Module 14.3

It Sometimes Happens. . . Stay or Go?

1. For Homestay Guests:

Not all homestays are made in heaven. Sometimes in spite of the best intentions, the homestay guest does fall right into an unseen hazard hole. This section will inform you of some major warning signs from host families that the homestay is not going well. These may be subtle, but they are very important. You also need to be attuned to signs that something may be awry with your host family which has nothing to do with you. Finally, having heeded these signs, you need to know what to do to rectify your situation, or if necessary, what steps you should take to leave your homestay.

You should have some idea from the cases up to this point of some of the main problems a guest can create for a host family. (If you aren’t sure about this, review the Peter case (Modules 2.1, 3.1), the sections on becoming a “good guest” (7.1-7.3), and all the sections in Module 8. Many hosts try to gaman suru (endure the situation), if things are not going well, as Peter’s family did in Module 3.1. But sometimes a host family will become so fed up that they will ask the guest to leave. This may come suddenly and appear as a shock. But most likely the guest has simply missed the unspoken signs by which his family has been trying to tell him for some time that things are not going well.

Homestay guests may also have problems with their host families, and many guests also “gaman suru”, resolving to endure their homestays until the end. However, neither side gets much out of a homestay based on “putting up with the situation”. If problems exist, and you don’t seem to be making any headway in solving them, it is far better to get in touch with your program coordinator early on in the homestay and try to improve the situation. Li Ming’s case (Module 8.2) is an example of how this can work.  


(1) Take a look at the three case summaries below, and notice especially what warning signs indicate that something is going wrong with the homestay. Then answer the questions that follow:

  • Is Jeremy being treated as a guest?
  • What are some of the indications that the goals of the host family and guest are at cross-purposes in this homestay? Why is the mother’s lack of interest especially problematic?
  • Why doesn’t giving Jeremy the “rules of the house” work in this case? Why is it necessary for a host family to “wrap” the newcomer as a guest in the beginning?

What are Jeremy’s options in this situation?

