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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Japanese students practice English, glean knowledge from Fairwood retirees

Joan Nelson visits with Japanese students Saki Okuno, center, and Momoka Psaki, 19, left, on March 31 at Fairwood Retirement Village in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Joan Nelson visits with Japanese students Saki Okuno, center, and Momoka Psaki, 19, left, on March 31 at Fairwood Retirement Village in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)

The word “quilt” just didn’t translate when Joan Nelson told her young Japanese visitors of her hobby, even when she used her hands to mimic sewing.

“We had a real problem with that word,” Nelson, 77, laughed. “I don’t think they got the message.”

Two dozen Japanese students from Spokane’s Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute visited Nelson and other Fairwood Retirement Village residents earlier this month to practice their English conversation skills and hear the life stories of local retirees.

Even though the exchanges were sometimes lost in translation, the 19-year-old girls and the senior residents all enjoyed the visit.

“Both sides love it,” said Mukogawa instructor Peggy Arendt, who started organizing the visits with Fairwood residents in 2008. She got the idea when her parents moved to the 55-plus retirement community.

Mukogawa students visit Spokane for four months and learn about culture and language, yet they aren’t often exposed to older Americans, Arendt said. In Japan, elders garner great respect, she added.

A few days after their visit to Fairwood, the students gathered in their Mukogawa classroom and discussed their interactions with the residents.

Beautiful white hair. Fashionable. Active. Bent back. Bad ears. These were some of the common descriptors the students used to tell about their first impression of the seniors they interviewed. They were surprised several of the residents had visited Japan numerous times and even more surprised some had been married multiple times.

Junko Tanigawa, 19, said the woman she interviewed was shy and the conversation didn’t go smoothly, so they used paper and pen to communicate.

“I asked her questions but she didn’t (hear) me,” Tanigawa said. “So she said, ‘What? What?’ ”

Then in the polite manner of most of the students she added, “But she was pretty and kind.”

The other girls nodded.

In the class conversation, instructor Sarah Rodenbough asked the students how many of them had grandparents who lived with their families in Japan. About 25 percent of the girls raised their hands.

Rodenbough said it’s more common for Japanese elders to live with their families than in America, although some of the students said that was changing and their grandparents lived independently. They also said there are retirement communities somewhat like Fairwood in Japan but they are very expensive, only for the wealthy.

One of the class discussion questions was about how the students viewed their lives in 60 years. One table of students talked about money, having enough saved to live well in old age. Yet one student said she would rather enjoy life and spend her money as a young woman.

Dick Jones, 82, said he can’t wait to talk with the next semester of Mukogawa students. He was impressed with how prepared they were for their visit.

“The people here really enjoyed it,” Jones said. “Most of us are well educated in different professions and it gives us an opportunity to engage people who need to understand part of our culture.”

He said it was difficult to hear their soft voices and understand their broken English, so much of the communication was written.

Jones said he told the students about his childhood living on his great-grandfather’s homestead near Twisp during the Great Depression. He said they were unfamiliar with the Depression, so he explained it. The girls nodded their heads, but Jones wasn’t convinced they understood.

He also told them about working as a teacher and a drug and alcohol rehab counselor for adolescents.

“They do have that in Japan,” he said. “They said it’s becoming a problem.”

Kana Kawida and Kaho Matsuda both visited with a Fairwood resident who said he had lived in Japan and visited the country more than 50 times. He worked as an engineer.

Both girls were impressed with his knowledge of their country.

The students also have fond memories of their own grandparents in Japan.

Kawida said her grandfather taught her how to play kendama, make origami and catch bugs. Matsuda learned to cook traditional Japanese food with her grandmother.

Nelson, the quilter, said the students are the same age as her grandchildren and shared similar enthusiasms, but are a lot more demure.

She took her two visiting students to her apartment to show them quilt examples. The girls were more interested in looking at family photos, especially generations of wedding photos. They also wanted to know if Nelson had been to Disneyland. Nelson, who has visited Japan twice, asked if they meant in Tokyo, but they wanted to know about Disneyland in California.

The girls took out their smartphones and showed Nelson photos of Disneyland Tokyo.

“Cinderella’s castle looks the same in Tokyo as it does in California,” Nelson said with a laugh.

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