Dealing with the Expert

Your next hurdle is to establish a relationship with Okaasan, since she is central to your homestay success. She is the gateway for understanding uchi—and moving your relationships beyond the deference of the entry point. Helping out in the family hinges on this relationship, because Okaasan is the “expert” in charge of your help. More is involved here than simply doing chores, since you now have to begin to notice and fit yourself into the family’s ways of doing things. Dealing with the expert takes you another step toward ‘uchi’.

Building a relationship with Okaasan is crucialyet doing this is likely to strike at the core of your cultural assumptions. Is Okaasan a slave? A superwoman? Understanding her place in the family can give you important clues about how uchi relationships work in the family.

1. First we will look at the Okaasan’s role in two families through the eyes of their homestay guests.

  • From a non-Japanese perspective, the Okaasan might look subservient. Yet she is also clearly essential to these families. Is she like a servant? What basis for authority might she have?

  • Many non-Japanese guests might view the Otoosan as self-centered, even domineering. How is his dependency, which might go unnoticed by the homestay guests, related to the role of the Okaasan? (Module 6.2 relates to these issues as well.)

2. Now compare the above cases with the following two examples:

  • How does the Okaasan in each of these families feel about accepting help from someone else?

  • In what situations does the Okaasan accept help?

  • Why does the Okaasan in Devita’s family keep trying to do everything herself?

3. Putting the pieces together. . . Reading family dynamics and understanding Okaasan:

  • The Okaasan has her own sphere of competence. The Okaasan and the Otoosan expect one another to be the expert in their own spheres. Each expects to be indulged by the other in the context of that person’s expertise. (See Module 6.2 for more on these issues.)

  • Helping Okaasan is, therefore, trickier than it might seem at first glance, since her authority in the family is related to her demonstrating her expertise in properly running a home. This is considered to be a job for an expert and therefore worthy of respect.

  • You must try to “follow” the expert in the way she does things, and also try to fit your help to the family’s needs. The trick is to determine when one is following the expert as opposed to being wrapped as a guest.

Main Takeaway:

Recognize that there is expertise and that you have to respect it. Don’t hang onto “doing it my way” or teaching them your way. You must do things “their way”.

Erika 2: Otoosan: Baby or King? (Family K )

I was taken into Family “K” on a homestay through an exchange program, on a paid basis. When I came to Family K it was my second trip to Japan. I was already used to Japanese culture, older and no longer so shy. On the first day they told me how things should be done. They explained that they did not expect me to help with the family chores, but they did expect me to wash my own clothes and clean my room. This made me feel separated from family life, so sometimes I offered to wash the dishes. And sometimes the okaasan would allow me to do so. But often she told me that I should go and study, since this was my purpose for coming to Japan. I understood that my role is that of being an exchange student whose purpose is to study about Japan.

This okaasan seems to understand her role in the family much differently from Mrs. G (in Erika’s Family G). The okaasan owns a shop, which is located in the house. The father is a tanshinfunin (living away from the family, on a company transfer), working in a company in Niigata and returning once a month. The daughter works during the daytime and studies at the university in the evening, and the younger brother also works. I will describe the once-a-month visit when the father returns home. In this family the mother is called okaasan by all family members and the father is called otoosan.

When the otoosan comes home on his monthly visit, he arrives late in the evening around 11:00 p.m. Usually at this time the okaasan is already in bed, but on these Fridays she stays up. When he is coming, she does not show her tiredness, even when she seemed to be very tired before. She warms up dinner for him, brings it to him, asks him if he’d like to drink sake, and warms it again when it isn’t the right temperature. The otoosan sits and eats and talks about his job or about various news. Mostly he talks about the latest progress in his research on three-dimensional cloth. In doing this he is smiling softly and talking in semi-polite language. He is totally dominating the topic. Sometimes he brings an omiyage (gift) from Niigata like a guest or like he is returning from a journey. We all sit around him (except for the son, who never joins the family) and listen to him.