  1. Do nothing. Just endure (gaman suru) and try to make the best of it.
  1. Go to the program office early on in the homestay and inform them about the difficulties with his family. They could have tried to implement Jeremy’s wish to learn Japanese with the family. His homestay office could also have offered him some other strategies to cope with his situation. For example, it is likely that the father didn’t really want a homestay guest for his own English, but for his sons. Jeremy could try to get along with the sons in English. If they become friendly, then it is possible the mother will also go along more willingly with the homestay. She is the one who could speak Japanese the most, if she becomes accommodating to the homestay. If these various strategies don’t succeed, then the program office can remove him from this homestay.
  1. If the program office is not an option and Jeremy finds his homestay too uncomfortable, he needs to leave the homestay himself. (Find information about leaving on next page.)
What did Jeremy decide to do?
  1. He endured the homestay, because he had already had a successful stay in the past and didn’t think this family could change his positive image of Japan .
  • What are some of the indications that the goals of the host family and guest are at cross-purposes in this homestay?
  • Is Kate’s presence the cause of any of the problems she describes going on in her family? What makes it hard for a homestay guest to realize this in the kind of situation Kate describes?
  • Describe some of the expectations of the host family for Kate. Could she possibly have fulfilled them? What could have served this family better than hosting a homestay guest?
What are Kate’s options in this situation?
  1. Kate doesn’t have the option of doing nothing, as her stay with the family is going to become increasingly uncomfortable, since the mother has made her central to resolving their problems.
  1. Go to the program office early on in the homestay (at least at the point where the family finds out the son is doing drugs) and inform them about the various problems in the family. The program office in this case should facilitate Kate’s leaving the family.
  1. If the program office is not an option then Kate needs to leave this homestay by herself as soon as possible. (Find information about leaving on next page.)
What did Kate do?
  1. Kate tried her best to endure her stay with the family.
  1. Ultimately this didn’t work, and she left the homestay, and moved into a friend’s apartment.
(3) The following case touches on many things you have encountered in this tutorial. Try to bring these to bear on Gwen’s situation below:
  • How can you explain the drastic change in behavior that Gwen describes in her host mother, from being “so nice,” to “ostracizing and shunning me completely”?
  • How did Gwen misread the beginning of her homestay, and consequently, how did she run aground in her relationship after that? How does this compare with the homestay guests discussed in Modules 7-9 in Part 3?
  • Much of Gwen’s homestay experience hinges on “unsaid” communication. What “unspoken” message do you think the family is trying to convey to Gwen by their behavior after they moved?
  • A major component in this homestay is the fact that neither host family nor guest appears to be able to end the homestay, even though both clearly want this. Why can’t either Gwen or her family end the homestay? (See “Putting Things Together” below if you can’t answer this.) In whose interests was the homestay set up?
  • What are some aspects of this homestay that are not well set up?
What are Gwen’s options?
  1. She can’t simply endure until the end. This homestay has no end, and her family is clearly not treating her well.
  1. Nor does she have a liaison to help her with problems; her director is the only liaison and he is inattentive to her problems because he doesn’t want the homestay to end.  
  1. Gwen has only one option: She must leave the homestay as soon as possible, and she must do this by herself. She is not going to get any help from her director.  
What did Gwen do? 
  1. Gwen found an apartment that a teacher in her school was vacating, and moved in. The director of her school continued to make things difficult for her, and so eventually she found another job and moved to Tokyo.  
(4) Putting things together. . . 
What can you do to avoid the kinds of problems presented above? First, apply to the homestay program on time. Then take the time to investigate how your homestay is set up. 
The following safeguards should exist in a well-set-up homestay:  
  • The time period of the homestay should be stipulated (Gwen’s homestay had no specified time period, which made it difficult for either side to end the homestay).
  • A mechanism for dealing with problems should exist. This is usually the homestay office in one’s study abroad program. (None of the above guests appear to have anyone they could call upon when problems arose).
  • Both host family and guest should be screened for their motivations for doing a homestay when they apply. (See Module 3.3) (This does not appear to have happened in cases 1 and 2, where both families should have been screened out of the programs.)
  • The homestay should be set up for the benefit of everyone involved. If the benefit is too one-sided or narrow the homestay won’t work (for example, only the father appeared to want the homestay in Jeremy’s case, and he only wanted it for his sons to learn English. Only the mother wanted it in Kate’s case, and she unrealistically expected the international student (and English) to solve all of her family’s substantial problems. In Gwen’s case the director wanted the homestay in order to avoid having to pay key money for an apartment. He also kept requesting that the host family continue the homestay, and refused to let Gwen leave, when she requested an apartment. This put both sides in the bind that Gwen describes.
  • It is also crucial for homestay guests to prepare for their homestays. This includes learning enough Japanese to be able to communicate, as well as enough basic rudiments of Japanese social life, that you will understand what is involved in being a “good guest.”
2. For All Other Newcomers:

All of the cases in this module involve general issues that are not limited to homestay situations. By now you should now be able to see how these cases can be useful to your own situation as well. Below are some major clues:

(1) Case 1, Jeremy: Press-ganging a foreign newcomer into uchi: 

Jeremy is immediately press-ganged into the family uchi with no cushioning. Giving him long lists of rules doesn’t help him here, since he’s a cultural child. It may be that living abroad has made this family think that dropping Japanese guest conventions is the best way to treat a foreign guest. Yet this puts Jeremy in an impossible situation, since he doesn’t yet know how to act like “one of the family.” He needs to be a guest initially until he can learn some of the family’s conventions.

The “Press-ganging” of any newcomer into any uchi organization should be a major warning sign. This means that although the newcomer is not an uchi member, and has no previous experience with the organization, no initial cushioning has been offered. This includes either being “wrapped” as a guest, or having a “guide” (such as the senpai superiorin a senpai/kohai relationship. The newcomer has been put in an impossible situation here: as a cultural child, Jeremy can’t possibly function like an uchi member, when he has no idea of the unspoken assumptions involved. But an even bigger issue is that even if the newcomer could function in uchi, the family doesn’t really want him to be there. This is a case where mixed signals indicate overwhelmingly the newcomer isn’t really wanted.  Moreover, Jeremy’s family is treating him in a way they would not normally treat a Japanese guest. If you are getting no initial “cushioning”, and this is coupled with mixed signals about your being in the organization you’ve entered, you need to start thinking about your options.

