Ayumi's Gift

Sometimes self-knowledge can be gleaned from the most unlikely of sources. From a glimpse of sunset, or a chance reading of a poem. Or, say, from a 14-year-old Japanese girl.

Ayumi came to stay with us for three weeks last summer. After a slight arm-twist by an enthusiastic friend, we volunteered to be a host family for a cultural exchange program. Since we have four daughters, we were assigned a girl, in the hope that she would feel more at home than would a Japanese teen-age boy in our decidedly feminine household. We were told she would speak some English, would need American plumbing explained, would attend morning classes, and would go on several field trips to the Los Angeles area, but for the rest of the time expected to live with a typical American family.

I worried about the "typical" part. We are strict vegetarians and live on a remote mountain ridge. But in many bad ways we are quite typical: We need an urgent reason to clean our house, we have far too many simultaneous events scheduled, and we rarely seem to sit down all together for a meal. Is this what we wanted to teach Ayumi about the American way?

Our first conversations with her upon her arrival taught us several lessons. First, we had to slow down, and we couldn’t slur our words the way we usually did. We had to avoid odd or slangy expressions. We had to ask questions that required more than a yes or no response if we wanted to draw our guest out.

After a week of tentative exchanges, Ayumi brought forth a tool that opened a new world of communication: a Japanese-English dictionary. We could look up words like "bowling" and point to the Japanese translation. Ayumi could look up words like "juku" and point to the English translation (extra private school for cramming for exams). Ah! Then we would all nod our heads and laugh. Exactly! My little girls delighted in greeting Ayumi each morning with "Konnichiwa," and developed a taste for ramen noodles for breakfast.

As we moved into our second week, life regained some of its daily rhythm. Ayumi’s class schedule and homework melded into our younger daughters’, whose school is on a year-round calendar. Ayumi told us about her daily schedule in Tokyo, about being gone from home from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., including hours of train travel to and from school (which explained why she immediately fell asleep every time we got in the car), and homework into the wee hours and on Saturdays. We felt slothful in comparison. She also told us of weekends of privilege: playing golf, vacationing in Hawaii, and shopping for designer everything, right down to her smart platform shoes.

Ayumi, for her part, envied us our space. "So big," she said, sweeping her hand toward the surrounding mountains. "So open," she marveled at the land all around us. Of course, when a summer brush fire consumed several nearby slopes of vegetation, the open space made us all a bit nervous. Welcome to California, we joked. Bring a high-pressure hose.

By the third week, Ayumi was family. She used the phone to chat with the other Japanese students who had accompanied her and were staying with other local families. She held our youngest, splash-happy daughter in the community pool, just like a big sister. She vacuumed. She prepared for us a vegetarian Japanese meal of rice and finely sliced cucumbers and carrots. "Sushi without the sushi," she said of her adapted creation.

She used her Walkman in the car. She beat us all at Monopoly. She shared her two passions with her American sisters: Leonardo DiCaprio and Winnie-the-Pooh.

I confess I wasn’t prepared for the obvious stares of local townspeople, especially when we went out with other students and host families. People sometimes gawked as though we had brought our exotic pets to the ice cream shop or the post office. I was also taken aback by the hostility of my own father, who grew up during World War II. "Remember Pearl Harbor," he said on the phone, grimly. All this over a 14-year-old girl! We had grown to think of her simply as Ayumi, while to others she was an oddball Asian appendage to our family.

My own prejudicial bent became painfully clear to me the first night we said grace over dinner. "We say grace-a thank you to God for our food," I enlightened her. Ayumi nodded. I wondered expansively if Buddhists had the same custom. Then Ayumi proceeded to make the sign of the cross like a seasoned pro. She was a Catholic, just like us. I don’t know if the homestay organizers had known that and put us together on purpose. I do know how foolish and narrow I felt for not imagining there even was a Christian church in Japan, that Jesus also has a way of transcending borders.

The most important gift Ayumi left us, after three weeks of our striving to be the perfect American family, was the fresh realization that we are a family. Imperfect, to be sure, but with blessings outnumbering flaws. While we spent time making Ayumi feel welcome, playing cards, sharing meals, cleaning our communal space, and explaining our traditions, we welcomed each other anew. We found time, somehow. We slowed our pace, chose our words, valued our togetherness. In our cultural exchange, we emerged with invigorated love, a pearl of great price.

VALERIE SCHULTZ is director of religious education at St. Malachy’s Catholic Church in Tehachapi, California.

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