Astray Memory

hieizan senior high school, shiga prefecture, japan.  if only it was as friendly as it looked. 

hieizan senior high school, shiga prefecture, japan.  if only it was as friendly as it looked. 

My memory is patchy at best but, unless I'm mistaken, life had been going pretty well until the age of seventeen. It was then I spent a year (actually one month short of a year) in Japan as an AFS exchange student based in rural Shiga Prefecture, adjacent to Kyoto in the Kansai region.

During the eleven months, I had three host families but there were only supposed to be two. As it turns out, or at least as I was told, it is difficult to find families in Japan willing to host exchange students since having complete strangers take up residence in one's tiny home is, unsurprisingly, unappealing to most people. In big cities, you can find more Westernised Japanese families with enough money and space to host a foreigner as a kind of status symbol, but Shiga had no such luck. Instead, the local chapter had to beg volunteers to open their homes to incoming students like me in return for having their own kids housed in various corners of the world. I was especially hard to place, apparently because I was a male and spoke non-American English. Despite AFS preferring a single host family for the duration of the exchange, there was a compromise in my case: the Umeda family would agree to take me in for six months, and the Kubos would take me for the final five.

The Umeda family comprised a kindly father, whom I knew mostly to be drunk; a strict and perpetually stressed out English teacher mother; and two younger "host brothers", fifteen and thirteen respectively. The two boys resented my presence from the outset, and aggressively ignored me for the duration.

The school that agreed to accommodate me was Hieizan Senior High School, a senior high school run by monks of Buddhism's Tendai sect. Many students were the oldest sons of monks who were in line to inherit the family temple. The school is best known for having once either won or competed in the final of the national high school baseball competition, and it had the vibe of a super sporty, all-boy's school even though girls comprised about a quarter of the roll. I was the first foreign student Hieizan had ever hosted, and it showed. Apart from one English teacher who was nice enough, teachers and students alike had no idea what to make of me. Given the impending university entrance exams that will more or less determine the trajectory of the students' remaining lives, senior high school in Japan is a serious business, and exchange students are a frivolity that does not fit easily with the prevailing ethos. I felt, and almost certainly was, profoundly unwelcome.

Speaking of unwelcome, my excruciating six month stint with the Umedas eventually came to an end, at which point I moved in with Mr and Mrs Kubo, a couple without children who lived in a modern, well appointed apartment a few train stops away. Mr Kubo worked for IBM in Osaka, and came back only for the weekends. Mrs. Kubo was a keen hobbyist who filled her days with frenetic activity – French language classes, Yoga, book clubs, that kind of thing. It became evident early on that she had agreed to host a seventeen-year old exchange student because she presumed having me around would help with her conversational English. I comprehensively let her down on that front, since my Japanese had easily surpassed her English by this stage, and I had no interest in providing free tuition. I was utterly miserable in Japan, but my knack for the language was the only thing that kept me going, notwithstanding Mrs Kubo's insistent desire to speak to me in painfully garbled English.

Long story short, I got sick over Christmas that year and ended up in hospital overnight. After returning to the Kubo's apartment, and sleeping two days straight, I was called into the living room whereupon Mr Kubo informed me that the couple had decided they wanted me gone. I still had three months before my scheduled return to New Zealand, but they wanted me out pronto.

Still reeling from fever, and mortally offended by this rejection, I made a run for a Kiwi family I happened to know in Osaka. The AFS coordinator for Shiga Prefecture, whose name I cannot recall, was a gruff but fiercely intelligent woman with no appetite for bullshit or self-pity – a shame, given they were my only modes of communication at the time.

If I were to leave the programme prematurely, this would be considered mildly scandalous within AFS and so the coordinator wasted no time in taking a train to Osaka to prevent such an eventuality. Ultimately, having somehow found an elderly couple agreeable to hosting me for the final stretch, she dissuaded me from bolting for New Zealand, saving face for everyone concerned.

During our conversation in Osaka that day, the coordinator tried to explain why the Kubos had decided to ask me to leave. Mr. Kubo didn't care either way, she explained, but Mrs. Kubo had become actively offended by my presence. She had expected a bubbly teenager who would offer her enjoyable company while helping her with English. Instead, she got me. "What does that mean?" I asked. "Phil," she told me, bluntly, "you're not cute".

Of course, this all took place in Japanese and the translation doesn't do it justice. The exact phrase I have bluntly translated as "not cute" is かわいくない or kawaikunai.

"Not cute" is literally accurate, but "unlovable" better captures the essence of kawaikunai, at least in this context. Unworthy of affection.

Among all the forgetting, this fragment –– that phrase –– is seared in my memory, ineradicable, I've come to believe, because kawaikunai was the first ever public enunciation of a truth I had hitherto thought myself adept at concealing; and in the process, it validated and compounded the self-loathing that's bedevilled my life before and since.