Fast friends, thanks to sister cities

Sam Mahdad has befriended a girl who can't easily keep up a conversation with him.

But that hasn't stopped them from becoming friends and learning about each other's cultures and traditions.

"To be honest, it's kind of difficult, but we found a way to communicate with one another, and in doing so, I feel like we're really good friends now," said the 16-year-old Huntington Beach High School student.

For the past two weeks, Sam has played host to Hikari Suzuki, one of four students from Anjo, Japan — Huntington Beach's sister city. A few words in English here and there, gestures and Google Translate have helped a lot, Sam said.

The three other students — Aya Sugiura, Saki Ota and Namiko Nogawa — stayed with three students from Marina, Ocean View and Edison high schools. There's also Tamami Suzuki, the students' chaperone, who stayed with Barbara Smith, a volunteer with the Huntington Beach Sister City Assn. that's been running the reciprocal exchange program for 29 years.

The students take care of their airfare, but their food and visits to places like Disneyland are paid for by the association, said Carmen Erber, president of the association.

The city recently cut funding for the program because of budget challenges, so the organization is working hard to keep it going, Erber said.

"It's a very wonderful cultural experience," she said. "When I was chaperone, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life."

Smith, who hosted people from other countries in the past, said she realized how much she still loves doing this.

"It's such a bridge to understanding," she said.

Sam and the three other American students — Morgan Renaud, Jared Yasutake and Kelly Ly — are scheduled to travel to Anjo on July 26. Smith plans to serve as their chaperone in Japan. Each will stay at the homes of those who were hosted here, Erber said.

Among the activities the students participated in while here was making a presentation for the City Council on July 5.

One of the things that struck Hikari was how Americans use knives and forks to eat, she said with Sam's help. She also said that she found Huntington Beach to be a peaceful place.

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