An Eye-Opening, Uneven Exchange
When the bus pulled into our small town and the Japanese exchange students got off one at a time, they looked bewildered, jet-lagged, expectant. They wore name tags with their Japanese first names and the anything-but-Japan- ese last names of their host families. We easily recognized our student, even without the "AYUMI SCHULTZ" in blue letters. And so we met.Skip to next paragraph
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We had volunteered to host a student for a three-week cultural-exchange program. In our briefing, we were told that the students would attend class each morning and go on several field trips to the Los Angeles area, but for the rest of the time, they expected to live with a normal American family.
Normal? Well, they told us, she wouldn't mind that we were vegetarians and lived on the edge of nowhere. And we weren't supposed to do anything special. Oh, right. The first special thing we did was have our oldest daughter, Morgan, clean her room in honor of Ayumi's stay, which she did graciously if not thoroughly. I bought a new pillow. I dusted the plants. The house was as swept and sparkling as it would be for any visitor from afar. The challenge was going to be keeping it that way for three weeks.
On the drive home, Morgan and I chatted with Ayumi. We had been told that she spoke English, but it wasn't our off-handed, slurry kind. The combination of a long flight and fast-talking strangers would make any 14-year-old feel far from "Where is the post office?" English-class dialogue. Her comprehension exceeded her ability (or her daring). We slowed down. Japan was greener, we learned. Our mountain road was steep. We had a lot of open space.
At home, we showed Ayumi her room, and then gathered the rest of the family (three younger daughters, my husband, two dogs, two cats) for introductions and conversation. The dogs quickly were put outside, as their size horrified our guest. I was glad we had moved the pet mouse to another room. The conversation was painful. We were all so awkward. And no matter how we tried, every sentence put Ayumi on the spot as we gazed at her glassily, awaiting her shyly constructed, short response.
Then Morgan, bless her, discovered the universal language of teenagers: "Have you seen the new 'Romeo and Juliet'?"
Ayumi's face lit up. "Yes!" she said.
"I love that movie," Morgan said, as if the posters in her room didn't make that plain.
"Me, too," Ayumi said.
"Leonardo," said Morgan, a caress in her voice.
"Yes," Ayumi agreed fervently. The international language: Leonardo DiCaprio.
For dinner we served burritos, with a lesson in layering and rolling. After dinner Ayumi gave us beautifully patterned paper, with a lesson in folding it into origami birds.
Later that night, Ayumi called home. It was already the next morning in Tokyo. Her mother asked to speak with me. In English she thanked me for our kindness and hospitality. Then she paused, said something in Japanese. "I don't know the word," she said.
"Yes?" I prompted, awaiting more compliments from her.