Even long after I had begun to accept my share of responsibilities in the Saito household, I was still unaware and unsure of my actual position within the family. I knew how I felt, but what I really wanted to know was how they felt. Masako's newly-acquired interest in the materials on Japan I had been learning in class presented me with the perfect forum to gain some insight into these answers. I told her that while I understood the meanings of uchi/soto, honne/tatemae, and ura/omote, I occasionally had difficulty distinguishing between when to use the polite form versus the plain form and other such cultural intricacies. In addition, I often wondered if everybody always knows not just who is in their uchi, but exactly whose uchi they belong to as well. Masako responded by asking if I felt as if I were a part of the Saito uchi. I told her that while I definitely felt more uchi than soto, I was aware that the family members occasionally paid me certain types of deference. Masako agreed, saying that while they did occasionally pay me some deference, the Saitos definitely considered me "part of the family", and had accepted me into their uchi.
Masako's example of the Satos paying me deference was allowing me to watch the TV programs I wanted to, which they always did, even if there was something else they would rather be watching. But about two weeks after this conversation something interesting happened. Sitting around the kotatsu I told otoosan and Masako there was a movie I wanted to watch later that evening on TV. "What time?" Masako asked, and when I told her 9:00 p.m., I saw her and otoosan sneak a look at each other. "Oh 9:00 is no good," she said. "Otoosan and I have a date." She and otoosan had been looking forward to a Chinese program which would be starting at 9:10. "Sorry," was all she murmured. While I was somewhat shocked, I was also relieved to hear this, for it was the first time in the two months I had been living with the Satos that someone had dared to deny me anything. It also marked the first time that they had not just told me,butshowed mehow I was considered a family member who must not only receive from, but sacrifice for the family unit.
But I still wondered why a couple in their mid-fifties would want to host a student from the U.S. They had just moved into this house a few months earlier. Was I taken in merely because they had an extra room? I found this explanation rather doubtful. Masako had just recently returned from the U.S. where she had lived with two homestay families. Was my homestay the Saitos' way of reciprocating? Possibly. On the other hand, Kenichi, the Saitos' 27-year old son had just moved out of the house and into a Tokyo apartment. Was I serving as his substitute in the family, providing okaasan with some company on the days when both Masako and I returned home late? Yes, this has got to be the answer, I figured.
Less than two weeks before the end of my homestay I decided to stop thinking in circles and find out the real answer. "Okaasan," I asked. "Am I the first homestay student that you've ever had?" Her reply was short and to the point, "Yes, the first . . . and the last" (Hai, hajimete . . . to saigo). All of a sudden my heart began to pound. "Why, don't you like me?" Okaasan started to laugh. "Of course we do," she told me. "How could you ask such a thing?"
So I asked her, if I was the first student they had ever hosted, why did they decide to do it this year? She explained that after returning from the U.S. Masako wanted to be able to give an American student the same great experiences she had been given while living in Maryland and Indiana. But the plan backfired, okaasan told me, when Masako accepted a new job requiring her to work very late three nights a week and usually on Saturdays as well. They felt guilty that Masako was never around to spend time with me, and said, for that reason; they would not take on another student. I explained to okaasan that while I certainly had fun spending time with Masako, I never felt lonely when she wasn't home, mostly because I really enjoyed my time spent alone with okaasan and otoosan. She was very relieved to hear this.
Okaasan then explained that they would not host another student unless, of course, Chatto-san (my younger brother Chad) should ever decide to study abroad in Japan. In that case, they would be more than happy to have him live with them for the year. My interpretation of this statement was that I was, at this moment, viewed as being a member of two uchi, the Saitos and my own family. Because he is part of my family's uchi my brother would be given the same entrée as I had to the Saito family's uchi. (Even if I was the "only one" who was able to have a homestay with the Saitos, my sibling members of uchi were also going to be included!)
But as much as I consider myself a part of the Saitos and as much as they consider me a part of the family, it was also obvious to me that I had not yet attained anything like complete uchi hood. I continue to wonder, had I been able to stay longer with the family, how close I could have come to being "part of" the Saito family. Perhaps over the years, as I continue my relationship with the Saito family, I will have the opportunity to find out.