Chop-sticks and a Pencil

There are times when all of us agree to obligations, especially when it is a lone post in an empty square on our calendar, then, as that date rushes toward us and all the adjacent squares are bursting with other events, life can start to feel like too much. That’s pretty much how my spouse and I were feeling as we drove to the Burlington Hilton to pick up two Japanese teachers visiting Vermont as part of their Teacher Exchange Program for Education for Sustainable Development. Excited, but weary. As an alum myself of the now defunct Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program ( it morphed into this new IIE program) I felt honored to be able to host and in effect give back to this extraordinary program so I jumped at the chance to do so, but when the pick-up day arrived, I questioned my over-extending nature.

Home-stay programs allow people to get to know each other’s cultures more than they would staying at any other kind of lodging; you are invited into someone’s home and life, taken along on their daily routine, and it is in those very intimate situations we find the most profound connections. Across language barriers, across social norms, through these exchanges most find that the core of human nature is similarly constructed. A home-stay moves a giant step beyond that of a tourist, for you are instantly invited to join a family.

As my spouse and I drove into the parking garage and found the elevator, both bushed from a long work week, I stopped and announced, “This will be a gift for us. Not sure how, but it will be.” This declaration seemed obvious yet once voiced we stepped into the lobby with spring in our steps and open hearts to bring our two travelers home and make sure they wanted for nothing during our short time together.

As is the custom with so many Japanese, our guests brought gifts for the both of us. This exchange of gifts brought pieces of their world to us and we were more than delighted to receive such treats as chopsticks and cloth bags celebrating the Year of the Rabbit. After dinner we spent a lazy hour or two looking over photos of their respective hometowns, Nagasaki and Tokyo. We shared pictures of our kids; chronicling our rich and fortunate lives. As language can be, even among those who share a native tongue, we at times struggled finding the right words to explain ourselves, but between the four of us we managed remarkably well considering the vast gulf between wordage.

The weather outdid itself for their first day with us. Sunshine and those puffy white clouds Vermont is so famous for dotted the bluest sky. We served up whole-grain waffles covered with strawberries and splashed with 2011 Vermont maple syrup: a first for our guests who cleaned their plates! After this we set off to show off the beauty of our state, as well as showcase the environmental efforts that exist in so many small businesses, farming practices and local food co-ops.

Our guests came prepared to cook us a meal, so during our day’s plan we were sure to pick up some fresh veggies and sticky rice both needed for the sushi rolls. I am not the cook in my house-hold. Not that I can’t cook, or that I never do, but I don’t have the creative flare or the culinary love that my spouse does, so later that afternoon I sat on a stool watching as all three cut and discussed and plotted and executed the evening meal. Here all boundaries, if any were left, fell completely away. Techniques were compared, ingredients were contrasted, but all with the wonder and joy that abounds among real chefs.

To feel useful I offered to set the table and rummaged around to find our seldom-used chop sticks. Many of these chop sticks returned with me from my trip to Japan 11 years ago, and as I searched through the selection I noticed a pencil decorated in kanji. As with many meals there is a time when a cook must wait; either for the rice to finish cooking or the rest of the meal to catch up. I took this limited time to ask about my pencil, noting several characters embossed along one side, I wondered if either of my guests could identify where I might have gotten the pencil or what significance the writing might have.

The first symbol was easy to recognize as that of the Mieji Shrine, located within a forest in the center of Tokyo. As soon as they said the name I could picture myself walking under the massive frame that announced the entrance. But the rest of the writing proved far more complex to translate. First of all it was kanji, chinese characters, but more than that, these were, after much conversing back and forth in Japanese, explained to us to be the equivalent of Old English. The characters formed a choka, an intricate poem using a definite structure of syllables.

The poem proved to be so archaic the translation took time. There were many attempts, in broken fragments, and for the first time since we all were together, the difficulty to express ideas almost halted our discourse. Our intrigue over this pencil and the message embossed down its side drove us to keep questioning its meaning and both of our guests to struggle with the deciphering. Finally, with many possibilities what we all arrived at was this: believe in what you can not see. This simple message reminded me, actually all of us, of the transcendence available, if we open our minds, our homes, and our hearts, to those right among us, or in this instance to two sweet souls just passing by. All in a flash, we got our gift.

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