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September 21, 2005

4-H exchange program forges friendships across continents

Photo of participants in Japan exchange
Manami Niwa, Pam Drews and Katy Drews share pizza - and a few laughs - at the going-away party. (Becky Kirkland photos)

Remember what it was like to be 13? Well, imagine having the courage at that age to travel several thousand miles from home – by yourself- and live in a strange country for a month.

That’s what 34 Japanese students, ages 12 to 16, did in July and August, taking up residence with families across North Carolina as part of the 4-H Summer Inbound Program.

By the end of their experience, most of these students had been unofficially “adopted” by their host families.

“We now have a third daughter,” said Wes Deal of Granite Falls, who with wife Lisa and daughters Autumn, 14, and Moranna, 13 months, hosted Yuko Nakazawa, 13, from Gifu, Japan. This was the Deal family’s first year in the Summer Inbound Program, and they’re hooked.

One of Yuko’s life-long dreams became a reality on the Deal family farm, where she learned to ride a horse. In fact, she spent every day with the family’s 12 horses, mastering her riding and learning to care for the animals. The Deals wanted Yuko simply to experience their daily life, but they also treated her to special outings to a water park and baseball game. Yuko also accompanied Autumn Deal throughout her experience in the Miss Teen North Carolina pageant.

“Yuko got to be a country girl and a city girl at the same time, mucking out the stalls and going to the Miss Teen North Carolina pageant,” said Lisa Deal. “She was a big help at our 4-H horse camp, and by the end, she was riding every day.”

North Carolina 4-H has been involved in the Summer Inbound Program since 1990 through a partnership with the LABO organization in Japan. LABO provides an integrated program of youth development, language learning, and cultural exploration for Japanese children and their families. Just as North Carolina 4-Her’s belong to groups in their counties, Japanese children participate in LABO clubs.

Each summer nearly 30 Japanese students and a handful of chaperones live with North Carolina families for four weeks, coinciding with the summer break of the Japanese school year.

According to Carolyn Langley, Randolph County Extension Director and State 4-H International Exchange Coordinator, the goal of the program is to provide a “global education” to the state’s 4-H’ers, helping them learn about and develop appreciation for new cultures.

Langley and her team do their best to pair each Japanese student with a North Carolina child who has similar interests. The rules are simple: the Japanese student must be within two years of age and the same sex as at least one child in the North Carolina host family. Langley seems to have a knack for creating good matches that open doors to new learning experiences, lasting friendships, and ultimately, profound respect for different cultures.

“We live in a global society and need to have understanding, appreciation and respect for other cultures,” Langley says. “The month-long program is a great opportunity for children here to have a glimpse into another culture.”

For the Thomas family of Asheboro, hosting Japanese student Megumi Funahashi, 13, of Nisshin, revealed that typical teenage behavior is universal. “Megumi loves two things – eating and sleeping,” says 15-year-old Tayler with a smile. “Just like me!”

Along with sister Bailey, 5, and parents Christy and Brett Thomas, Tayler enjoyed her first experience hosting a student from Japan. The family treated Megumi to “our typical summer … just condensed,” said Christy. Activities included movies, boating, horseback riding, bowling, ice-skating, youth group and church. Megumi taught the family Kanji, a Japanese writing style, and brought summer kimonos for Tayler, her mom and sister.

“She showed us a lot about her culture,” said Brett Thomas. “Everyday things are so different. We realized that we take a lot for granted.”

When asked what she enjoyed most about her experience with the Thomas family, Megumi exclaimed, “everything!”

Photo of Manami Niwa
Megumi Funahashi enjoys a final evening with the Thomas family during the going-away celebration hosted by 4-H for the Japanese exchange students.

Pam and Gordon Drews and their family are no strangers to the 4-H Summer Inbound Program – they’ve participated for nearly eight years. The Drews’ sons, David, 18, and Matthew, 16, have enjoyed hosting a variety of students from Japan. This year was their sister Katy’s turn.

Despite the language barrier, Katy, 11, and exchange student Manami Niwa, 12, hit it off immediately. They’d “chatter away” in the back seat of the family van, Pam says, forming an instant friendship. Although Manami’s experience got off to a bit of a rocky start, she had a wonderful time in Stoneville with the Drews family.

“For the first few days of her visit, I thought we were going to have an international scene,” jokes Pam. “She wouldn’t eat anything!” It turns out that Manami, from Anjo, Japan, was suffering from a bad case of jet lag, but after 12 hours of solid sleep, she made a full recovery. “This morning, she ate five waffles!” Pam said with a laugh. “We can’t fill her up!”

For Manami, life with the Drews family was nothing short of an adventure. They took her to 4-H camp, church, a couple of family weddings, Girl Scout meetings and the YMCA. She also experienced North Carolina’s diverse geography during outings to Morehead City and Linville Gorge. Manami seemed to flourish in the classroom, Pam said, delivering presentations on origami and calligraphy to Pam’s kindergartners. She also read from a picture book that she’d created in Japan, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” while Katy accompanied with a reading in English.

Although the Drews are seasoned veterans of the exchange program, they gain new perspective on Japanese culture and traditions each time they host a new student. Manami prepared for them a special meal of sesame noodles with fish sauce, made with ingredients from her hometown. She also brought a vivid pink kimono for Katy and taught her how to wear it. Each member of the family received a piece of parchment with their individual names printed in Manami’s flawless calligraphy. Beyond these material gifts, Pam says, was the gift of seeing another culture through new eyes.

“My children are experiencing a different culture without having to go to Japan,” she says. “Katy has even begun to speak some Japanese.”

To prepare for Manami’s arrival, the Drews family attended several orientation sessions hosted by Langley and the 4-H program. They also read through a handbook provided by LABO that offers vocabulary and phrase translations, as well as tips on Japanese culture and customs. Most helpful of all, Pam says, was actually having the opportunity to visit Japan last summer and experience the culture first hand. The Drews stayed with the family of the first Japanese student they had hosted, demonstrating the unique potential of this program to create lasting bonds between families who live continents apart.

The Drews family became immersed in the culture of Japan, soaking up the country’s history, diverse geography, unique architecture, and of course, its distinctive cuisine. Trying to adapt to the Japanese lifestyle revealed to Pam and her family how jarring the experience can be for the Japanese students they host in North Carolina.

“Everything is so different in Japan – even the light poles are different,” Pam says. “After [eating Japanese food] for a while, McDonald’s was the best thing I’d ever seen. It made me realize how much our exchange students must miss their home food. So, we made a point to take Manami to Japanese restaurants every week.”

Langley explains that the host families aren’t expected to plan special activities, but rather, to show the Japanese students what daily life is like in North Carolina. “Take them to church, to the grocery … treat them as part of the family,” she says.

The financial commitment is minimal – meals and transportation to and from the airport – but according to the families who participate, the benefits are immeasurable. And, Langley adds, the experience for the Japanese students is unforgettable.

“First and foremost, we want them to have had a quality experience … to have bonded with their families and formed relationships with people in the U.S. who care about them,” she says. “It’s amazing how quickly that happens.”

--Suzanne Stanard

For more information about the month-long 4-H Summer Inbound Program and other international exchange opportunities, please visit www.nc4h.org.

Posted by Suzanne at September 21, 2005 08:26 AM