Finally we were on the plane to Tokyo. After all the speculation and confusion, it was the four of us who had made it to this stage. A senior Ph.D student, a lecturer and two of us from the 2nd yr Criminology Dept. It was August 1999 and all of us were euphoric!
It all started when the Head of our department called me one morning to his cabin and told me that Prof. D had sent him a special message. Prof. D was a good friend of our HOD and had visited our department only couple of months back as a Guest lecturer in Victimology. He was an American who taught at the Tokiwa University in Japan. We seemed to have impressed him a lot and hence this call inviting few representatives from our class to attend the 2nd Asian PG Course on Victimology & Victim Assistance, scheduled to be held in Tokiwa University from Aug 30-Sep 10 1999. Our HOD also informed me that Prof. D had offered to sponsor our stay there by organizing Home stays so we needed to arrange for our flight tickets only!
Would I be interested? Hell yeah. Even in my wildest dreams I had not imagined going to Japan and here was an opportunity I did not want to miss. It took quite some effort to get a green signal & the tickets from my dad but I managed it. How I did it is another story – will write about it another time!
As the date of departure neared, myriad emotions including anxiety plagued me but the fact that Prof. D was there to assist us kept me reassured. It was my first trip outside the country and perhaps my first trip without any family member. The four of us going for the Course were not really very close and a feeling of traveling with strangers persisted somewhere in the recesses of my mind.
So there we were, four strangers on a flight to Tokyo, with nothing more than burning excitement and blind faith. None of us knew the language or what to expect but we believed this would be a life changing experience for each one of us. Prof. D was supposed to receive us and take us to Mito. We arrived early evening in Tokyo and the Tokyo airport simply overwhelmed us with its vastness & sophistication. Later as we all sat in Prof. D’s car, the strangeness of the place and the completely new sights & sounds kept us all in a quiet & contemplative mood.
Soon Prof. D started to give us an intro on the course & the other participants, and also what to expect. He gave us tips on how to handle our hosts and a list of do’s and don’ts. This was interesting as well as unnerving in many ways.
Number one rule was that we needed to address our hosts with respect at all times (this could be achieved by adding a ‘san’ to their names… for eg. Suzuki-san). We could also call them Mother (Oka san) & Father (Oto-san) if we ever reached that stage of intimacy. Another rule was that we were expected to accept any gifts they offered and before leaving, offer a return gift to them. These two rules seemed perfectly normal to us and we were prepared.
The next rule was different. Prof. D told us that if the hosts ever offered us the “first bath” we should accept it graciously. He went on to explain that this was only for special occasions and in such cases, the water would be treated with special herbs & medicines and would not be changed till everyone in the house had taken a bath! Now this was weird and I asked him if we could politely decline the offer and take a shower instead and he said that it was not advisable. I started making a mental list of all the things I needed to clear with my host family right at the start so as to avoid any confusion later on. The shower vs bath issue was first on my mind!
All the host families were members of a socio-cultural group that worked with the University to offer low cost or free accomodation to international students. They were doing this on a voluntary basis and most of them had children who had left home to pursue further education and they would offer their children’s room for students like us. When Prof. D started to give each one of us an envelope with the name of our host family on it, it suddenly hit us that we would not be together. He kept my envelope for the last and started talking to me before he handed mine to me. He told me that my host family was the Suzuki family but since their daughter would be leaving for her college only after 2 days, they were putting me up in their friend’s place till then. So I was the only one who was fortunate enough to experience staying with two families! I was not too sure whether that was a good thing or not but I had no choice in the matter so I smiled weakly as I received my “Suzuki” envelope.
It was already dark by the time we reached the University and as we drove into the sprawling campus, I felt a sense of joy coupled with anxiety welling up in me. We were heading towards the parking lot and we could see four vehicles lined up in the otherwise empty lot. As we neared, the occupants of each car came out of their vehicles and towards us. The four couples were all talking in a very animated fashion and none of us had any clue what they were saying! They shook hands with Prof. D and with each of us and their broad smiles and kind faces put us at ease immediately.
When I realized that there was no way to communicate with my friends unless we exchanged numbers of these families I asked Prof. D to explain to them and we quickly noted down the numbers of each family and also who would be staying where. Soon it was time to leave and I found myself in the backseat of a luxurious car and waving out the window at my friends in each of the other vehicles. As we drove off, suddenly I felt very alone.