(2) Case 2, Katie: Entering an organization that turns out to be dysfunctional

This can be carried over to any organization a newcomer enters. As you gradually gain access to uchi, you will become aware of various behind-the-scene aspects (ura), which usually include some conflicts, and disfunctions. This happened in Kate’s case as well. But what marks this case as problematic is the degree of dysfunctionality in the family. If you find yourself in an organization that is so consumed by conflicts that erupt in violence, and serious problems that are not being addressed, you need to take some steps on your own behalf. An index here is how you are being treated: if the dysfunction/conflict is so serious that you are being totally ignored—or worse yet, you have been put in Kate’s position as the “saviour” of the dysfunctional situation? If either of these conditions are true, you need to bail, and fast. This can be contrasted to a situation where you have been drawn close enough to uchi, that you become privy to problems and conflicts that are an everyday part of every organization (for example, in Matt’s case, there is a superior who bullies a younger engineer). The important thing to figure out is whether the degree of dysfunctionality is normal, or far above normal.

(3) Case 3, Gwen: Host family is unable to tell homestay guest they need her to leave

This is a very valuable case for everyone to keep in mind. Gwen’s host family wants to end the homestay (which unfortunately was not set up with a mechanism for the homestay guest to leave). But they can’t communicate this directly. Instead they communicate this message in every other dimension they can—by locking Gwen out of the house, taking away the remote control from her air conditioner so she couldn’t use it in the summer, hiding her chopsticks, throwing her clothes behind a plant, etc. etc. One curious thing in this case is why the host family didn’t take the opportunity to end the homestay when they moved to a new house. The move could have created good excuses to end the homestay, and most host families would have given a reasonable excuse and done this. But Gwen’s family didn’t do this (which may have had something to do with their relationship with Gwen’s boss, who had asked for the homestay). Whatever the reason, both sides are stuck in a homestay that both want to get out of, and which is marked by escalating messages from the family, in every communication mode except direct speech, that they want Gwen to leave.

This is a very useful case to keep in mind, because it gives you a way to make sense of a scenario that might otherwise seem impossible to comprehend. In a society that often avoids direct communication—especially about problem situations—if the side that is the “host”—whether a homestay host, an employer, or a health practitioner, if the host can’t communicate directly that they want you to exit, they will communicate this through the way they treat you, your possessions and your environment. If you are ever in a situation where bad things are happening to you for unexplainable reasons, get out immediately! (This is what the messages are telling you to do!)

Jeremy: I Can't Help Breaking the Rules (male, US)

Jeremy came on a homestay with the Uemoto family for six months, during his senior year in high school. He had already had one summer homestay in Japan which had worked out very well. But this time, when he was introduced to the family, he feared that things were not going to work as well. His host father greeted him in English and he soon realized that all the members of the family except the mother spoke very good English, since they had lived for five years in the U.S. They talked to him only in English, but Jeremy had specifically requested a homestay for the purpose of learning Japanese. However, he resolved to ask them to speak Japanese to him.

The first thing the family did upon his arrival was to give Jeremy a long list of 50 “rules of the house” that he was supposed to obey. Jeremy resolved to do his best, but he was not used to this many restrictions. It was also very clear that the room he was staying in was the younger brother’s room, because it still contained his toys and other things.

Jeremy tried to follow the rules and behave as the family did, but no matter how hard he tried he seemed to be doing things wrong. His host father was seldom home, his host mother ignored him, and his host brothers treated him like an intruder. Everyone spoke to him in English, when they spoke to him at all, in spite of his requests that they speak Japanese. They constantly got upset with him and lectured him on how he should behave, and berated him for breaking the rules. At one point he became ill with a high fever, and the father told him he must get up and go to school because this was his job. “If you don’t do your job when you feel a little bad, it is showing disrespect for the family.” Jeremy tried to talk with them about his situation but the father simply responded, “We are treating you like we treat our sons,” and that Jeremy had to live the way the family did, since he is living in Japan.

