My first yearlong homestay with the Shinodas was a tremendous experience (during which I survived many hurdles). This made it all the more disconcerting when I returned to the same family for a second homestay, and ran into major walls that I hadn't anticipated. I knew I was no longer being treated like a guest and that I must be making mistakes of which I was unaware. But it seemed like everything I did created some problem, and the family seemed increasingly displeased with me. This culminated in their telling me that I had to leave at the beginning of the summer, although I had requested to stay until the fall.
Although the okaasan's explanation for the decision made perfect sense, I didn't think she was giving me the real reason why I needed to leave, and I didn't want to go when things were under such a cloud. When I went to my language tutorial with a professor in Tokyo, he told me: "When it's obvious that someone doesn't know the language, people treat them like a small child and don't hold them responsible for the implications of what they say." I knew this and had tried to become an adult in the society specifically to avoid this treatment.
He then assessed my problem with my host family: "You are accepted as being responsible for what you say, but you may not always know the implications of what you are saying." I thanked him for his advice, although I had no idea how to get out of the predicament I was in, which seemed like a huge wall whose location was invisible to me.
When I returned to the family, I noticed that the kerosene stove in my room wasn't working properly. Since it was mid-winter and the house had no insulation, the stove was crucial. I didn't want to compound my problems with the host family, but I had to tell them that my stove was broken and needed fixing. Wishing to be very diplomatic I pondered the problem of how to phrase the statement, and decided it would be best to use the passive verb form. That way I wouldn't implicate anyone. I wanted to make as neutral a statement as possible. I went into the room where everyone was sitting in the kotatsu and uttered my carefully-rehearsed phrase. I could detect no reaction, and at last the otoosan got up and said he would have a look at it. He brought the stove from my room back to the kotatsu room so that he could fix it, and I went to sleep relieved that my plan had worked so well.
In the morning I happened to pass by the stove with the okaasan , and as I mentioned the word "stove" I thought I detected a slight reaction. She said nothing, and I wondered if I had imagined it. "Is there something wrong about the stove?" I asked. I was unprepared for the outburst that followed. She indicated that she had been debating all morning whether to tell me, that she usually don't speak directly about things like this, but she knew my customs were different. I said I would be very grateful if she would tell me.
As she continued it gradually became clear to me that I had somehow communicated the opposite of what I had wanted to communicate. The family was upset because they felt I had accused them of providing me with a faulty stove, and because I was angry at them.
At this point I started to laugh. "Okaasan " I said. "Can you believe that I wasn't angry with you?" She continued with what she was telling me, but I repeated my statement that I wasn't blaming the family at all. The okaasan stopped.
I continued: "I was annoyed at the stove, and I know that's wrong. But to me the stove is just a stove. It's separate from people. I got annoyed because it was cold and the stove wouldn't work, but I wasn't annoyed at you at all." The okaasan continued to look at me in a dumbfounded way. She was trying to grasp what I was saying. "You mean you weren't blaming us? You thought the stove had nothing to do with us?"
"I know you've been very careful about providing me with everything. To me the problem was wholly with the stove. It was not with you at all. There was no connection between you and the stove. It was broken and was letting off fumes, that's all."
I could see that the okaasan was struggling to understand. Then I could see it dawning on her. She had grasped the fact that I wasn't 100 percent in their system; I was caught up in another system.
With this moment of insight the whole problem melted away, as if it had never existed. At the same time I was aware of a powerful feeling of unity. It was as if something had torn away the outer covering, which was all that was different between the Shinodas and me. All our differences of language, food, customs, had been dissolved and we were left with the realization that we were alike . I realized how close that "alikeness" was. I felt consumed by this feeling, and I knew the okaasan was experiencing it too, by the change in her attitude.
When the feeling was over, I felt drained. The whole relationship between the okaasan and me had changed. We were not on different sides of some barrier trying to reach each other but on the same side again. The okaasan obviously managed to communicate the experience to everyone else in the family, because all our relationships changed almost immediately without a word being spoken about the incident. As I was riding into town on the bus with the okaasan the next day she explained to me what I should say to persuade the otoosan to change his mind about my staying over the summer.
During my next language tutorial I related the stove incident to my professor and asked him to explain to me what had gone wrong. His reply went right to the point: "I think that you actually said the opposite of what you wanted to say to the Shinodas. By putting the phrase in the passive form, you accused them of giving you a broken stove, and expressed dissatisfaction with their relationship with you."
"But I thought the passive form meant that there wasn't any relationship; that I could say the stove was broken without implicating the Shinodas."
"The point is that there are no objects in the Shinodas' world that are unrelated to people," he explained. "Everything in the Japanese language expresses relationships to people or things, either directly or indirectly. Since you named no agent who was responsible for the problem, and since the stove was the Shinodas', by default you made them responsible for the problem."
"How should I have phrased the sentence?" I asked.
"In a delicate situation like this one, you should have made the responsibility obvious. For example, if you said something like: 'I'm sorry I broke the stove,' the Shinodas, who knew better, would have taken responsibility for it."
This incident transformed my relationship with the Shinodas. Not only did I end up staying through the summer with the family, but the family really became like my own family, and the siblings were like my own brothers and sister. Several years after that, I ended up taking a job in Japan , and once again resumed the ties with the Shinodas. Only now, instead of one family, I now had ties with the families of all 5 siblings, not to mention many of their ties as well. So over the years, what started out as a visit of one person to one family ended up with two large networks of interconnected family ties moving between two countries, with no end in sight.