For Durango resident and single mom Lisa Owens, raising a child has been the most fulfilling part of her life. When the opportunity arose to open her arms to another child and be a host mom to a visiting exchange student from another country, she took it.
Four years ago, she welcomed a child from Japan into her home named Aoi Yamagishi, only 12 years old at the time. This year, Aoi came back, now 16 and eager to tackle all that comes with attending an American high school.
Aoi is part of the Lex-Hippo Family Club, a Japanese-based institute that sends young children to live from a few weeks to a year in other countries to become fully immersed in their language. Aoi has been a member of Lex-Hippo for five years and said many children join the organization to learn one or more of the 22 languages taught in the classrooms.
Lex-Hippo works with many exchange programs like the States’ 4-H International Exchange Programs, a nonprofit that has been in service for 50 years and has worked with more than 63,000 youths in 43 countries since 1972.
In 2018, States’ 4-H International sent out flyers to Durango parents hoping to generate interest in being a host family to an exchange student, and Owens jumped at the chance.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’” Owens said. “I wanted to make a difference.”
The 12-year-old Japanese boy she welcomed into her home, however, did not speak a word of English.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Owens said. “It was hard.”
“I didn’t understand a thing for the first couple of weeks,” Aoi said.
“There was a lot of hand gesturing,” Owens’ 14-year-old son, Tucker, said. “Lots of pointing at things.”
“I was doing a lot of guessing back then,” Aoi said. “I would try to read people. Guess what they wanted or were saying, but then I just started to pick things up here and there.”
Aoi stayed for four weeks during his initial visit to the United States, and then realized he wanted to come back.
“I live in Tokyo, in a city,” he said, “but I liked being in the country (Durango).”
At 16 years old, Aoi decided to return for his entire junior year to live with his former host family.
“I think he missed my cooking,” Owens said with a wink.
Besides Owens’ cooking, the stark contrast between Animas High School, a public charter with a project-based curriculum that has two to three exchange students yearly, and the kind of school Aoi attends in Tokyo is another reason he had for crossing the ocean and spending a school year in the U.S.
“We went rafting my first day of school,” he said with a grin. “I feel more equal here. They give you opportunities to discuss things. To state your opinions. It’s a good school. In Japanese schools, there isn’t much discussion. There is a one-way lesson. When they teach English, it’s just reading and writing. You don’t get to speak it.”
“Aoi has just jumped right in with everything we offer here,” said Libby Cowles, AHS’s dean of enrollment and assistant head of school. “He’s been very positive.”
Other cultural differences Aoi has noted while attending AHS are the differences in American students’ lunches versus Japanese students’, the fact that students are allowed to snack and drink water in a classroom and being able to use the restroom when they need to go.
“You cannot go to the bathroom in Japanese classroom,” he said with a shake of his head. “You have to wait until class is over.”
Whether Aoi decides to finish his postsecondary schooling in the U.S. or stay in Japan once his junior year is over, he knows he wants to go into some kind of a nature-based architecture very different from the Tokyo building structures he is used to. He is also interested in international relations and a job that allows him to keep traveling around the world. Oh, and maybe climb Mount Kilimanjaro with his host family some day.
“We all want to go to Africa together,” Tucker said. “It would be so much fun!”
Following the strict rules of the Lex-Hippo program, Aoi is not allowed to have any contact with his family in Japan during the duration of his stay in Durango. Though Owens believes such a policy to be too strict, Aoi understands Lex-Hippo’s way of operating.
“When I am here, I have to be here fully,” he said. “I miss my family, but I have family here. I like just talking with them (host family). It’s not special, but it’s good for me.”
Aoi is just as fond of the U.S. as he is of his host family.
“I live in Tokyo my whole life,” he said. “It’s very different. America is a good country. It’s very free.”
Owens then emphasized that more Durango parents, and more Americans, should consider the possibility of being a host family for an exchange student, even if there is no monetary incentive.
“Open your home and open your heart,” she said. “Dive in. Be open and accepting. I feel like I’m making a difference in Aoi’s life, and that makes it all worth it.”
An earlier version of this story misstated Tucker Owen’s age. He is 14 years old, not 16.