From time to time he asks for sake or something else. The okaasan is always moving back and forth from kitchen to table. Sometimes the daughter or I am asked to help her. In between trips she sits down and listens, her eyes wide open, as she is looking admiringly at the otoosan. She makes short comments in semi-polite language. When the otoosan decides to go to bed, we all get up and go to bed.

Everyone eats breakfast when he or she gets up. But everyone will run into otoosan. During his return week-ends the otoosan seems like he is on vacation, with nothing to do. He sits in the dining room (the living-tatami room is never used by the family) all day. Sometimes he prepares the meals or cleans up the stairs. His face is always smiling. But when his daughter wants to talk about some family matters she is concerned about, he turns toward the newspaper.

We all have Saturday night dinner together. On such week-ends we have especially good dishes. The okaasan has been thinking for days what she can cook on such week-ends, whereas she usually cooks spontaneously with what she has at home. Again the okaasan is the person who listens and serves, while the otoosan starts talking on topics like golf or work. At the end the okaasan mentions some topics from the neighborhood. After dinner everyone goes off and does his or her tasks, and we enter the bath in random order.

Late Sunday afternoon the otoosan returns to Niigata, after having an early dinner, getting some meals prepared and obento (take-out lunch) wrapped to take back, and daily life with the okaasan, me, and the late-returning daughter and son starts up again.

When the father is at home he is the center of attention. The okaasan shifts between relaxation (sitting with legs up on the chair) and tension when serving. She holds her feelings back before the otoosan, while before us she does not. During the week when otoosan is absent okaasan will not try so much to supply everyone with everything. The returning otoosan is a special occasion. The otoosan is always smiling, showing only feelings of hunger, thirst, and joy. In a very sweet way he is letting himself be indulged. He keeps his feelings disciplined and he shifts between a soto role (of guest) and the uchi role of being indulged. He behaves only toward the okaasan in an uchi manner, asking for things to eat or drink. But he doesn’t want to be involved with family matters and he turns to the newspaper when his daughter wants to discuss something with him. He never asks how I am doing. The only questions he asks me are informative questions about Germany. To me he shows himself as the authority figure. In his presence I feel like I am in a soto situation and treated with soto behavior.

In the presence of the otoosan, even though it is an uchi situation, the okaasan is behaving in a soto manner. She is disciplining herself, not showing her emotions, and indulging (amayakasu-ing) the otoosan.

The okaasan does not seem unhappy or stressed on such week-ends; moreover she seems to enjoy her role. What makes her expend so much effort on giving deference to (indulging) the otoosan? The reason she told me is that otoosan is stressed at work. Since he has to control himself in this soto situation, she indulges him (amayakasu) enabling intimacy for him, and giving him the feeling of home. Since the otoosan is so rarely at home, this seems to be very important for the family.

The mother pays me a lot of deference. She makes an extra western breakfast for me. When I come home from the university she serves me tea and sits beside me to chat as if she has a lot of time. In the evening she makes dinner for me and since she is recently on a diet and not eating in the evening she sits beside me and talks to me like at tea time. At first I thought her deference was like wrapping. But she is the same toward her children, especially toward her son, even more than toward me. Toward her daughter she is sometimes rather strict. If the son opens the drawer and something falls out she will rush to pick it up. When the son comes home and screams “Oi!” the okaasan comes running. He will then eat very fast, not saying anything to anyone. Soon he disappears from the room and the okaasan draws a deep breath.

The okaasan is the kind of person who soon tells someone what she is thinking and she initially asked me many questions about myself. She talks openly to me about her feelings and opinons, and relaxes in front of me, for example, cutting her nails. She speaks in plain, not polite, language to me. I am sure I am “inside” in this sense, that we share too many things for me to be “outside”.

The okaasan acts every day toward me and others as if she does not mind doing all this deference. Only in the evening she shows us her tiredness. Every day she is the same nice person with the same smiling face as she gives deference. However, she herself receives scarcely any deference. Sometimes from the otoosan she takes it, from her daughter she asks it, but from me she rarely accepts it.

