Helping Out

After becoming a good guest, the next hurdle is to somehow get beyond the entry phase. This will allow the family to ease up in their tatemae wrapping of the guest, since a host family can’t maintain this level of deference throughout the entire homestay. Most foreign guests really want to manage this too, for it opens up their access to the everyday life of the family. But the guest (as a cultural child) has no idea how to actually get beyond the entry point. Nor can the host family usually explain what the guest needs to do, since it doesn’t occur to them that someone might not know such basic things.

To avoid this potential impasse, you need to stop thinking like a guest and start paying careful attention to the family’s everyday life, and how you might be impacting this (in other words, the behind-the-scenes perspective of the Sasaki family in 2.1). Then try to figure out how you can be helpful–by doing for yourself some of the things Okaasan is now doing for you, or by doing something–however small–that you see your family can use and that you can do. The family’s response will usually help to begin the process of your shift from the entry point, as well as your relationship with the family.   

1. First, let’s see how Erika and Kaarina (whom you met in 8.1), deal with the task of shifting beyond the entry role. Compare their reports below:

  • Erika and Kaarina go about trying to change their initial guest roles in different ways. Think about these differences, in terms of being helpful to their families. Do you think both succeeded equally well?

2. Now compare Sophie, Molly and Mark’s experiences below:

  • Sophie and Molly were both asked to help out by their host families, but the way each was asked was different: (one request was spoken; the other was non-spoken). Do these differences tell you anything about how carefully each guest had paid attention to her family’s lifestyle? Do you think both succeeded in shifting from their entry points?

  • Is Mark negotiating this hurdle? To what extent is he becoming “friends” with his family?  

3. Putting the pieces together. . . Hints on getting beyond the entry point:

  • “Helping out” in your family means much more than merely doing chores. Cleaning your room, doing your laundry, and helping the family with their general chores all help to make you a part of their everyday life, and this can naturally bring you inside.

  • However, timing is everything. Trying to help on the day you arrive (Kaarina’s mistake) runs counter to being a good guest. You need to spend time as a guest, but use this time to assess your family’s lifestyle so you can figure out how to help effectively. Your family will also give you clues on helping out.


  • Those guests who were successful in getting beyond the entry hurdle all had certain things in common: they had already established a relationship with their host families, and were able to mutually work out what kind of help they could contribute. Initially Sophie failed to do this, so after three months her host mother had to ask her directly to start helping out. Yet Sophie did manage to negotiate this hurdle. Her shock at this request (when she thought she already had been helping out) made her realize how much deference her family was still giving her! This realization, combined with her increased efforts to help, brought Sophie beyond the entry hurdle.

Main Takeaway:

Keep in mind that everything in a homestay takes place in the context of establishing a relationship with your host family. If you start building this relationship, they’ll give you cues—and sometimes tell you outright—how to keep going!

Erika 1: Taking on Chores, Family G

Two years ago I stayed with Family “G”. I was taken into this family on my own initiative after meeting Mrs. G in Germany during discussions about cross-cultural psychology when she was visiting my university. They did not want to take any money from me. I received the same kind of support from this family that one usually receives from their own family. I really felt like a family member.

But the situation was not like this in the beginning. When I first came I received a lot of deference from all the family members, especially the mother. The mother taught psychology at a university in Kobe, the father was a lawyer, two boys were then in senior high school, and the oldest son had recently entered the university. It was my first time in Japan and I was shy. Later the family told me that this had an impact on their behavior. I was always served tea and of course meals. Even when I was studying in my room the mother came and brought me fruit or tea. I also could not speak Japanese; therefore I was unable to join the family discussions. The family members had to talk to me especially in English.

After I offered to help with household chores I got more and more involved in the family’s life. I took on the same household duties as the two boys, and pretty soon things shifted so that I no longer took the first turn in the bath; the parents did. Gradually, the mother stopped treating me specially as well. I no longer had a special role in the family and got more involved in family matters. Nevertheless the mother was good at detecting my feelings and took time to talk to me when I felt sad.

Kaarina 2: Cocooned (and Rudely Awakening the Family)

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. Because of the very friendly but polite treatment I had received I realized I would have to discuss my position since as Japanese hosts the Nakata family seemed not to be able to treat me any other way unless I would “give permission” for it.

In my opinion, the very strong sense of separation I felt on the first night with the Nakata family illustrated how social distance was operating in Japanese social relationships. I sensed there was an invisible wall between me and the people I was visiting, which left no social space for me to take part in tasks like setting the table or washing the dishes with the family members to overcome the wall. Since I felt quite awkward about my position as a guest when the purpose of my visit was to do a homestay, I discussed the situation with okaasan the next morning and asked her not to treat me as a visitor. Hiyoshi also supported me by telling about his experiences while in England in order to assure her that it was perfectly suitable to treat me less formally.

