Saying that going to Kurashiki was a “wonderful life changing experience” would be cliché and serve as an injustice to how I truly felt. Saying “thank you” doesn’t quite express the gratitude I have for the people of KCJAS, my host families, and the city of Kurashiki. They have not changed my life around, but reignited the spirit I had lost not too long ago. They have given me a new purpose to reach higher, work harder, and become stronger. That purpose is not to chase my dreams, but make my dreams a reality.
Our first night in Japan will always be one I’ll remember. The one who greeted us at the airport was none other than the fantastic Mr. James Benson. His soul patch, New Zealand accent and straw hat with the blue lining is one I will never forget. Mr. Benson is indeed an amazing man. He was kind, helpful, and had a great sense of humor. Whenever we were in need of something, Mr. Benson was always there for us, even to our last day in Japan.
Our first day in Japan was quite hectic. None of us slept more than 4 hours each and we were scrambling to put together our performance for the welcome party. We were met with open arms by our host families and the students from Kurashiki who were to be going to Kansas City. We played games with soy beans and chopsticks, sang, danced and took lots of pictures.
My first host family was the Onos. I was convinced they thought I knew no Japanese until I went to Okayama with Shinya-nii and his “kouhai” or junior class mate, Madoka. She spoke really good English and she motivated me to be more out there in speaking to my family. She reminded me that they don’t speak perfect English and it was all a learning experience for us. Shinya, a very shy guy, just stayed quiet and went with the flow. Even in the pouring rain I had a great time. We went all around Okayama Castle, went shopping and ate crepes. She is the one who truly got me to start being myself. As soon as I took her advice, my relationship with my host family increased 100-fold.
That Friday they told me I was going to shadow my youngest host brother (Hiroaki) around school. That was also the day I was going to city hall to deliver my speech. I had my outfit planned and everything, except one problem: the dress was too short for their dress code. So what did my host mother do? Sew on lace to the bottom of my dress to make it longer. I had never felt such motherly love and compassion before. The morning I got to Hiro’s class I got to help clean the classrooms. Everyone was so nice, but shy at the same time.
When class was over it was time to go to city hall. I gave two speeches, one in English and one in Japanese. (My host mother helped me prepare days before.) I exchanged gifts with Mayor Ito who was very kind; we were even surprised with gifts of our own. Each of us got a tote bag with our names, pamphlets, a city pin, and a certificate of acknowledgment. I didn’t know until days after that the entire ceremony had been taped and put on local TV in Tamashima; we all just thought those were really big Nikon cameras (really embarrassing).
The night before it was time to switch host families, I cried for 2 hours. The Ono family had prepared gifts for me, a big sushi dinner, fireworks and lots of karaoke. I was very fortunate to have such a lovely, caring host family, but I knew that my next family would be just as good as the last.
My second host family was the Usuis. My host sister Shimon actually graduated from a high school in Wichita, so she wanted me to speak English with me most of the time. I was really excited that I had a girl to spend time with because – trust me – I loved my first “all boy” family, but a girl needs some time to shop. And that’s exactly what we did. We went to Aeon, Ario and Marunaka a lot.
Her family was usually busy during the day so when we did things, it was at night (completely opposite from my first family), so staying with them got me adjusted even more to the time change. We also traveled to a bunch of different hot springs, the ocean, restaurants and a planetarium.
Shimon became one of my greatest friends. When we went out shopping she was my translator; she always had my back when I was confused. When I was missing my first host family she biked with me to go see them. When I was feeling homesick she told me stories of when she lived in Kansas and reassured me that it can only get better. She was the big sister I’ve always wanted.
Our last moments in Kurashiki will always be ones I’ll remember. We all took pictures and gave our final goodbyes. Tiffany and I cried on the shinkansen, but we were quickly distracted by the beautiful city of Kyoto. After a whole day of touring, the next day we headed to the airport where we were ready (but not really ready) to say goodbye. I always felt like I was leaving a second home behind.