PALMER — The time has come for Palmer’s sister city exchange students to return home to Saroma, Japan. Their two-week visit wrapped up on Monday.

“It’s bittersweet,” Palmer Junior Middle School language arts teacher Stacy Roberts said.

Host families and various facets of the small town gathered at the Palmer High School cafeteria for a Community Farewell Potluck to send the Saroma students off with full bellies and plenty of memories to take with them.

“It’s been a fabulous two weeks,” Palmer Saroma Kai President Carla Swick said.

Palmer and Saroma have been sister cities since 1980. Palmer Saroma Kai is a nonprofit organization that helps raise funds for the Sister City program.

In June, Palmer middle and high school students traveled to Saroma. The Palmer Saroma School Delegation immersed in Japanese culture, boarding with host families in a small town that many say is similar to Palmer’s “tight knit community.”

The Saroma students did the same thing over here with Palmer host families, immersing in American culture with an Alaskan twist.

Swick said it’s always tough to say goodbye to the students each year. She said that she and her Palmer students had the chance to see the Saroma students twice, over there and over here. Some students may return through the program in the future, but for the majority, the potluck was their final goodbye.

Several slices of Palmer life were present at the potluck, including elected officials such as Palmer City Councilwoman Sabrena Combs and Palmer Mayor Edna DeVries. DeVries handed out certificates to the Saroma students and other members of their delegation, making them honorary citizens of Palmer.

Swick was unable to attend this year’s Palmer Pride event, where citizens were honored for their various contributions to the community. DeVries took a moment to give Swick an award for her lengthy and passionate service to the sister city program. Combs hugged Swick after she was handed her award.

“Thank you for all your hard work and dedication to the community of Palmer,” DeVries said.

The theme of the farewell potluck was “Alaskan Cooking.”

There was a long table adorned with several staples of an Alaskan diet, all with labels and Japanese translations. From smoked salmon to fresh baked pretzels, there was a little bit of everything for one last American sampler.

All over Japan, the people have a pre-meal ritual for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Before they eat, they say, “Itadakimasu,” which is a humble way of saying “to eat and to receive.” It gives thanks to the chef, food and nature.

Everyone in attendance said, “Itadakimasu” in unison before they lined up to select their food.

Palmer and Saroma share similar lifestyles. Both of the rural communities are deeply rooted in agriculture.

While Palmer is known for its cabbages, Saroma is known for its pumpkins, according to founding member of Palmer Saroma Kai, Heather Kelley. In fact, Saroma residents celebrated their annual pumpkin themed festival earlier this month.

Roberts said that she loves their pumpkin ice cream. Kelley said some of her favorite dishes from Saroma are the shrimp from the coast and scallops from Lake Saroma.

Saroma students Miu Shibata, Yuri Shimbo, and Haruki Nomura took a moment to sit down for a brief interview. Yuko Hirouchi, exchange program coordinator for Saroma helped translate.

Sampling American food is one of the staples of the cultural exchange program. Shibata said her favorite newly discovered food was moose meat, Shimbo’s was caribou sausage and Nomura said that his favorite was halibut.

The sandwich is one of the most common foods amongst American school children and busy adults. The Japanese equivalent is called onigiri, which is a ball of rice. Onigiri is often filled with meats, vegetables and spices.

Nomura said his favorite onigiri filling is sour plum, Shimbo said tuna and Shibata said her favorite was salmon. Lucky for Shibata, her host family is sent her off with boxes of Alaskan smoked salmon. She said the boxes were adorned with an Alaskan Native raven design.

The Saroma students left with all kinds of trinkets and gifts to remind them of their stay in Palmer. They also left with fond memories like hiking the Butte, visiting Hatcher Pass, making friends at their temporary school, and spending quality time with their host families.

“Every year the farewell is so emotional,” Hirouchi said.

There was a moment towards the end of the farewell ceremony where host families got to share their highlights over the last two weeks. Several people got emotional and tears were shed. Kelley noted that would be plenty more where that came from.

“There are always tears at the airport,” Kelley said.

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at jacob.mann@frontiersman.com

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