The language of friendship

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Despite thousands of miles and cultural differences that separate the United States from Japan, those who have spent time with host families in either country know one thing: We’re all pretty similar. Twenty middle school students and their host families discovered that during five days they spent together last week. A group from the town a Taki, a sister city of Camas, included included mayor Yukio Kubo, a high school principal, English teacher, interpreter, city clerk and travel guide, in addition to the students.They stayed with families from Liberty and Skyridge middle schools. The visit was organized though the Camas Sister City Association, in collaboration with Camas schools.

Jennifer Myers-Power, a Sister City board member and school volunteer, enjoys having the exchange students stay with her family.

“It’s just a great experience,” she said. “I was an exchange student when I was younger. My daughter went on the 2010 trip to Japan. It is great to have that cultural understanding and break barriers.”

Liberty Middle School eighth-grader Teague Schroeder said her family has hosted two Japanese students before and enjoyed the experience.

“It’s fun to communicate with them and they always brings lots of presents,” she said. “Mostly we just use hand gestures and head nodding.”

Sixth-grader Sydni Ruseoliver agreed.

“Talking to them is fun,” she said. “We don’t speak the same language but try our best to communicate.”

LaDene and Ken Mattson, co-chairs of the association, always enjoy hosting different students and city officials when they come to visit Camas. They’ve also spent time in Japan, as have all three of their children.

“I really enjoy the personal human connection,” LaDene said. “The more you’re around family life, the more you realize we are very much the same. We all want peace and happiness. The differences between us are really very small.”

The Mattson’s first hosted two exchange students in the mid 1980s, when their son was in middle school.

“We’re up to about 50 students and adults now,” Ken said. “That’s how it started, we were just middle school parents. It’s a passion for us now. Building international relationships is good, and the best place to start is when the kids are young. They are not encumbered by issues we adults have.”

One exchange student the family hosted is now 40, but still comes to visit on occasion.

“He was the first high school student we had,” LaDene said. “Now he calls us mom and dad, and has spent the holidays with us. Who knew that kind of relationship could be built?”

During their time in Camas last week, the Taki students enjoyed lunch at Burgerville, attended classes at Skyridge and Liberty middle schools, toured the city and fire department, and made a visit to historic Fort Vancouver, where they walked through the Chief Factor house, a working blacksmith’s shop, and fur shop. They also visited the gardens.

While in Camas, students also spent lots of time with their host families and discovered the differences, and similarities, between life in the United States and Japan.

Three students shared their reflections with the Post-Record through an interpreter.

“It was full of surprises,” said Takayama Mizuki. “I was surprised my host family went in the house with shoes on. The bath and toilet are in the same room. They took us to school and picked us up by car, it was fun.”

Daniele Alves of Brazil, who lives in Japan, described her experience as “great fun.”

“I learned a great deal and had many novel experiences,” she said. “Thank you to everyone. They helped me to fulfill a dream of mine.”

Murata Vamato said the language barrier became less of an issue as the days passed. “We couldn’t speak well at first but we were able to speak and understand more and more as time went by.”

Pat Edwards, a retired Camas elementary school principal, serves as secretary of the Sister City Association. She enjoys being involved in the exchange visits.

“I think it just promotes the whole feeling of we’re all one world, and here to help each other. It’s neat to combine this passion with something we can promote locally.”