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Being Yoshi: Foreign exchange student concludes year as Strasburg student, athlete and friend

By Chuck McGill -- cmcgill@nvdaily.com

STRASBURG -- Donning a smile as wide as the ocean that separates his permanent and temporary homes, Yoshi Suzuki rattles off his favorite traditional American fare.

When Yoshi goes to dinner with his host family, Paul and Debbie Buckley of Toms Brook, he always orders steak.

"Always," Paul Buckley said. "We can go to Denny's in Strasburg and he wants steak."

When it's McDonald's, Yoshi scarfs down a fish sandwich. Showing he's truly adopted the American culture, he loves his carbs, specifically mashed potatoes and french fries. He just can't get enough of pizza, either.

"And what do you eat all the time that I tell you that you are going to turn into?" Debbie Buckley asks Yoshi.

"Hot Pockets," Yoshi replies.

"He's always eating Hot Pockets," Debbie Buckley said. "He can eat as much as these two guys and look how tiny he is."

Yoshi, a senior at Strasburg, lives with the Buckleys and their son Derek, who is a junior at Strasburg. Yoshi came to America from Tokyo in July as part of a foreign exchange program. He will participate in Strasburg's graduation ceremonies on Friday and return to Japan on June 20.

He's looking forward to graduation, but not the trip back to his permanent home.

"Before I got here I heard American people throw their hats up at graduation, so I'm really looking forward to doing it," Yoshi said.

But the graduation ceremony -- and a going-away party at the Buckleys the day before he departs -- are the culmination of a year adjusting from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world, to a quaint town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

But the indoctrination, transition and experience have given Yoshi a life he's not ready to let go. He can be bashful, giving short, succinct thoughts about his time in America -- "We were told that's part of the Japanese culture, because they are fearful of saying the wrong English word," Debbie Buckley said -- but most of the time he's just searching his mind so he can articulate just how much he loves this country.

"I especially like my friends and this family," Yoshi said. "It's very comfortable for me. Toms Brook is a very quiet city and I like that too."

* * *

Chalk up Yoshi's arrival in the States as a bit of divine intervention.

The way the Buckleys recount the story, Becky Moyer, a 4-H representative who works to find host families for foreign exchange students, was sitting in church one Sunday. She had been searching for a home for Yoshi, a fun kid and good student who had a passion for baseball.

As she sat in her pew, Derek Buckley was either participating in communion or taking up the offering at church when Moyer spotted him, triggering her epiphany.

"She said it was like a light bulb came on," Debbie Buckley said.

The Buckleys are a baseball-loving family, with Derek participating in sports year-round. He plays fallball baseball, basketball in the winter and baseball for Strasburg in the spring. Derek and Yoshi are close in age, and the Buckleys' two older children are grown up and out of the house.

To Moyer, the situation was perfect for Yoshi.

"I'll be honest, it was not something we truly wanted to do," Debbie Buckley said. "If it wasn't for [Derek], we wouldn't have done it. He wanted it."

With only two older sisters, Derek saw the potential.

"He's the brother I never had," Derek said of Yoshi. "I have somebody to go outside and throw baseball with, shoot basketball with. It's fun to have him around the house."

After the initial hesitation, the Buckleys feel the same.

Yoshi refers to Debbie and Paul Buckley as mom and dad, a gesture that leveled Debbie Buckley at first.

"The first day he asked us if he could call us that ... and I thought that was pretty special," she said.

Paul Buckley now has two sons to take fishing on Sunday mornings, and when Yoshi played for the Strasburg baseball team this spring, "Dad" was front and center, yelling words of encouragement at Yoshi as if he had been his son all along.

"I holler at him just like I did Derek in Little League," Paul Buckley said. "I'm trying to be the same dad as I was to Derek. He's part of our family."

* * *

Yoshi found himself comfortable in America, but he is the most at home with cleats on his feet, a bat in his hands and a diamond in which to roam.

"I love baseball," he said.