Later during the day we cleaned the house together and I helped okaasan do the dishes after lunch. My help was also welcomed while preparing dinner and I felt relieved since I started to feel more comfortable and not so separated from the family like the night before. I also noticed that they had added –chan to my name instead of the –san they had previously used.

In spite of all that, I was again asked to go first to take a bath like the night before. However, now I felt that I could refuse the honor and ask the parents to go first without hurting their feelings. Otoosan accepted and went before me, which he always did after that. But it took nearly a week before okaasan finally went once before me, and this was only after several apologies.

After the first week okaasan did not hesitate to ask me to help and I found myself in the kitchen more and more often before lunch and dinner. We also did shopping together and since we were both interested in cooking I spent some afternoons teaching her how to make Finnish bread, buns and casseroles. Furthermore, I soon noticed that otoosan had started to use plain language when talking to me, but okaasan hardly ever did so.

Also, as I already mentioned, it was not even open to question that otoosan would take the bath first, whereas nearly every night I had to negotiate with okaasan in order to get her to go before me. Once, when doing so, otoosan came smiling, and saying “Papa first” even though I had fully expected that he would go before me. To be honest, it was one of those moments when I felt I had been told very clearly my place in their social hierarchy.

During the two weeks of my stay plenty of food, cakes, and biscuits were offered, to the extent that I was really surprised since I had heard that Japanese cuisine was very healthy. However, the amount of food gradually decreased toward the end of my stay and when I visited the Nakatas at Christmas there was a clear difference in the amount of food offered.

Module 8.2
Beyond the Entry Point
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Erika had gotten far enough “inside” the family that they told her their perspectives on the first part of her stay. They communicated that their everyday dynamics were modified considerably because of her; for example, they all had to speak English specially for her. However, Erika herself took the initiative in getting beyond the initial guest status by offering to help in family chores. She began doing these chores without saying anything about it. This required perceptiveness on her part, as she had to figure out what she could do that would “fit in” with the family and actually help them. Carrying out the same everyday duties as the teen-age boys gradually brought about a shift in the “wrapping” dynamics, and Erika stopped having such a “special” role in the family. It was obvious from the family’s response that what she had decided to do worked out for them.

Kaarina initially finds it very awkward to be treated like an outsider. However, in contrast to Erika, she immediately wants to change her position to that of a family member. On the second day of her stay she asks the okaasan not to treat her as a guest, and after this, she immediately begins to help the okaasan with housework. While Kaarina’s response appears to be successful, we do not recommend doing it, for two reasons. First, it was crucial that Hiyoshi, the host family son, could intervene, explaining his experience abroad in England. Second, Kaarina is actually asking the host family to conform to her expectations of being a guest, even though this is not the family’s way of doing things. She ends up (unknowingly) asking the family for a different kind of “wrapping”. Instead of accomodating her by cooking special dishes, they must now accommodate her by allowing her to “help”. The difference between Erika’s helping (which is real) and Kaarina’s “helping” which is another way they are giving her deference, is simply in the timing. Kaarina wants to move too soon from soto to uchi―before she is aware of what uchi involves. Erika takes long enough to become aware of where she can provide real help without inconveniencing the family, and then proceeds to do this quietly on her own.   

Sophie 2: Cocooned (and Rudely Awakened)

The deference I received in my family was at first startling; the okaasan had a sixth sense for what I wanted and when I wanted it. Then I slowly realized that the okaasan had a sixth sense for what everybody wanted and when they wanted it. At first it seemed to me, as it probably does to most foreigners who don’t know much of Japanese culture, that she had a duplicitous nature. She would say “let’s have dinner now”, but if it appeared that no one else was hungry yet, she would change her mind and say, “oh, let’s wait a little while.” To a dumb foreigner this seems as if the okaasan doesn’t have a mind of her own, or if she does she keeps changing it; almost as if she says yes to things where she really means no. But in reality she does in fact have a mind of her own, and her job is to figure out what is going on in everybody else’s mind. It is, in fact, her job, or position in the family, to play “mind-reader”.

After living with my family for about three months the okaasan came to me and told me that as a member of the household I would have to start adjusting to their life a little bit more by helping out. This statement utterly appalled me, because I thought I was helping out and was functioning as the other members of the family. In this sense I (as someone supposedly astute to the situation I was in) didn’t even realize the extent to which deference was being shown to me. As a soto (outside) person I had been kept in a cocoon. As I had learned, soto people are not let in on the fact that they are being deferred to, nor are they allowed to see the inner workings of the family.

