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Beyond the Blossoms, a Language Barrier Grows

"They know they're in the nation's capital, but they can't see any houses. They keep asking me where Americans live," says Renwick Bivings, 17. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

The answer to the Park Service's prayers comes in the form of a tall, thin 17-year-old with low-slung jeans, untied shoes and a killer Japanese comic book collection.

Renwick Bivings is one of the translators who helped at the festival last year and will be volunteering again. In his near-perfect Japanese -- his teacher in Osaka last year said she often forgets he is American when chatting with him -- Bivings has answered vexing questions about the White House, the FBI, fast-food restaurants and U.S. cities.

"It was really funny, explaining suburbs to them. They look around and they know they're in the nation's capital, but they can't see any houses. They keep asking me where Americans live," said Bivings, who explains to them that he lives in Northwest Washington, "which looks like the suburbs but is actually part of the city."

And there is Joelle Williams, whose voice sounds as delicate as a cherry blossom when she speaks Japanese. She helps run the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program and will be at the Tidal Basin to answer the same questions she almost always hears from Japanese visitors.

"They want to hear all about the FBI and the Pentagon and the CIA. All those things they see in movies," Williams said. "And one funny thing, many of them think the White House is actually the Capitol building. So I explain that."

Bivings and Williams will be joined by a more polished bunch, the Cherry Blossom Goodwill Ambassadors, six young women in blossom-pink, tailored wool blazers and pumps, plus one young man (who doesn't have to wear pink). They will be at all the festival events. Ranging from students to government workers, they say their Japanese language skills give them aspirations to someday be ambassadors or karaoke bar owners.

For other volunteers such as Rudy D'Alessandro, an "international cooperation specialist" for the National Park Service, there is joy in teaching the visitors. There is a lovely fact few of them know -- that many of the cherry trees in Tokyo that replaced those that were destroyed during World War II are the cuttings of the very trees along the Tidal Basin.

"It's a gift from one country to another, and not a lot of people know that," D'Alessandro said.

But Malott worries that there are some things that can never quite be explained, no matter how hard the ambassadors in pink try. Like the "sake bomb." Malott said he observed it recently: A bunch of college kids balanced a shot of sake on chopsticks laid atop a tall glass of beer.

"They pounded the table until the chopsticks and sake fell into the beer, then they chugged the whole thing," Malott said. "I don't know what the Japanese would make of that."

The National Park Service is still looking for English- and Japanese-language volunteers. E-mailncr_cbfvip@nps.govor call 202-619-7147. Anyone responding should detail their level of language proficiency and provide their e-mail address and a phone number so the National Park Service can contact them directly for placement into a specific time slot. Non-English speakers can also volunteer at

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company