4-H provides cultural exchange

Posted August 19, 2011 at 8:15 pm

To even the most casual observer, it is evident that Rosemary Moeller enjoys getting to know people from other cultures. One of the many ways she and her family have found to enrich their own lives, and the lives of others, is to host foreign exchange students and chaperones in their home. This summer, Moeller and her husband, Lester, are hosting Makiko Suyama (Mah-kee-ko Soo-ya-ma) from Seto, Japan.


Suyama, wife and mother of 13-year-old twin sons, recently came to South Dakota with the 4-H International Foreign Youth Exchange (IFYE) program as one of two chaperones for 14 Japanese youth, ages 12-15. Students are staying with their host families for an entire month.

Hosting foreign exchange students and adults is not new to the Moellers. In fact they hosted their first student in 1989. Since then, they have been a host family so many times they have lost track. “We feel it is a wonderful opportunity for us to share with others,” said Moeller. “While our children were still at home, we had exchange students come each year. We started hosting chaperones once the kids left home, and have been doing it yearly ever since,” said Moeller.

Suyama has been involved in foreign exchange teaching programs for 19 years. Her first exchange trip brought her to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where her host took her to a 4-H camp.

Later, Suyama chaperoned a group through Children’s International Summer Village, where children from all over the world met in Sweden. Ten 12-15 year olds came to Sweden with Suyama, and though it was a satisfying experience for her, she felt that CISV did not do enough to prepare such young students for their visit to a completely different culture.

Suyama’s frustration led her back to 4-H, and since then her experience chaperoning youth has been much more positive for her and her students. She credits this to the weekly LABO Parties, which focuses entirely on preparing the youth for the international experience.

“The LABO Party,” explained Suyama, “is an educational organization in Japan that aims to cultivate the minds and hearts of children.” LABO is the equivalent of 4-H here in the states, and simply means, “rowing to a new dawn.”

The Moellers also have experienced various exchange programs over the years, and their favorite program by far is the 4-H IFYE program.

The LABO Party assists students–or delegates, as they are called in Japan–in learning songs, games, folktales, nursery rhymes, and other aspects of the cultures of English speaking nations, including speaking the English language. Students coming to America enjoy reading all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. “The delegates are excited to be meeting in DeSmet for a Laura Ingalls Wilder Day with their host families and chaperones,” said Suyama. “Coming to South Dakota gives them many more stories, which they really love.”

Moeller, who also served as a chaperone in 2005, when she took several students to Japan, and is impressed by the 4-H/LABO program and the role it plays in preparing students for new cultural experiences. “It takes so much courage for a young person to go to a foreign country,” said Moeller. “It’s hard no matter how well-prepared you are, but 4-H does a really great job of making it a great experience.”

Suyama, sharing briefly about the trip from Japan to South Dakota: “On July 22, fourteen children gathered at the Narita Airport,” explained Suyama. “This was the first time I had met them. We spent the night in Narita, which gave us time to get to know each other.”

After spending the night in Narita, the group left Japan for a 12-hour flight to Minneapolis. From Minneapolis, they flew to Sioux Falls.

The following day, Alan Lambert, state 4-H coordinator, and other drivers, met the students and chaperones and drove each to the appointed place, where they would connect with their host families. From that point on, Suyama would keep in daily contact with the students via telephone and email, to assure that all is going well for them, and to deal with any challenges.

To help students adapt and truly become a member of their host family, LABO youth made self-introduction albums with them. Each student is encouraged to share Japanese stories and other cultural information about Japan with their host family and to keep a diary, both in Japanese and in English, so they will better remember the days of their stay in South Dakota.

Host families were encouraged to ask their guest to share about Japan, and to, in turn, expose the student to as much of the American culture as possible.

During the time from July 24-August 6 that Suyama stayed with the Moellers, they did their best to show Suyama their South Dakota lifestyle. “She served 500 people pork loin sandwiches in Pierre at the SD Pork Producers convention,” said Moeller. While in Pierre, Suyama toured the state capitol and the Cultural Heritage Center.

The two went to Huron with Peggy Ames, of Miller, to tour Madison Elementary School in Huron, where Ames teaches English as a Second Language. Suyama, an English teacher herself, noticed a few differences between American and Japanese Schools. She was surprised at how much more colorful the Huron classrooms are. “In Japan, classrooms are smaller and very basic. Only desk chairs and a blackboard,” said Suyama. “Class sizes number around 40, in Japan, more than in Huron.”

While in Huron, Suyama also experienced the Gladys Pyle Museum, and the Mexican restaurant, LaHacienda. “I am so happy,” said Suyama. “ I always wanted to eat Mexican.”

Moeller and Suyama were thrilled to find that they both have a love for playing the piano. “We got together with Nancy Ohnstad, Miller,” said Moeller, “and made music together.” Suyama, had played Japanese piano music which was a lot of fun for the ladies.

The ladies also went to Wessington Springs to tour the Shakespeare Gardens, Opera House and have tea with some friends. Suyama also came along to a Writers’ Guild meeting, where she read a poem in Japanese and got a chance to hear stories and poetry, ranging from the serious to the comical, true to the tall tale.

Coming from what Suyama calls a medium-sized city (population of Seto is 90,000), she could not quite get over the wide-open spaces of the prairie. “Rosemary introduced me to so many people,” enthused Suyama, “and to be in such a big area, where you can see for 360 degrees!” She has really enjoyed the beautiful scenery, particularly the sunrises, and loved waking up to the sound of the birds singing.

Suyama was also very interested in the hog operation the Moellers run. “I was surprised to see how everything is so well organized and computerized,” said Suyama.

“She was pretty amazed to see the automated feeding and cleaning systems,” added Moeller. She also took her first ride to the grain elevator in a semi-truck and toured the Millerdale Colony, where she was duly impressed by the Hutterite greenhouse and gardens.

Both Moeller and Suyama have thoroughly delighted in their time together. “We have been so thrilled to have the opportunity to share our lives and interests with Suyama, and have benefited in so many ways by having her with us,” said Moeller. “She spent a whole afternoon, the other day, preparing an absolutely delicious authentic Japanese dinner.”

“It is so interesting to know someone with so much life experience,” said Suyama. “I have enjoyed talking to Rosemary about our views on family, education, culture and music.”

The Moellers hosted Suyama for the first two weeks of her stay. On August 6, she headed to Brookings where she stayed with her new host family for another two weeks, before going back to Japan.