“Everything is huge here! Especially hamburgers. I can’t eat them all at once!” said Ayano Ochiai, who can’t stop smiling.
17-year-old Ayano is one of the six students from Shimada, Japan who, together with their teacher, Etino Tanaka, came to Richmond last Saturday. Their nine-day visit is part of Richmond-Shimada Friendship Commission’s Ambassador Program. Shimada is Richmond’s “sister city.”
“When I first came to U.S. I was 17 and it changed my life,” Tanaka said. “Since then I knew I want to share Japanese culture with others and I also wanted to come back to Richmond.”
So far the young guests have visited the Rosie the Riveter Memorial Park and hit the Richmond Plunge for swimming. They have also been visiting local schools, including De Anza High School and Kennedy High School, met with Mayor Gayle McLauglin in her office and spent time with host families.
“It is a great pleasure to have them with us,” said Jathniel Taylor, who is hosting Ayano. “We are trying to show them the typical American way of life.”
This is the second time Taylor is opening his home to guests from Shimada. “My wife is Japanese, so it seems like a good fit,” he said, laughing.
The students said they are enjoying their time in Richmond. Ayano said she loves hamburgers and the fact that students here don’t have to wear uniforms. Fellow 17-year-old Daisuke Ueda was amazed by San Francisco, while Yosuke Takahashi said the most fun part of the trip for him has been speaking English with Richmond’s students. “But I like everything very much,” he added.
However, apart from entertainment, the young visitors have faced some challenges. One of them was their introduction to the City Council and Richmond’s citizens during the City Council meeting on Tuesday. “They prepared short speeches in English with the little help from the host families,” explained Tanaka, the group’s teacher. “They wanted to say much more, but we have to fit into limited time.”
At the meeting, the group was introduced by Trina Jackson, the staffer for the Sister City program who is the liaison to the Richmond City Council. “We are happy and honored to welcome them in this time of difficulty, when Japan is going through such a drastic time,” she said. She also expressed her gratefulness to the host families, describing them as “the best part of the experience.”
Then the students from Shimada addressed the audience, each making a brief statement. Although at the beginning they were a little bit nervous, everything went well. They said they were “comfortable” here, and made repeated references to enjoying their interactions with students at De Anza and Kennedy. They all bowed after their statements, and several apologized for their English speaking skills.
“I was terribly nervous,” said Ayano after they had left the room. “But they welcomed us very nicely.” Indeed, the crowd of about 100 people repeatedly applauded when the students spoke. Councilman Nat Bates acknowledged the efforts of the host families in making the guests feel at home. “This is probably the best sister city program we have,” he said.
Although young ambassadors from Shimada have already had many new experiences, more is still to come. They will visit Berkeley, go bowling at Albany Bowl and attend the Sayonara Dinner at the Richmond Senior Center. They will leave Richmond on Sunday, and they know it won’t be easy. Their home country is still recovering from a 9.0 earthquake, a tsunami, and the possibility of serious malfunctions at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
“We worry, we check emails and read news,” Tanaka said. “All the students are aware of what is going on right now” Fortunately, Tanaka said, Shimada itself was not affected by the earthquake and tsunami. “We have a nuclear power plant in our prefecture, but it doesn’t cause any problems,” Tanaka added.
The students have also already grown attached to their sister city. “I like it here a lot and don’t really want to come back,” says Ayano Ochiai, promising that one day she will definitely return to Richmond.