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Minnesota State Senator steps forward to host Schwan’s USA CUP international players

07/18/2013, 1:30pm CDT
By Ryan Lund

Minnesota State Senator Michelle Benson has spent the past three years establishing her own political presence in Saint Paul, where the district 31 senator has been representing Anoka, Isanti and Sherburn counties since 2010.

But for all of the challenges that the senator faces each day at the capitol, she and her family decided to take on a new challenge at this year’s Schwan’s USA CUP: home-staying an international player.

Tokawagi girls mugging for the camera

“My family has talked about having a foreign exchange student, so I kind of looked at this as an opportunity to get our toes wet,” she said. “This was a good opportunity to get a taste of what that would be like.”

The Benson family got their first taste of international exchange in their two players from the Tokiwagi team from Sendai, Japan, Seika  Okuda and Yui Sato.

And while Benson had expected to encounter certain barriers with the duo in regards to language and culture, she and her family were thrilled at the way that the two acquitted themselves.

“We were nervous at the beginning,” she said.  “But it just became more pleasant as we went along.”

However, the nerves didn’t last for long.

“It was just very impressive how independent these young women are,” she said.  “They’re not intimidated by not understanding the language.”

Senator Benson and her family spent the weekend getting to know the young Japanese soccer players, who, according to Benson, gave just as much as they got.

“They made us miso soup two different nights,” she said, noting the girls’ willingness to share their own culture with the Benson family, while also accepting what their host family had to offer.

“We say grace in our family, and they also honored the food before the meal.  They would also sit until the end of the meal and say a little prayer,” she said, noting that the players would always stay to talk with the rest of the family until the meal had ended.  “It changed us a little bit.”

Seika and Yui also exposed the Benson family to Okonomiyaki, a type of savory Japanese pancake made with vegetables.

The Bensons also shared some of their own culture with the two.

“They didn’t know what to do with sweet corn,” Benson recalls, as she and her husband attempted to introduce the girls to the Midwestern cultural staple. “That was kind of a fun cultural change.”

But as much as Benson and her husband Craig enjoyed hosting the two Tokiwagi players, two of their children, 15 year old Calvin and 13 year old Grant, were enthusiastic about their visitors as well.

“They wanted them to feel very welcome, and made sure that they enjoyed themselves,” Benson said of her children.  “The girls asked for ‘popping corn’ so the boys made them popcorn and watched movies with them”

The youngest member of the Benson clan, 2-year-old Claire, found her own way to interact with Seika an Yui.

“The girls sang a Japanese nursery rhyme for her,” Benson said, which the family later recorded for future use.

The Benson’s of course, made it to all of Tokiwagi’s games, despite their lack of familiarity with the sport.

“Our family is not a soccer family, so we learned a lot just listening to the people around us and learning from the players,” she said.  The Tokiwagi players, famous around the tournament for their stoic approach to games, added a few new fans to their already raucous cheering section.

“We asked them if it was okay to cheer, and they said yes,” she said.

The Benson’s found additional support in Tokiwagi’s cheering section, as Pam Webb and her homestay-experienced family offered plenty of advice for the first-time hosts.

“Pam and her family served as such a great resource for us,” she said.  “We asked them lots of questions.”

Asked if she and her family would be interested in home-staying more players after their initial experience, the second-term senator was enthusiastic.

“I absolutely would do this again in the future,” she said. “The weekend was about the right fit for our family, they were so self-sufficient, we able to focus on giving them a good experience.”

For the Benson's part, they hope that their home provided a unique opportunity for the girls of Tokiwagi to experience a side of Minnesota not often available to players participating in USA CUP.

“They got their pictures taken in the senate,” Benson said.  “There probably aren’t many homes where they would have that opportunity.”


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Tag(s): July 18, 2013