by Jes Stayton, Greenheart Travel High School Abroad Participant
Today is the second day back from winter vacation. In Japan, winter, and spring vacation are usually longer than they are in America. Summer vacation is shorter. (They are all about two weeks.) Because of that, I had no school from the 21st of December to the 6th of January. Unfortunately, though there is no school, the students still can’t take a break.
Every teacher (at least at my school) gives the students so much homework that it is all we can do to finish it. Many students don’t. On the first day of school, the halls are filled with calls of, ‘Shukudai owata?’ ‘Mada owatenai.’ (‘Are you finished with your homework?’ ‘I’m still not finished.’ (Don’t repeat this, because it is extremely casual language, and could be taken as rude if you say it to the wrong person.) I had to make an agenda to keep track of it all.
On top of this, many students have bukatsu (club activities) almost everyday. My host sister, who belongs to the tennis club, had club from 8:00 in the morning till 5:00 at night for about half of the vacation. After that she came home and did her homework. Because I belong to the orchestra club and not a sports club, I wasn’t as busy. I spent the first five or so days of my vacation doing homework. (Just homework. I did almost nothing else. Isn’t that horrible? I think it ruins the point of a school vacation if you spend the entire time doing homework. ) After that I had a day to relax before Christmas.
Japanese Christmas is interesting. Because New Year’s Day is the big holiday in Japan, Christmas isn’t nearly as important. My host family put out some decorations and a small (fake) tree, roughly four feet tall. They decorated it, but it wasn’t the same. In America, my family usually gets a tree and decorates it around the beginning of the month. We have a bunch of decorations that we use every year, and many of them have significance. For example; we have several ornaments saying ‘ Baby’s first Christmas’ with either my sister’s or my name on them, ornaments we made in Preschool, ornaments knitted by my grandmother, etc. My host family had a bunch of ornaments that looked like they were chosen to look pretty in the tree, not because they had any significance. The tree looked beautiful, but it was like the kind of tree you mind see decorating a department store. There was no personality to it. I was surprised by how much I missed my family’s tradition of getting and decorating the tree together. The winter holidays make most exchange students feel a little homesick, because it’s a time when we usually get together with our families. I was no exception.
On Christmas day, everyone received presents from Santa, including me, which surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to receive anything, so I was very happy. It was wrapped in a blue bag with a ribbon. (There doesn’t seem to be any wrapping paper in Japan. Most shops puts purchases into a pretty paper bag, and people usually use those. When I gave my host families presents I had brought from the U.S., they all kept the wrapping paper. At one host family, I was flattered to see the wrapping paper decorating the inside of a cupboard. ) We hadn’t hung up stockings. (There usually isn’t a fireplace at most Japanese houses. The traditional Japanese fireplace is basically a hole in the middle of the floor where you can light a fire, with a pot hanging over it, so they don’t really adapt well to the modern Japanese house. ) The family also didn’t open presents together, or put presents under the tree, which we usually do in America. That night we had chicken, which is supposedly traditionally eaten on Christmas in Japan. (My family doesn’t usually have chicken on Christmas, so I’m not sure if that’s traditional in America or not. )