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.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1998
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