PROSSER -- Sara Contreras wanted to stay in Japan, earthquakes, tsunamis, power rationing and barren store shelves notwithstanding.
Pretty much everyone else disagreed.
The 19-year-old Prosser High School graduate is on her way home from Sannohe, a small northeastern city where she has been studying as a foreign exchange student through Rotary International.
"I have made friends and family here and I feel like I can't leave them just because times get hard," she said in an email to the Yakima Herald-Republic. "Exchange students create bonds that last a lifetime. It's hard for other people to understand, but after living with people for a couple of months, you love them and become one of them. To leave would be heartbreaking."
All the same, her host family, her Rotary sponsors and her parents thought it best to send her back to the United States after two stressful weeks since Japan's northeastern coast was wracked by earthquakes and a tsunami that have killed thousands, left hundreds of thousands homeless and raised fears of radiation poisoning from a damaged nuclear power plant.
Travel is tricky right now in Japan, so plans still are under way. But Rotary officials expect her home within a week.
Sought another cultural experience
Contreras has been in Japan since August, living with host families in small cities around Hachinohe, a coastal city in the Aomori Prefecture of northeastern Japan, where she attends a private school and studies Japanese.
The former cheerleader and competitive swimmer had no previous connection to Japan; she just wanted to experience another culture before heading off to Washington State University in the fall. She is considering a career as a nurse practitioner.
Contreras was at school March 11, the day of the earthquake, studying on the third floor with a friend.
"Earthquakes make a person very dizzy, and we had never experienced one very high on the scale, so we didn't know what to do," she wrote in her blog. "We decided to sit on the floor where nothing would fall on top of us. I screamed a couple of times because I didn't know what else to do."
She was stranded at school for a while. Trains had stopped, power was out and her host family was unable to pick her up. Finally, a teacher volunteered to drive her home about 20 miles through snow and hail. She and her host family spent a few days without electricity, eating sweet potatoes baked in the fireplace. They spent free time playing cards -- Uno is a favorite with her younger host brother -- and listening to limited radio news broadcasts.
Information slow in coming
Oddly, she and her host family heard nothing about the tsunami and level of destruction elsewhere in Japan until days later.
Back in Prosser, her mother, Mary Thomas, spent the first 42 hours after the quake watching the news until 1 a.m. and checking her phone every five minutes, unable to verify if her daughter was OK.
"A roller coaster ride," is how Thomas described her emotions following the disaster.
When they finally connected via Skype, an internet communication tool, Thomas told her daughter about the scenes of mass destruction on TV news and Contreras began choking up, which was not like her.
"She's pretty hard to rattle," Thomas said.
Earlier this week, the city had electricity for all but four to six hours a day, Contreras said in her emails. Store shelves are pretty bare and trains still don't run. Schools took spring break early.
She verified reports in American media about Japanese patience facing adversity.
"After seeing the effects of the earthquake and how the Japanese have dealt with everything, I admire them," she wrote. "They work hard, care for each other, and don't become selfish. I hope the world learns from them."
Hosts become like family
Contreras was due to come home July 12, so the disaster will shave a few months from her experience.
At first, her Rotary hosts wanted to keep her, though Rotary International advised students to leave.
But growing fears of radiation-tainted vegetables, power shortages and the general stress of recovering from such a large-scale disaster have given them too many other things to worry about, said Carter Fjeld, a Yakima attorney and youth exchange coordinator for Rotary District 5060, which covers Central Washington and Canada.
The district exchanges an average of 37 students a year. Contreras is one of two in Japan. The other, a young woman from Vernon, Canada, lives in the southern city of Fukuoka, where they didn't even feel the quake. She will stay.
Fjeld is not surprised that Contreras wants to stick it out. Rotary hosts in far-flung places of the globe function like uncles and aunts for exchange students.
"I guess they just feel like they'd be abandoning family," he said.
For example, in recent years, he has made plans for students to return home from Bolivia and Ecuador during periods of civil unrest. In both cases, the students resisted until their local situations improved and they were able to stay.
Contreras won't be so lucky.
Thomas said her daughter is hurt over having to leave but understands. She wanted her daughter home the whole time but didn't want to make things worse by insisting. For a few days, she even suspected her daughter might be safer staying put.
Contreras' other family members are relieved too. Her father Jose Contreras, older brother Tommy Contreras, younger sisters and grandmother miss her.