There is a difference between her behavior towards her family members and her customers who come to the shop and to whom she offers tea. Towards these guests she speaks in very polite language and gives deference more diligently. Afterwards she reports to us that she is tired.

The shop gives the okaasan many possibilities to make close friends. When these friends come she serves them tea, and then remains sitting and talks and laughs a lot, receiving presents and favors from them. Since she is running the shop she has no time to go shopping, so her friends provide her with various materials and news. That is her chance “to be indulged” (amaeru). Her shop is her uchi and she calls the shop “watashi no heya” (my room).

Christina 1: Okaasan: Slave or Superwoman?

My okaasan is a hard worker, and is always doing everything for my family. She wakes everyone up, makes breakfast, cleans up a little, goes to work (3 days a week), goes shopping, does the laundry, makes dinner, cleans the house, serves my otoosan drinks and snacks, and picks up my sister at the station at night. She is very sensitive to my needs, and helps me by speaking Japanese to me (my other host family members speak English to me sometimes).

My otoosan is basically the decision maker. He is retired, and spends time in his “room”, which is a study room full of books. He reads Sidney Sheldon novels there and listens to Gershwin, and Beethoven. He likes western food, and has spent a lot of time in America. It is difficult for me to speak Japanese with him, because he keeps speaking English to me. He is the one who corrects me, and explains the differences between western and Japanese rules.

My sister Mari has spent time in Oregon, and speaks English fluently. She has a part time job at the telephone company. She teaches me a lot about little “slang” phrases, but she keeps speaking to me in English. She is the reason I am staying at the Mihara house because she enjoyed her American homestay, so she was interested in having a host sister.

Okaasan‘s Marathon Day
My host mom never ceases to amaze me. She wakes up early and goes to sleep late. There is one day in particular which gives an example of how much she does for us. I call it the “marathon day,” because it began at about 5:00 a.m. and lasted until 1:00 a.m. the next day (20 hrs). We had a day off, so my family thought it would be a good idea to go to Nikko and visit my host mom’s brother. She prepared obento (lunches) for our family that morning, with many snacks and drinks for the trip, so she had to wake up early. She went to sleep around 1:00 a.m., so she had very little sleep. Of course, I woke up late and my host sister and I had to get ready in about 10 minutes.

We drove for about 2 hours, and my okaasan provided refreshments and many snacks for us since we skipped breakfast. We reached okaasan’s brother’s home, and visited for a short time. We left for Toshogu Shrine and walked a lot there. We then drove for another hour and stopped and walked by a lake. We continued to drive up the mountain, stopping at a large lake for lunch. Okaasan provided a large lunch, and cleared an area for us. After lunch otoosan rented a swan-shaped boat and he, Mari, and I paddled on the lake, while my host mom cleaned up our area and did some shopping. We then did more driving and saw Kegan Falls. By this time I was really tired and getting a little sick. Okaasan gave me some aspirin, and did more shopping. My host sister and I were very tired, so we slept until my otoosan got to okaasan’s brother’s house. Of course, okaasan had to keep otoosan company.

We arrived at the house and okaasan helped with the preparation of the meal. We ate, drank, and sang songs with their laser disc karaoke machine, and okaasan helped clean up. Otoosan fell asleep, and when it was around 11:30 p.m. we said our good-bye’s and thank you’s and were on our way home. Because otoosan was tired, okaasan had to drive home. While we were still back at okaasan’s brother’s house, she called her old friends and said that it was too late to visit.

If I had known she wanted to visit her friends, I would gladly have skipped one of our scenic tours. At home, otoosan told me that she wanted to visit friends, and was disappointed that we didn’t have time. Otoosan gave her his “ok” and she asked me if it was allright, and she went back to spend the next day with her friends. Before she left, she made sure that we had food and snacks, and that everything was convenient for us. I have never seen anyone so happy about a trip to see friends. I guess this was her “day off” from the family, and I don’t think there are very many for her.

