A group of visiting Japanese students shared their culture with host families, community members and friends at a cultural fair Thursday afternoon at the Church of the Nazarene in Spokane Valley.
The sushi station drew a steady crowd, perhaps because the traditional Japanese dish was made using Rice Krispie Treats, Swedish gummy fish and fruit strips.
It’s the 30th year that Compass USA has brought a group of Japanese students from Chiba, Japan, to the greater Spokane area. This year, there are 140 Japanese students, some staying with families in Spokane Valley, some in Deer Park and others in Hayden Lake.
The students are between 15 and 16 years old and stay in the area for three weeks.
Mahiro Matsumoto, 15, was one of the students running the sushi station.
She said she found Americans friendly and helpful.
“People are so kind. They talk to you all the time,” Matsumoto said. “They talk a lot.”
When she went to the grocery store and couldn’t quite figure out how everything was done, people came up and helped her, she said.
“I’m not sure that would happen in Japan,” Matsumoto said. “People are more private.”
Kevlin Catalano, the director of group operations for Compass USA, visited the cultural fair from her office in Denver.
“I’m so proud of the students,” Catalano said. “For most of them, it’s their first time overseas, speaking a foreign language, and being away from family for three weeks.”
Compass USA organizes themed English classes in the morning and a related activity in the afternoon.
The students visit Gonzaga University, the Spokane County Courthouse and Shriners Hospital for Children among many career-oriented destinations.
“Then they go home to the host family and do whatever the family does,” Catalano said. “If the family is mowing the lawn, then they mow the lawn.”
Naoto Matsunaga, a math teacher in Chiba, was in Spokane with students for the third time in 20 years. The first time, he stayed in Cheney. Six years ago, he was in Spokane Valley and now he’s back.
Matsunaga was helping two Japanese students show visitors how to use chopsticks to move gumdrops from one dish to another, a relatively simple task that proved challenging for many.
“The students like being here,” Matsunaga said. “Some speak a lot of English, some not so much.”
Catalano said the language barrier can be big for those students who are very shy, but usually it’s not too much of a problem.
“You make up sign language and count on your fingers or draw pictures,” Catalano said. “You figure it out.”
In the church gym, students wrote names in Japanese calligraphy, modeled traditional kimonos and showed their skills in Japanese toys like Taketombo – a bamboo helicopter – and Kendama, the cup-and-ball game.
“It’s a great activity for the students,” Catalano said. “They feel more confident speaking about Japanese things, because it’s something they know very well.”
Before they leave Spokane for a brief stay in Seattle at Seattle Pacific University on the way home, they will celebrate graduating from the program with a traditional American high school graduation.
“We do the whole thing, the gowns and the tassels,” Catalano said. “And they get their certificate.”
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