Here is a photo gallery of the beginning of last summer with my host sister, Rino, my friends, and I in Chicago.
May & June, Chicago 2019//
One of my best friends, Anai Arenas, lives just down the street from my house. Before I left for Thailand, I strongly encouraged her and her family to host an exchange student with AFS, even if it were only for the summer. I thought they would be a great host family and that they would have so much fun with it. They ended up hosting Lena, a seventeen-year-old girl from Norway, for the school year. Because we are basically neighbours and they both were the only exchange students at Riverside-Brookfield High School, my host sister Rino (from Japan) and Lena got pretty close over the year. By the time I had come home, Anai and I wanted to hang out lots as well as in a group with Lena and Rino. On May 19th, we went to a White Sox game together with Anai’s family, which I think was Rino’s first baseball game and my first since coming home.
The four of us also went downtown a few times and we once visited the Nutella cafe, which I had never been to.
One day, we took a joyride with Anai’s parents downtown, walked around the city, and then got ice cream at Ghirardelli’s. It was such a spontaneous and great time.
On May 21st, 2019, I met up with an AFS-er exchange student, Nan, from Thailand who was living in Chicago. We had hung out before in big groups with our friends but I liked talking to her one-on-one about Thailand and Chicago, two super different, unique places that she and I both shared.
She also introduced me to my absolute favourite Thai resturant in Chicago area, Immm Rice and Beyond. Fun fact: “Immm” means “I’m full,” in Thai! I love this place for a multitude of reasons. Of course, the food is insanely amazing and it is just like what you would get at street markets in Thailand. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, with a beautiful mural and artwork on the walls. The service is great and everyone there is very friendly. I even got to practice my Thai language skills with the servers, who were so encouraging and helpful. I couldn’t recommend this place more. Naturally, I got my favourite Thai dish–som tam. They even had sticky rice!! (A rarity in America.)
After eating lunch, we went to Meet Fresh, an Asian dessert place and got strawberry bingsu, which is like a milky shaved ice with toppings.
As you can see, it was a huge mountain of ice cream and shaved ice so it took us a while to eat (and we didn’t even finish!) It was incredible though and I really missed it from Thailand.
Afterwards, we walked around in Chinatown for a bit and took some photos. We took the train to around Water Tower Place and went in a couple malls for a bit before we walked to Union Station, where I took the train home. It was a really fun day.
I went downtown again with Rino on such a nice summer day. We even wore matching skirts! We went to almost all of the classic Chicago tourist sites (even the beach!) and took loads of photos.
Another great time in Chicago that summer was meeting up with another YES-Abroader in my cohort, Diana, who went to Morocco. Despite our host countries being soo different, our YES abroad experiences were similar in a lot of respects and I was happy to catch up since we hadn’t seen each other since the previous June.
I also attended Rino’s (and Lena’s) graduation ceremony!
After the ceremony, my mom took Rino and I downtown for a surprise celebration for her. Rino is obsessed with scary movies and so my mom thought it would be fun to do a scary tour of Chicago’s most haunted sites. We met with a professional guide who took the three of us everywhere and told us all sorts of historical stories I had no idea about. The guide was a lot more convinced by the idea that supernatural/ghost activity was rampant in Chicago than we were, which made for a silly but fun night. He was very light-hearted so we all got along fine. However, Rino, my mom, and I had to keep from laughing as we tinkered with various little machines to try and prove that spirits were present as the guide asserted, though the evidence was pretty much grasping for straws. Regardless of the supernatural aspect, the walk through Chicago was beautiful and Rino and I had tons of fun. The tour ended super late (maybe 1 am or later) and we found a tiny pizza place to eat at, which was delicious and just what we needed to end the night.
One night, Anai, Rino, and I went to Oak Park for some sushi at a place her parents recommended. As we waited for our orders to be made by chefs that worked right in front of us, I started a mini campaign, egging Rino on to speak in Japanese to the waitress and chefs to surprise them. She was laughing a lot and a little nervous but agreed, as long as I would make the introduction. The next time our waitress stopped by, I said with a huge grin, “This is Rino, an exchange student from Japan for the year, and she wanted to say hi in Japanese!” The waitress smiled and asked what program she was from in English, so we explained, and then she said, “Sorry, but actually the chefs and I are from Thailand.” My jaw dropped and I quickly said, “Wait, really?!” in Thai. She was taken aback and all three of us started laughing. I explained that I too had done an exchange year, but in Thailand. The waitress called over her shoulder to the chefs and told them I spoke Thai, shocking them as well, and we all wai-ed to each other in friendly greeting. That interaction was certainly not what I expected but it was so funny to see the tables turn for Rino and I. I couldn’t help myself from speaking to her in Thai when the waitress came over, as I was so excited to practice and talk. Rino taught us some Japanese too while we ate, including the word for delicious that we are saying in the video below (oishi):
The food really was “oishi” and this restaurant remains one of my favourite places to get sushi.
Before we knew it, June 24th sadly came around: the day Rino would leave our family and go back to Japan. We had one last dinner at the Irish Times (my family’s standard restaurant for special occasions) and then Ollie, Rino, and I walked to Zoo City Treats for some ice cream.
When we came home, Rino finished up some last minute packing. We joked around with her that we would be weighing her instead of her suitcase and she ran away with the scale!
When she finished getting everything in order, her AFS advisor stopped over at our house to say goodbye to her. Then, she said goodbye to Jake (our dog who Rino loooved), Oliver, and my dad.
My mom and I were going to the big last-night-in-Chicago orientation as AFS volunteers so we didn’t have to say goodbye yet. When we arrived, the hotel lobby was fullll of crying kids and host families. It was pretty hectic to say the least. We saw Anai’s family, dropping off Lena and saying goodbye too. Just as we walked in, an AFS volunteer informed us that the luggage weight requirements were different that we had previously thought so Rino and I ran to the room where everyone was weighing & labelling suitcases and tore hers apart. We took out soo many things. I thought back to a month prior, when I was frantically re-packing my own suitcase before taking my last flight back to Chicago as Allen laughed at all the seemingly crazy, unneccessary things I pulled out of my luggage. I was playing Allen’s part of confusion but now, I also understood her reasoning for trying to pack everything. We finally hit the target weight for her bags and headed upstairs to start orientation with all of the other kids. Rino was put into a different group than my mom and I, where we were instructed to lead a conversation with some question prompts. The dialogue was interesting but also pretty awkward because the kids in my group were not very talkative. I thought this was fair enough, seeing as they had all left their families of a year not even five minutes earlier. When the other groups were done too, I sat by Rino, Lena, and the other AFS kids I was friends with as the orientation concluded. Then, it was time for my mum and I to say goodbye to Rino. It was pretty sad and we talked for a bit before giving Rino last hugs, shown below:
My May and June were fun but definitely surreal. I got to know Rino and become close friends with her, as well as hang out with Lena and Anai. I had some minor reverse culture shocks, like seeing grocery stores full of a variety of different foods and brands or dressing in shorter clothes as the weather got hotter, but it mostly hit me later in the year. I was also living in my basement (Rino was staying in my room) and my parents had gotten lots of new furniture, which added to my shock of being home. Exploring Chicago was fun and it was a nice way to get reaquainted with America. It was a nice start to the summer.