It's the sport that ultimately united Yoshi with the Buckleys, and after coming to America on July 21, he waited almost his entire stay to fix his purple Strasburg hat atop his head, slide into his white jersey with No. 7 on the back, grab his glove and take the field as a member of the Rams.

He was a welcome addition to Strasburg, where he thrived in the leadoff spot. With his compact, level lefty swing, he looked more like his favorite player Ichiro Suzuki than a kid who had never seen a pitch in the Bull Run District before.

"He contributed in a lot of ways," Strasburg coach Jeff Smoot said. "We put him in the leadoff spot and he maintained that. He gave us a third arm and was able to eat up some innings. He wasn't just on the team -- he was a significant contributor for us."

Yoshi was one of Strasburg's most productive hitters, playing in all 22 games while hitting .359 with 16 RBIs and 10 stolen bases. Of the team's regulars, only Derek Buckley and Michael Reynolds had higher batting averages. Yoshi led the team in walks and steals and was steady in right field.

On the mound, Yoshi's deliberate Japanese style of pitching gave the opposition a different look. Although he said he never pitched in Japanese baseball, Yoshi went 4-1 with a 3.08 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 25 innings while acting as the team's third starter behind Justin Rush and Zach Cover.

"His style and mechanics were a little unusual," said Smoot, who compared Yoshi's style to major leaguers like Boston Red Sox pitcher Diasuke Matsuzaka. "If you watch Matsuzaka and watch some of the Japanese and Korean pitchers ... they have a real deliberate windup. It's definitely different."

Yoshi can take back newspaper clippings and photos of him playing for Strasburg, but he won't get what he really coveted: A state championship ring. Strasburg finished 18-4, but lost in the Region B quarterfinals to Riverheads. Yoshi avoided making the final out of the season, connecting on a rope to center for a single with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and the Rams trailing by five runs. He stole second before being stranded as the Rams' quest for a state title ended.

"Our goal was definitely a state championship," Yoshi said. "That's why I'm still thinking about baseball season, I guess. As a result it wasn't too good, but I'm pretty sure I got something new from this experience of U.S. baseball."

* * *

To his host family, Yoshi is a son and a brother, not a guest on a prolonged visit. To his classmates at Strasburg High School, he is not a foreign exchange student, but simply a friend.

"Yoshi's fit in really well this year," Strasburg junior Jenna Smoot said. "He's a really nice guy and it's been fun getting to know his culture."

"We hit it off pretty good," Strasburg baseball player Tanner Orndorff said. "We eat lunch together every day."

After nearly a year in America, Yoshi is a typical teenager.

He spends idle time on the Internet on social networking sites like Facebook, where he can chat with Strasburg classmates and other Japanese foreign exchange students. His hat collection is growing and he proudly sported a mustard yellow Cleveland Cavaliers shirt during the NBA playoffs. He's learned to call "Shotgun" to reserve primo seating when riding around with Derek.

Yoshi has taken a plethora of pictures -- filling approximately four memory cards -- so he can look back on the experiences he says he'll cling to forever.

"He would stay here forever if he could," Debbie Buckley said.

In America, he embraced simple pleasures that might get taken for granted, such as raking a pile of leaves before sailing through the air and crashing into them. He colored his first Easter eggs, went to his first homecoming and prom, tried out for the school basketball team, and made more friends than most people make in a lifetime.

"We don't want him to leave," Jenna Smoot said. "We'll miss him. We don't think of him as a foreign exchange student. He's just our friend."

But Yoshi must return to Japan. His mother, who stays in contact through e-mail, and 20-year-old sister miss him. When he returns to Japan later this month, he'll re-enter school there midway through his senior year.

Yoshi then hopes to go to college and, someday, return to America.

"My friends in America are going to be like a treasure in my long life," Yoshi said. "I mean, they are too awesome. I really love to see their smiles ... so sometimes I just think of how to make them laugh.

"My friends and the Buckley family gave me the best help they could. That's why I had such a precious time here. I will never forget them."

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