Experiencing the good, the bad and the ugly of Winnipeg

A Winnipeg homestay 'mother' helps her student from Japan immerse himself in Winnipeg culture...but is saddened to see he's the target of racism.

International student experiences new culture, warmth of new friends — and sting of Covid 19 racism

International student Yosuke Nakai, left, with Derick Kizuik and Janine LeGal, embraces all that Winnipeg has to offer. 'It's a joy to see,' says LeGal. (Janine LeGal/supplied)

He was dropped off at our house just after 3 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 23. 

He told us that our street looked like the one he'd seen in a horror movie, the last movie he'd watched before leaving his home country to begin his journey to Canada.

"A horror movie!" I exclaimed. I was concerned. "What do you mean by that?" 

"The old houses, close together, in the dark. No people. Really scary. I've never seen this kind of house in the real world, only in the horror movie," he replied, grinning.

Let the adventure begin, I thought.

He could 'feel' the areas where there might be danger — his instincts are good- Janine LeGal

Yosuke Nakai is 19 years old and from Osaka, Japan's second largest city after Tokyo with a population of more than two million people.

He's in Winnipeg to attend English language classes at the University of Winnipeg, and he was matched with us through the university's homestay program. 

As homestay hosts, we provide him with a place to call 'home.' And, like all other homestay students before him, he became part of our family the minute he walked through the door. 

Yosuke will be with us until December, so we've got time to get to know each other, and he's got time to settle in and adjust to life here.

Yosuke Nakai with homestay hosts Janine LeGal and Derek Kizuik. 'He asked whether people here would stay away from him' because of COVID-19 fears, LeGal says. (Janine LeGal/supplied)

And there's quite a lot of adjusting to do. 

I think Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, and his city is apparently a place where students, male or female, feel comfortable walking to and from university in the dark, late at night, on their own. 

So Yosuke immediately began asking questions about what he was seeing on our streets. 

On his second day in Winnipeg, as we walked to the downtown bus stop together, we were approached about buying drugs. He was taken aback, confused by that and other things he's experienced here. 

He told me he could 'feel' the areas where there might be danger. Fortunately for him, his instincts are good.

In his first 24 hours in Winnipeg, we gave Yosuke a tour of our South Osborne neighbourhood and stopped in for some ice cream at Chaeban. 

We talked about cultural differences, hockey, education, cats, weather and crime.

He is certain that he was singled out because he's Asian- Janine LeGal

We also talked about the discrimination occurring against Asians as a result of COVID-19. Yosuke was a little worried about that. He asked whether people here would stay away from him because of the associated fears.

He's such a good conversationalist, you forget he's only 19. He asks a lot of questions and loves to learn new things.

Derek Kizuik, left, and Yosuke Nakai bond over the universal game of online Monolopy. (Janine LeGal/supplied)

By watching games on TV with my partner, Yosuke has been learning about hockey. He asks me to repeat a word whenever he doesn't understand. 

Pandora (our cat) seems quite intrigued by him. Our other two cats, Annabelle and Jupiter, have accepted him, and that's a big deal. 

He eats and appreciates everything I cook.  He laughs a lot and wants to talk to everyone. We took him to a party soon after he arrived and he introduced himself to almost everyone in the room. 

He loves planes, trains, boats, jet-skis, and all things transportation-related. He even enjoyed the Winnipeg Boat Show (my partner took him). 

Yosuke with Derek Kizuik. 'He eats and appreciates everything I cook,' LeGal says. (Janine LeGal/supplied)

This young man is incredibly smart and engaged with every aspect of life. It's a joy to see, actually. 

But things have changed dramatically since Yosuke arrived.

Last week, he came home and told us that an older man on a bike had pointed at him and his friend on the street, and yelled out, "Coronavirus!" 

He'd been so worried about that when he arrived (and, it now seems, for good reason).

A few days ago, he mentioned that while washing his hands in a mall washroom, two young men leered at him, covered their faces in his presence and backed away until he finished.

He is certain that he was singled out both times because he's Asian. I am, too.

"I'm so sorry that happened to you," I said.

"I don't know what's going on in the real world," said Yosuke.

"I don't either," I replied.

"But I have great respect for Canadians. I'm impressed with Canadians and the Canadian government for the fast decisions they take to keep the virus from spreading," he said.

With the closures, Yosuke is now taking his classes online. He's exploring ways to stay active, and though he didn't like my suggestion of going out for walks, he knows he needs to consider different ways to keep busy. 

He's beginning to feel the isolation, and I can see the worry in this face, despite his natural inclination to smile all the time.

And so this is how we live, certain of nothing and trying to do our best with that.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Janine LeGal is a freelance writer and a grassroots activist who believes passionately in the power of each one of us to make the world a better place.