Most days Mika Hampton plays “mom” to international students who have moved to the Lower Mainland for school.
In her role as director and agent at Space Canada International, she liaises with host families, helps new students navigate their new surroundings and gives groundings to school skippers. But every year, for a month starting in February, she gets a break from all that. Every year, students from Kamimura Gakuen high school come to visit.
“This group is angels for me,” Hampton said.
For the last six years, Hampton has brought a class of students from Kamimura Gakuen high school over to Agassiz to learn English and Canadian culture. Originally from Japan herself, Hampton was first approached by the principal of Kamimura Gakuen to see if she could help him find a partner school for his student’s exchange program.
“My co-owner (of Space Canada International) … she is totally a city person. And she couldn’t believe it,” Hampton said, remembering when the principal suggested Agassiz as a good spot for the program.
“She couldn’t believe that the principal loves (it) here,” she continued. “She said ‘Are you sure? You want to send the students here?’”
Most exchange programs are focused in more urban areas, Hampton explained. Agassiz’s small and quiet community was a little out of the ordinary. But it was Hampton’s home, and she was excited to show off the area to Japanese teens.
Hampton approached AESS principal Patsy Graham about the idea, and a new cultural exchange between Kakinawa and Agassiz was born.
The program goes like this: students taking an English course at Kamimura Gakuen spend one month in Agassiz, staying with a home-stay family. During their stay, they learn English and Canadian customs while teaching students at Agassiz Elementary Secondary and Kent Elementary about Japanese culture.
Sometimes they’ll go out on excursions to things like hockey games, and they spend their weekend in Vancouver for a taste of city life before flying back to Japan.
“Usually everybody really enjoys it and really experiences different culture,” Hampton said. The Japanese students are surprised the first time they see a green pepper that’s as big as their hand, she said, and many are shocked at the idea of wearing pyjamas to school during Pyjama Day.
“For a Japanese student, it’s unbelievable to come in pyjamas to school,” Hampton said. “It feels so weird.”
Home-stay families are treated to a potluck dinner, made by the students who were given a lesson in Japanese cooking before they left. And many families keep in touch with their students long after the program is over.
“Lots of families still keep in touch with the student. So that’s really really nice,” she added. “I don’t know … what they’re doing right now, but the family told me: ‘Did you hear about her? She’s doing this, and she become this.’”
Hampton has many stories of the students who have come through the program over the years. Some are more entertaining than others.
“The kids just remind me of my first year in Canada,” Hampton said.
One student struggled in the bathroom when she tried to wash her hair, using the faucet in the tub rather than the shower head above.
“‘I have to duck and it’s so much lower than my head’,” Hampton remembered her telling the home-stay family.
“I’m like, oh my god. So I phoned her back and I said, ‘Can you tell her how to put the shower on?’”
There have been bigger difficulties than just figuring out how to wash hair — one year the Hampton had to make last minute provisions for the students to do their program at Chilliwack’s Unity Christian School — but Hampton said there has never been a bad year.
“The first year was only 19 kids, but I still remember everybody’s face and I can say the name right away,” Hampton said. “The first year was really, really good year. Every year is a good year.”
This year, at least 23 students will be making their way over from Japan, and arriving in Canada on Friday, Feb. 15. They’ll have a few days to acclimatize, and attempt to sleep off the jet lag, before they dive into school and community activities in Agassiz, Chilliwack and Hope.
It’ll be a month of learning for students and host families alike, and Hampton feels it will be a rewarding experience for nearly everyone involved. But she’s also hoping the program will continue to grow.
“It’s small community, but I want it to be more overseas, more international students,” Hampton said about AESS, which signed a sister school agreement with Kamimura Gakuen two years ago. “I want it to be more (about) connecting (between) Japan and Agassiz, to do the more back and forth.”
The students who come to Canada always enjoy themselves, she added. Someday, it would be great to give Agassiz students that same experience in Japan.