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Cultural exchange links east, west

Japanese students visit residents at an assisted living facility to see how some elderly Americans live and to test their English skills.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The room hummed with conversation as elderly men and women chatted with their young Japanese guests over juice and cookies, family photographs and delicate paper sculptures of colorful birds.

The residents of the Green Bench, an assisted living facility at 601 49th St. N, basked in the almost reverent attention of their international visitors. They were particularly attentive as the five high school and college students demonstrated the ancient Japanese art of paper folding known as origami.

Cradling three paper birds in her hand, an excited Norma Buie, 90, asked one young woman, "Don't you want to show these around?"

The Japanese students, all young women, are visiting St. Petersburg for two weeks as part of a cultural exchange program called PeopleLink. During their stay, they have been perfecting conversational English in the mornings and visiting places of interest in the afternoon. Following their stop at Green Bench last Wednesday, the students toured The Pier, St. Petersburg police headquarters and a bank. Today they plan to volunteer at the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen.

"We want them exposed to American culture," said Bill Weiss, PeopleLink's local representative, who arranges host families for visiting students and teaches the morning English classes.

Weiss said Green Bench was selected as a stop because the young women wanted to see how some elderly Americans live.

In Japan, said chaperone Fumio Yamada, it is traditional for grandparents to live with their families.

"We live together," he said. "But we understand that Americans are very independent."

Fumio distributed small squares of paper for the origami sculptures and smiled last week as he watched his charges interact with Green Bench residents.

Atsuko Tsugimatsu, 16, chatted with Polly Shiphorst, 88, as she fashioned a square of patterned pink paper into a bird.

Mrs. Shiphorst, who has a daughter in Gulfport and four grandchildren, had waited excitedly for the group's arrival.

"I love people," she said.

The morning began with a small concert. The young women, backpacks and handbags in hand, sang in Japanese and English.

As everyone settled, Mayu Wachi, 15, was paired with Sophie Ulczynski, 93.

Mayu showed Mrs. Ulczynski a photograph of her parents sitting on a patio surrounded by pots of red and pink flowers.

"This is my mother," Mayu said.

"She's very young looking," Mrs. Ulczynski replied.

Hitomi Sato, 20, flipped through an English dictionary to find the word for cousins. The second-year university student wanted to use the right word as she spoke to 82-year-old Jean Brugger about the people in her family pictures.

Jerda Omsberg, whom Green Bench administrator Toni Barksdale has nicknamed Katherine Hepburn because of her resemblance to the former movie star, clasped the hand of 18-year-old Rumi Kawashima.

"Are you a freshman?" she asked. "No matter what, stay with it."

Everyone paused to listen as Mrs. Omsberg continued her conversation with the teenager.

"I visited your country about 10 years ago. I enjoyed it immensely. It was very lovely, very different from our country," Mrs. Omsberg said.

"But that was a long time ago. I'm 93 years old . . . young. I'm just starting over," she said, drawing laughs from those gathered in the living room.

Leaning on her walker as she prepared to return to her room, Mrs. Ulczynski said to no one in particular, "This was a wonderful experience."

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