Karin Watanabe is not dissimilar from the average American ‘tween.’ She lists music, crafts and sweets among her favorite things.
There are two things however, that set her apart from said tween group. Karin is a Japanese exchange student. Earlier this summer, with the love and support of her parents Yukaka and Michiyo Wantanabe, the 12-year-old boarded a plane and traveled over 5,300 miles for the experience of a lifetime.
On July 22, 2009 Karin arrived in Sacramento to the welcoming arms of her host parents Mark and Monica Perrone. The Knights Ferry couple serves as International Exchange Leaders with the Orange Blossom 4-H group.
According to Monica Perrone, the family first learned of the exchange program several years ago, while attending a general information meeting for the Orange Blossom 4-H. Their son Paul, now 14, was 12 at the time and the couple thought the exchange sounded like an ideal opportunity for their son.
“It was a good experience,” Monica said of the 12-year-old boy the family hosted in 2007.
“It’s a good opportunity for a short term exchange,” she added in regards to the 30-day stay period.
The program the family participates with is a partnership between the 4-H International Exchange Program and Labo, a youth development organization in Japan.
“It’s all about cultural exchange,” Monica shared.
The 2007 experience was so positive, that the family made the decision to host a female student when their daughter Anna was 12 so she could share the same experience as her older brother.
In late spring the family began correspondence with Karin and her family.
“She has been preparing for the homestay program since she was a young girl,” Monica said, adding that Karin’s older brother, Ryotato, 17, also participated in a homestay through Labo.
According to the Labo website (http://labo-exchange.com) “Labo offers an integrated program of language learning, cultural awareness, and personal discovery and growth. Dedicated Labo staff and volunteer leaders work to help children grow into well-rounded, open-minded, and responsible members of society.”
“I want to go to America for homestay,” Karin shared of her travels stateside.
While her English is a bit rough, Karin and the Perrone family managed to navigate their way through the language barrier while she stayed at their home.
“She’s good at English,” Monica said of Karin. “We get by. You can read so much from body language.
“The only real challenge has been diving into a topic in depth.”
One challenge the family did not face was keeping the 12-year-old busy and entertained. While it is not the goal or the mission of the project for the host family to serve as tour guides, the Perrone family enjoyed showing Karin many of the sights of Northern California.
During her 30-day stay the family took her to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, San Francisco, Yosemite, as well as the local Farmer’s Market, New Melones lake, a tennis camp and the sights of Knights Ferry.
“Really having her here…” Monica said, “… you know how it is, you get so busy. Having Karin here has given us an excuse to have fun.”
But the family has not just ‘had fun’ and enjoyed having their student along on the road trips. Karin also rode a horse for the first time and enjoyed cooking dinners with the family.
“I think she’s very brave to do this at 12 years old,” Monica said of Karin. “She’s just a fun-loving wonderful kid.
She has a great support network through Labo,” the host mother added. “There is a structure, so if she did not know what to do with herself there is some guidance. It’s as if she sees this as a task and she wants to do well.”
When asked her opinion on her experience while in Oakdale, California Karin stated, “Oakdale … big, calm, trees so beautiful. Japan is small. America is beautiful.”
Through her body language and facial expressions Karin made it clear that she had not only enjoyed her stay in Oakdale, but was grateful to her host family as well. When asked if she was ready to return to Japan, she said, “Excited to go.”
Thirty days and 5,300-plus miles is a long way from home, regardless of age.
“I don’t know if we are an atypical example,” Monica said, “but this has been a breeze.
“I would encourage more families to do it. There are no regrets. We have all learned something about ourselves along the way. This has given us the opportunity to share what we love about our family and our community.”
4-H also provides exchanges with Australia, Costa Rica and Finland. Additional information is available at www.ca4h.org/exchange or by contacting Program Representative, Pat English at firstname.lastname@example.org.