POWHATAN – Two Powhatan families celebrated summer with an international experience close to home when they hosted exchange students from Japan.
The Martin and Davis families both opened their homes for a month to 13-year-old Japanese girls who came to experience everyday American life.
Crystal and Josh Martin and their four children hosted Koyori Omura, who lives in Shizuoka, Japan. Liz and Mark Davis and their daughter hosted Yui Takahashi, who is from Kobe, Japan. Both families were first-time hosts.
When the Martins first heard about the opportunity to host a Japanese student for a month, Crystal Martin said she thought it would be a good experience for her whole family, but especially her oldest daughter, Krissa, 12, who acted as the main host during Koyori’s visit.
The visit was interesting as well as challenging, both families agreed. Neither Japanese girl had strong English skills, so there was a huge language barrier in everyday life, Martin said.
“She speaks very little English so we have to get creative when it comes to ways to communicate, like charades where we are pointing or using Alexa or Google translate,” Martin said.
Liz Davis agreed the language barrier was the biggest challenge for her family as well. It was hard to do something simple like chit chat with Yui. But the young girl was outgoing and willing to try new things, so she seemed to be enjoying the experience, including cooking traditional Japanese food for her host family.
It helped that Davis’ daughter, Maddy, 13, is interested in Japanese culture and worked hard to put her new friend at ease.
“Yui brought pictures of her country, her family, and Japanese games. So I feel like Maddy has gotten exposure to that – real stuff versus what she is reading on the internet,” Davis said.
Yui said she participated in the exchange program because she felt American life and culture would change her. During her visit, she struggled with not knowing much English and homesickness. But she enjoyed “family time, playing games and badminton.”
Maddy said she was nervous at first and a bit uncomfortable, but once she got to know Yui, she realized her visit would actually be pretty fun.
“I have learned more about products, clothes, food from Japan and learned more Japanese, too,” said Maddy, who said she would like to visit Japan and meet Yui’s family.
Krissa Martin also said having Koyori stay with her family made her want to learn more about Japan and one day visit her new friend there. She said she loved showing Koyori how she is homeschooled because it is so different from the Japanese girl’s school experience. Krissa also enjoyed taking her to her favorite restaurant, Chick-fil-A.
Koyori said her favorite parts of her stay were family time, watching movies and shopping. The biggest challenge was communication.
When the host families got their instructions for the month-long visit, they were asked not to constantly run around doing special trips so the girls could experience the everyday life of an American family, Crystal Martin said. She admits they did throw a few extra treats in there – such as short trips to Williamsburg and Smith Mountain Lake – but overall, they wanted to give Koyori a typical American summer.
They attended vacation Bible school at their church, signed up for the 4-H Farm to Table Camp for a week, played games, and saw “The Lion King.”
It was also interesting to see Koyori experience a more rural lifestyle. The Martins live on a 3-acre lot in a neighborhood but have horses behind them and plenty of space to roam. It was a very different experience for the young girl from Japan, who lives in a much smaller house in a city.
“Seeing everything through her eyes has been really fun because we are used to it all. We are used to land, to space and pets,” Martin said.
The Davis family took a trip to Washington, D.C. and visited King’s Dominion, but they also gave Yui plenty of exposure to normal rural life in Powhatan. Davis said her family took Yui horseback riding on their 9-acre property and let her interact with the animals they own.
“She went fishing with my husband. … She lives in the city. We have goats and dogs. All of that has been an adjustment for her, too. She doesn’t have any animals. She helped with feeding the dogs. She goes out with my daughter to feed the goats. She is very helpful,” Davis said.
The two families don’t know each other but Davis and Martin had their children and young visitors meet on Aug. 8 at a bowling alley. The two Japanese girls gravitated to each other, obviously finding it comfortable to speak their native language after several weeks of constantly struggling to communicate.
Davis lauded not only the experience of hosting but the bravery of the 13-year-old girls to leave their countries and travel to somewhere they don’t speak the language to have this new experience.
“They have been incredible,” she said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.