Koko Yamamori, 14, an exchance student from Japan, gives Hilary Matfess, 12, a lesson in origami. Koko is staying with the Matfess family for a month this summer.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Koko Yamamori was shocked that Lisa Matfess' Windmill Plantation home has four bathrooms. Why did they need that many?
The 14-year-old from central Honshu, Japan, has never seen anything like the row of gumball machines at the Augusta Mall, a dishwasher, an in-refrigerator icemaker or a diving board.
For the first time, Koko also enjoyed the one-stop shopping of a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
"She's never seen such a big store," Matfess said. "She took a picture of the back of my car with all the food because her mother shops daily for dinner. All the food, all those bags and the carts were big to her. Little things like that are a novelty to her."
Koko is an exchange student through the Labo International Exchange Program's Summer Inbound Program, which is coordinated through the 4-H International Exchange Program, said Carol Jackson, a program assistant for Columbia County's 4-H office.
Koko is staying with her host family - the Matfesses and their 12-year-old daughter, Hilary - for one month to learn about family life in America.
Hilary and Koko spend their days like normal American young ladies - swimming, shopping and just goofing off.
But in her hometown of Tokai, Koko is used to attending school from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., then participating in club activities until about 6 p.m. Following a dinner of her mother's choosing, Koko is expected to practice ballet and other extracurricular activities and do her homework until about 11 p.m.
Koko Yamamori, 14, demonstrates calligraphy for her host family.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
"Their days are very structured," Matfess said.
But Matfess said Koko, one of 26 Labo exchange students in Georgia, is not the only one learning.
"It's interesting seeing her, what they do that we don't," Matfess said Tuesday. "Just seeing our world through her eyes, we see that we take so much for granted."
Koko's English-speaking chaperone, Aiko Kojima, is staying with Jackson, and was responsible for getting Koko to her host family. He also must make sure she gets back home.
Although Koko's English is still broken and she cannot talk to her parents except through letters, Matfess said she gets her point across, sometimes with the help of a computerized translator. Her nervousness is fading.
"We just take it slow and steady," Matfess said. "She's doing a fantastic job, especially to be a 14-year-old over here on her own."
Already, the Matfess family had learned how to properly hold chop sticks and that the fried rice served in a local Japanese restaurant is actually Chinese.
Koko said her host family's backyard swimming pool is one the things she likes best, remembering one incident when the family got caught outside in the rain and ended up in the pool fully clothed.
Koko Yamamori, 14, an exchange student from Japan, gives Hilary Matfess, 12, a lesson in origami.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
And her favorite American food is pizza, she said grinning.
Matfess said her family might take Koko out for more shopping, to the circus and to a baseball game before she leaves in mid-August. She also will observe a half-day at Hilary's school, Matfess said.
Before Koko heads back to Japan to begin school, two high school students from the former Soviet Union will be arriving to spend the entire school year with host families.
Jackson will be hosting her 14th exchange student - Irina Leonid Melnic, who will be attending the 10th grade at Greenbrier High School to experience life and learn as an American teen would.
"This will be her first time out of the country," said Jackson about Irina, whose parents are beekeepers in the small town of Moldova in Eastern Europe. "It will be a real eye-opener for her."
Jeannette Andrews and her Evans family will host a young swimmer named Samuel Avetisyan, also from the former Soviet Union, for the school year. Andrews' son also is a swimmer, so the boys already have common ground, Jackson said.
Matfess is just discovering something that Jackson has known for years - hosting an exchange student is a learning experience from both sides.
"It's been wonderful," Matfess said. "And it's just the beginning."
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