August 12, 2017
6 mins read

Could widespread knowledge of a simple piece of homespun philosophy set off a chain reaction and change the way we treat each other? GARY STEEL thinks so.


Last week a couple of exchange students from Japan came to stay with us. (Although ‘exchange’ perhaps isn’t quite the right word, because our rural town’s schools couldn’t afford to send any students to Japan in reciprocation.)

Our small family had been really looking forward to it. We’d arranged to have one student for the two weeks they were in the country and learning English at the local high school, but we got a second student when another family suddenly could no longer play host. This turned out to be a mistake.

The first few days went well, and despite the fact that Yuri (13) and Mei (14) couldn’t speak a word of English, we did our best to make them feel at home. In fact, within hours of arriving, there was much laughter and fun between the girls and Minay, our nearly three-year-old. And we all split our sides when Yuri started taking photos of Minay and myself with a clever smartphone app that could modify our faces as well as animate them in the most hilarious ways.

By Tuesday evening however, Yuri was downcast and glum. When my wife (and their temporary “Mum”) Yoko asked her what was the matter, she burst into tears, and admitted she was homesick. Yoko suggested that we set up a Skype session or a phone call with her parents, but she refused.

The next morning, Yoko put a note in Yuri’s lunchbox explaining that she was here for her. Mei was leaving that day to go to another family, and she said a cheery goodbye, while Yuri said nothing. Mid-afternoon, we got a call from the school: Yuri was refusing to stay with us, and insisting on accompanying Mei to her new family.

Her stated reason for rejecting us? Our vegetarianism. Although Japanese eat a high percentage of rice, soy products and vegetables, she’d got it in her head that New Zealanders chowed down on huge steaks with every meal. This didn’t really hold water, because Yoko had been packing ham sandwiches for for lunch, they’d had steak at a café for Monday lunch, and I bought them steak hamburgers on Tuesday night.

We’re presuming (but will probably never know) that Yuri just wanted the safety net of being with another girl from her island – Yakushima, a world away from Tokyo – and unlike all the other billets, she’d decided to kick up a fuss until she got what she wanted.

To make things more tortuous, Yuri arrived ‘home’ on the school bus, and sat in our living room staring down at the table without once acknowledging us or attempting to explain anything, until the school co-ordinator called by to pick her up.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s a great example of how every thoughtless action has a reaction. Had there been a rule against two students billeting together, then the whole unfortunate situation may have been avoided altogether. Had Yuri been mature enough to explain her actions to us, then at least we wouldn’t have been left feeling like we’d somehow failed her.

Yes, in the greater scheme of things, this is the small stuff that as mature adults, we know not to sweat about. But even small, unthinking transgressions can have substantial negative impacts on others.

For instance, Yoko had put time and effort and money into making sure the girls were properly catered for, and the grocery bill wasn’t insubstantial, with food brought into the house that we wouldn’t usually eat but which she thought they would like to experience, being examples of Kiwi tucker. She’d made sure that she had the right kind of lunch boxes and healthy, nourishing things to put in them, and of course, she’d made a huge effort to make the girls welcome.

We’d also blocked our downstairs flat from Air Bnb bookings during the fortnight she was supposed to be staying with us, which deprived us of the extra income that helps our low-income household.

More importantly, there was the shock of the sudden rejection after we’d been so sensitive to her needs. Worst of all was the impact on our young daughter, Minay. She had so looked forward to the girls coming to stay with us, and within hours of their arrival they were her new best friends. She would ask about them as soon as she woke up in the morning. And because they just left, without even saying goodbye, she was left with a vast chasm of emptiness that she couldn’t figure out. Within a day of their departure, Minay was unwell, but with some unspecific ailment that we’re pretty sure was simply depression at the sudden unexplained abandonment. On the Friday evening two days after they left, we found her lying on her back in the lounge repeating “Yuri and Mei have gone, my friends have gone”, over and over.

I’m sure that it never occurred to Yuri that her actions might have negative consequences on others. She’s only 13, and teenagers are self-obsessed, so it’s easy to understand and forgive. But those actions still had consequences, if not on her, definitely on Yoko, Minay and myself; not to mention the administrative hassle for the co-ordinators dealing with the exchange students.

But I’m not telling you this story to elicit sympathy or anger. Life goes on, and we all face much more traumatic events. No, I’m telling you this simply as an example of actions and their consequences.

EVERY ACTION CAUSES A REACTION. If we were all taught this at school, then there’s a chance that we might live in a very different, and much more empathetic world.

For years, I lived by the Christian idea that if you treated others the way you would like them to treat you, then it would automatically be a better world. Except there’s a caveat to that, because not everyone wants to be treated exactly the same, although I’d be surprised if anyone except the mad or bad veered too far from wanting basic stuff like respect and understanding.

But if we were all taught that even one small action can have a reaction – or even a chain-reaction – in someone else or their families, and we were taught to think before we did anything that could have a hurtful impact on others, then a fairer, more just world might be possible.

Given the impact of this rather mild incident in our lives, it’s impossible to gauge the damage that – for instance – a murder could have in a family group or small community. I keep thinking about the father who accidentally shot and killed his toddler with a sawn-off shotgun, who said it had never worked. But there he was, playing with an illegal weapon without making absolutely sure that it wasn’t loaded, and stupidly pointing it at his infant daughter when she started acting up. Imagine the impact of that one stupid action, the chain reaction that would have occurred. I can’t imagine the devastation if my own daughter died, and if it was my fault, I’d want to kill myself. So there’s the girl, whose young life was snuffed out, the perpetrator, who presumably did love his young daughter, and will have to live with that for his whole life, and the mother, and it’s impossible to imagine the degree of her grief… and then the larger family. Think of how much sorrow that one stupid, unthinking action brought the whole family, and the wider community.

Apart from stupidity, I’m sure a lot of similar crimes occur because the families are so dysfunctional and under-educated that the topic I’m discussing would go way over their heads, but if we were taught a method of behaviour that took into consideration the way our actions had consequences, and if it was built into the curriculum, I wonder if there would be a change for the better?

If you take this simple mode of thinking to its logical conclusion, then even politicians would have to start thinking beyond party lines and about what was actually best for the populace, and perhaps the sneering arrogance we’ve been seeing for the last four or five years from the representatives of government would dissipate, as politicians started to realise the gravity of their duty to represent people and their lives without callously making decisions that might lessen the quality or even ruin those lives.

Going by the quality of debate on social media and the comments on websites and under YouTube videos, my assumption is that somehow, large swathes of the younger generations have grown up without any idea of how their actions – or their words – could impact on others, and not a shred of empathy.

Perhaps it’s time to build a code of living into our lives in this post-Christian society; simple and pragmatic lessons that from toddlers up, teach kids to respect others, and to understand the consequences of their actions. It may not be the ultimate answer, because sometimes in life everyone must make decisions that have the potential to impact on other people’s lives in a negative way, but it’s a start.





Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

1 Comment

  1. I had a similar experience when I was 15 and we had a Tahitian exchange student. She refused to talk to us or interact in any way. Turns out she was upset that NZ was too cold. In winter. We were all quite devastated and took it quite personally even though there was obviously nothing we could do about it.

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