BELLEVILLE — Cindy Sorgea's children do not speak Japanese -- and the two Japanese students her family hosted didn't speak English -- but they clicked on the car ride home.
Before long, Sorgea's daughter, Maya Sorgea, 9, was painting the nails of Hana Sawada and Maina Saito, both 10, and they, in turn, showed her how to fold origami.
"When it's kid to parent, you have a language barrier," Cindy Sorgea said. "But whenever you have the kids around, the language barrier disappears. Kids are kids, and they play."
For the past week, the Sorgeas and 12 other families from Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic schools hosted 28 students and three faculty members from Notre Dame Elementary School in Kyoto, Japan.
The visit was part of an annual exchange program that started in 2006 meant to foster world peace by teaching children how alike they are.
The students are leaving Belleville on Monday.
On Sunday, the Japanese students played the "Star Spangled Banner" and "Oh, Susannah" on their recorders at Mass at Queen of Peace.
"There was not a dry eye in the house," Blessed Sacrament Principal Claire Hatch said. She hosted the elementary school's principal, Sister Beatrice Tanaka, and teachers, Katsuya Endo and Yoshiko Nishimura.
The Notre Dame school is associated with the School Sisters of Notre Dame order in St. Louis.
As the students learned about American and Japanese culture from each other, Hatch said she learned from her peers about the school in Japan and their curriculum.
For one, Japanese students are in school more. School days in Japan last nine hours and the school year is 11 months. And, Notre Dame students start learning English in the first grade.
"They learn a lot about American history," Hatch said. "We might incorporate more Japanese history into our curriculum."
For the first half of their visit, the students saw places in St. Louis and the metro-east that related to their studies of American history and culture.
Endo said the students study about Native Americans and so they were excited to see the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, a World Heritage Site.
Endo also talked to the students about Mark Twain and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" as they drove by the Mississippi River.
"I hope they read the book, but I brought a DVD about Tom Sawyer and showed them," said Endo, who has been to the St. Louis area about six times.
A Japanese anime about Tom Sawyer is popular with the students and Wataru Matsumoto, a fourth-grader, said he likes the cartoon.
Wataru also likes baseball. To complement the students' trip to Busch Stadium, they watched a clip of David Freese's home run in the 11th inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.
Wataru and his friend, Jima Ishikawa, stayed with Jared and Jamie Keck for the latter half of the week.
The family took the two 9-year-old boys fishing at a private pond between Belleville and Smithton, Jared Keck said.
Wataru said he never goes fishing in Japan but went fishing one other time when he visited his cousins in Cincinnati.
Wataru caught two bluegill and Jima asked, "Now we eat?"
Alas, the fish have to be released, Jared Keck explained to the boys.
Next year, Wataru and other fifth-grade students will take on a challenge they need to graduate: Swim for one hour, 45 minutes or 30 minutes in the ocean.
Connie Zanger, who hosted three Japanese students, said she enjoyed getting to know the girls' parents, and learning of the similarities and differences in parenting.
Zanger said she would be hesitant to send her 7-year-old daughter, Mimi, who she adopted from Hunan, China, to a foreign country where she doesn't speak the language or know the family.
Still, parents are parents, Zanger said.
"I've talked to all three moms," Zanger said. "They ask typical mom questions. One's a dentist and she said, 'No juice.' So we're doing water only."
Ami Kajikawa, Yuki Shimizu and Yuri Eriko have been very gracious, Zanger said, and the families have given each other many new experiences.
The first night, the students presented gifts to the Zangers and dressed Mimi up in a kimono. One of the last nights, the Zangers planned a family barbecue, at one of the students' request, because it's a familiar scene in American movies.
Zanger said she would love to host again next year. And maybe one day, Zanger said she and Mimi will visit Japan.
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.