Ask 12-year-old Haruna Koike if she’d like to return to the United States someday and you won’t get a detailed answer. But as a wide grin spreads across her face, her eyes seem to twinkle, and she responds with an emphatic, “yes,” you get the idea.
Koike is a student with States’ 4-H International Exchange Programs who’s spending 3.5 weeks with Hillsboro Safety and Service Director Todd Wilkin and his family. The experience is one the family’s three children won’t soon forget.
“It’s like having a sister I always wanted, and a best friend,” 11-year Weslie Wilkin, the only female of the Wilkin children, said. “I hope to continue our relationship when she gets back to Japan.”
Eight-year-old Saxen said, “It’s really fun being with her. It’s like someone sleeping over at our house for a long time. It’s pretty fun having her around. I get a lot of chuckles each day when I ask her questions and how she responds with a different accent. She’s faster than me, and probably smarter than me.”
Even 3-year-old Nolan is enjoying the visit. Todd said Nolan asks Koike, who brought a Nintendo DS along with her, every day if she can help him get to the next “world.”
The 4-H Summer Inbound programs are offered through OSU Extension and bring youth to the U.S. from Argentina, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Korea and Norway to stay with host families for a few weeks. Each family must have a child in its home that is the same gender and approximate same age as the guest.
“This is such a positive program for youth to be involved with and for families to bring international culture into their homes,” said Kathy Bruynis, OSU Extension county director 4-H youth development educator.
Todd’s wife, Bethanie, said the family hadn’t heard about the program until she received a random email saying host families were needed. They talked about it, thought it sounded like a neat idea, then asked Weslie what she thought. She said, “Yeah, let’s do it,” Bethanie said.
Koike is from Chiba, Japan, about an hour from Tokyo. But Bethanie said that Tokyo is so large than Chiba is actually like a suburb. She said a typical family of three from the area lives in an 800-square-foot home.
So, Todd said, it was a bit of culture shock with Koike saw the Wilkins’ Lynchburg home. “She can’t grasp the openness and the other thing is that coming over here I think she expected to see us all in cowboy hats and riding horses,” Todd said.
He said it’s been fun trying to communicate with her. Koike takes English classes in Japan and seems to understand a lot of what’s being said, but doesn’t speak the language very well. She can translate single words on her DS, and the Wilkins have used iPad and Smartphone translation programs to communicate with her. While she doesn’t speak a lot of words at a time, she seems to be pretty good with one- or two-word zingers.
For instance, Todd said, when they came out of Walmart the other day he decided to do a cartwheel and Koike said, “You crazy.”
Another day, after the family and Koike had shucked lots of corn, and even though they were done, Todd asked if she wanted to shuck more. “She got up and said, ‘Goodbye,’” Todd laughed.
The Wilkins said gift-giving is a large part of the Japanese culture and that they received gifts from Koike the first three days she was with them. The gifts include bamboo fans, snacks from Japan, a Japanese version of a Matchbox car, tiny puzzles that Saxen said are about the size of marshmallows and take tweezers to put together, origami, paper balloons, wooden games, drinking mugs and more.
Koike made a couple lunches of seaweed soup and sticky rice for the Wilkins. Todd said the kids liked the sticky rice, but were kind of scare of the seaweed soup.
Not long after the Wilkins picked Koike up they asked what she wanted to do in America.
“She said whatever you want to do,” Todd said.
They asked if she wanted a boyfriend and received a definite “no.”
Koike likes playing on the Wilkins’ trampoline and swimming, eats mostly what the Wilkins eat (except she doesn’t like cheese chunks), visited Newport on the Levy and saw fireworks, and likes the piano, something she has in common with the Wilkin children.
In fact, the Wilkin kids have an upcoming piano recital in Milford and Koike is going to play a duet with them.
Koike has a pet beagle back home, loves Charlie Brown comic books, and is in a running club.
Shortly after the Wilkins picked her up they had to go pick up chicks for a 4-H project. They said Koike took to them right away, but after they grew a couple weeks older she said, “Big, not cute.”
Todd said Koike has experienced a lot with his family. She goes to church with them on Sundays and Wednesdays, and even sang with the childrens’ choir (“She can’t really sing the songs, but can sing the notes,” Saxen said.), has got a Frisbee stuck on the roof of the Wilkins’ home, accidentally broke a badminton racket, and takes lot of pictures, including of what she eats.
In Japan, Koike goes to school all but six weeks out of the year. Her normal school days are 11 hours long and she goes to school six days a week. Basically, Todd said, a Japanese mother does all the chores and the childrens’ job is school.
When Koike arrived in the U.S. she went through a couple days of orientation with other kids from Japan before she met the Wilkins. Todd said it was interesting to see how quick the exchange students bonded with their host families. He compared it to U.S. families adopting a child from another country.
“I never really understood that feeling … I have this responsibility of having a child,” he said. “It’s been a good experience for our home.”
Before she arrived in the U.S., Koike had already communicated with the Wilkins. She said her goals were to sing and dance with her host family, create a picture album, and draw some illustrations.
Asked how she’ll feel when Koike leaves, Weslie said, “Sad. I’ll miss her. But I’ll still be able to write to her.”
Koike said she’d like to return to the United States again, and Bethanie said she has an open door at the Wilkin home.
“She’s been a trooper and has seemed to really enjoy trying everything,” Bethanie said. “Haruna has been a great blessing and a very good helper around the house. She helps with chores and eats mostly whatever we eat – except cheese chunks.”