Critical Language Scholarship Program | A Mom Away from Home

A Mom Away from Home

A reflection by Kirk Preston, CLS Japanese Scholar and Digital Ambassador

I used to think of home as a place, somewhere people return to at the end of every day. Once my family and I began moving around the country, I began spending months at a time away and I came to understand for myself the adage, “Home is not a place, home is where your people are.” In many ways, this summer strengthened my belief in that statement. My newfound Japanese family was one of these ways. 

As I was preparing to start my undergraduate career at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, I noticed Japanese exchange students at the school during a visit. That provided the impetus for me to reach out to the Japanese family friends that I had in Fort Worth, Harumi and her family. Harumi took me under her wing and provided Japanese lessons to me throughout the summer leading up to my freshman year in college. Many times, throughout the summer she would invite me to the Fort Worth Japanese Society or the Fort Worth Japanese Botanical Gardens. There I was able to meet other Japanese speakers and hone my skills. It was the coolest thing in the world to connect with other Japanese people in their language and express anything I wanted. Knowing a foreign language is like having a fourth wall between your conversation and the rest of the world.

The Japanese I knew coming into Rose-Hulman helped me connect with my Asian peers and made my two years of Japanese studying slightly easier in the beginning. This helped pave my path to CLS. I was ecstatic to learn that I would be going to Okayama, Japan through the CLS Program. When I told Harumi that I was going to Okayama, to my surprise she informed me that she had a friend from her college years, Isoko, who lived in Okayama. Leading up to my travels, Harumi put me in touch with Isoko (thank you, Harumi!). What were the odds!? On one hand, this made me even more excited to go to Okayama, but it was also calming to know that there would be someone out there looking over me.

The First Meeting 

My cohort and I flew to Osaka, took a bus to Okayama, and got settled into our rooms for the summer. The Sunday before instruction started, Isoko and I went back and forth via LINE to solidify plans for the day. She came and picked me up from Okayama University, and I was finally able to meet her in person. Isoko is very kind and very thoughtful; she was that way the whole summer. That Sunday, she took me to Okayama Castle (岡山城) and Korakuen (後楽園), and because Japanese summers are hot (めっちゃ暑いね) she had ice-cold green tea ready to go! Experiencing a beautiful Edo Period Japanese garden with colorful flowers, Okayama Castle in the background, and some chilled Green Tea is top-tier golden. 

After that, she invited me to her home to meet her husband. Her husband is a doctor, helping to run a hospital in the Okayama area. He is very smart and hardworking, and to this day I remain appreciative to both of them for opening their home to me for the summer. Together, that evening before classes, we went grocery shopping, picked up the ingredients to make Sashimi, picked up Asahi and Osake (酒, so smooth…), and had a Japanese home-cooked meal that night. Now anyone that knows me knows that sashimi and pretty much any kind of seafood is way beyond my palate’s comfort zone. However, the sashimi that night was delicious. Side note, even though I was out of my comfort zone for a lot of the seafood this summer (i.e., Squid, 以下, 色々な魚), Japanese seafood across the board is very delicious and fresh. Anyway, it was nice to go shopping with a family and have a home-cooked meal when I was so far away from my home. That first meal set the tone for the hospitality Isoko and her husband would continue to show me throughout the summer.

From that night on, Isoko would check in weekly to see how I was doing. She would inquire about my classes, help me with my Japanese conversational skills, and look after my overall well-being while I was in Okayama. She gave me a sense of being at home while in Japan. She went out of her way to help put me at ease, connecting me with professors that she knew at Okayama University or friends who used to do Salsa and Bachata (simply because I had mentioned that one of my hobbies is to go out and dance Bachata). As I write this blog post now, I can’t help but smile remembering all of Isoko’s efforts.

Peep the efforts…

About midway through the summer before going to Teshima Island (豊島), she invited me back to her home for another home-cooked meal. A couple of days before, I had mentioned that I was going to Teshima Island. Teshima is an island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. From Okayama city, you need to take a combination of buses (or trains) and ferries to get to the island. Knowing that it was a long trip, she sent me on my way with homemade kolaches and pastries with sweet red beans (めっちゃ美味しいね).

A couple of days before I traveled to Tokyo for a weekend, she invited me out to dinner at one of the best ramen shops in Okayama. The food was delicious. Again, knowing that Tokyo is a three-hour train ride by Shinkansen, she sent me on my way with homemade raisin bread. I was snacking on that bread the whole Shinkansen ride there, in Tokyo, and on the way back.

Towards the latter half of the summer, I wanted to go to Kurashiki City (倉敷市) which is very close to Okayama. The city is famous for its Bikan Historical Quarter, which I wanted to see. I also wanted to take a drive down the Seto Ohashi Bridge that runs across the Inland Sea. Isoko cleared her schedule for a day and was happy to drive me around the area. She also knew that I usually did not eat breakfast. On the day we went to explore Kurashiki, she picked me up with breakfast and tea ready to go in the passenger seat. I was very happy and felt incredibly cared for. Can you tell that food is the way to my heart?

Maybe this is Japanese hospitality at its finest (and I can attest from the Starbucks near Tenmaya in Okayama and the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Tokyo that Japanese hospitality is top tier), but to me, this was the foresight and thought that a mother-like figure would exhibit. Over the summer, as I reflected on the kindness that Isoko showed me, she became like my mom from Japan (speaking of moms, I need to say thank you to my mom back home in America a lot more, 23 years of nurturing and care got me to where I am now, but I digress).

Kirk (far right) at the farewell Takoyaki party.

Before I left, even after all her care and efforts this summer, Isoko still had one last act of kindness. She gathered her friends at a coffee shop, which one of her friends owned, and threw me a Takoyaki (たこ焼き) party. Takoyaki is a fried, ball-shaped snack traditionally made with fried octopus. After the coffee shop had closed to patrons, Isoko, and her friend, Hidemi, prepared the main area for a party complete with music and cooking supplies. The rest of Isoko and Hidemi’s friends showed up and the party was on. Some of their friends even knew some Latin dancing. I was able to teach Isoko some of the things I knew, and she was a natural. It was the perfect end to my summer.

And then came the goodbyes…

I’ll be back in Okayama one day, it’s like a home for me. That does not change the fact that it was with a heavy heart that I had to bike to school that night knowing it might be a while before I could say hello again. As I rounded the corner of the intersection, I had one last glimpse of everybody, all of us waving goodbye to each other. I’ll be back.

I asked Isoko what the summer was like from her perspective, “For me, I was living ordinary days. The encounter with you, eager to learn, awakened my mind and allowed me to use a little bit of English. Even with Korakuen and Kurashiki, I still regret that I couldn't show you around more in a short period of about 50 days. Your Japanese has improved a lot.” She left me with a few proverbs to think over, “Respect is greater from a distance, from a distance increases someone’s respect. Far is the scent of flowers. Things in the distance seem wonderful like the scent of flowers.”

We can be far away from those we care about, sometimes for a very long time, but how we make people feel leaves an impression that stays for a lifetime.

Isoko turned Okayama from a place on a map to a home. Whenever I see Japan on a map now, I will be searching for Okayama, my home.

-Kirk Preston カーク・プレストン