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Culture Global Kitchen

The Dinner Table

Alice Hakvaag April 18, 2018

At any given night at my host family’s house, I am probably hearing at least three different languages. These days, when we’re all at the dinner table, I can hear English, Chinese, Japanese, and French. Currently, there are five guests staying with the Oikawas: Sshan from Taiwan, Onee from China, Dina and Nora from Belgium, and myself. Before them, Benjamin from Norway spent about five weeks here, Baptiste from France was here for three months, and Anna from Italy has been here since November, but she moved closer to her internship last month. It might be due to the close quarters we all share, or maybe it’s the dinners we all eat together, but every guest that comes to the Oikawa house ends up making friends with the other guests. Just the other day I told my host mom Marie that I’ve made more foreign friends in her house than I have at my foreign university.

The most common topic around the dinner table: “What is it like where you’re from?” We talk about our families, how expensive fruit is here, whether we’d move to Japan (Benjamin was actually thinking about it, though the rest of us probably won’t). A great joke that started circulating through the house was calling me “english-sensei,” since I still am the only person whose first language is English. In return, when I asked Baptiste what a word was in Japanese, he would tell me quietly so I could pretend I thought of it myself and that I’m just as smart as the rest of these polyglots. Another fun thing is trying to explain more difficult topics like why American college is so darn expensive or how the electoral college works to people who speak English as a third language and live in Europe and Asia, where these things aren’t an issue.

The best part is when our host family also joins in on these conversations. Sshan speaks Japanese better than she speaks English, while Onee can speak both pretty fluently. Marie, our host mom, will tell a story first in English, so me, Dina, Nora, and Onee can understand. While we talk in English, she says it again in Japanese so her family can hear, with Onee helping her in Chinese so that Sshan can understand as well. It takes a lot of teamwork for all of us to know what is happening. This sense of all of us being out of our element and knowing that all of us are adjusting the best that we can makes all of us want to help each other as we explore this new place, which in turn has led to some pretty memorable friendships.

As with all things, my semester here in Tokyo is going to be coming to a close soon, and most of my friends will be going back to the far corners of the globe from which they came. We are keeping in touch, though, and thanks to the wonders of social media, I already have invitations to visit France and Belgium next! It would be nice to show my friends what it’s like in America, where “everything is big,” and I would love to see them in their natural environment as well. It might be hard to have friends far away, but sharing this experience with other world travelers is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.