years during the time Risako was in elementary school, my host family lived in the countryside of Kyoto. Every year or so they drive the two hours to visit some friends, while basking in the quiet of the greenery, the undisturbed night. Once, while we were sitting around the living room couch and idly folding laundry, my host family thinking of where to take me as my time abroad was approaching a close, my host father suggested: “Sylvia always mentions wanting to see stars, but you can’t really see them in the city of Kyoto either. But do you remember? In the countryside? We saw them so well then, the sky was so dark.”
So one weekend – marked two weeks ahead on the kitchen calendar in red marker – we drove past my host family’s old home, the little produce shops, the public bath, the ceaseless stretch of fields, on a sort of journey to find the darkest part of the Kyoto countryside. On a small strip of the road, close to a ledge that led to ceaseless trees and who-knows-what below, there was an absence of cars, of people, of light. As though not to disrupt the silence holy, we emerged from the vehicle with a discreet opening and closing of the doors. My host mother looked at me with only warmth, pointed soundlessly overhead at the unfolding universe. In the infinite sky rested boundless stars, materialized from the pitch black. Brilliantly, they glistened.
. . .
「今日の夜もシルビアがただいまーて帰ってきそうな気がしてます。もっと大人になって悩み 事が出来たとして、ちょっとアメリカに居たくない時がこの先あればいつでも貴女の帰ると ころは日本にも有る事を忘れないでね。日本のお母さんより」
“It still feels as though you’ll return tonight and say, ‘I’m home,'” my host mother wrote in her text message, sent as I was riding the bullet train away from Kyoto. “When you become an adult and if there comes a time that you are struggling, that you don’t want to be in America for a little while, remember that you always have a home in Japan too. From your Japanese mother.” From the window I watched, then, as the city grew smaller with the increasing distance, until the buildings, the people, the Kamogawa were no more visible than specks of dust. And the sight of Kyoto disappearing, along with the weight of my belongings – pockets protruding with four months’ accumulation, souvenir keychains clinking in synchrony with the rocking of the train – along with her words in my shaking hands, I was inundated with emotion.
“Four months is too soon,” she said as we were saying goodbye at the station. She was holding onto her chest, stifling her oncoming tears. “We really felt as though you became a part of our family.”
And I am thinking of how it still feels as though my host mother will knock on my bedroom door as I am studying during the night, enter with a wordless cup of cocoa and plate of sliced persimmon (my favorite fruit) that she leaves on my bedside table. Love manifests in the form of fruit, I think – so it feels.