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Japanese cultural homestay comes to Sonora

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By Tom Durston

Forty Japanese ´students´ and their two program advisors arrived in Sonora on December 23 for a cultural homestay exchange program. Students range in age from 10 to 57 years and come from various cities and towns in the southern part of Japan´s southern island, Kyushu. All of the students and the program advisors are staying with American families in the Sonora area.

The homestay is designed for the Japanese students to experience American culture, study English and visit several sites of interest in the Mother Lode and California. Three Sonora residents, Chuck Gray, Kendra Hatler and Cindy Hatler, serve as teacher/coordinators for the group and provide the English instruction and arrange all of the activities. The two program advisers, Natsuko Sakai and Keishi Hamada, are full time employees of Minami Nihon Culture Center (MNCC), the company in Kagoshimacity that sponsors the program on the Japanese end including recruiting and orienting the students. Both Sakai and Hamada are fluent in English and are able to help students with any needs that the American coordinators are unable to handle on their own.

The American company Cultural Homestay Institute (CHI) coordinates the American side of the program.CHI area coordinator Suzanne Autrey of Modesto says that the Japanese absolutely love Sonora. They like the small town atmosphere. It is very rural. People have time for them. People have a bona fide family life. So they really see a part of Americana.

Autrey says the interest the Japanese have in the American homestays is part of a century-old tradition to learn the best from foreign cultures and apply the principles to Japan. The host families find that they have the ability to make a lasting difference in the life of a young student and this is what motivates them to make the sacrifice to host the young people. Host families volunteer to host without any financial reimbursement. The first group of four American students and a chaperone went to Japan for two weeks last November. The scholarship program was the idea of MNCC vice president Junichi Hamada, who believed that volunteerism is a valuable American concept that should be introduced to the Japanese students.

Kendra Hatler said that for most of the students, the most memorable experience so far has been spending Christmas with the host families. She adds that the younger students enjoy “hanging out” with host brothers and sisters, and she says most of the host families “are enjoying it very much.” Host families have told her that they´re having a fabulous time, and she says “I´ve heard wonderful things.” Most host families enjoy the Japanese culture that the students bring with them, including their modesty, politeness and helpfulness. Brent Corson, “Host Dad” to two teenage boys, said for his family it´s going “really well.” He remarked that when he and the young men did yard work together, the young men jogged rather than walk and parts of the yard got raked that were never raked before. The program advisor, Natsuko Sakai,said “You can learn English even if you are in Japan,” she said, “but it´s not the learning English thing, its learning culture, learning people. For them it´s spending time with host family that is very valuable. I was exchange student, and that experience was turning point for me.” Asked what the students had enjoyed the most on their visit so far, she said “spending time with host family.”

Reprinted with permission from Sierra Mountain Times