At the start of the program, I was unsure of what I wanted to do for my CIP. I had mentioned in the KCJS questionnaires that I was interested in participating in an activity involving cooking, and Nakata Sensei suggested that I work at a kodomo shokudo, a cafeteria where members of the community, particularly families with kids, can come for a free meal.
I tried calling a few kodomo shokudo’s in the area, and, after handing off the phone to Nakata Sensei almost immediately in the first call, I managed my way through the second on my own and found a shokudo that needed volunteers. With a limited amount of information about the cafeteria – just the name of one of the volunteers, its location, and a time I should arrive by – I set out the following Friday for the first time.
Because I knew very little about what to expect, I was nervous on my first day. Even finding the shokudo was a bit difficult: it is much smaller than I anticipated, located within an unassuming house. I waited for a few minutes along the street until someone appeared whom I could ask. Luckily, she was one of the volunteers.
Working at the shokudo has improved my Japanese language and allowed me to apply it in a way I rarely get to in class – to discuss food and cooking. My CIP has also introduced me to a number of interesting people, including the two kind women who run the shokudo, an economics professor at Doshisha, and a man who works in computer graphics, whom I met up with outside the shokudo to talk about computer animation. By preparing food alongside the women who run the shokudo, my vocabulary relating to food improved, along with my miming skills, which I could always fall back on if I didn’t understand what they had asked me to do. I also got to interact with kids who came to the shokudo. While my host family has a two-month-old baby whom I love having around, obviously I cannot communicate with her yet, so the shokudo gave me an opportunity – to practice my language with children – that I would not otherwise have had.
While, as a foreigner, I often felt a bit like the odd one out at the dinners, I also felt like I was truly participating in and even contributing to the community. As the woman who runs the shokudo asked me when my last day would be, I felt a sense of pride knowing that to a small degree they had come to depend on my help. While it seems that, at least at this particular shokudo, some families come simply to enjoy the community atmosphere, others seem to rely on the Friday dinners. Like in the US and any other countries, a portion of families in Japan cannot afford enough food for their children – one in seven, Nakata Sensei informed me. The shokudo guarantees them at least one stress-free, pleasant meal a week, and I enjoyed being able to help create that meal for the families who came.