Of course, okaasan’s day off means Mari (host sister) and Christina’s turn to cook and clean, but we only have to do this once in awhile. Okaasan always has to do little things around the house like making sure otoosan isn’t hungry, preparing the bath, and (my favorite) making sure otoosan always has the little gold spoon to stir his coffee with, even though there are many utensils out already, and the gold spoon is one arm’s-length away. I feel as if I do a lot around my house in L.A. but okaasan does a lot more than me. I appreciate her so much, because at home, I would have to do many of these things for myself. I still do dishes and laundry, but I am getting really spoiled!

Module 8.3
Tricky Family Dynamics
Comments (1)

When the otoosan in Erika’s host family (Family K) returns for his monthly visit, the okaasan waits on him, plans special meals, and listens to his stories. A homestay guest might be tempted to see their relationship as being like that of a King catered to by a servant, or a spoiled child being indulged by its mother. And yet, the okaasan in this family “does not seem unhappy or stressed on these week-ends…she seems to enjoy her role.”

An okaasan, in general, finds satisfaction in being central to her family’s well-being. She takes pride in being competent and may even prefer not to have assistance with her responsibilities if it means things will not be done as well as she would do them. In Christina’s family, the mother was willing to virtually work herself to exhaustion in the performance of her role.

For the okaasan to enjoy this satisfaction and pride in what she does, it is necessary that there be someone for her to care for. In her relationship with the members of her family, and with the otoosan in particular, the okaasan demonstrates her skills. The otoosan and okaasan take part in a mutual relationship that defines their actions toward one another.

Devita 1: Foreign Daughter-in-law: Guest or Domestic Servant?

I’ve been feeling like I should be doing more to help around the house. After all, at home I’d do more to help, and I know that a daughter-in-law is supposed to do a lot of things to take the load off the mother-in-law. But every time I try to be useful, okaasan always tells me it’s “no problem” and then does everything herself. Like when I tried to help clear the table and wash the dishes—I didn’t know where the dish rack went and I guess she didn’t like the way I stacked the dishes because she redid them as soon as I left the kitchen. I got the distinct impression that she thought it was much easier just to do it herself. My sister-in-law, Keiko, who’s still single, says I shouldn’t worry about it, okaasan‘s always like that.

It’s been over two months since we got married and I moved in here, and I’m beginning to see how Keiko doesn’t do much to help, just lets Okaasan wait on her (let alone the guys!).   But I don’t feel right doing that.   I do pick up our futons and pile them into the closet when we get up, but lots of times when I come back from class they’re hanging outside over the wall to air. The one time I did lug everything out there, it clouded right up and I just managed to get it all back in before it rained.

So I decided to do something for everybody—not just take care of my own stuff. I figured I could do the laundry because even though okaasan does it practically every day, it always starts to pile up again right away. I thought I had watched her do it enough times that I could do it by myself. I knew she would take over if she saw me doing it, so I waited until Saturday when she went out shopping after lunch. It isn’t a big machine and it was harder to figure out than I thought, so it took a lot longer than I expected. They don’t have a dryer so I was out back hanging out the clean things when okaasan got home. I could tell right away she wasn’t happy but she didn’t say anything. She put away the groceries and started dinner and I finished hanging the laundry.

Because it was Saturday, we could all eat dinner together. Keiko came in and asked how come the laundry was still outside even though it was getting dark. All of a sudden okaasan started to cry. I think everyone was as shocked as I was. Otoosan asked what the matter was and she just said “Devita did the laundry in the afternoon.” Otoosan and Keiko looked at me and okaasan cried. I had no idea what I did wrong. Then I couldn’t help it—I started crying too. I said, “I just wanted to help.”

Okaasan finally calmed down enough to tell me that it’s bad, for some reason, for the laundry to be hanging out in the evening. I apologized and told her I didn’t think it would take so long. Then otoosan jumped in and said of course I would be slow because I was new at doing things. He told Okaasan that she had to stop treating me like a guest and start treating me like a daughter-in-law: teach me how to do things the right way and stop doing everything herself. Then he turned to me and said “And you just be sure you do things the way she shows you!” The rest of dinner was really quiet.

