Being a "Good Guest"

In Japan a guest from abroad is considered a distant outsider, to be treated with special wrapping by the host family, much as they would treat a distant Japanese guest. The initial cocooning of the guest is appropriate for both host and guest, and both actually need for this to happen. Yet, being wrapped is often very uncomfortable for the foreign guest. So the first hurdle faced by the homestay guest is to manage to be a “good guest”. This may involve revising one’s unspoken assumptions (cultural bubbles) of what guesthood is all about.

1. Compare Molly, Kaarina, and Mark’s initial feelings about being a special guest, just after entering their homestays.

  • What is your prognosis for each of these guests after their first day in the homestay?

  • Which of the three guests above do you think most resembles you? (You can answer, even if you are not in a homestay situation.) From your selection, what kinds of things would you have to work on most to become a good guest?

2. Putting the pieces together . . . Being a good guest requires that you be aware of the following: 

  • the deferential wrapping you are receiving as a guest.

  • your own reactions to your treatment in the guest situation.

  • your own reactions to your treatment in the guest situation.

Main Takeaway:

Rather than being shown into your host family’s everyday life, you have interrupted their lives, and they are creating a special scenario for you. Be careful not to mistake this special scenario for everyday life, and think you have already come into the family. This initial scenario is replicated throughout Japanese society, including the workplace.

Molly 1: They're Making Me Comfortable

As we all walked, single file, into the welcome party reception room, a sudden wave of fear swept over me. “What if I hate my family,” I thought. “I’ll have to live with them for an entire four months of misery!” Each of us, smiling out to the crowd awaiting our arrival, scanned the room to gain some kind of hint as to whom our family might be. Mine was an excited wave from Masako, my 30-year old sister, from whom I had received a postcard a few weeks earlier. I wondered how she knew who I was, and then realized: it must be from my high school senior photograph that my mom sent along with a letter thanking the Saito family for having me stay with them. Next to her was an older woman, whom I assumed was her mother. But where are the father and the brother that I had heard about?

As nice as they both seemed to appear, I felt very upset. . . . Both Masako and her mom spoke to me in very fast Japanese, and even though Masako had written that she spoke fluent English, I didn’t hear a word of it. However, by the time we got out of the crowded atmosphere and back to the house, everything started looking up.

The Saitos’ house really surprised me when I first arrived. . . . While it wouldn’t be all that big by American standards, it is certainly large enough to house the family, and then some. Also, it’s pretty modern, with a lot of high-tech electronic gadgets, like a bathtub that automatically fills itself to the right level (and the right temperature!) Most of the floors are hardwood, with the exception of the parents’ room and an extra room off the main gathering/TV room, which have tatami mats. So basically, it’s not a traditional Japanese home, or at least not what I had imagined a traditional Japanese home to look like, I guess because the house is less than a year old.

The Saitos had bought me my own slippers, tea cup, bowl, and hashi, (chopsticks) and even had my room and desk set up with brand new supplies. It looked as if they really went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Then, after the father came home, we had a birthday cake (my birthday had been the day before I arrived) and some kind of festive red rice. Afterwards, we sat around and talked for a few hours, getting to know each other as much as possible with my very broken Japanese.

Kaarina 1: They're Making Me Uncomfortable

I did a 14 day homestay at my Japanese friend’s home in Kamakura during autumn break. Before going I was a bit worried, but I thought it shouldn’t be a problem to adapt to his family for a couple of weeks, and become a part of it since I had already experienced two long homestays in New Zealand before this one. However, when I was lying on my futon on the first night of my stay I was quite confused and wondered how I could manage the next fourteen days without disturbing the relationship with my friend and his family.

We arrived in Kamakura in the early evening and the okaasan, (mother of the household) came to pick Hiyoshi and me up from the station. Her husband had not yet returned from work so we had some time to relax and organize things before dinner. Okaasan showed me where I could leave my luggage and apologized many times about the tatami room I would be using as a bedroom because it was part of the living room during the day. Even though we had discussed this on the phone she seemed to be extremely concerned about the inconvenience it could cause me since there was no private room for me.

Since it was autumn she also asked many times if I was cold and gave me a yukata (cotton kimono) to wear during my stay. There was also a gown hanging in the corner of the tatami room and she asked me to try it on to see if it would be my size. Needless to say it was a little too tight and okaasan suggested that she go upstairs to look for something else instead. It was only after I had told her several times that both the room and the gown were perfect that she finally believed me.

Since it was evening she started to attend to the meal even though it was obvious that she had prepared most of the food beforehand. While she was carrying the food to the table Hiyoshi explained what was what and I have to say, I was worried. Nearly everything that was brought in was described as special food that is only eaten on special occasions. Further, when the otoosan (father) arrived around 7:00 he brought a kind of crayfish that was welcomed with pleasure by okaasan and Hiyoshi. I was also told that this was an expensive food that is unusual to eat on an everyday basis.

After I was welcomed very warmly to the house by otoosan we started our dinner. It was pleasant, but okaasan was constantly running between kitchen and table. Through the long dinner I wanted to help her but somehow I felt that I could not do it without causing an awkward situation for the Nakata family.

After the meal I remained seated at the table with otoosan and Hiyoshi while okaasan cleaned the table and washed the dishes. Then she came back, asked if I was hungry and told me she would peel some fruits before I even had a chance to refuse. I was full but since I did not know how to refuse politely I thought it better to eat what was offered.

The next thing I noticed was that okaasan had closed the sliding doors that separated the tatami room and living room and I realized she was making my bed. Again, I wanted to help (or to be honest, make it by myself) but I sensed there was no possibility of opening those doors without stepping out of my role as a guest that night. Therefore, when I was told the bath was ready I did not hesitate to go first since I knew that the order of taking baths expresses respect and I felt I could not refuse that courtesy either. I ended up laying on my futon that night wondering what to do and how to change my position from being a total outsider to more like a family member.

Mark 1: I've Got No Complaints

Things are going just dandy with my host family. They are very nice, provide me with just about anything I need (often more), and pretty much just leave me to do my own thing. The meals are great, and my only complaint could be that they feed me too much. My room is nice and I am perfectly free to come and go as I please.

Module 8.1
Being a "Good Guest"
Comments (1)

Molly and Kaarina were both worried and anxious at the beginning of their homestays. Yet they reacted quite differently to the “wrapping” they received. Molly notices that “they had really gone out of their way to make me comfortable”, even having a cake for her birthday, and sees how much trouble they have gone to on her behalf. She tries to respond to their efforts, and on the first evening manages to talk with them for hours in broken Japanese (no small accomplishment).  

Kaarina remains uncomfortable throughout her first day, because she is bothered by receiving special treatment as a guest. She is worried that they are making special food for her, that the okaasan is waiting on her, and that she can’t help okaasanIn bed that night she wonders how to change her position from “a total outsider to more like a family member”.  Kaarina’s narrative depicts a real clash of “cultural bubbles”, since her expectations of being a guest are not being met.

Mark is quite happy with his situation. But this may be because he seems totally unaware that he is being “wrapped”, and that what he is seeing at the beginning of his homestay is the family’s tatemae. (Yes, Mark resembles someone you’ve already met in this tutorial.)

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