In Japanese, the words for family members depend on whose family you’re talking about—your own or someone else’s. That’s something Caitlin Clineff learned when studying the language through 4-H exchange programs. She also learned a lot about family.
By middle school, Clineff was enamored with Asian history and cultures. When she learned that an exchange student from Japan could spend a month with her family, the Stokes County 4-H member was elated.
“We hosted our first exchange student, Akiho, when I was 13 and she was 12,” Clineff says. “We had such a great time that my family continued doing that every summer for most of my high school years.”
Sitting in a bedroom decorated with paper lanterns and parasols, Clineff would practice her Japanese in a composition notebook, drafting letters to pen pals, who sent letters on colorful stationery and handmade cards for her family.
At 15, Clineff became an outbound exchange student, staying in Kobe, Japan, for a month with the family of Chihiro, whom she had hosted the previous summer.
“It was my first time actually being on a plane, going over there,” Clineff says, laughing. “I mean, that’s how many new experiences I had all wrapped up into that summer.”
Clineff’s family shared her enthusiasm. Her younger sister welcomed two students the following summer, and her mom, a 4-H alumna, hosted several adult chaperones.
Though neither hosts nor exchange students were fluent in the others’ language, they found ways to communicate. “You don’t need words to express a lot of things,” Clineff says.
Gap Year in Tokyo
Between high school and college, Clineff took a yearlong internship with Labo International Exchange, a Japanese organization that partners with 4-H in the U.S. She lived with several host families and worked from an office in Tokyo.
“You get to go out and meet with all these different Labo parties, which are kind of similar to 4-H clubs, interact with the kids and basically just share your culture and play games with them to give them a chance to meet someone who’s from outside Japan,” she says. “And then I would also help with preparing the students over there to come on exchange trips.”
Her host families welcomed her warmly, asking which Japanese dishes Clineff had tried so that they could prepare new foods for her to taste.
She learned how to speak Japanese and made lifelong connections.
I definitely think of them all as family,” she says. “The couple of host families that I got really close with while I was living in Japan, I mean, I call them my mom and my sister, and we really feel that family connection.”
As a freshman at NC State, Clineff worked as a program assistant for North Carolina 4-H Exchange. “I always love volunteering and coming back and helping out with 4-H in any way I can,” she says.
She considered majors in international work and textiles before choosing horticultural science, “my first 4-H love.”
But she decided to minor in Japanese, which was fortunate.
“I would have to say that if it wasn’t for the exchange program, I never would have met my husband,” Clineff says. “We actually met in Japanese class here at NC State.”
In 2013, she accepted an invitation from Labo to return for a six-week stint as a chaperone for a group of students preparing for exchange programs.
How It Started vs. How It’s Going
Clineff also traveled widely, visiting every Japanese student she had hosted over the years. She took a long train to Niigata and flew to Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan.
“That was really important to me, to get to see all of them again and meet them as adults,” she says.
By then Akiho, who had been 12 when they first met, was in college.
And on the day of Clineff’s wedding in 2015, Akiho was in North Carolina to celebrate. “That was so amazing of her,” Clineff says.
Seven years into her horticultural career, Clineff enjoys her work. To maintain her Japanese connections, she’s traded pen pal letters for messaging apps and videoconferencing. She hopes to visit Japan with her husband and wants others to enjoy the experiences she’s had through exchange programs.