Japanese native revisits US, promotes cultural awareness

CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail
Megumi Homma stirs vinegar into rice while Zoe Mackey, 12, fans the bowl during a workshop on sushi making at the Kanawha County Public Library in Charleston on July 6.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail
Megumi Homma watches as Candace Mackey stirs vinegar into rice with help from her 13-year-old son Drew, as participant Zoe Mackey looks on during a July 6 workshop on sushi making at the Kanawha County Public Library in Charleston.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail
Megumi Homma smiles as Michelle Ross and Najee Edwards, 12, prepare rice for rolling during a July 6 workshop on sushi making at the Kanawha County Public Library in Charleston.
Megumi Homma helps Najee Edwards with his rolling technique during a July 6 workshop on sushi making at the Kanawha County Public Library in Charleston.

When Megumi Homma found out she would be working in the U.S. for two years, she was excited, then nervous.

Her first impression of America was living in San Diego, where she spent a year studying abroad and quickly fell in love with the country. But this time, when she returned, it would be to a state she had never even heard of — West Virginia.

“I thought I would be able to see a side of the U.S. that I hadn’t really seen,” Homma said. “I wanted to know the other part of the country, too.”

It has been nearly two years since Homma moved to the Mountain State, and soon she will return home to Japan — just as nervous as when she arrived.

As the youngest and the only daughter in her family, Homma’s family was not in favor of Homma returning to the U.S. after college. She had expressed interest in moving back for graduate school, but they felt it would be better if she stayed and worked for a Japanese company. So, she did.

For three years, Homma worked for a travel agency in Tokyo, a two-hour train ride from her home in Yokohama, Japan, where she worked long hours and had little time to enjoy life.

Though she loved being home with her family, her heart still longed for the U.S.

When she learned about the Japanese Outreach Initiative, a Japanese government program which sends natives to the U.S., she took the opportunity and ran with it — all the way to Charleston. Except, she did not choose West Virginia.

“I’m a minority here, and that’s exactly why I’m here, because the Japanese government wants people in the area to know our country more,” Homma explained.

JOI is a collaborative partnership between education and business groups. It sends its participants to locations with little diversity, where the Japanese culture is less known.

Homma is based in the West Virginia Department of the Education but she is paid by the Japanese government. In the past two years, she has traveled all around the state to teach classes, mostly to children, about Japanese culture.

“Little kids will ask, ‘Do you have cars or TV?’ and I’ll say, ‘Have you guys heard of Toyota or Nissan?’ ” Homma laughed. “Japan and the U.S. are pretty similar. We are both developed countries, but they have no idea what it’s like.”

Depending on the request or interest of the students, sometimes Homma will teach students about Japanese food, calligraphy or school life.

“Most of the kids here have never been out of the country, so they have never seen a foreigner like me,” she said. “Just seeing that they experience something different and then grow interested in something outside of their world, I think that’s the most rewarding moment.”

One of Homma’s most popular classes is sushi rolling, a technique she ironically picked up on after she moved to the U.S. two years ago.

“The funny thing is we don’t make sushi, we go to restaurants,” Homma said. “When it comes to sushi you want to have really fresh fish and it’s hard to get that.”

In Japan, a sushi roll — like a California roll — is not authentic. More commonly, sushi is served “nigiri” style, as a small piece of raw fish on top of a small wad of rice.

Though a roll is more Americanized than authentic Japanese sushi, Homma has her reasons for teaching it this way.

“It’s hard to get fresh seafood and some people are scared of eating raw fish,” she said. “I wanted to have a class that can be participated in by people.”

If Homma taught how to make a salmon roll or tuna roll, she would be afraid people might be hesitant to participate. But the California roll — imitation crab, avocado and cucumber — is safe and comfortable, she said.

Teaching classes on how to roll sushi was one way Homma could connect her culture to America’s. To learn, she spent time watching YouTube videos and from people who were experienced at the technique.

“It’s really not complicated,” she said. “Once people learn how to make it, it’s actually really easy. That’s one thing they will learn.”

Since her first day in the Mountain State, Homma has learned a lot from the people here, too.

“I’m not really a nature person because I grew up in a city,” she said. “I really kind of like being in nature.”

Homma has gone whitewater rafting twice and spent a lot of time hiking around the New River Gorge area, but one of her favorite activities is driving.

In Japan, Homma has a license for the purpose of having an ID. So, when she moved to the U.S., she immediately had to take driving lessons and pass the test.

“Even if I don’t have anywhere to go, I just like driving around,” she said. “I will miss driving a lot.”

Since purchasing her car less than two years ago, Homma has driven about 30,000 miles. When she returns to Japan, she will take the train to Tokyo each day for work just as she did before.

“In the morning, rush hour is crazy — that’s one thing I don’t want to go back to,” she said. “You have to be in a packed train for two hours and you can’t even sit and people are pushing you everywhere.”

Just as she felt nervous to come back to the U.S. to work, she is worried about how well she will adjust when she returns to Japan.

“One thing I like about [America’s] cultural manner is that even strangers can talk,” she said. “Like you get on the elevator with someone else, you just start talking and having a conversation like casually or you just pass by someone and just smile at each other.”

In Japan, she says the train rides are quiet. You would be stared at for talking loudly on the phone or to a friend, she said.

Work life in Japan is different, too. She’s used to working longer hours for lower wages in Japan, and feels more relaxed in the U.S.

“I’m really nervous about how to get adjusted to the Japanese society ...” she said.

Though anxious, Homma is excited to be home with her family and friends, which is why she will still live at home, a two-hour commute from work.

“The reason I’m going back to Japan is for family, so if I don’t live with them there’s no reason for me to go back,” she said.

Reach Jennifer Gardner at jennifer.gardner@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5102 or follow @jenncgardner on Twitter.

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