A year in America

Teresa Funkhouser, left, looks on as Karin Miyamoto, a 4-H foreign exchange student from Japan, packs her bags for her return home on Saturday. Miyamoto attended Strasburg High School and lived with the Funkhouser family in Toms Brook the past year. Rich Cooley/Daily

TOMS BROOK — Karin Miyamoto has spent the past year experiencing the differences between American and Japanese culture through a foreign exchange program.

“Being an exchange student has changed my life a lot,” said the 18-year-old from Fukuoka, Japan.

Miyamota arrived in the United States Aug. 1 as part of the 4-H foreign exchange program.  She has been staying with Toms Brook residents Richard and Teresa, who she calls Mom and Dad, and attending Strasburg High School.

“I feel like I’ve been their daughter for a long time,” she said. “I feel so loved and it’s been so amazing to get to know this family.”

Teresa Funkhouser said they call Miyamoto their daughter because they treat her like she is part of the family and noted that have been hosting exchange students since 1997, beginning with month-long programs until moving on to the year-long programs. They have hosted three other year-long exchange students over the years.

Karin Miyamoto discovered her talent for art during her stay in the U.S. Rich Cooley/Daily

“It’s so neat to see how these children grow,” Teresa Funkhouser said, adding that since she arrived, Miyamoto has learned how to play the guitar, viola, drums and has developed her artistic abilities.

“It’s good for the community to expand their horizons as well,” Teresa Funkhouse said.

Miyamoto left Japan on July 28 and spent a couple days in Seattle for orientation and English comprehension testing. Before she returns home, she will be tested again to calculate improvement.

She said she had friends who had went through the exchange program and always felt jealous of their experiences. During her junior of high school in Japan she was asked what career path she wanted to take and she said she couldn’t give an answer. She then decided to try the exchange program to experience more of the world. Her parents, she said, were supportive of her decision to spend a year in the U.S.

Miyamoto said her transition to the U.S. was difficult at first due to the differences between Fukuoka, a southern city of about 2 million people, and Shenandoah County. She never moved when she lived in Japan, so she said flying thousands of miles away on a 13-hour flight to live in the U.S. for a year was difficult.

Miyamoto said she was homesick when she first arrived, but her host family and the friendly community made her feel welcome.

“Being an exchange student is a huge challenge for me because of leaving family,” she said.

Writing in a diary helped her cope with her new surroundings — she has filled up four journals with entries since arriving almost a year ago.

She said she loves the small town atmosphere where she can have dinner with neighbors and create relationships with people she never knew before.

Her new-found friends in the U.S. have begun texting to her in Japanese after a few Japanese lessons from her. She said it was fun to give them homework that she would then grade. She showed them how to use the Japanese keyboard on their phones to communicate, but she said she usually responds back in English to keep up with her learning and to stay focused on English while she is here.

She added that she enjoys sitting outside at night and looking up at the stars, something she couldn’t get a good view of in a big city filled with skyscrapers and bright lights. She recounted a time she spent driving down the street with her host family chasing an eclipse for a photo.

Her experiences with nature in the area have really stuck out to her, she said. She has traveled along Skyline Drive in the mountains, and even built a snowman, something she couldn’t do back home with snowfall totaling only a couple inches.

Teresa Funkhouser said being able to give Miyamoto these experiences has been incredible.

“It’s just a really neat experience to be able to bring someone in who doesn’t know about our country and then show them things like the Skyline Drive or Virginia Beach or going down the back roads eating an ice cream cone,” she said.

Her host family has also been there for her during some scary times, Miyamoto recalled. In April, her family in Japan lived through multiple earthquakes and aftershocks, leaving Miyamoto feeling helpless at being so far from home.  Eventually, she got the news from her mother that everyone was OK and their house was untouched, except for some items that had fallen off shelves.

Miyamoto said that when she decided to join the exchange program, she was looking forward to “escaping from the Japanese education system” for awhile, adding that the Japanese and American school systems have many differences.

In Japan, she said they wear uniforms and students stay in the same room throughout the day as teachers rotate classrooms. Their school year begins in April, as U.S. schools begin to wrap up classes. The school day also begins at 7:35 a.m., but ends at 4 p.m. with clubs and activities taking place until around 7 p.m. While in school there, she said she participated in an English communication club.

She said that U.S. schools offer many electives and allow students to be more independent and take more control of their education. During her year at Strasburg High School she participated in various clubs and activities, including cross country, drum line, marching band and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America.

Miyamoto graduated from Strasburg High School last weekend, but when she returns to Japan on Saturday, she will finish out her senior year there. After that, she said she is considering enrolling in an art college because she developed a passion for drawing and painting while in the U.S. She said she always liked to doodle but it wasn’t until she received positive feedback from art teachers here that she realized how far her talent could take her.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com