Hitting an Impasse
During my yearlong homestay with the Shinoda family in a village in Nagano Prefecture, my host sister, Katsuko, became my close friend. When I came back several years later for a second stay, she had just gotten married and had joined her husband's household. I couldn't wait to see her, and I went to visit her as soon as I could. But when I entered the house, instead of being able to chat with Katsuko in our usual way, I was ushered into the formal parlor (the equivalent of Parlor 4 in Module 5.2). My next shock was that I couldn't even talk to Katsuko. Instead it was the old grandfather who was ushered into the parlor to be with me, while Katsuko came in to wait on me and the grandfather, bringing us drinks and food. I was totally taken aback over this turn of events.
In Katsuko's married household I had once again become an outsider, and was now bumping up against the same formalities I had originally gone through in her natal house. Even though I had already gone through the trajectory and gotten to know her well there, it seemed like I was now starting all over again at square one, as if I didn't know her at all. Furthermore, in my present soto situation, by coming to see Katsuko, instead of creating what I had thought would be an enjoyable occasion for her, I was only creating more work. She was now heavily pregnant and I felt badly that she had to wait on me. I left as soon as I could, wondering how I was ever going to manage the transition to the kitchen (uchi), which was the center of her activities in her new house, and doubting if I would ever be able to communicate with Katsuko again in the same way we had before.
My Impasse dissolves
Two weeks after this visit I received a phone call from Katsuko's mother-in-law who asked if she could come over and visit me in my homestay house. Katsuko's husband's younger brother, Yuji, would come as well. They had a favor to ask. After they arrived, it didn't take long for them to get to their point. Yuji was a member of a youth exchange group which was scheduled to host a group of Romanians very soon. Two of the Romanians were scheduled for a homestay at Katsuko's house. Katsuko's family wondered if I would come and assist them in hosting the Romanians.
I readily agreed, although I tried to make sure they understood that I didn't know whether we would be able to communicate, since I knew no Romanian. When I arrived at Katsuko's house this time it was buzzing with preparations for the Romanians, who soon arrived. I watched them being ushered into the same parlor I had been led into two weeks before. However, I now found myself in the kitchen, helping to carry plates of sashimi and other Japanese delicacies from there to the guest parlor. Helping Katsuko's family in hosting the Romanians meant that I was working in common with them, and we laughed and joked while we worked.
My assistance to Katsuko's new family meant a swift transition from the formal to the informal areas of the house, and the social life of its members. Instead of receiving deference as a guest, I was now helping the hosts to give deference to their other guests. In juxtaposition to the Romanians, who were even more distant than I was, I had been unceremoniously pulled into the "inside", turned into a host, and given access to the kitchen.
Moreover, when the guests left, I never went back to the parlor and the conversations with the grandfather. Instead, as I now had access to Katsuko's household area, she and I were able to catch up on what was going on when I accompanied her as she carried on her household activities. I ended up spending many days at her house and getting to know her new family well. The Romanian visitors turned out to be the vehicle which gave me access to the "inside" of a household that I had wondered how I was ever going to enter.