Saori, a 15-year-old Japanese student whose name we would botch throughout her three-week stay in our home, brought many unexpected blessings to us this summer. I knew I liked her when her profile indicated she liked camping and hiking, and I loved the initial emails we exchanged before she departed her home and came to ours. (“What I want to do with you are too many!” she wrote.)
We were told many things about “typical” Japanese students in advance of their arrival: they’re shy, they need to be shown to pull the blankets back from the bed or they will sleep on top of them instead of under, they will shut the water off during their showers to conserve water, and if you want to treat them to something reminiscent of home, serve some Ramen noodles.
By the very fact that they were embarking on this journey to America for a three-week language immersion school and cultural experience, we assumed they enjoyed adventure at least a little. Sao, as she let us call her for short, seemed to have no limits on her willingness to embrace every opportunity to do something new.
We broke her in to some good old-fashioned American fun with camping over her first weekend. Those three days on the river in North Idaho provided her with a litany of “firsts” that she won’t soon forget: sleeping in a tent, having a campfire, roasting marshmallows, eating s’mores, swimming in a river, attending a church service, and viewing a whole galaxy of stars on a crystal clear night away from city lights. She was open to anything Emily and Alex (aka Lewis and Clark) wanted to do, and I warned her that was a little dangerous, as I never know what plans they will devise. She grinned from ear to ear and said she didn’t mind. The three of them took a raft and paddled it along the shore over to a cove where they got into the water and fished by hand; they caught a small minnow they named Ponyo, much to Sao’s delight. She and Alex built a massive sand castle with a fortress and a moat, and Emily successfully talked her into trying out a variety of jumps and positions on the diving board and slide. Later as her time came to a close, she said this camping experience was the favorite activity of her time in America.
At home during the week, we enjoyed our conversations with Sao as she returned from school excited to share what she had learned. On her first day in class, she was thrilled to discover some of the many ways Americans say yes (uh huh, yeah, okay, sure) and we added to her list. Dad continually confused her with his usual array of colloquialisms and jokes that only produced blank stares. “Did you bring the kitchen sink?” (Does he want me to use his sink? Am I supposed to wash something?) “Are you up for all day?” (Am I up? What does this mean?) But the two of them connected when she indicated an interest in a topic he deeply loves: the American Western.
“What is ‘Western’?” she asked when she heard that her class would be celebrating Western day. Dad sat down with her and showed her a map of the U.S. and explained how gradually people explored the wide-open and Wild West. He opened a book and showed her pictures of corrals and old west towns. He showed her a short clip of cowboys at work on the movie “Lonesome Dove.” And she soaked up ALL of it. Her teacher later told me how proud Sao was on Western Day to know what chaps were, especially when no one else did. That day, they also made “Wanted” posters of themselves and learned some country line dancing with the help of their American friends.
During the last week of school, the Japanese celebrated all the American holidays in one day. They made Valentines, had a BBQ for 4th of July, dressed up for Halloween and gave white elephant gifts for Christmas. The day culminated with all the host families coming together for a Thanksgiving feast. When Sao learned that her teacher would be carving a roasted turkey for us to eat, she was conflicted. I found this odd, as this was a girl who was willing to eat anything. (She loved Mom’s roast pork and tried everything that was served.) It was only later on the ride home that I learned why Sao chose to go meatless for that particular meal. Our neighborhood has a flock of turkeys that wander through our yard every morning, and she had grown quite fond of watching them. As we came up the hill to our house, I had to stop the car to let the family of turkeys cross the road. “Turkeys!” she exclaimed. “And you would EAT them?!”
We threw a party for Sao and several of her friends on their last weekend. They gorged themselves on sugar cookies and played a wide variety of games in the yard, along with having a water gun fight and jumping on the trampoline. Oh, the trampoline. She was so timid her first time on it, unsure whether she should really jump. She quickly got over that and enjoyed seeing Emily do flips and tricks. They even slept on the tramp a few times, woke up sopping wet once as the sprinkler system soaked through all their layers of sleeping bags and blankets. So many memories she won’t likely forget soon.
And as for me … I won’t forget the impact quickly either. Sao became an instant daughter to me. I was so excited to watch her grow in her comfort with speaking English and with doing things on her own around the house. She would play the piano and cook Japanese dishes for us, show the kids how to do origami cranes and use her kendama. Her voice always held enthusiasm and her eyes always shone with wonder.
May Sao never forget what chaps are. Or that the Q in Scrabble should always be used where one can make double or triple points (in her case, for “quill,” which also added a new word to her vocab). Or that demi glace sauce is French is that’s why no one at the local Safeway knew what it was. Or how wonderful an afternoon nap in a hammock can be, hanging between two tall pines near the river. And how tasty huckleberries are, picked right from the bush. And how fast fiddlers in a Bluegrass band can play those violins.
And in return, may we always welcome youth exploring a foreign land and look for ways to bridge people across the globe. And consider it a blessing to share the great enjoyment of so many firsts, especially something as simple as viewing the stars, far, far away from the lights of Tokyo.
May we always remember a bright-eyed 15-year-old girl named Saori when we carve the Thanksgiving bird.