by Jeff Franklin
Traveling by trains, subways, and buses in a metropolitan city isn't comparable to crossing the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry, but that's what 15-year-old Shintaro Kawasaki became accustomed to this past summer. Shintaro was the guest of the Schwab family in their rural Madison County home through the Labo/4-H international student exchange program.
A long way from
his home in the Tokyo area, Shintaro Kawasaki got to experience rural Kentucky life through Labo and 4-H.
Labo is a Japanese program integrating language, learning, and cultural exploration for students in preschool to high school.
EVERY YEAR hundreds of Labo Japanese students visit the United States for one month in the summer. 4-H Youth Development works in 20 states to find host families for those exchange students. Kentucky 4-H has been bringing Labo youth to the commonwealth since the 1970s.
Mark Mains, a University of Kentucky 4-H youth development extension specialist, oversees matching the exchange students with Kentucky host families.
"Labo is similar to the 4-H club program in the U.S.," said Mains. "They are called Labo parties in Japan, not clubs. Kids join from preschool on up. When they join, they do so with the expectation they will come to America, so parents start saving money when their children are really young."
A Member of the Family
The primary focus of the visit is for the Japanese students to see how the average American family lives, and that's what the Schwabs tried to do for Shintaro.
"It's a great program, and something that's not hard for a family to do," said Greg Schwab, an extension soil scientist in the College of Agriculture. "Shintaro has been like an extra member of the family while he has been here."
While staying with the family, which includes Schwab, his wife Rebecca, and their three children, Caroline, Abigail, and host child, 15-year-old Joshua, Shintaro helped Joshua take care of his chickens and gather the eggs each day. They visited grandparents in Ohio and Eastern Kentucky and went to Mammoth Cave, Kings Island amusement park, and the Cincinnati Zoo. He and Joshua stayed up late and played a lot of board games.
East meets West
over some tabletop fun at the Schwab house.
Joshua went to Japan on a nine-day, homestay program in 2009. After that trip, he started studying Japanese in a home school class. During the month he stayed with the Schwabs, Shintaro was able to help Joshua with his Japanese.
"Shintaro speaks very good English," Joshua said. "He has helped me a lot with my Japanese studies."
The boys hope to be friends for life.
"I like these people," said Shintaro. "They are very friendly."
Joshua Schwab (c) and father Greg Schwab (r) gave Shintaro Kawasaki a taste of farm living during his visit last summer.
To qualify for the program, host families must have a child that is the same age, or close to the same age, as the visiting Labo student. As long as the Schwabs have children at home, they would like to host a Labo student.
"It's a great experience, and I would highly recommend it," said Greg Schwab. "Anybody who thinks they might be interested, should give it a try. It's a wonderful thing."
Music, a Common Language
While the Schwabs were hosting their first Labo student, it was the second time around for Bailey Brown and her mom Robin in Russell County. Bailey, 13, hosted a Labo student in the summer of 2009. She enjoyed the experience so much, she wanted to do it again.
"I am an only child, and I have always wanted a sister," Bailey said. "I like different cultures and wanted to learn what it was like to have a sister."
Bailey Brown got the "sister" she'd always wanted—
at least for the month Mami Watahiki visited.
Mami Watahiki, 14, was Bailey's "sister" for four weeks last summer. Mami, from near Tokyo, was the perfect match for Bailey because of their musical interests. Mami plays the piano and can play a song after hearing it only once. Bailey, a singer who has competed in beauty pageants, spent a lot of time with Mami accompanying her on the piano. Mami also plays trombone and is in her school's marching band in Japan.
But their time together wasn't just about music. Living in Russell County, the Browns are just the skip of a stone from one of Kentucky's most popular tourist attractions, Lake Cumberland. One evening the Browns took Mami on a pontoon boat cruise of the lake where the girls went swimming and enjoyed the breeze from the boat ride after a punishing day of August heat. And when the school year started and took Bailey away from home during the day, Mami got the chance to go fishing on the lake with Bailey's grandfather.
Both Bailey and her mom said they may even host another Labo student next summer. Robin Brown thinks hosting a student for four weeks, rather than a whole year, like some foreign student exchange programs, works well, but it wasn't going to make saying goodbye any easier.
"We're going to have a hard time letting this one go home," she said. "So I can't imagine a whole year."
Robin said she couldn't bear the thought of letting Bailey go by herself to a foreign country for a month, because she would constantly worry about her. Bailey, though, is eager to go, especially to Tokyo, which she calls "the shopping capital of the world."
Where There's a Room, There's a Way
Beverly Cox and her 12-year-old daughter Katelyn always thought about hosting a foreign exchange student in their Lexington home, but never really had the room. But when the Cox's oldest son grew up and moved out on his own, that changed. Beverly Cox initially made the suggestion to Katelyn, who responded with an excited, "Yes, yes, yes!" Yuri Watanbe, a 13-year-old girl from near Tokyo, was their guest for the four-week stay.
Beverly Cox enjoys a laugh with Yuri Watanbe during Watanbe's month-long stay with Cox and her daughter Katelyn.
If music was the common thread for Bailey and Mami, Yuri and Katelyn enjoyed the love of sports and being physically active, swimming and playing golf and tennis, during their time together.
Cox kept Yuri's parents abreast of the girls' daily activities.
"I sent them an email every day to let them know what they had done and what she was eating. Because if Katelyn were in Japan at her age, I would want to know everything she is doing," she said.
Cox said she wants Katelyn to experience Japan one day, as well as other cultures.
Yuri Watanbe and Katelyn Cox discovered a shared love of sports helped bridge the language barrier.
"I want my children to realize that the world is a small place, to experience different cultures, and if I can't get her to Japan now, I will bring Japan to her."
And that's what Yuri did, bringing a suitcase full of gifts from her country for the Cox family, something all the Labo students did for their host families.
The Labo students were not alone during their visit to Kentucky. Tomoko Enomoto, a Labo club leader and tutor for 25 years, chaperoned the 12 students who came to the Bluegrass State.
For Enomoto, the trip was a homecoming of sorts. Her daughter is married to a Kentuckian, and the couple lives in Lexington. The groom's mother is Marjorie Baker, a UK extension associate. So when Tomoko was chosen to accompany the Labo students to Kentucky, it was an opportunity for Baker and Enomoto to get better acquainted during Enomoto's stay in Baker's Scott County home.
"It gave me a chance to show off Kentucky and be an ambassador for the state," Baker said.
Mark Mains said it takes a "leap of faith" for the Japanese families to send their children to the U.S., but both the Labo and 4-H programs have everybody's best interest in mind.
"What's a better ambassador than a child from another country?" he said. "It started with those roots, sending their children out to represent their country in a non-threatening, cultural-sharing, kind of way. It speaks highly of the relationship between the Labo and 4-H programs." ◆