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Saturday, Aug. 24, 2002


Taking kids on a Disneyland home stay

If you stay in Japan long enough, there will come a time, equal to that of the Super Lotto, called "ongaeshi," when you have to pay back people who have helped you along your rocky limestone road to a comfortable life in Japan. I'm pretty sure that's why Japanese people always ask how long you have been in Japan -- so they know if it's acceptable yet to cash in on ongaeshi. I'm not in any way suggesting ongaeshi is evil; it's just Japanese.

Ongaeshi comes in various forms, the ultimate being a request from someone like your landlord or the parents of longtime private students for a home stay in your home country. At this point, forget about the favors your landlord has done for you or all the income you made off those private lessons, because you are now going to pay every bit of it back in the form of food, entertainment and gifts during their home stay -- which, by the way, they have been waiting years for.

You see, every Japanese person has a secret hope when they meet a "gaijin" that that person will take them for a home stay. "Home stay" is a magic word in Japan because is believed that home stays bring fluency in English, a language that, as you know, is learned through osmosis in all countries except Japan. Every time a foreigner moves back home from Japan, he or she is dashing the hopes of someone, somewhere who now has to mentally cancel their plane reservations and planned English fluency.

But if you stay in Japan long enough, certain people will start bantering about the word "home stay," and you'll get the hint. There is no obligation to go through with it, just an expectation that you will. If you agree, you'll be hurled into intensive tour guide training, as you'll be expected to do everything from reserving the plane tickets to escorting the students by yourself to the airport.

Thus I find myself, right now, with two Japanese high school students at Disneyland. I'm not at Disneyland, of course, I'm in the hotel room, because I can't afford to get through the pearly gates of Disney. After all, these kids are on vacation: armed with traveler's checks, credit cards and enduring childhood fantasies.

Their parents didn't ask me to take them to Disney. They just requested a home stay. But I have been doing Japanese home stays for years, and I know that these "genki" model English students will get to my house and suddenly become deaf mutes in both languages. It has to do with being struck by a deep-seated terror of being outside of Japan, which, as everyone knows, is a country uniquely protected by a nuclear-proof eggshell coating.

My experience is that these students will nod off through a Sunday drive through the countryside, sleep through an entire performance of "The Nutcracker" and merely pick at Mom's delicious cooking. After enduring two weeks of silence, despondency and trying to coax the students out of their rooms, I'll return to Japan and have to judge an English speech contest where yet another Japanese student gives a speech about how she went for a home stay and regrets that she stayed in her room the whole time.

So I was determined this time things would be different. We would do Disney, Hollywood and Universal Studios. We would rent a car and drive to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, then spend a week driving across America, camping along the way while I coaxed English fluency out of them through campfire songs. Above all, I wouldn't expect seemingly universal human traits such as communication, only eight hours of sleep or a heartbeat.

So far, so good. I'm enjoying the rites of "motherhood" sitting around the pool sipping margaritas while the kids are at Disney. Tomorrow, they are off to California Adventure and the next day Universal Studios. After their first three days in L.A., they will probably think all of America is Disney-like. Of course, that's not true.

Next stop: Las Vegas.

Contact Amy at amychavez2000@yahoo.com or visit the "Japan Lite" home page at www.amychavez.com

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