In the summer after my junior year of high school, in 1970, I caught the countercultural bug spreading across America. I had met some “radicals” on a teen tour and I was hooked. Instead of playing the A-student who followed all the rules, I decided to rebel. I read books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and longed for my first psychedelic experience. I wore ragged jeans and faded T-shirts and sought out the company of like-minded “hippie-radicals.” School spirit was out, disdain and disrespect were in. Of course, my parents were concerned, but what could they do?

Then the school announced the American Field Service exchange student competition, and a light bulb flicked on in my head. How thrilling it would be to become a member of a new family somewhere else in the world! Yes, this was my big chance.

Sitting on a Formica bench in the school cafeteria, I composed an essay about the delights of learning another culture and discovering the common values of peoples everywhere. My efforts earned me an interview, to take place in our home, so that the selection committee could meet the whole family.

But just before that, another opportunity fell my way. My father’s Orthodox cousins, coming on a Sunday morning for a dental visit, invited me to spend the upcoming holiday of Sukkot in their Williamsburg home.

Our family was not observant at all. Keeping kosher consisted of avoiding pork and shellfish. Milk and meat together? Not a problem. When we were younger, my father had made Friday night kiddush on a shot glass of Manischewitz, but by now we’d given that up, along with candle-lighting. In fact, Saturday was the busiest day in my father’s home dental office. We didn’t know from Shabbos.

Perhaps it was in the hopes of changing this that my father’s cousin Miriam had nudged her 16-year-old daughter, Pearlie, to invite me. To their shock and delight, I accepted, and suitably outfitted in an ankle-length skirt, I had partaken of the full Williamsburg experience, including festive meals in the family sukkah, praying behind a curtain in a storefront shul, sukkah-hopping with the other teenaged girls, and watching the Satmar rebbe and his entourage march by.

Moshi, moshi! You’re going to Japan!” And so, my adventure began.

At my AFS interview, I held forth on this intercultural experience and thus became my school’s choice to represent them and our nation in the exchange program.

Now it was up to AFS to place me with a suitable family. Six months passed and then one spring day, I came home from school to find my parents bowing to me with their hands held up, palms together, saying, “Moshi, moshi! You’re going to Japan!”

And so, my adventure began.

First came the letters. My Japanese sister, Hiroko, told me about her high school Nishiko, or North High School, an elite public school. She drew a picture of herself with shading across her face, showing her tan after a day in the sun. This was NOT good, she lamented. Then she requested "my stature and girth of the chest," so that Okaasan, (Mother) could prepare my school uniform, a navy jumper and white blouse. Otoosan (Father) wrote a description of their family and their hometown, Sapporo.

Hiroko, Okaasan and me at home

On June 15, 1971, I left for Japan along with five other American exchange students from across the country. We arrived at Gotemba, a government camp near Mount Fuji for orientation and language lessons. Here I got my first inkling that if I’d come looking for freedom, I’d landed in the wrong place.

The strict rules and military regimen took me by surprise. Every hour of our day was accounted for. At the morning flag-raising ceremony, we Americans sauntered over to our assigned spot, while the Japanese groups marched to their places in tight formation. Our counselors instructed us to answer “hi” when they called ‘AFS’.” Obediently, we waved and gave a friendly “Hi!” But the other groups, raised their fists and shouted a military “Hai!” (as in present).

The remainder of our days at Gotemba were spent in a crash course in Japanese. With this I gleaned another crucial lesson – the importance of finding your place, below your senior and above your junior. The language said it all. Hiroko was to be my host sister, but in Japanese there is no word for sister, only older sister and younger sister, and the word for older sister, like the words for older brother, mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather begins with an honorific “o,” to show respect.

A few days later, landing in what I thought was Sapporo, I looked forward to meeting my family. But instead I was greeted at the airport by some very stern AFS representatives, who informed me that I had boarded the wrong plane and forced my family to drive an hour out of their way to fetch me. Oops.

At our apartment, Okaasan served a delicious dinner, waiting until everyone had finished before partaking herself. I understood not a word of the conversation, language classes notwithstanding. But Hiroko spoke to me afterwards in English and made me feel welcome. She loved my present, Peter Paul and Mary’s 10 Years Together, as PPM were wildly popular in Japan. My other selection, the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty was received with less enthusiasm.

Rules were many, among them no chewing gum, no tweezed eyebrows, no make-up.

A few days later, I started school. Rules were many, among them no chewing gum, no tweezed eyebrows, no make-up. The students were responsible for cleaning their homeroom and generally keeping the school neat and tidy. Hanging out? No way. As at Gotemba, every minute was accounted for. We arrived on time, stowed our shoes in our lockers and changed into our indoor footgear – sneakers or slippers.

