When the bus pulled into our small town and the Japanese exchange students got off one at a time, they looked bewildered, jet-lagged, expectant. They wore name tags with their Japanese first names and the anything-but-Japan- ese last names of their host families. We easily recognized our student, even without the "AYUMI SCHULTZ" in blue letters. And so we met.
We had volunteered to host a student for a three-week cultural-exchange program. In our briefing, we were told that the students would attend class each morning and go on several field trips to the Los Angeles area, but for the rest of the time, they expected to live with a normal American family.
Normal? Well, they told us, she wouldn't mind that we were vegetarians and lived on the edge of nowhere. And we weren't supposed to do anything special. Oh, right. The first special thing we did was have our oldest daughter, Morgan, clean her room in honor of Ayumi's stay, which she did graciously if not thoroughly. I bought a new pillow. I dusted the plants. The house was as swept and sparkling as it would be for any visitor from afar. The challenge was going to be keeping it that way for three weeks.
On the drive home, Morgan and I chatted with Ayumi. We had been told that she spoke English, but it wasn't our off-handed, slurry kind. The combination of a long flight and fast-talking strangers would make any 14-year-old feel far from "Where is the post office?" English-class dialogue. Her comprehension exceeded her ability (or her daring). We slowed down. Japan was greener, we learned. Our mountain road was steep. We had a lot of open space.
At home, we showed Ayumi her room, and then gathered the rest of the family (three younger daughters, my husband, two dogs, two cats) for introductions and conversation. The dogs quickly were put outside, as their size horrified our guest. I was glad we had moved the pet mouse to another room. The conversation was painful. We were all so awkward. And no matter how we tried, every sentence put Ayumi on the spot as we gazed at her glassily, awaiting her shyly constructed, short response.
Then Morgan, bless her, discovered the universal language of teenagers: "Have you seen the new 'Romeo and Juliet'?"
Ayumi's face lit up. "Yes!" she said.
"I love that movie," Morgan said, as if the posters in her room didn't make that plain.
"Me, too," Ayumi said.
"Leonardo," said Morgan, a caress in her voice.
"Yes," Ayumi agreed fervently. The international language: Leonardo DiCaprio.
For dinner we served burritos, with a lesson in layering and rolling. After dinner Ayumi gave us beautifully patterned paper, with a lesson in folding it into origami birds.
Later that night, Ayumi called home. It was already the next morning in Tokyo. Her mother asked to speak with me. In English she thanked me for our kindness and hospitality. Then she paused, said something in Japanese. "I don't know the word," she said.
"Yes?" I prompted, awaiting more compliments from her.
"Ah," she hesitated. "Please to ... change. Change me to my daughter."
"Oh!" I said, as I realized that I deserved no more praise, and of course she wanted to speak to her daughter, her baby, thousands of miles away in a foreign country.
A week later, I picked up Ayumi at the study center late at night after a field trip to Hollywood and Venice Beach. She was becoming more comfortable with us. She taught us how to eat noodles with chopsticks, and then drink the broth. She liked to play UNO, and was in fact something of a shark.
As I locked up that night, Ayumi motioned me into her room. She held out a small black plastic bag. "This is ... dust," she said.
I was tired. My hand froze. Was it a gift? Should I say thank you for a bag of dust? No one told me about this custom.
"Dust?" I said. I smiled.
Ayumi realized this was not the right word. She held up a finger to signal "Just a minute." She got her dictionary, riffled the pages, and then pointed to the word. She showed me and read along, "Dust, trash, garbage, refuse."
"Ah!" I said. "Trash!"
"Yes," she said. It was trash she'd brought home from L.A. She pointed to the bag. "Hot dog," she said, revealing its contents. She pointed to her stomach and grimaced.
"Me, too," I said. She was a vegetarian's dream guest. And her dictionary became a source of easier communication and fun.
WHEN Ayumi left, we could relax and be our sloppy selves. But the house seemed incomplete without her. We had learned a lot about Japan - its schooling, traditions, music, and food. Ayumi was a city girl, a girl of privilege: fast trains and bright lights, golfing and designer clothes. But we also learned about ourselves. How much time do we spend as a family? All the card-playing, board games, and star-gazing with the telescope made me feel a twinge of shame at how little we do these things. We try to eat dinner together, but our lives are fragmented. On our best behavior, we spent far more time unwinding together than we normally do. We had more structured, more nutritious meals. The living room held less clutter.
Toward the end of her stay, Ayumi behaved more like a daughter, less like a guest. She pitched in with chores. She laughed freely. She asked for help with her homework, some of which was asking us questions about our roots and traditions. She called friends, played music loudly in her room, told the dogs to take a hike, ordered meat when we went out. She was a teenager.
Ayumi left us a lovely note and a Pooh-bear picture frame she bought at Disneyland to thank us, but we should thank her. In our attempt to be an ideal family, we put care into our relationships with one another. We spoke more slowly. We saw our world through a newcomer's eyes, its beautiful and deficient parts. Were we pleased with what we saw? Each of us has a private answer. But with new eyes comes the opportunity to flower. Room and board for affection and growth: It's been a somewhat uneven exchange.