As American as our stars and stripes, sweet tea and barbeque are what this country runs on. Judging by the 20 pounds Shoya Tanabe, a foreign exchange student from Japan, gained while living with the Altizer family in Mount Pleasant, Tanabe fits in just fine.
He is attending Coastal Christian Prep and has been immersed in East Cooper since August. He'll stay until June, and when Tanabe leaves, his newfound brother Jake Altizer will go with him to stay with his Japanese family for a month.
“Candy is too sweet. Water tastes different,” Tanabe said. “I've gained 20 pounds since I came here.”
What's his favorite food? “I like ribs. We don't have such big beef (in Japan) like ribs,” he said, motioning with his hands that servings of meat are typically smaller in his hometown.
He Skypes with his parents about once a month. “They noticed,” he said, laughing about his weight gain. He's still a lean 17 year old. “They saw my face,” he adding, rubbing his cheeks.
It was a 14-hour trip with plane rides from his home in Okinawa to Tokyo to California to Dallas and finally to Charleston. He studied English but was overwhelmed by the speed at which everyone talked. “I couldn't communicate with people, but I can now,” Tanabe said. “He spoke so slow,” he added, gesturing toward Altizer.
“Since he couldn't speak (well), we just played ping pong downstairs and didn't say anything,” Altizer, 16, said. “We played Xbox and didn't talk to each other.”
“That was so awkward,” Tanabe said and laughed.
“He's pretty much been like a brother,” Altizer added. “We didn't really have any idea what to expect. He's come pretty far. He couldn't even speak to us when he first came here.”
Altizer said the idea to accept a foreign exchange student came as a “spur of the moment thing.” He toyed with the idea of learning Japanese and his parents thought he could study in Japan. Instead, they found a website with a lineup of available foreign students.
Tanabe's profile included an athletic history. “Shoya said he played basketball and stuff, so that's who we went with,” Altizer said.
“You said a lot of them are weird, right?” he asked Tanabe.
“Yeah,” Tanabe responded, laughing.
“Like geek kids?”
“I got pretty lucky, I guess, since you play sports.”
It was a trip of many firsts for Tanabe, including adding a new sport to his repitiore: baseball. As a small school, Coastal Christian students often play more than one sport. The eager 17-year-old played baseball and basketball.
“They didn't have enough people, so I just figured I (would) play,” he said. “I couldn't throw any ball. I'm not good at it. I play basketball.”
Tanabe told Altizer that he wanted to learn how to play because he'd like to play catch with his children when he's older. “When I get my son, what if I couldn't throw a ball? That'd be awful,” he said.
His stay in the United States also included trips to Universal Studios and the White House. He's interested in having a peace relations or ambassador career in the Okinawa government after attending the local college.
There's an American military base in his small province of Okinawa, but he said those service members cause trouble and have frequent run-ins with the law. “I don't want people to hate Americans,” he said, “because I like America.”
Tanabe said he'll miss his new friends, teachers and coaches but plans to Skype with them. And, he'd like to return to the United States another time.
For now, he misses his 8-year-old brother Takuya. “I only miss him,” he said, laughing. “Not my parents or my sister.”
Family life is one of the glaring differences between American and Japanese culture, he explained. “I've seen some different things. It's good to live in a different family. We have same dinner,” he said, referring to the setting of eating together. “After dinner, we go to each of our rooms. But here, we stay together and talk.”
Tanabe said he prefers the extended family time. Perhaps when he and Altizer go to Okinawa, they'll infuse that part of American culture into his Okinawa home.
“I don't know very much Japanese, so it'll probably be pretty hard,” Altizer said of his expectations for the trip. “But, I'll only be gone for a month, so it'll just be for fun.”
Tanabe said he plans to travel with his American brother to Tokyo to sightsee.
Cynthia Altizer, Jake's mother, boasted about Tanabe. “It's been great,” she said. “Jake has two older sisters, 23 and 28 (years old), so he's been like an only child here by himself. Now that he's had Shoya here, they are just like brothers, truly like brothers.”