Jeremy realized by the end of the stay that most of the members of this family didn’t really want an exchange student. In fact, only the father did. The younger brother was upset because Jeremy had taken his room, the older brother was upset because the younger brother was spending all his time in his room, the host mother found Jeremy an unwanted intrusion in her life, and the host father just wanted him there so he could practice his English, and possibly keep up his children’s English.

Warning signs about this family:

  • Jeremy is immediately press-ganged into the family uchi with no cushioning. It may be that living abroad has made this family think that dropping Japanese guest conventions is the best way to treat a foreign guest. Yet this puts Jeremy in an impossible situation, since he doesn’t yet know how to act like “one of the family.” He needs to be a guest initially until he can learn some of their conventions.
  • The father says he wants to treat Jeremy like one of his own sons. But he seems to have overlooked some important things in his treatment of Jeremy. (Are family members ordinarily expected to always speak English? Are they normally given long lists of rules? Are they ignored by other family members, especially the mother?) The father overlooks the fact that Jeremy is actually a stranger when he enters the family.

Kate: Is This a Normal Family? (female, US)

Kate applied late for a one-year homestay in her study abroad program, so she was very glad to be able to get a host family. The family sounded good; both the parents were professionals, there were two sons, and she would have a large detached bedroom with all conveniences. But when she met the family she saw that the two sons looked disheveled and didn’t greet her. They had graduated from high school but it was unclear what they were doing. The mother was initially very friendly and took Kate many places. But the host siblings seemed angry at their mother, and were often yelling at her for various things.

The house had a very hostile and tense atmosphere due to all the fighting, and there were constant battles at the dinner table. During the evenings Kate could hear arguments, doors slamming, and abrupt moving of furniture from her room. Early in the semester the host parents found out that one brother was doing drugs, which created even more tension in the family. Following this the mother pressured Kate more and more to speak only English, and she became much less friendly. It gradually became clear to Kate that the mother considered English to be the solution to all of the family’s problems, and that her role was to “save” the family, solely through teaching English to them. However, the rest of the family wanted nothing to do with the homestay (or with English).

The mother appeared to think that having an international student staying with the family would give everyone a boost, and that English would also be a benefit for everyone. But she seems to have failed to realize the extent of the family’s problems, and to assume that Kate could solve everything.

Warning signs in this family:

  1. Constant fighting, expressions of anger, hostile and tense atmosphere, battles at the dinner table, and slamming of doors and furniture all indicate that this family has considerable problems with its own dynamics and a level of violence that is unacceptable for hosting an exchange student.
  2. The appearance of the host brothers and the family finding out that one brother is doing drugs are further indications of serious problems.
  3. The mother’s increasing insistence on Kate’s role as solving all the family’s problems through speaking English is quite unrealistic; moreover it ignores Kate’s own goals for being in Japan. Has she really come on a homestay to solve the host family’s problems?

Gwen: How Can I Escape from My Family? (female, US)

Gwen was a college graduate with a business degree who was working in an American company, and was 25 years old at the time of this experience. She wanted to go overseas, (although with Europe in mind) when a woman came into her company who had been teaching English in Japan. She offered to introduce Gwen to the director of the English school, in a city an hour from Tokyo by train. Gwen decided to try this, and the director agreed to hire her. While she was preparing to come, he also wrote and said that he had set up a homestay for her.

Gwen Initially didn’t want to accept the homestay, but then decided that this would be a good opportunity to learn about Japan firsthand. (It’s not clear that she had a choice about the matter though.) As Gwen found out later, a bar owner had set up the homestay between two of the bar’s patrons, one of whom was the director. The latter was setting up the homestay to avoid paying deposit money (usually 3-5 months rent) on an apartment, since the English school was in financial difficulty.

