Gestures, nods, a few words in halting English. That was the scene when Kana Kasada arrived from Matto City of Japan to spend 10 days with the Digernes family of Columbia.
As she unpacked gifts her mother sent for her hosts, the shy and demure Kana took out a palm-sized "Obunsha's Handy English to Japanese and Japanese to English Dictionary." Until her departure, the dictionary would be her constant companion, a savior of sorts. Whenever conversing, it was passed from one person to another until it assumed a "life of its own."
Yngve Digernes's 13-year-old son Karl Fleischmann said that even with the dictionary talking with Kana was "kind of tough."
"You say every word, look up the word in the dictionary and show it to Kana."
Karl's mother Rita Fleischmann said it was a great experience to open up her house to a 13-year-old girl from Japan.
"But yes," she admitted, "there were a few times when it was frustrating."
Kana was visiting Columbia as part of a group of 16 students, 13 girls and three boys, from Matto City. Columbia and Matto City became sister cities in 1988-89, and the student exchange program started in 1990. Accompanied by teachers, junior high students take turns visiting each other's city, staying with the local families. Kana, who has been studying English for a year now, wanted more exposure to the English language and to get a feel for it in a real family setting.
"I can't speak English well and I was very nervous at first," she said, with the help of a translator. "Now it is a lot better."
On Kana's first evening in Columbia, she wondered what she, with her limited vocabulary, could talk about with her American hosts.
But Karl's guitar playing comforted her, welcoming her into a musical ambience she is familiar with. Here was a "topic" which got her talking, for Kana herself plays the saxophone. During her stay, Kana taught her hosts the well-known Japanese art of paper folding, known as Origami. Yngve and Karl can now make a few animal figures.
During her 10-day stay, Kana visited Columbia, Kansas City, St. Louis and the Lake of Ozarks. The Digernes family also immersed Kana in everyday summer Americana: a day-camp organized by the Y.M.C.A., a garage sale, and a barbecue. They took her out to play miniature golf, which she enjoyed.
"Golf and Big Surf are the two things I enjoyed and the memories of both will remain forever," Kana said.
The Digernes family's diet is strictly vegetarian, but they prepapred some of their guest's favorite food. Rice cooked by Rita posed a problem for Kana; it was not sticky enough. But the hosts more than made up for it by serving Kana strawberry with a whiff of cream, which is now her "favorite food."
"I prided myself as a good cook," Rita Fleischmann said. "But now I realize that when tastes are different it is not easy. I tried to accommodate all her favorite dishes. She was so polite that she wouldn't say that the preparation was not good."
Rita said Kana's 10-day visit was too short.
"We were getting to know each other better as she was opening up and communication was getting a little better," she said.
At a farewell banquet at Columbia College, the Japanese students danced and sang in both English and Japanese. Both the Japanese and American students, who would be visiting Matto next year, read out a sentence in English and Japanese expressing their feelings about their 10-day stay. Next year, it will be Karl's turn to visit Kasada's family. The Columbia school students will be taking up Japanese language classes this fall.
Sandra Logan, principal of West Junior High and the American coordinator for the visiting Japanese group is looking forward to visiting Matto City with her American wards in July 2004.
"Such an exchange program exploring family to family ties strengthens relationships between the two countries, giving an opportunity to young students to learn each others culture, customs, language," Logan said.