Alayna – Japan Exchange Student – Summer Program Alumnus

Winner of the 2009 My YFU Story Contest

Open Kitchen, Open Hearts

Japanese HotelTimidly, I crept into the cluttered, tiny kitchen. There was hardly enough room for MaMa, my Japanese host mother, to move around in.

“Can I help you?” I asked her in Japanese.

“Yes,” she replied, and put me straight to work.  She handed me a bowlful of rice. I knew what to do at that point, and rinsed it in the sink until the water came clean. But all of a sudden, a question came to my mind.

“ MaMa, why do we wash the rice first?”

“Not good taste,” she told me. She pointed to the bin of thick, stinky paste used to make homemade pickles on the wide windowsill. “Onaji; it’s the same.”  No wonder we washed the dust off the rice!

When I was done with that task, MaMa let me cut vegetables for that night’s dish: Japanese curry. As I peeled, sliced, and chopped, I thought about how glad I was I had asked  MaMa to teach me how to make Japanese food. I had come so close to not asking her out of sheer nervousness. But as we worked side by side, MaMa showing me by example how to cook, I found that cooking was one of MaMa’s passions. And for that I was glad, in discovering one shared passion, we had become much closer, our once awkward relationship becoming more one of a mother and daughter.

A bell sounded, signaling PaPa’s return from his dentist office just as we put the finishing touches on the curry. Yuuka, my 20-year old host sister, put chopsticks by each place setting. Rika, my 17-year old host sister, put the chilled green tea on the table. The rice cooker beeped out the melody to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” letting us know the rice was done.  MaMa scooped it out, putting a generous portion on each plate, spooning the hot curry on top. The carrots, beef, and celery swimming in the thick brown sauce reminded me much of stew from my native country, but its sweet, spicy smell was entirely different.

Japanese TempleAs much as I loved making it, I loved eating the food MaMa and I prepared together even more. Part of this was due to our dinnertime routine; my favorite part of the day was sitting around the table with my host family. I scooped the rice and savory, spicy sauce into my mouth, my tonsils feeling its gentle warmth. PaPa cracked jokes as MaMa helped me tell of assisting in English class today, filling in the Japanese words I didn’t know. Yuuka and Rika told stories too, laughter punctuating the air. Most of the laughs we shared were around that table. It was experiences like these, our togetherness both in the kitchen and around the table that really mattered. It was our laughter and our togetherness in the space of an everyday event that ultimately transformed us from strangers from different countries to a family that spanned an ocean.

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About Youth For Understanding USA

Youth For Understanding (YFU) advances intercultural understanding, mutual respect, and social responsibility through educational exchanges for youth, families and communities. The global YFU network, consisting of partners in more than 60 different countries, is united by the belief that full cultural immersion is the most effective means to gain the skills needed to thrive in an increasingly multicultural, interconnected and competitive global society. YFU has remained a trusted leader of intercultural exchange programs for more than 60 years because of its commitment to safety, reputation for quality, and exceptional support services. Backed by a global team of volunteers, YFU provides cultural education and guidance to all participants. Selected to administer more government and corporate scholarships than any other high school exchange program, YFU is the only organization awarded full-listing for J-1 inbound, outbound and short term exchange by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET). Through creating global learning opportunities, YFU has promoted international understanding and world peace to more than 250,000 students and their host families. Thousands of parents across the globe trust YFU with their teenagers every year, and thousands of students every year choose YFU to help them discover their inner selves.
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