What does a Japanese exchange student love about Austin? Cheese pizza, Whataburger and wakeboarding

When you’re a foreign exchange student from Japan studying in Austin for a month, you might not expect wakeboarding to be part of the experience.  

Or churro-flavored Chex mix, or ukulele pop song performances from your host. But that’s what 15-year-old Chiharu Sano got when she drew the lucky straw to stay with me and my two kids for a weekend over the summer.

Chiharu stayed with us through the Texas Intensive English Program’s monthlong language and culture program, which the organization has been hosting for 20 years. This year, 61 students came in July to Austin from Mishima, Japan, near the slopes of Mount Fuji. All the students get to stay with a host family for a weekend. Some families host more than one student, and some host families also participate in a monthlong exchange with students from the program in January.

Chiharu is a dancer and a nature lover whom I first met at a barbecue the weekend before her stay. We quickly bonded over playing sports, swimming and shopping.

At the meet-and-greet barbecue, I also met Marcelle Vasquez, who has been hosting Japanese exchange students through this program for 14 years.

She grew up in Peru, where her parents were part of Rotary International. “I grew up in a family where we always had people coming through the house,” she said. “We appreciated many cultures and had that spirit of international hospitality.”

When her boys were teens, she wanted to introduce them to the same exchange, so she started hosting students for the weekend. After more than a decade, Vasquez also began hosting students for the month in January. Vasquez says she has learned over the years that the students, who do activities all over Austin, really enjoy just being at the house, watching movies and talking about life stuff. “They want to be part of the family while they are here,” she says.

After all these years hosting students, she receives postcards, pictures and gifts from her past guests and looks forward to the visit every year.

Chiharu had already been in Austin for three weeks by the time we picked her up from a building near the University of Texas, where she and the other students were staying. It was a Friday afternoon, and we drove straight to Home Slice on North Loop. By the time our large cheese pizza — half pepperoni — arrived, all three of the kids were playing with balls of pizza dough and sharing basic details with each other about school, siblings and favorite activities.

“We don’t have anything like this,” she said, referring to both the restaurant and the style of pizza.

We found out that Chiharu had climbed to the top of Mount Fuji when she was a kid and that her favorite band was K-Pop band BTS.

Later that night, we took turns showing each other videos online to explain the things we’d been talking about. We watched “Anpanman,” the long-running series about a cartoon bread man, and BTS music videos, and showed her “Adventure Time” and a best of Beyonce playlist.

We went to a bake sale on Saturday morning, where we picked up that cinnamon-spiced Chex mix, and then went through the drive-thru at Whataburger, where Chiharu marveled at the size of the Styrofoam cup of soda. With burgers and fries to fuel us, we headed out to Quest ATX, the wakeboarding park and water obstacle course in southeast Travis County.

We played hard on the inflatable obstacle course, the physical activity setting aside the need to communicate through language. By that point, we’d shared many rewarding conversations, but it was so nice to play and laugh and try a new physical challenge together.

On our second full day together, Chiharu and I made breakfast. We had occasional help from my kids, but it was mostly a time for us to continue doing what we both came here to do: share culture.

She made the connections between the Dr. Seuss book that my youngest read to her and the art we saw at Art on Fifth on South Lamar, a favorite stop whenever we go to Half Price Books.

As we drove through the city, I told her about the various neighborhoods and businesses, touching on historical and cultural connections I wanted her to make. We went to H-E-B and H-Mart and talked about Americans’ love of fast food, slow food and global cuisines and why that has grown so much in recent decades.

Sadly, the weekend of her visit, I needed to go to a memorial service for a friend who had died unexpectedly the week before. The service started hours before we were scheduled to drop her off. She wasn’t eager for the weekend to end, and neither were we, so I told her about what I knew would be a casual and kid-friendly gathering for my friend. I tried to describe why I wanted to go and what it would be like and then asked her if she wanted to go back to the dorm or come with us. She decided to stick around.

With beers in coolers and attendees in shorts, the memorial service was lighthearted and sad, funny and heartbreaking, celebrating the life of a young philanthropist and dog-lover who was dedicated to helping foster kids. Alongside my own children, who have been to a number of memorial services in their short lives, Chiharu was able to see a side of American culture that many visitors might not, and although I think she was surprised to see the beer, I could tell how much being part of the event meant to her.

Forty-eight hours didn’t seem like much time to bond, but we squeezed the most we could out of our time together. I didn’t cry when I dropped her off, but I told her in all seriousness that my family had added another bucket item to our life list: traveling to Japan to climb Mount Fuji with her.

Thanks to Instagram, we’ve been able to stay in touch with her in the weeks since her visit, not unlike how we have with the AirBnB family whom we stayed with in Mexico City in May. In a way, that was my family’s own little weekend family exchange, and it helped me understand what Vasquez explained at the barbecue: The connections that you make when you open up your home to someone who is as interested in your culture as you are about theirs will stick with you forever, no matter if you’re the host or the guest.


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