A few weeks ago, when a friend from church called to say that she was looking for families to host Japanese exchange students for a weekend in November, Steve encouraged me to do it so I somewhat reluctantly agreed. I’m not a natural hostess, especially when it comes to having overnight guests. Any relatives who pass through town get pointed to the closest Best Western.

But we had nothing scheduled for that weekend and we have not just one, but two empty bedrooms with our two oldest kids away at college.  Plus we thought it would be a good opportunity for Jennifer to broaden her perspective on life beyond what she experiences at Petaluma High School.

So Erika from Miyakonojo Nishi High School spent this past weekend with us. And much to my surprise, it was refreshing, diverting, and harder to say goodbye than I ever would have imagined.

When we arrived at Petaluma Valley Baptist Church on Friday afternoon to pick up Erika, the fellowship hall was almost vibrating from the excitement of about 50 Japanese students, all in their school uniforms, waiting to meet the families who they were assigned to for the weekend.

The students all had name tags and within a few moments we found Erika. She had accessorized her very conservative navy blue, below-the-knee skirt and blazer uniform with a pair of high-top Converse printed with an American flag theme. We came to find out during the course of the weekend that she loves clothes with stars and stripes – the louder, the better.

After taking many pictures, she found her suitcase and we piled into the car. We started to make conversation on the way home. Sometimes her English was absolutely perfect with hardly a trace of an accent, and other times, conversing was more like a “Who’s on first” routine. We found out that she loves American musicals and her favorite ones are “Grease” and “Hairspray.” And she knows the lyrics to many Taylor Swift songs. There were some awkward silences but she was positively determined to communicate with us.

So what kind of activities do you plan when you have a Japanese student from Friday night through Monday morning and the point of having them stay with you is to give them a snapshot of American life?

People Link, the organization which matches the students with their American families, encouraged everyone to do whatever they would normally do. For us, that meant going to the Impressionist exhibit at the DeYoung Museum, followed by window-shopping at San Francisco Centre, hamburgers at In-N-Out, going to church on Sunday, a trip to Costco and checking out some consignment stores in downtown Petaluma, all interspersed with eating and watching DVDs.

That’s a lot to fit into a weekend for someone who just arrived from Japan the day before, and given a few minutes of down time, Erika dozed off. But throughout it all, she was an absolute delight – documenting everything in pictures and enthusiastically trying everything, starting with the lasagna that we had for dinner Friday night. “Ohhhh, lasagna, like Garfield!” And she took a photo of it on her plate.

There was a kind of childlike innocence in the discoveries she made about America. She was constantly amazed at how big everything in America is, from shopping carts, to houses, to sodas at McDonalds. And while our daughter turns her nose up at trendy clothing store Hot Topic, Erika loved the merchandise and bought a Justin Bieber t-shirt which she proudly wore to church the next day. When Steve bought her the new Taylor Swift CD, she literally jumped up and down.

We knew that she had become part of the family because by Sunday evening, all three cats had spent time on her lap. As a last gesture of appreciation for us, she cooked dinner, miso soup and a vacuum packed chicken dish that she had brought from Japan.

When we took her to the bus on Monday morning, there were many hugs goodbye and promises of staying in touch through emails, FaceBook messages and Skype. We know she felt the same way too, because she just before she got on the bus she ran back over to us to say, “I want to stay!”

We’ll miss you, Erika. And we hope that we enriched your life and much as you did ours.