GREENFIELD — A group of Japanese foreign exchange students got a taste of life in the Midwest Monday afternoon during a trip to a Hancock County farm.
The little slice of Americana happened for the group almost by accident. Before the Sister Cities of Greenfield summer exchange program kicked off, organizers had been looking to fill a few hours in the students’ busy schedule. One host parent stepped up with an idea.
Cristy Corwin-Howard, who is playing host to two Japanese students this year, offered up her family farm for a mini field trip.
Not only does Corwin-Howard have a hog farm; she owns the Hearts Ablaze Clogging Studio, which is attached to her home.
That meant an afternoon of everything from hay rides to dance steps for the eager group of junior high school students. They also had an up-close encounter with some squealing piglets and roasted marshmallows over an open campfire for a quick snack.
“Can’t get much more hometown quality than farming,” Corwin-Howard said.
The Sister Cities exchange program has been welcoming young students to Greenfield from Kakuda, Japan, for 25 years, as well as sending their Greenfield counterparts for a similar experience in their country every summer.
Auto supplier Keihin Corp. serves as the connection between Greenfield and Kakuda, which is about 150 miles northeast of Tokyo. The Japanese city is where Keihin, the county’s second-largest employer, is headquartered, while Greenfield is home to Keihin Indiana Precision Technology.
Greenfield and Kakuda entered into a formal Sister Cities relationship by signing an agreement on Sept. 12, 1990.
Each year, Greenfield and Kakuda play host to students and chaperones from the other city. Funding for Sister Cities in Greenfield is typically split between the city and Keihin, with additional funding coming from donations.
This year’s students and adult chaperones arrived Friday, and they are spending the week touring schools, spending time with their host families and getting a feel for life on American soil. They will then take a short trip to Chicago before heading back home.
Jim McWhinney, Sisters Cities board president, is also playing host to one of the Kakuda students. Last year, he was on the other end of the foreign exchange and stayed with a family in Japan. Having a student in his home has brought back fond memories.
“It’s kind of an extension of my visit to Japan, having her here and just remembering the things that I learned over there,” he said. “We’re very blessed to have her with us. She’s learning a lot from us like I learned over there.”
The relationship between the students and their host families is forged quickly, despite the language barrier, said Tony Campbell, a past board president who is serving as a chaperone this week.
Host families are required to apply, and then they are matched with Kakuda students the organizers believe would be a good fit in their households. Sister Cities has a profile for each student, including their likes, dislikes and interests, and those are measured against information on the host family applications to find the best match.
The friendships formed as a result are life-long, Campbell said.
“They’re just an extension of your family,” said Campbell, who has taken visitors in many times over the years. “They never really leave. You always have the intention of seeing them again. Everybody that’s been to my house, I’ve seen again.”
The Sister Cities program welcomes 11 students and three chaperones each year and plans a week of activities to keep the visitors entertained, making the obligation for host families easier.
Host families don’t have to speak Japanese; they just have to invite their newcomer into the activities. And many of the students speak English, having studied the language from the time they were young; it’s just a matter of finding the courage to speak up.
Marika Fukuzawa, 14, is fitting right in with her new family.
“I make cookies with my host family,” she said with a grin. “Chocolate chip cookies is so yummy.”
The impact goes both ways. Those who interact with the students and chaperones while they’re here also take something positive away from the experience.
Naomi Ito, 20, of Indianapolis, said her work interpreting for the group this week has changed her thinking about a future career.
“I’m thinking about becoming a teacher or a translator/interpreter, something like that,” said Ito, who was born in Japan but grew up in America. “I really enjoy this. It’s a plus for me, too.”
Although having an interpreter has made the process easier, Monday proved that many students simply learn by doing.
After the farm tour, many of the students grabbed a pair of clogs and set to learn a simple dance to the country tune, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”
The students experience something unique throughout the week as they participate in their host families’ activities.
Honoka Meguro, 13, said she was surprised when she went with her host family to church on Sunday. She wasn’t prepared for the production, with a band leading the worship service.
So far, Honoka’s favorite experience has been finding trinkets to bring home, including a necklace.
“I went shopping,” she said.
With all the options in town, where did she find her souvenirs?
“Indiana,” she said.