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What we learned hosting Japanese exchange students for a weekend

This past weekend, our family hosted two Japanese exchange students. They spoke little English. We speak absolutely no Japanese, aside from words learned in pop culture.

The boys we hosted are students at an agricultural college. A group of 55 students is touring different agricultural points of interest in the United States. Colorado’s wheat fields and ranches drew them to our great state. Part of their educational experience is to stay at the homes of American families for several days. It’s an intense way to soak in our culture. We were partnered through a program at a friend’s church. On Friday night, we found ourselves pulling out of a parking lot with two boys and their suitcases. We were charged with feeding, entertaining, and providing a place for them to sleep.

Here are some tips we learned for communicating with people who don’t speak English:

1. It kills me to say this, but there’s an app for that. Of course, iPhones can download all sorts of translator apps. All of the highly-rated apps cost money. If it were a true communication emergency, I would have spent the $4.99, but I found Google Translate to be easy-to-use and free. We’d type in a phrase, like “beef or chicken?” and the translator would answer in Japanese characters. 牛肉や鶏肉?We’d hold up the phone and they’d answer. Once, I asked them お気に入りの音楽は何ですか? The translator provided the phonetic spelling, thankfully, so I said, “Okiniiri no ongaku wa nanidesu ka?” They answered “Ne-yo.” At first, I thought “Ne-yo” was a Japanese band or singer. Turns out to be this guy. I made a Pandora station based on Ne-yo for them.

2. Avoid restaurants. No matter how skilled you are at using google translate or other apps, you will not be able to quickly describe a Casa Bonita enchilada platter or a Cuban pork panini. I wish we ate at home more often because then they could have seen the ingredients and maybe learned a little about food prep and ingredients. We had to guess what they might like more than once. They ate everything we gave to them at home and in restaurants, but it was hard to gauge how they truly felt about refried beans. If we do this again, we may take our students to one or two favorite restaurants. We’ll put more energy into cooking at home.

3. When you do cook at home, don’t worry about having a huge spread of food. They seemed overwhelmed by our ginormous Saturday morning breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, strawberries, grapes, sliced apples, whipped cream, and juice. Plus. they were occupied with manners and decorum, asking permission to begin to eat. So many choices are hard to navigate. Plus, if you are facing your first American pancake with all the toppings, it’s intimidating. Do you pick it up with your hands? Just a fork? Do you need a knife? I never really thought about how confusing or goofy food can be until I watched them try to understand crispy bacon is best eaten with fingers. They picked up a lot by watching the kids eat. That could be good. Or bad.

4. If you are looking for movie entertainment that transcends language barriers, try the Pixar shorts. There is little or no dialogue in several, including Presto, One-Man Band, Knick Knack, For the Birds, and Lifted. They are funny and sweet, too. Laughter is contagious and transcendent.

There is so much more that I can’t gather into punchy numbered bits of advice. There were moments of total delight as the boys and the kids got to know each other. Archie really latched onto them, actively trying to get them to play. More than once, they laughed until they had tears in their eyes because of things he did. Each of the kids eagerly embraced this experience, which is the reason I wanted to do it.

If you have an opportunity like this, don’t pass it up. It’s easy to underestimate the power of opening your home and your heart. Kids who travel to other countries without knowing the language or many of the customs are admirable. Their sense of adventure and hunger for learning make them great ambassadors and great people to know. I learned so much from our time with them. It was a challenge I’m glad we embraced and I hope to do it again next year.

(photos are of some of the gifts they brought to give to their host family ~ we loved everything ~ so much beauty and color)

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