A year ago, if you'd asked me what I expected to take away from my time in Japan, my answer would have involved something about better understanding cultural differences: the Japanese language versus English, chopsticks versus the knife-n-fork, "r" versus "l," collectivism versus individualism, bowing versus hugging, squat toilets versus sit-down toilets, blah, blah, blah.
But a year later, I find that I'm more impressed by cultural universals, such as the ability of strangers anywhere to be unbelievably kind or unbelievably mean to each other. Or the fact that, around the world, or at least in Japan and the USA, mothers seem to cry at school graduations. Or the human tendency to talk about the weather when filling awkward silences（e.g. "あついですね" and "さむいですね"）.
After this weekend, I have yet another addition to add to the list of universals: it seems that, almost everywhere in the world, grandmothers spoil their grandchildren rotten.
My own childhood is filled with fond memories of trips to my grandparents' house in Southern Illinois. When my sister and I were kids, my parents used to leave us there for a week or so in the summertime, creating a win-win situation: Mom and Dad got some alone time, and Susan and I got spoiled by Grandma. Grandma would buy us the sugar-filled breakfast cereals (Lucky Charms!!) forbidden by Mom at home. Grandma would let us eat pie for lunch and ice cream for dinner. And Grandma's cabinets were always stocked with little treasures to foster our budding creativity: mini craft sets, harmonicas and kazoos for ad-hoc rock bands, and endless stacks of coloring books.
On Saturday, my host family invited me to a sushi dinner -– this time, at Grandma's house. But Japanese Grandma's house in Fukui City might well have been my American Grandma's house in Illinois. Upon walking into her tatami room, I was instantly transported into my own grandmother's living room: the walls were plastered with photographs of smiling grandchildren. Another wall bore framed prints of baby-sized hands and feet. A beam near the door was covered with pencil marks, names, dates, and measurements to mark each of her three grandchildren's growth.
We settled into small talk, until I ran out of Japanese and the Ohsakis ran out of English, and then Japanese Grandma produced a craft set from her treasure cabinet -- just like my own Grandma would have done. We spent the afternoon filing away at make-your-own chopstick sets. And when dinnertime rolled around, Japanese Grandma, just like my Grandma, took great pleasure in offering (forcing) heaps of food to (on) her already-full guests, refusing to take 'no' for an answer. And instead of eating herself, she putzed around in the kitchen -- you guessed it, just like my own Grandma.
"There's cake and watermelon for dessert, so I hope you saved room," she said at the end of the meal, sounding like my Grandma. Already having eaten too much, I groaned along with my host family, sounding a lot like my own family at home.
But I really knew we were at grandma's house when my youngest host sister bounded to the refrigerator, dug through a shelf in the freezer, and happily produced a popsicle. This ostensibly was the "forbidden-at-home" food that grandmas are so good at stocking: the Ohsaki children's version of Susan's and my Lucky Charms. Throughout the evening, I observed each of the three children making multiple trips to the refrigerator, digging through the drawers and emerging from the kitchen, slurping on popsicles.
"How many have you eaten?" I asked another host sister, the middle child.
"Eleven," she replied nonchalantly.
My host mom cringed. My host grandma beamed. It was almost like being at home.