Gwen’s host family consisted of a father who was a self-made company president of a prosperous local company, his wife, and two daughters who were both university students, and both living away from home. The mother and daughters spoke only a bit of English and the father spoke none. The mother wanted to improve her English, and this was one reason the family accepted Gwen in the homestay. The family seemed very close knit and Gwen thought they got along together well.

Gwen’s spur-of-the-moment decision left her with only 2 weeks to prepare before leaving for Japan. She had no time to read up on the country, and managed only a short orientation from the woman she was replacing at the school. Consequently, she knew no Japanese at all, and after she arrived in Japan and went to enroll in the only Japanese school in her city, she found she had just missed the starting date of the spring semester and would have to wait until September to enroll. This meant that throughout the homestay period she had no opportunity to study Japanese.

The first three months of the homestay were unproblematic and quite wonderful. Gwen enjoyed herself immensely, and wrote letters home saying, “I felt like it was perfect.” The family “included me in everything” (meaning the parents, since the daughters were away at school). They took her out to dinner and to various festivals and famous places in the area, and she set up an exchange with the mother for English and Japanese. Yet she did feel smothered by the family and their constant attention was invasive to her. It was also problematic for her to have the mother doing everything for her, including her laundry, cooking, and so forth.

The family was building a new house and she noticed they were gradually becoming busier and stopped including her in the things they did (like going out to dinner). The mother also stopped spending time with her. She felt it was normal that they would be very busy with the house. But, as she put it, “They seemed to be losing interest in me.”

Since the new house would be much farther from her school, making it very inconvenient, she thought this would be a good time to move into an apartment and approached the director of the school. However, he said there was no way she could leave the homestay. (Of course he had his own reasons for not wanting her to move into an apartment.) Gwen gradually became aware that her homestay had been set up for no defined time period and that there was no real mechanism for leaving it.

Not having any alternatives, Gwen moved into the new house with the family, but although they never mentioned anything about her leaving, they made it increasingly difficult for her to live with them. Incidents that happened after the move included the following:

  1. The family had gotten new appliances and Gwen had an air conditioner on the wall of her room. Gwen asked the mother how to use it, and she replied, “Maybe it’s broken” and took away the remote control. Gwen simply had to put up with the heat in August.
  2. The family also got a new automatic wash machine. Gwen asked the mother how to use it and the mother wouldn’t show her. Nor would she include Gwen in the household laundry, so there was no way for her to do laundry. Gwen asked the older daughter how to use the machine and she showed her. But the daughters also became very distant during this time.
  3. Gwen had a routine in the morning when she got up and exercised, then took a shower. The mother now happened to be cleaning the bathroom every single day when Gwen was going to take a shower.
  4. The family now hid Gwen’s chopsticks (Each family member had his or her own set of chopsticks.)
  5. One evening the family locked her out. She found the door dead bolted when she came home. The family was clearly home, but it took them ten minutes to come to the door. They said, “We didn’t hear you.”   But Gwen didn’t believe this.
  6. Gwen had always sent her clothes out to the dry cleaners with the family, through a dry cleaner who came by the house each week. After the move she asked about the laundry schedule and the mother told her, “There is no laundry pick-up here. You have to take your clothes yourself” (to someplace down the road, a 45 minute walk). Then one day she noticed that the laundry truck was coming again, so she put her clothes with those of the rest of the family. Afterwards she discovered the mother had kicked her clothes out of the way, behind a plant, where they had been left.

Gwen was now quite furious with the family. “This was a woman who was so nice–she couldn’t be happier to drive me all over their city. Now suddenly, she was ostracizing and shunning me completely.” All during this time Gwen repeatedly went to the director requesting to move into an apartment. He always said it was impossible to move in the middle of the term and Gwen felt completely stymied. (Apartments in Japan require substantial deposits along with a guarantor, so it is difficult for students abroad to rent an apartment.) She wanted to leave her homestay in the worst way. But how could she get out?

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5