Me with my classmates

We girls wore our navy jumpers, while the boys, who outnumbered us at least 10 :1, wore military-looking black Nehru-style jackets, black pants, white shirts, and black caps. Most of them were afraid to approach me. Only Hideki, the president of the English-Speaking Society, ventured over every morning to ask if I was “full of life” (a literal translation from the Japanese O-genki desuka.)

Standing at our desks each morning, we performed the Japanese national exercises to the Japanese national exercise music just as we had done at Gotemba. My first lesson was proper etiquette. When passing my teachers in the hall, I had to bow from the waist and recite the long form of good morning, “Ohayo gozaimasu.” The teacher would nod and reply curtly, “Ohayo.”

I was lucky to have Fukahara-sensei as my English tutor. He had spent a year in America on a Fulbright scholarship and fully grasped the cultural differences. Soon after I began studying one-stroke brush painting with Miamaya-sensei, the school’s diminutive, elderly fine arts teacher, Fukahara admonished me never to use the pronoun “you” to address a teacher, but rather to employ the third person, as in Your Highness. Instead of saying “Would you please show me how to paint an eggplant?” I needed to say “Would Miyamaya-sensei please show me.”

At home things were less formal, but here too there were rules. When some girls from the year ahead invited me to accompany them to a tearoom, I was told that hanging out in tearooms was not appropriate for a nice Japanese girl.

Another time, a Japanese boy who had spent a year as an AFS exchange student in a wealthy Chicago suburb, came over to visit. The very handsome and hip young man, who sported a stylish shag haircut and casual American clothes, chatted with me in our kitchen while Okaasan looked on.

Not speaking English, she could not understand our conversation, but I guess she understood enough. When the boy invited me to go mountain-climbing with his family, my parents refused. They didn’t know the boy or what kind of family he came from. Then, as if to make it up to me, they arranged for Mu-chan, a family friend and son of Otoosan’s colleague at Hokkaido University to visit instead.

Students entering Nishiko in the morning

Once again, Okaasan looked on while we chatted in the kitchen. Mu-chan wore stodgy black trousers and a white, short-sleeved shirt. His hair was cut short and he wore those black rectangular glasses common to nerds the world over. Yet his earnestness and sincerity won me over. How could I not love Mu-chan!

And so, I learned to make peace with my situation and to enjoy myself within the confines of the accepted boundaries, both at school and at home. Oddly enough, I had gone overseas looking for freedom but instead found more rules. I went looking to break out, but instead learned to find my place.

I went looking to break out, but instead learned to find my place.

When I returned home, the culture shock was immediate. Meeting me at the airport, my parents bombarded me with questions, never mind that I’d corresponded almost daily. “Speak up!” they shouted. “Why are you whispering?” Then they proceeded to interrupt both me and each other with more and more questions. I found it all quite bewildering.

Reasoning that I had just traveled halfway around the world by myself, (but of course, I hadn’t been by myself at all), my parents were prepared to grant me more freedom, but now I didn’t crave it. I just wanted to fit in. I had no desire to break out or upset the apple cart.

In ten short weeks, I had become almost Japanese. People even commented that I looked that way from behind. Instead of the American shoulders-back, chest-out, head-up posture, I had adopted the more modest Japanese bearing. I even felt ashamed of the disrespect my classmates showed our school. With its marble lobby, Olympic-sized swimming pool, and pristine landscaping, my high school was certainly better endowed than Nishiko, but no one seemed to appreciate it.

Indeed, the whole experience had changed me. Oddly enough, living with a Buddhist family in Japan had made me appreciate traditional Jewish values. My parents remained ever grateful to my Japanese family for the impact they had on me.

I slowly began to increase my Jewish observance, and eventually, seeking a husband, I found my way to a shabbaton in Crown Heights. My host family invited me back again and again. It was delightful being adopted like this, but wait – I said to myself, I’m no orphan, I have my own Orthodox family.

Cousin Miriam had long since passed away, but her sister, Cousin Norma, was alive and well and living with her daughter in Boro Park. I called her and the next thing I knew I was coming for Shabbos.

Over that winter, spring and summer, I met many Orthodox cousins, from Chasidim to Sephardim. With each succeeding Shabbos I learned more and more Jewish laws and customs. Finally, I learned about matchmakers and that was how I met my husband.

My own wedding was the first Orthodox simcha I’d attended since childhood.

I often regale my husband and other family members with stories about Japan. Without fail, I get the same reaction – how Jewish! Everything they taught me, from showing respect to teachers and parents, to modest dress and bearing fits perfectly with traditional Jewish values.