Let's say a teenager is flying halfway around the globe to visit you for a week. What is on your list of must-see things? Families at Clearwater Fundamental Middle School had to make those choices this week when they hosted 13 Japanese students from Nagano, Clearwater's sister city. The Riccardi family of Clearwater thought they had it figured out. They would take 14-year-old Maika Ohara to see a sunset, the Clearwater Marine Science Center, and eat a grouper sandwich at Frenchy's. But they learned what should have been higher up on the list: grocery stores and Target.
"At home, I will tell my friends about the beaches, grocery stores, memories and friends I have made," said Maika, who snapped a picture of a grocery cart to show friends at home, where grocery stores are smaller.
When she was given a choice to watch another sunset or go shopping, she chose Target.
While the Nagano group, which arrived last weekend, had interpreters at school and on field trips, they were on their own with host families.
Meredith Riccardi, 13, said the language barrier and routine differences created challenges at first. From that difference, however, came understanding.
"Maika loves grapefruit and said fruit in Japan is like dessert is to us. She loved walking in our back yard and picking grapefruit to eat. At first Maika was shy, but the last couple of days were much easier."
All five boys, eight girls, their interpreters, tour guide and Matsushiro Junior High School principal Tsutomu Sakai spent two days with Clearwater Fundamental students at school, a day at Walt Disney World and on Thursday took a field trip to Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater.
The students snapped pictures in the library. Took pictures of the lockers and posters lining the halls.
In Alexandra Langdon's English as a Second Language class (ESOL) at Oak Grove, they shared photographs of their city and school. The students understood the problems in communicating in a new language.
Fernando Nolasco, 14, watched the Nagano students struggling to express themselves.
"It was hard for me in school before I could speak English. If you can't communicate with people, you can't even ask for help," he said.
When the Nagano students entered Marcia Daniels' Life Science class, students invited visitors to sit. They began chatting immediately, one-on-one. Somehow, without the interpreters, and sometimes with their help, questions were answered.
Conversations touched on issues that matter to teens today. Do you worry about getting fat? How many hours are you in school? Isn't it boring to sit in one classroom the entire day? Do you really eat lunch at your desks?
Hikara Nakamura, 13, nodded yes or no to the questions Ashley Remmel, 13, of Palm Harbor asked. She smiled when Ashley raved about the electronic dictionary Hikara had.
"We don't have those," Ashley said. "When we want to look up words, we only have low-tech stuff, like books."
When the class learned that Nagano students clean their school at day's end, the room buzzed with questions.
"This has been life-changing for me," Ashley said. "I want to know more about the Japanese people."
Elizabeth Minor, cultural affairs programmer for the city of Clearwater, arranged the visit and is used to that reaction.
"Clearwater and Nagano City residents feel fortunate to be able to benefit from these ongoing educational exchanges," Minor said. "I hear repeatedly from hosting families and students that this has been a profoundly moving experience, one that has been pivotal in their lives."
Carolyn Underwood, Clearwater Fundamental's assistant principal of curriculum, said: "Our Clearwater families reached out to make another child from another country feel welcome and to share a little bit of our culture. … This summer two of our students will spend 10 days in Japan as a result of our participation in this program."
One week together doesn't guarantee world peace, but it's a start.
"This is a positive experience," said principal Sakai. "Children learn each others' ways and experience a new world."