But this week has been much better. I’m helping around the house and okaasan is teaching me how to do things and letting me help. We get along much better than before and she seems much more relaxed around me.

Erika 3: My Family Doesn't Act Japanese, Family G

I will explain the routine in my first family toward the end of my stay. The father is very busy and comes home late, around 10:00 p.m. When he comes home in the evening, the mother warms up the dinner, if he hasn’t eaten yet. He changes his clothes from formal to informal during this time. Then he eats, with the mother sitting beside him and they exchange daily news in informal language. They laugh a lot, and sometimes flirt. After they finish eating, they take a bath together. After the bath they disappear into their work room. If they are not too busy, the mother will prepare a midnight snack for all of us. If they are busy, she prepares something for him, since he always gets hungry around midnight.

During the week-end things are different. The mother and father prepare most of the dishes together, which means she gives him directions for how to do things. On Sunday the boys get up very late. Usually the parents have breakfast together, sometimes with me. After breakfast we sit in the living room drinking coffee (mostly prepared by the father), listening to music and reading the newspaper. The father starts reading what he likes and the mother starts with the advertisements for supermarkets. He hands her each part of the newspaper after he finishes reading it. He sits at “his place”, a comfortable chair by the window with a view of the bay of Osaka and Kobe. If we sit for a while longer, the mother serves us tea, and either the father or I clean up the table afterwards.

We all take dinner together. Again, the father has helped in cooking, whereas I have cleaned the bathroom and the boys looked after the dog. During dinner the topics for discussion are events in the news or any other topic, usually raised by one of the two children and discussed by all of us. Also they discuss problems any of the children has, or family matters. After dinner everyone takes his or her own plates, the father and I wash the dishes and the mother cleans up the kitchen. Then there is relaxation time in the kotatsu (table with heater to warm one’s legs) with fruits, cakes or tea, prepared by the mother and brought by the father. During the week there is no rank order in taking baths. But on week-ends usually the father or mother goes first, followed by me and after that first the younger and then the older son.

In this family all the members experience the same sort of attention. All the family members seem to be relaxed. And all seem to contribute to the well-being of the family through fulfilling their tasks. The mother is not the only one who is doing things for others, or cooking or serving. Usually everyone available will put a hand in.

I was also expected to notice when there was something to help with in the household, or when it was necessary to do something for others. I got involved in the cycle of giving and receiving. In that family a person who was tired, ill, or in a stressful situation would get deference from the others, especially from the mother. It was never tension-related for me, since I was never the only person receiving deference. The mother had more responsibility, and usually did things for others, even when she was tired after work. But she also received deference (meaning people did things for her) when she showed her tiredness. Then the boys would try to do their tasks more diligently, so that things went smoothly. The father would do things for her, as I would also, such as helping with the washing or cooking a German dinner or just doing additional things to spoil her a little.

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.

Module 8.3
Tricky Family Dynamics
Comments (2)

Okaasan’s painstaking performance of her role doesn’t mean that she will never accept any help. In Family G, Erika found that the okaasan was happy to accept help when she was tired, or when the others were free—on the weekends. However, you should not be fooled—even though the members of this family happily help out, they are merely assistants. This is still a very Japanese okaasan who is still very much in charge of her own sphere of responsibility.

In Devita’s case, the okaasan saw Devita as first and foremost a foreigner, even though she was the family’s new daughter-in-law. The okaasan proceeded to treat Devita as a guest, indulging her by letting her help, and then repairing the “damage” after she was finished. However, the strain of doing this became too great for the okaasan. Finally, the otoosan had to step in and redefine Devita’s position in the family, putting things back into balance and restoring the okaasan to her rightful position as expert in her own sphere of competence. This realigned the relationship between the okaasan and Devita: the okaasan shifted from exhausted host to expert teacher; and Devita is suddenly vaulted from soto guest to uchi daughter-in-law who must learn the ways of her new family so that she will someday be able to take over the role of okaasan.

The okaasan is respected as the central pillar of the family, as someone the family can lean on. Her vital position in the family is a potential source of considerable authority as well as pride.

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