My Japanese Grandma: Life as an Exchange Student in Shiga

Konnichiwa! My name is Sheridan, and I was a participant on the 2018 Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange. To help show others what life is like on the program, I will be writing a series of blogs detailing some of the memorable moments and people from the journey.

For my first entry, I would like to talk to about the most important and inspiring aspect of my exchange: my host grandma (お祖母さん, obaa-san).


My host grandmother was a short and cute Japanese lady who cared about me deeply. She would always take care of me, she showed me things I never knew before, and she taught me how to deal with language barriers. Above all though, my Japanese grandma was my best friend during my exchange.

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Dinner with my host family

I first met my host grandmother when I first arrived in my host family’s home, the Ikeda’s. The first thing she did for me was to give me my own pair of slippers to wear around their home and to place at the genkan (a shoe area in Japanese homes). She was much shorter than me and had a giant smile on her face when she first saw me. Taking my hands into her own, she said, 「こんにちは、シェルダン」 (“konnichiwa [hello], Sheridan”). I did not know at the time how much she would influence my exchange.

For the first dinner at my new home, we had chicken and steak with soy sauce. It was delicious – but I spilled the soy sauce all over my white shirt! Everyone laughed with me. This started up a conversation about the meal itself, and it was then that I realized Grandma made all of this food on her own. I could not believe that she made all of this amazing food for my first night at their home.

The next day I was lonely because my host sibling was studying and everyone else was at work. I went downstairs to look around and I saw Grandma. She only spoke Japanese, so I nervously put my Japanese skills to the test. I told her I was looking for something to do and she took me to her rice cooker. I was kind of confused but I kept on listening to her instructions. She pointed to these tiny cups decorated with beautiful blue designs and told me to put the rice in them. Holding on to the cups, we walked over to the tatami (traditional Japanese floor made out of dried straw). I walked on the the tatami with my slippers, which was not allowed because of how easily it can become dirty. Grandma had to probably tell me about a hundred times during my time there to take off my slippers before entering the tatami rooms.

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Shrine honoring Grandma’s relatives

In any case, we walked through big sliding doors to get to what looked like a magnificent dresser covered in gold. She opened it up, and I soon realized the “dresser” was actually a small shrine. She told me to place the rice cups in a few different places. After they were in place, Grandma bowed down and started honoring the shrine. She told me the shrine was to honor her mother, grandmother, father, and grandfather. She followed this ritual every day for her ancestors. I could not believe that this shrine was dedicated to all of her relatives that have passed. The shrine was so mesmerizing to me because in the U.S., we do not do keep things like it in our homes. I loved seeing Grandma honor her family – so much so that I did it with her almost every day.

Another activity I did with Grandma was make food with her. We made sushi, octopus, chicken, and many other things. While we cooked, Grandma and I would laugh and watch sumo wrestling together or a show called “Why Are You in Japan?” together. As the title suggests, the show was about why foreigners were in Japan. My host grandma and I loved it, and it always got her to smile. Sometimes we would watch Japanese cartoons, which always had some crazy things going on.

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Cooking!

In between waiting for the rice to cook and the cartoons to come back on, we read newspapers. Grandma would use the newspaper to teach me new kanji and to practice my reading skills. We would sit on the tatami and she would ask me to read one of the news stories and translate it into English. She was always so excited to hear me speak English and loved teaching me Japanese. My host grandma cared about me so much.

One day I told Grandma that I was going for a walk around the neighborhood. She insisted that I take a hat and some juice to keep cool. Apparently, I stayed out longer than I meant to, and Grandma came out and looked for me when I lost track of time. She yelled in her little voice “Sheri, Sheri” until I arrived back at the house. My host grandma always looked out for me and never failed to put a smile on my face.

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Together with Grandma

At the end of my exchange, I had to say goodbye to everyone. As I was leaving the house, Grandma took my hands and started to cry. She told me she was going to miss me and how much she loved getting to know me. I began to cry too. We took one last picture together and then she handed me 1,000 yen and told me to buy myself a Coke at the airport (she knew I loved Coca-Cola). As she said that she looked at me in the eyes and we both could not stop crying.

My Japanese host grandmother was my best friend and I was extremely lucky to have her in my Japanese home. I still miss her and my host family very much. My host grandmother inspired me to learn even more Japanese, and I hope a few years from now I can visit her again and get to speak even more Japanese with her. She also showed me that people who speak two different languages can still connect through not just words but hand gestures, interests, and even things like sumo wrestling and cooking octopus!

Grandma will forever hold a special place in my heart and every time I think of my trip to Japan through the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange, I will always remember how she never failed to put a smile on my face.

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