30 Years, 30 Stories: Hikone, Together (part 1)

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2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!

Will your memories of Hikone last till death do you part? For the fifteenth installment in our “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU 2000-01 alum Crystal Amend, and discover how in Shiga she found a new family, a new language – and her second half.


When I was in the 2nd and 3rd grades, teachers from our sister city in Japan showed slides of traditional Japanese paper homes and squat toilets. I remember thinking “I have to go see them for myself.” From that day forward, I sought out Japanese language and culture activities. Since I lived in a rural area before the age of the internet, this proved difficult. So, I had to bide my time until college, when I attended JCMU – the most pivotal experience of my life.

Life at JCMU

I planned to take my “junior year abroad” in Japan and there were a few options that I found. I liked that multiple students from my college could go to JCMU, as other programs only allowed one or two. Also, I liked that it didn’t matter where in your Japanese language journey you were. At JCMU, students could arrive not speaking a single word of Japanese or after studying it for years were there to refine it and everywhere in between. Some of my classmates were studying abroad in other countries and had to get a lot of expensive vaccines but at JCMU the vaccines required for college were all I needed so I was good to go. Some of the programs that I looked at were quite exclusive, so JCMU’s openness was very inviting to me. JCMU even had some flexibility in length that other programs did not. All-around, JCMU was the best fit for me.

One difficulty that I had was American students in Japan are not allowed to work. I had a part-time job all through high school and college to support myself. I could always at least pick up some babysitting jobs – but not in Japan. So, I worked around the clock the summer before I went to try to save up spending money.

One of the first things all the students do upon arriving at JCMU is take a placement test. It is a long and exhausting: reading, writing, grammar, and pronunciation were all on it. Even if you completed first or second year Japanese, if there is anything that you are not very strong at, chances are you will get bumped down a level. In fact, if I had it to do all over again, I would either study intensely over the summer or I would go to JCMU with no language experience at all because I developed lots of bad habits over the years trying to learn Japanese in English.

Even in the first-year class, the teachers at JCMU never speak to the students in English after the first day, and they don’t allow the students to speak in English either. Immersion language programs force your brain to switch over to thinking in the new language. Don’t be intimidated. The professors offer plenty of office hours if you avail yourself of them, and there are upper level students and Japanese people to study with as well.

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JCMU class field trip to Shiga-cho for a picnic

My second family in Shiga

I spent some time living in the dorm and some time living with a host family. I loved my homestay! It would have been much easier to communicate and understand nuance if I were an upper level student, but even though I wasn’t, my host mother and I had a lot of fun together.

The first night with my host family was particularly memorable. As dinner was ending, I moved towards the kitchen to help clean up. They waved me off and told me “No, tonight you are a guest and tomorrow you are family.” Sure enough, after reaching the coveted “family” milestone, washing the dishes by hand after supper every night became my primary chore.

Beyond this though, I truly just felt like another member of the family instead of some guest they had to impress – and I loved it. Many things in my family’s home were on a timer. Since beeping irritates me, I was taught how to turn things on and off like space heaters and the large bath tub. This freed up my host mom to focus on preparing meals. Sometimes I walked the dog, but I wasn’t the best caretaker because I had never had a dog before, so I didn’t understand what to do with one, let alone Japanese cultural customs regarding dog care. I got in trouble with my host mother once for running up to the corner store for a minute without officially saying goodbye. Far from being sad, I was actually happy that she was upset with me about this – because I had lived on my own for so long, it was nice to be around a somebody that really wanted to know what I was up to.

During the New Year, I got a chance to see a traditional Japanese home while my host parent’s relatives. While there, we went to the graveyard to see their grandparents, slept on tatami in the guest room, and sat under a kotatsu (heated sitting table). However, during the family festivities, I made one of the biggest faux paus I’ve ever made.

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Where’s Waldo?: If you look closely, you can see Corey’s blonde hair popping up within the crowd

My whole life I have been a water drinker. Growing up in Michigan, I was spoiled by good drinking water and I didn’t really have a taste for tea, coffee, soda pop, juice, etc. Then my Auntie was hosting everyone for the New Year and was trying to serve everyone tea. My host mom knew I didn’t drink tea and didn’t “encourage” me to at home. But Auntie had to serve me something or she wouldn’t be a good host. Auntie said, “Oh! You are an American, you drink coffee.” I said no thank you. She kept asking me to drink something and so when she said “juusu.” Realizing neither of us could escape this situation until I agreed to have one of the drinks offered,  I resigned myself to my fate and said “yes.” Because they didn’t have juice on hand, she gave a cousin some money and sent us both to a nearby vending machine to buy some. My advice: just drink the tea.

