They are thousands of miles from their home countries of Japan but Rina Sato, Natsuki Kato and Naoko Oura are settling into the homes they will live for this school year.
They are in the United States as part of the EF Foundation for Foreign Study. All three girls are in their junior year of school.
Rina and Natsuki are staying in Storm Lake, attending school at St. Mary's in the homes of George and Barbara King and Thayne and Kathi Benz respectfully; Naoko is attending Sioux Central and is staying in the home of Superintendent Dan and Deanna Frazier.
Coming from cities with populations of millions of people, (Rina is from Tokyo and Natsuki and Naoko from Nagoya) the girls were pleasantly surprised by the small communities and small schools they are now a part of.
Quiet, calm, all corn and beans are their descriptions of the area. Naoko seemed surprised there were no mountains since the city where she lives, located in the middle of the country, is surrounded by mountains.
The girls said they really didn't know anything about Iowa except, pointed out Naoko, the bit of information she saw on Japanese television during the Iowa primaries.
They spent three weeks in Olympia, Wash. before traveling on to Iowa, along with other Asian students placed in the United States through EF. There they learned about American culture as well as went through a makeshift school to give them an idea of what to expect.
The Asian students became quite close and all three have said they are not homesick as they begin to settle into their new routines but they are "camp sick!"
School life is much different. Rina attends a public co-ed school in Tokyo while Natsuki and Naoko attend a private girls school where they are not allowed to wear make-up, fingernail polish or jewelry.
All three are enjoying the "little bit more of freedom" they are finding in the area schools.
The one thing they are having a difficult time adjusting to is the time they have to get to each class. There is no time for talking between classes at St. Mary's or Sioux Central with only three minutes to get where they need to be; students in Japan get between five and 10 minutes, plenty of time to catch up on friends in different classes. Teachers in Japan do the moving from room to room unlike here where the students move throughout the day.
Rina and Natsuki miss Japanese rice (although Natsuki received a care package filled with rice from home Saturday) but are finding many things that they like.
"The food is good but heavy," said Natsuki. They have become frequent visitors to Godfathers Pizza during the two weeks they have been here. They have already gained a few pounds, but giggle about it.
They will soon work off the pizzas, as Rina and Natsuki are members of the Panthers volleyball team, a new experience for them. Rina is a cheerleader in Japan, where they climb onto each others shoulders and build elaborate human pyramids. She is hoping to be a part of the basketball cheerleading squad, but doing less daring moves. Natsuki said she may try playing basketball.
Naoko admitted she was too short for basketball but she has found a place in the school band playing percussion. In Japan she is a cellist and will miss not having an orchestra to play in.
English is learned at a young age in Japan but mostly in written form. There is not much opportunity to speak the language. Living among the English-speaking classmates and host families they will have a great opportunity to learn, the girls agree. While English is still a difficult language for them, they go everywhere with their small computerized translators that assist them with spellings, meanings and even pronunciation of words they are unfamiliar with.
Understanding the teachers will take some additional adjustment - in front of their classes, they speak so quickly, the Japanese students fund.
"What a challenge for them," said Kathi Benz. "I admire them."
Despite these difficulties, they are excited about what lays ahead of them during the school year.
"I can make friends from other grades," said Naoko, explaining that her high school has 2,000 students. From an all girls school, she has noticed the boys and that they are "very tall."
Rina said she wanted to be a part of this experience so she could be "independent and learn English. I love Japan and I want to spread Japanese culture."
Natsuki said she is looking forward to learning more about this new culture.
Kathi Benz hosted an exchange student 17 years ago and she and her family still have a close relationship. This is a new experience for the Kings. The Fraziers hosted a Japanese teacher for a short time several years ago.
Superintendent Frazier pointed out the many pluses that having an exchange student in the school can bring.
"I am a believer in international education. the globe is constantly shrinking and we need to educate our kids for the new world that is emerging."
He added that Sioux Central has added a Model UN program this year, focusing on Japan. Spanish, he said, has always been offered as a class at Sioux Central. The school can now go online to allow students to take other foreign languages of interest to them. One student has signed up for Japanese; she can surely learn from Naoko.
The host families are thrilled to have the students in their homes and are anxious to learn from their culture as well as share the American experience with them.