Molly 2: Becoming "Okaasan" without even Knowing It

9/9  Well, here I am at the Ikaho onsen, (hot springs) and the past two days have been a lot of fun. Before this we went to the “Bokujo Green Farms” where I was treated to a recreation of an old west town, complete with Indian teepees, and the always exciting duck races accompanied with banjo music! The weird thing was, at this place that’s totally for kids, the entire family had a great time. I found this completely baffling and unexplainable, so I won’t even try . . .

Well, we sit down at this table in the hot springs hotel restaurant, and have about 20 different kinds of sashimi (raw fish) in front of EACH of us, none of which looked like a kind I would want to eat. But, knowing how expensive sashimi is, and how I figured they were trying to give me a big treat, I knew I couldn’t just leave it there, so I plunged right in. Then they brought out a bunch of food to cook over the fire, and everything was going fine until the fish, which was literally still a fish. Not cut open, fresh out of the water, probably, with a skewer through his mouth and little beady eyes looking up at me. It nearly killed me to do it, but I stuck him in the fire and cooked the poor thing. Of course, it didn’t make me feel any better when everyone in the family took their ‘skewer-o-fish’ and started screaming “Molly-san—TASUKETE!” (Help me out!)

(a day later) After about a week and a half living with the Saitos, things are getting to be really comfortable. We joke around a lot (like at dinner last night), which is fun, and even something as seemingly minor as a gentle touch on the arm has come to generate a feeling of warmth amongst us. I think it’s truly amazing how little time it has taken for things here to become so settled . . .

(about 2 weeks later) Okaasan had told me this morning that she would be at the hospital tonight and that Masako would be working, so it would just be me and otoosan. When I got home, I saw that okaasan had left all the food for dinner out on the stove and kitchen counters. So, when otoosan came home and went to his room to change, I started setting the table, cooking, etc. I, in effect, became okaasanOtoosan grabbed his beer and sake and sat down, while I got everything ready and served him. It felt really weird, though, because it was almost as if I had become Japanese—I was so happy to have the chance to do everything for him that I didn’t even mind that I was starving and hadn’t eaten yet either.

Mark 2: Still a Guest

I don’t really see or interact with my family a whole lot, but I understand they are busy and have their own things to do and they understand the same about me. I am basically still a guest, although I guess I am becoming “friends” with them. I like the situation. It’s comfortable without being too deep.

Module 8.2
Beyond the Entry Point
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Molly proceeds beyond the entry point somewhat like Erika. However Molly’s narrative makes it much clearer that “helping” is a two-way street. Instead of Molly taking the initiative and beginning to help, it is the okaasan who (without saying a word to Molly) lays out the dinner for otoosan which she expects Molly to cook. But for this seemingly simple thing to happen, much groundwork had to be laid. Molly indicates some of the dynamics in her family that precede this incident (which is about a month after she enters the family). She remarks that they joke around a lot, things seem comfortable, and she notices a genuine feeling of warmth. By the time okaasan expects Molly to heat the otoosan’s dinner the family has already established a relationship with her. They trust her, and think she understands them enough to “bring her into the family” just a bit, by asking her to do something for them, without ever saying a word. Molly intuits enough about this unspoken request to realize that it is a “breakthrough” and is incongruously happy at “becoming okaasan ” momentarily.

Sophie’s situation appears to be the opposite of Molly’s. Her okaasan has to tell her, after three months, that they would like her to help out more in the family, and she is chagrinned to realize that she had been cocooned, even though she thought she was participating in the “inside” life of the family. Sophie’s okaasan appears to be more outspoken than Peter’s, and you may think her to be more “western” because of this. But it is more likely that okaasan would not have spoken to Sophie so directly had she not already begun to proceed beyond the entry point. Sophie is not like Peter, and Sophie is more like Molly than you might guess. Just as Molly’s okaasan had to develop a relationship with trust in order to presume that Molly will cook for otoosan, Sophie’s okaasan had to develop enough trust in Sophie to tell her directly what she is supposed to do (when this isn’t ordinarily done). Even though Sophie hasn’t intuited as well as Molly (or Erika) what her family needs, her okaasan’s “help” enabled her to reach a more “inside” status, as you will see later. Sophie’s difficulty was that, in contrast to Kaarina, her timing in helping the family was too slow.

Mark seems clueless about the actual dynamics of his homestay. (Does Mark remind you of anybody else here?) He mistakes what is really deference for being “comfortable without being too deep” and thinks that, although he is still a guest he is also becoming “friends” with his family. The real difficulty here is that if he doesn’t really see or interact with his family a whole lot, there is no way for him to establish a relationship with them. Interaction is crucial, and is the basis on which Erika, Molly, and Sophie were all able to negotiate their way past the entry hurdle.   

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