Unexpected Cultural Exchange | City of Ideas

Posted 04/05/2017 by Barbara Hindley, Senior Director of Publications, The Boston Foundation

  Japanese visitors 
It all began with a knock on our front door. It was the last day of March, a miserable, snowy Friday evening. I heard my husband, Chuck, open the door and the sound of a woman’s distressed voice. I went downstairs to find two young Asian women—one who looked to be in her thirties and another about college age—profusely apologizing for bothering us. “We are visiting from Japan and our rental car has a flat tire,” said the older woman, who introduced herself as Nikki. “We hope we can use your phone.” The international plan she had for her cell didn’t allow her to call 800 numbers and she needed to call the car rental company’s emergency number.

We immediately invited them in and, after much back and forth on the phone, Nikki announced that the rental company was sending someone to change the tire, but because of the bad weather it would take at least an hour if not much longer.
By this time, we had a total of four young Japanese women our house. Nikki explained that she had lived in nearby town of Lexington for about six years and now she heads a nonprofit organization in Tokyo that brings Japanese college students on trips to the Boston area. The mission is to expose Japanese young people to the American experience and enhance international relations.

They had been in Boston for five days and visited many of the museums and historical sites and attended lectures at the Kennedy School on such ponderous topics as “Deconstructing Trump’s Foreign Policy,” which she admitted were challenging for her students. 

She was quite upset because they were supposed to visit a friend of hers in Lexington that evening to offer her students the experience of an American household, but they were already very late and now probably would not be able to go there at all.

I told them to take off their coats and make themselves at home. I would put water on for tea and they could experience this American household.

As they shyly began to settle in, we very politely traded introductions over tea and corn muffins that Chuck had recently taken out of the oven.

Nikki asked her students, who introduced themselves as Miki, Asuka and Kaho, to make the presentations they had prepared for people they would meet on their trip to America.

Their talks involved sheets of paper with illustrations and stories about “shodō” and other types of Japanese calligraphy; “kyaraben,” a treat made with sticky rice and seaweed in the shape of animals or cartoon characters, such as SpongeBob SquarePants; and the wonders of Sanrio Puroland, an amusement park in Tokyo which features life-sized dancing versions of characters such as Hello Kitty.

Chuck and I applauded enthusiastically at the end of each student’s presentation. Now, we were relaxing with each other and the conversation turned to politics and cultural differences. We discussed the shocking election of Donald Trump and their feelings about Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who they said was “not very liberal.”

We discussed women’s rights, a woman’s right to choose and same-sex marriage. We spoke of college life and music. Miki admired our baby grand piano.

I announced that, in thanks for their wonderful presentations, I had a gift for them, and gave them a copy of The Boston Foundation in the City of Ideas, 1915-2015, a book I had written two years ago for our Centennial. Since it’s also a history of Boston, I thought they would find it interesting. They gave us the sweets they had planned to give their host in Lexington, who by now had been informed she would not be seeing them that evening at all.

Inevitably, our visit evolved into a protracted session of photo taking, culminating in a photo of the entire group—which took quite a bit of rehearsing. Over and over again, Nikki pressed the timer on her phone and then rushed to join us as we all laughed uproariously.

At this point, about two hours had passed since Nikki had first knocked on our door. A man called to say he would be there in about 20 minutes to change the tire, and we feverishly began sending each other friend requests so that we could stay in touch. By the time the flashing lights of the tow truck played across our living room windows, I found myself very sorry to see them go. We warmly hugged each other and pledged to stay in touch through Facebook.

When all of the goodbyes had been said and our front door finally closed, Chuck and I looked at each other in amazement. As we talked about the wonders of the encounter, we discussed the fact that, in this time of tightening borders and the country’s increasing suspicion of the otherness of people who aren’t American, the richness that we had experienced that evening was entirely due to the differences between our visitors and us. And the success of our unexpected cultural exchange had depended on the fact that all of us had been willing, for whatever reason, to embrace not only the things that make us different, but the many more things that make us very much the same.