Even during scary times, my host family was always there for me. I was in a bicycle accident once (with my helmet on, thank goodness) and a representative from JCMU took me to the hospital. When my host mom read the paperwork I was sent home with, she wanted to give the hospital a piece of her mind for taking advantage of an American girl. I tried explaining that I was well taken care of and the bill was cheap compared to American healthcare but she insisted that they were taking advantage of me for being a foreigner. Experiences like this are why leaving my host family was my saddest day in Japan.

Japan: A foodie’s paradise

One of my favorite memories of being in Japan is food. Many restaurants have fake example meals in the window. So when in doubt, it’s easy to just point to what you want. Other places have picture menus. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can just order the day’s special. Of course, it was great getting something quick and easy at Lawson’s (a konbini, or Japanese convenience store).

If you don’t have any strong preferences such as food allergies or religious restrictions, I recommend you to go on an eating adventure while you’re in Japan. You don’t have to know any Japanese words to eat, and gives you chance to get out there and explore. Ask what something is called if you like it and look it up later. Asian grocery stores are now common in cities across America, so you can even bring home your favorite recipes. And even if you do have strong preferences, you can still go on your own Japanese food trip – just make sure to learn more words related to your dietary restrictions, and possibly beef up your culinary skills before going. Today, we make Japanese curry rice and oyakodon (chicken and egg over rice bowl) at home for our kids with allergies. Sure, we have to make some modifications, but we get it to work.

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Oyakodon

In fact, this eating adventure mentality goes a long way to bridging culture gaps in Japan, as well as elsewhere. Most people do not expect foreigners to eat their food. Some people take it very personally: some are very happy when foreigners are willing to try it and like it, and are very sad if foreigners don’t like it or want to modify a dish even just with a little salt. Pay close attention if it is normal for that dish or restaurant to add sauces at the table or not and you will go far. I have taken this sense of adventure with me everywhere and if you meet up with me for lunch, it is likely to be something you have never had before. Don’t shy away from trying new things – you will probably love it!

Oh “deer”

My American school had space in my schedule for an independent study/ service project type of thing. I don’t think it is very common at JCMU but they accommodated me. The local school was trying to teach English to the top grade elementary students, and at the time English instruction began in middle/junior high school. I came full circle and became the culture teacher for the school’s sixth grade Japanese children. I mostly worked on saying the alphabet, colors, and things of that nature with the students. Occasionally, I visited the younger classes to talk about some of culture I grew up with. The alphabet song was particularly difficult; the next time you sing the alphabet song, try to slow down “LMNOP” into clearly enunciated separate letters. It can be challenging for us, let alone those learning English as a second language.

Something I learned at the elementary school was the buck stops here. One day it snowed, and the principal himself was out shoveling the walk before the kindergartners had to walk home. He had me come and help. Taking responsibility for things even if you aren’t really the one responsible and apologizing for any inconvenience one causes to others even if it is part of their job is a common Japanese value.

Then came the day I was thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire. The kids asked, “why do Americans have guns?” There was no way I had the vocabulary or time to explain the American Revolutionary War, the Second Amendment to the Constitution, and so forth. (Thank God this was before school shootings became a common occurrence.) However, in Michigan we are known for our large deer that I’ve even seen chasing cars down the road. Also, my high school took the first day of deer hunting season off. So, my answer was, “because deer taste good.”

I will never live this down.

I told my host mom about this and she laughed so hard. I didn’t really understand why at the time, but I found out soon enough. Shortly thereafter, JCMU took a class trip to Nara to see the cute little butt-biting deer that roam freely because oooh my goodness they are seen as messengers from the gods (facepalm). My host mom teasingly asked me to bring back some deer meat for dinner. I brought her a cute little suction cup deer and stuck it on the fridge. Japanese people would never eat deer for dinner, it was probably the worst explanation for guns I could have given.

Unfortunately, the story does not end there. I was given an opportunity to address the school in an assembly where I explained that American deer are “this big” and spread my arms as wide as I could. That photo wound up in a newspaper.

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PS – A JCMU love story (part 1)

Now for the real story. The story we have told a thousand times.

On departure day in Detroit, I knew that there were 30 or 40 other students going to JCMU that I didn’t know. We had been given JCMU tags for our luggage that would make us stand out. After boarding the plane, we were stuck on the tarmac for about three hours because they needed to change the tires. I decided to get up and stretch my legs and get to know my new classmates. This tall guy had his feet stuck out in the aisle and tripped me. I looked into his eyes and it was all over. He swept me off my feet. He had me head over heels.

We were set up. I couldn’t get away from him. We were in the same classes. We signed up for the same activities. Our assigned dorm rooms were next door to each other, so the first thing I saw and the last thing I saw everyday was his hair blowing in the breeze.

We couldn’t wait to get married. Once we were both back in the States for good, he took me down the aisle. 3 states, 4 kids, 5 more international trips later, the hair is gone but we are still going strong.

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