Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

August 8, 2011

Japanese student embraces local culture

Glasgow Daily Times

GLASGOW — A Barren County family is spending a month sharing their American culture with a Japanese foreign exchange student through a 4-H-based program.

Mikiya Wakabayashi, 13, came to stay with the Wood family at the end of July, and despite language barriers the family has folded Mikiya into its daily activities and is trying to give Mikiya a true taste of rural American life.

The family has simply brought Mikiya to all the activities they normally do, Elizabeth Wood said. Wood’s sons, TJ, 11, and Alex, 10, are both active in 4-H and church, and so Mikiya has joined the busy schedule. The Woods have taken Mikiya to local fairs, 4-H programs, Mammoth Cave and church get-togethers. Mikiya has fit in as if he’s known the family forever, according to Wood.

“We couldn’t have got a better child to fit in with our family,” Elizabeth Wood said.

TJ and Alex both said the language difference is hard when trying to communicate with Mikiya, but they are having a lot of fun with their visitor. He plays with them easily, and he is teaching them aspects of his culture, as well as absorbing theirs.

“He showed us how to use chopsticks and we ate with them,” Alex said.

Mikiya came to the United States through the Japanese Labo exchange program, which works with 4-H programs in the U.S. to place Japanese children between the ages of 13 and 18 in an American home stay for a month. The program is very popular in Japan, said Barren County 4-H and family development extension agent Paula Tarry, and parents often start saving before a child is born to send him or her to the U.S. through Labo. Mikiya has known he would participate in this exchange program since his older brother did it about two years ago, Mikiya said.

The Labo program in Japan contacts 4-H programs across the U.S. and lets them know how many students want to come, Tarry said, and then the 4-H programs place the children. Barren County has not hosted a student in about 10 years, although for a while it had one student about every year.

Barren County can only host one Japanese student at a time, because the students are always spread out so they don’t see each other and they immerse themselves in their own American experience.

According to Labo rules, Mikiya cannot get online or communicate with his family in any form other than letters, Elizabeth Wood said. Even so, Mikiya said he is happy in the U.S.

Mikiya wanted to come to the U.S. to study American farming. His father is a professor, but his friend’s family owns a rice farm, and helping at their farm has spurred Mikiya’s interest in agriculture.

“I wanted to farm here,” Mikiya said.

Jamie Wood is trying to give Mikiya as much experience on the farm as he can. Mikiya can’t work with farm equipment, but Jamie Wood has been taking Mikiya to the local dairy farm where Jamie is herd manager in order to “show him the ropes.”  

“He’s been a real trooper,” Elizabeth Wood said.

Mikiya goes to the farm, does chores around the house and joins in any activity the family takes him to, Elizabeth Wood said, and he never hesitates to participate fully. She wants to take him to the local Amish community and make sure he absorbs as many facets of American culture as he can while he is here.

“I want him to see we have so many cultures in the U.S. and I think that’s something he needs to see,” Elizabeth Wood said.

The Woods decided to host a foreign exchange student for the first time after a family at church asked them if they would be interested. Jamie Wood said he thought it would be a good experience for his children to meet someone from another country, and the month-long program would allow Elizabeth and Jamie to see if they might want to participate in hosting foreign exchange students more in the future. So far, the experience has exceeded the Woods’ expectations, and they have enjoyed their time with Mikiya.

“He is the most well-behaved child,” Elizabeth Wood said. “I hope my children learn a lot from him.”

It is difficult to communicate with Mikiya sometimes because his ability to speak English is not as strong as his ability to write it, Elizabeth Wood said, but the language barrier pushes the family to find other ways to communicate.

“I have been puzzled by (the) language barrier,” Elizabeth Wood said. “It does frustrate you, but don’t ever give up. It does get better.”

When they have trouble communicating, the Woods and Mikiya often use hand gestures or reference Mikiya’s English phrase book and a Japanese-English dictionary.

Tarry hopes that the Wood family’s positive experience hosting a Labo exchange student will encourage other local families to become involved.

“Hopefully this will create some more excitement,” Tarry said.

Since the Woods are so involved with 4-H, Mikiya has already attended several 4-H events, and many in the Barren County 4-H program are getting to know Mikiya, Tarry said.

American students also have the opportunity to spend a month in Japan if they would like to, but it has been about 20 years since a Barren County student has gone to Japan. That is probably because American students don’t learn Japanese and therefore are less comfortable traveling overseas, Tarry said. But even if local students don’t travel to Japan, Tarry said she would like to see Barren County families once again hosting a Japanese student each year.

Elizabeth Wood spoke highly of the experience, and encouraged any family to host a Japanese student.

“If you haven’t had a foreign exchange student before, you need to get one,” Elizabeth Wood said.