Taking stock of a cultural exchange
“How big are your clothes?” Our son, Josh, has just received an email from Harumitsu, a Japanese exchange student who is coming to live with us for two weeks. We figure Josh is in for a T-shirt.
We know our soon-to-arrive guest loves fish, dislikes mayonnaise and describes himself as cheerful and serious. This seems an impossible feat of character until we see his photo — he is indeed a serious yet cheerfullooking 16-year-old. Harumitsu will be visiting Melbourne with fellow students from Kyoto. A month later Josh and his Japanese class will do the reverse. There’s an unusual imbalance of genders in the program. Our school’s Japanese class is dominated by boys, the Kyoto English class by girls. We are one of the few families “getting a boy”. I’m feeling clucky already.
We decide we’ll call him Haru but even then, Josh’s dad, Ian, never quite gets the pronunciation right so it comes out as an ecstatic “Harooo!”
Five planes have landed at once; Josh spots Haru in the crowd and gives him a welcome handshake. I run up behind, unleash a koala hug and tell him I’m his new Aussie mum. Haru clutches his chest and looks like he’s having a heart attack. “Aaaach!” he says. “Very nervous.”
Driving out of Melbourne airport, you suddenly see your city through someone else’s eyes. Could it be Melburnians only eat KFC and drive Mazdas? And then, not 500m from the exit, a mob of kangaroos. “Look Harooo!” Ian cries. We are elated at this extraordinary show of Australiana. Thank you, Qantas.
Unfortunately, Haru has missed the show as he’s busily doing origami on a chewy wrapper. I determine he will get to see real Aussie fauna — the possums that live in our back garden.
Josh’s Japanese and Haru’s English are on a par, which means in the first week we have single-word conversations as poignant as a haiku. “Me. You. Clothes. Wash. Happy?”
Driving Haru around we stab at objects to expand his vocabulary: “Park! Church! Bike! House!” I have to resist telling him that apartments are going up all the time and houses are getting bigger and bigger. We fear there may be a glut of flats … “House,” says Haru.
The school has advised us to eat our usual meals as the Japanese students want the full experience of what it is like to live in an Aussie home. So I offer Haru a selection of cereals for breakfast. “Rice?” he asks.
The next morning I make toast and explain the spreads: “Honey. Meat paste. Jam. Lemon butter.” Haru has a zen moment as he picks up the toast and crunches it down unadorned.
I call my friend Chiemi, who runs our local Japanese restaurant. So now I have miso soup and rice that’s plump and squishy and Haru’s breakfast routine shapes up. Thursday: miso soup and Coco Pops. Friday: miso soup and Nutri-Grain. Saturday: miso soup and Special K.
Haru teaches us to savour the “now” when it comes to food. We learn that everything slows down during a meal, which is treated as a domestic ceremony. The chair is pulled out deliberately from the table and tucked back with the same attention. Haru teaches me to put my hands together and bow my head before my Vita Brits. I feel as if I am eating with the emperor.
Haru’s suitcase is brimming with presents for the five members of our family. Josh delights in green-tea Kit Kats and pens that do everything except write your essay for you. Again, the school has prepped us and we’ll do the same when our kids go to Japan. I’m wondering what size clothing Haru’s mum wears. Then, suddenly, it’s his last night with us. We will miss this whistling, singing, chortling boy prone to spontaneous jigs and respectful bowing. As his Japanese name suggests, he is the sun that’s warmed our chilly August lives.
While Haru is packing, I see from the back room a furry lump curled in a tree. “Haru! Possum!” I shout and race into the night. The timing is brilliant. Thank you, possum. But Haru shakes his head and points to his bare feet. “Sorry, Jo. I have no shoes.”
It is a completely perfect sentence.