Within hours of her Saturday arrival in the United States, 16-year-old Yuka Nakajima learned an important lesson in American culture: taco shells, even at Bob's Big Boy buffet bar, ++ taste better with something in them.
Atholton High School junior Lanae Williams gave Yuka proper taco etiquette at their first lunch together at Bob's. Two nights later, Lanae and her family made tacos and enchiladas for Yuka.
Lanae and Yuka are two of the seventeen students involved in a sister school student exchange program between Columbia's Atholton High and Japan's Kamakura High.
For one week, eight Japanese students and their teacher, Sumio Okuyama, are living with host families from Atholton High. Since their first lunch together, the Japanese students and their host families have been trying to pack in as many American experiences as they can.
The all-girl entourage has embarked on whirlwind tours of New York's Statue of Liberty, Washington's Smithsonian Institution and Baltimore's National Aquarium. And they're doing it on an average of four hours sleep.
In between trips to the big cities, the girls are jamming in visits to The Mall in Columbia, Friendly's, Fuddrucker's, Blockbuster Video and Giant food stores.
Makiko Hoshii, a 16-year-old staying with Atholton senior Courtney Workman, is amazed by everything -- including grocery store produce sections. The variety, cheap prices and large size of the vegetables were worthy of photos for her family.
Many of the students say the highlight of their trip was Wednesday's journey to New York. They were excited to see Wall Street. Or, rather, Wall Street's McDonald's.
McDonald's is a hot topic.
When the girls gave presentations about Japanese life to Atholton classes, everyone wanted to know about McDonald's in Japan, said ninth grader Jesse Todd. It's similar to the American version, the Japanese students told them, just with smaller portions. "The hamburgers are so big, and it's so cheap here," exclaimed 17-year-old Keiko Ishimatsu.
At Monday's welcoming pep rally at Atholton High, the girls watched wide-eyed as Atholton students had a Big Mac eating contest.
Seated directly in front of the cheerleaders, the girls were astonished by the energy of the event. "I think Americans like to dance. . . . It's not so popular in Japan," remarked Keiko.
Besides McDonald's, boys were also a top-rated subject of comparison.
During Courtney Workman's visit to Kamakura High last summer, she remembers the Japanese students screaming when she told them she had a boyfriend. Apparently, there isn't as much involvement among high school girls and boys in Japan as there is in this country, she said.
At Atholton, though, both boys and girls have gone out of their way to greet the students in Japanese. For two weeks before the group arrived, students practiced saying "hello," "thank you" and "goodbye" in Japanese after the morning Pledge of Allegiance.
Although the Japanese group is trying to learn as much about the United States as possible, the girls also are here as mini-ambassadors. "It's a big job for one week," acknowledged Roger Plunkett, Atholton's principal.
Tuesday, Keiko Ishimatsu and 16-year-old Yoko Kawachauchi were introduced by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, to the state legislature in Annapolis as the six other girls were busy giving video presentations to 36 Atholton High classes. Today, two of the teens are giving presentations to second graders at Bryant Woods Elementary.
But when they're not on their diplomatic missions, the girls have to deal with the normal stuff, like their feet. In Japan, people always take off their street shoes before entering houses. Here, the girls have to adjust to wearing shoes most of the time. "My feet get so tired from wearing the shoes," Keiko complained.
The sister school exchange program developed out of Maryland's sister state program with Kanagawa, Japan. The first delegation of three Japanese students arrived at Atholton in October 1992.
Atholton reciprocated by sending three of its students -- Courtney Workman, Josey Chu and Lanae Williams -- to Kamakura High last June. Sharon Kramer, Atholton High's Sister School Program Coordinator, said that the school plans to send eight students to Japan this November.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Walkersville and Catonsville High Schools are also playing host to Japanese students from Kanagawa this week.
To be chosen to come to America, the Japanese students had to write an essay and pass an English oral exam. (Most of the girls have had six years of English.) The final challenge was a debate among students about Japanese and American cultures. The debate, the girls said, is what weeded out the boys. "Japanese boys are too shy. They don't like too talk -- in English or Japanese," explained Yuka Nakajima, 16.
By the time they leave tomorrow, the group will be well-stocked with American CDs (they're cheaper here than in Japan), fashion magazines and clothes. "Japanese are always worried about money," Mr. Okuyama said.
Once they're home again, they'll have plenty of stories to tell about pep rallies, "too fattening" American pizzas and sodas that are twice as big as Japanese sizes.
But they wouldn't be true diplomats if they didn't warn Americans of a misconception about Japanese culture -- Columbia Mall's Tokyo Express food is nothing like Japanese food.