2003

ESSAY CONTEST
for HSLDA members
Second HSLDA Essay Contest
Category 2 Fourth Place

How to Laugh in Japanese

By Rachel Sanders

If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine myself back in Takehana, I can smell the faint spiciness of the air, hear the scrape of chopsticks on a nearly empty rice bowl, and see the sun glistening on the files of a thousand roofs.

It has been two years since I spent a month in Takehana, Japan as a sixteen-year- old exchange student. During the month, I became a member of the Ichiyanagi family who had kindly accepted me into their home. Japan became my second homeland, the Ichiyanagis my second family.

In some ways, life in Japan is not significantly different from life in America: families are still families. But there are also surprises and distinctions. Think of it as the hamburger I ordered at the McDonalds in Takehana. It looked like an ordinary hamburger until I bit into it. Then I realized that the lettuce was really cabbage, and that the mustard was really horseradish sauce. Japan is like that; it may look Western to the untrained eye, but on closer inspection, it retains its unique culture and traditions.

Hard to convey is the experience of living with a Japanese family. How can I explain what it is like to fall asleep on a futon or to eat miso soup with chopsticks?

How can words communicate what Takehana and the Ichiyanagis mean to me-and how deeply I want to see them for just two more weeks?

When my host sister, Emi, and I returned home from her junior high school, we zizzed our bikes into the entryway of the house, slipped off our shoes, and hollered, "Tadaima!" which means "We're home!" From deep in the heart of the house came Emi's mother's reply, "Ohairi!" or "Come in!" Emi was fourteen then, her mind filled with math formulas and pop songs. Her favorite shirt read, "I love LA" and her favorite pastime was shopping. But in school she was near the top of her class.

Takehana Junior High School was a grimy white, four-story building with spotless insides. Like most schools in Japan, its students did the janitorial work. Every day when classes were over, Emi and I hurried to the school kitchen with some other students and grabbed our tools: a mop, a broom, a rag, or a duster. For one half hour, we scrubbed, mopped, swept, and dusted in time to the classical music pouring from the school loudspeakers.

Two years ago, my host brother Tatsuya was twelve. I remember towering over him-I, a tall, fair American, dwarfing Tatsuya's small, dark frame. We sat across from each other on the floor one day, a blond head and a black head each bent intently over a hand of cards. (I had brought the card game from America.) Tatsuya slapped a blue three on the pile, flicked his black eyes at me, pronounced "Uno," and won the fifth game in a row.

I remember helping my host mother Mikiko prepare okonami yaki, tossing together flour, eggs, seaweed, dried squid, and cabbage to make what Mikiko called "Japanese pizza." I tried to mimic Mikiko's tiny, bird-like movements as she showed me how it was done. My host father Yoshiharu enjoyed practicing his English, his foreign voice turning a simple phrase into something extraordinary. "Is this good English?" he often asked me.

If I could go back to Takehana, Japan for two weeks, I would find many changes: Emi and Tatsuya would be taller, older. Yoshiharu and Mikiko might have more lines around their eyes and white in their hair. But students in their navy and white uniforms would still run laughing on their way to school, the semi (Japanese cicada) would still belt out its deafening song, and large-eyed children would still shyly tug their mothers' arms and point when they saw a tall, blond young woman strolling down the streets of Takehana.