For years I have wanted to host an exchange student from somewhere around the world. I thought that the experience would not only be good for the student, but that it would be a way of “traveling” to another country and culture for my own children. Well, this year we had the opportunity to host a young man from Japan. He was only 12 years old when he came to us and during his 3.5 weeks here he would turn 13. So young to make such a long journey.

He was part of a program called Labo which is the Japanese equivalent of 4H, but with a twist. Their’s is not a program based on projects and fair and stuff, but rather cultural immersion. He was supposed to just come and become a part of the family.

At first I wondered how it was going to go. He was so quiet and afraid to make a mistake that he chose to be quiet most of the time. Much of what we said seemed to confuse him, and I became quickly aware of how fast we talked. As the time went though, the communication became a little bit easier and we all learned creative ways to express ourselves.

I also gained more from the whole experience than I ever thought I would. One of the biggest things I learned was about how to spend time differently. I knew that we would only have him for 3.5 weeks and that there was a good likelihood that we may never see him again except through letters. Japan is a L-O-N-G way away. It takes the exchange families a lifetime to save up enough money to do what they did, and the thought of traveling overseas (in my mind) seemed like an impossible dream too.

I explained it to my family like this: Having a short term exchange student is like having a family member with a terminal illness…all you have is 3.5 weeks with that person…make it count! When you are thinking that way, you don’t put things off like so many of us are in the practice of doing. “We’ll do that tomorrow” or “We have other things to do, that will have to wait” can’t happen when you only have 3.5 weeks. Really when you think about it, scripture tells us over and over again how short our time here is and how we need to spend it more wisely.

So we began doing that. I started taking more pictures, which normally I am very bad about doing. I tried to make a point to “capture” the memories on film that I wanted him to be able to take with him. Even if it was only one from each activity. Another thing is that I put feet to our plans. What I mean by that is that there were certain things we told him we would do when we made initial contact with him. Time seemed so short, and we also had so many other “more important” things that we “needed” to do, but I went ahead and planned (sometimes on the fly) activities like boating, and river tubing, going to the fair for International Day which involved riding two of the rides, we went to the candy store…things that are important to kids that I have been too quick to cast aside as frivolous with my own until Yura came. This young man taught me so much.

When we sent him home, which in my opinion came far too soon, we did so with a book that we had made at Walmart with all of the photos that were taken while he was here. Many of the things he did were “first times” for him, so the memories are really special. Seeing things like that, through someone else’s eyes, makes you see them so differently.

Since his return home, his family has written about how special his time with us was. They also have talked about how they look at his pictures daily and feel that they too have been here, through the photos. “N” has said, over and over again, that he would like to become part of an exchange program so that he could go and visit with Yura’s family. Upon writing to his family about this, the response was so wonderful…that he would not need to become part of an exchange program because “N” is now part of their family like Yura is part of ours.

I will forever be grateful that we had this experience, because it was not just for 3.5 weeks, but rather for a lifetime of friendship and extended family from half a world away.