Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Sharing a Home as Well as the Moon

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Sharing a Home as Well as the Moon

Article excerpt

I'm ever so grateful the Mizuno family didn't kill me when I asked them to. It was the summer of 1967. Along with nearly two dozen other American high school students, I had just landed in Japan to participate in an international exchange program.

The trip had come to be in a rather roundabout way. When my older sister was 17, she had the unexpected opportunity to spend a summer with a Spanish-speaking family in Quito, Ecuador. Using a clever blend of reason and whining, I reminded my fair-minded parents of this as my own 17th summer approached.

"Well.... We'll think about it," they harrumphed. Ours was not a family of jet-setters. In the experience of my practical, Wisconsin-born parents, fighting Hitler was a credible reason to travel abroad, but other than that....

"What if I do the research to find a good program? And fill out all the paperwork? And baby-sit like crazy to help pay for it?"

With their reluctant "maybe," I was launched.

Through a program called Youth For Understanding (YFU), I had a choice of six weeks in Europe, South America, or Japan. I'd like to say I chose Japan because of a keen and abiding interest in Asia, because of a deep connection with Eastern culture. Truth was, I thought kimonos were cute and I liked the movie "Sayonara."

So one afternoon in July, I found myself in an airplane high above the Pacific, poring over a purse-sized Berlitz phrase book, practicing the expression "I am very pleased to meet you." I thought it would be a nice thing to say when I met my host family, the Mizunos, in Tokyo.

It would have been, too, if I'd been more careful about which syllable to accent.

"Doh zo yo ro SHEE koo," I said one more time to a fellow YFUer with a phrase book of her own, hitting the second-to-last syllable - SHEE - with the force of a Benihana cleaver.

After hours and hours of nothing but ocean, sky, and wispy clouds worthy of haiku, we at last glimpsed the coastline of the island of Honshu, and the plane angled over Tokyo's endless rooftops on its way to the airport. The moment I had been preparing for was near.

After we landed and our group went through customs, the YFU chaperone introduced each of us to our waiting host families. I was nervous, but confident my linguistic efforts would make a good first impression. I greeted my Japanese family - father, mother, brother, and sister - with the words I had so carefully rehearsed. Or so I thought.

A startled look swept over all four faces. Then their expressions softened into smiles, and they bowed "hello."

Later I learned why they had looked so surprised. When saying, "Doh zo yo ro shee koo," I should not have emphasized "shee." "Shee" is the Japanese word for death.

As it was, I walked up to the Mizunos, smiled, bowed deeply, then politely asked them (loosely translated) to "Please kill me. …

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