Tak­ing stock of a cul­tural ex­change

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JO STUB­BINGS

“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.

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