My name is Tori and I’m a current AFS Volunteer, Returnee from Japan (2010), and past host sister. I’m here to share my experience with AFS for anyone who’s curious – curious about going abroad, hosting, learning about new cultures, trying to figure out what AFS is and what they do, or if you just like reading about people’s adventures!

How did you get started with AFS?

My introduction to AFS began when I became determined to study abroad in Japan. I looked up different exchange programs, scoured their sites for information, timelines, and activities. I found AFS to be the most complete and they offered the timelines I wanted: a semester or a year.

So, you hosted first?

Yes, we did. Before agreeing to send me away, my parents wanted to know more about how the program worked, so we decided to host. We hosted a student from Kyoto, Japan for one year. As an only child, it was a learning experience to suddenly have someone to share my space with! I also got to learn more about Japan, Japanese food, and Japanese culture. In Albuquerque, we attended the annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta and did our best to see every balloon that was there! We were also able to visit some of my extended family on the East Coast while she was with us. One visit was to Washington D.C. where we explored the Natural History and American History museums. Another visit took us to Florida to go to Disney World and the beaches of Tampa Bay!

As a host sister, I was also able to participate in many of the AFS chapter events, such as going to the Grand Canyon, White Sands, Christmas and Halloween parties, and more. It was fun to be able to make friends from across the world and see both our similarities and differences. The experience also showed us how much AFS takes care of both students and families during their time abroad with regular orientations and check-ins with students to address any concerns or difficulties students were facing. Thus, my parents agreed to let me go to Japan for a semester (thank goodness!).

Want to know what it’s like being a host family? We interviewed AFS Host Parent Sheri to see what her experience was like here.

Questions about hosting? We address the three most common ones in this article!

The Graham family talks about their experience hosting a student from the Middle East here. You can start an AFS Host Family Application here.

Wait – you went to Japan? How were your language skills?

I get these questions a lot, so let’s talk about language when going abroad – you don’t need to know anything before going, but it sure does help! When I went to Japan, I had taken only one year of high school Japanese. I could read and write the basic alphabets (hiragana and katakana), but my kanji was very limited. I could only make basic sentences and I had little vocabulary at my disposal.

I found myself in Takehara, Hiroshima, a countryside town on the southern coast of Japan. My host family consisted of a father, mother, and sister, none of whom spoke English. The funny thing is, I requested that my host family not have strong English skills so that I could learn Japanese and be immersed. I will not lie, it was a struggle. AFS provided a Japanese workbook that I worked on outside of class and this helped me immensely! I call it “Studying and Struggling” because I would study new vocabulary, grammar, and kanji characters, then go try and talk to my friends with what I had just learned. I did not notice my progress as much as my host family and friends did! By the end they were saying my Japanese had improved immensely and I was honestly ecstatic and surprised!

If you’re interested in tips on learning a new language, check out this blog on how to become multilingual.

What was school like?

When I first started school, I tried every class in my schedule. The school let me choose which courses were too challenging for my language level, so I chose not to take Classical Japanese and World History. The English courses were very helpful for me because they acted as my Japanese courses! I could see the new English grammar the students were learning and reverse it! The elective course I took was Calligraphy. It was a great way to relax, learn new Japanese characters and how to read Japanese cursive; it was probably my favorite class! I joined two clubs while I was there: volleyball and tea ceremony. I had always wanted to try volleyball and this was my opportunity. I can’t say I became very good (I have weak shoulders…), but I did improve and find that I really enjoy volleyball! Tea Ceremony was a great way for me to unwind and drink some wonderful green tea! I learned the steps for a basic tea ceremony, how to properly drink the tea, how to walk, stand, sit, fold the handkerchief, and clean the utensils. It’s more accurate to say that I was recruited to the tea ceremony club, but I’m so happy I gave in and joined!

Small town in Japan? Not Tokyo?

I only visited Tokyo for a few days for orientation, so I didn’t get to see much of it and most of us exchange students were very jet lagged! The countryside is what you expect, beautiful landscape, but not too much in the way of entertainment for a city girl like me. I loved it though and we still had karaoke! I was (and still am) obsessed with karaoke! Along with a small community, we had a small AFS chapter; there was me, a boy from Chile, and a girl from Germany. We often hung out in Mihara because it was central to all our locations. We also attended the school cultural festival at one of the schools together! I actually learned a lot spending time with them because their Japanese was better than mine (they had already been there for 6 months before my arrival), so they were able to explain words and phrases that didn’t translate well as well as share stories of their past mistakes and daily life for me to learn from. Bonding with fellow exchange students was great for sharing our joys, frustrations, and goals.

What kind of activities did you do with your host family?

My host family and liaison family (almost like a second host family!) helped me gain a variety of experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary. We went to the Hiroshima Peace Park, Miyajima (an island filled with deer), and a few onsen (hot springs). I also got to wear a yukata and attend a summer festival! My host sister was a bit older than me, but we both liked horror movies so we watched horror movies together as our bonding activity! It was a great way to see a wider variety of movies and spend time with my host sister. It was always a surprise too because she often chose the movie!

What about the exchange student you hosted?

In addition to my time in the countryside, I was also able to visit my Japanese sister in her home town of Kyoto! Her family was nice enough to let me stay with them, give me the grand tour, and treat me like family during my time there! They took me to major historical landmarks in Kyoto, such as Kinkakuji (the Golden Temple). I’ve actually gone back to visit Kyoto a few times now!

What happened when you came back?

As a result of my exchange, I found that my language learning capabilities upon returning to the US improved greatly. I remember struggling to understand new concepts in Japanese before going to Japan. After returning, I have been able to pick up new grammar and concepts more easily (even 10 years in the future). My conversational flow and skills also improved substantially. The funny thing is, when I came back, some words would pop into my head in Japanese rather than English and I realized that there was some new slang going around that I was unaware of! It’s amazing how fast slang can evolve (and you can forget your first language!).

Here are some of my favorite articles from other AFS alumni:

Check out this interview with Stephen Zhang, an AFS returnee from China.

For those interested in going to Spain, we interviewed Amanda Sawyer, an AFS returnee who went to Spain.

Curious about how your identity fits in with other cultures? Tony talks about his identity and time in Germany with AFS.

What do you do as a volunteer?

When I returned to the US, I began volunteering with my local AFS chapter. A majority of my volunteering has been with orientations. I often lead small group discussions where we discuss cultural differences, communication differences, and differences in daily life from the students’ home countries.

Another area we focus on is culture shock; what surprising or “weird” experiences the students may have had during their exchange. By highlighting culture shock, we can open the floor to discussing differences in visible and invisible culture amongst various countries.

I have returned to Japan a few times after my exchange with AFS and have been able to visit my host family almost every time. They are my second family and welcome me home every time. One time, I visited when the chapter was welcoming new students, so I was able to participate and assist with the welcome orientation. Many of the volunteers were still there from my exchange, but instead of Mihara, the students arrived at the newly built Shin-Onomichi Station! (As a side note, I am a big gamer and a video game I played had Onomichi as one of its locations; it really took me back!)

In conclusion…

To summarize all of this, there is a lot of opportunity out there with AFS in a variety of capacities! Learning to understand and appreciate each other’s differences is important and helps us grow as people and pass opportunities along. If you have any questions about AFS, going abroad, hosting, volunteering, or more about my story and others, please reach out to us!

Written by AFS Volunteer Tori Anaya with original photos.