More than a little in common: Exchange trip opens new world to local students

It was a typical day in a typical junior high school. The students gathered around a piano in the music room were full of noise and energy. The tune on the piano was accompanied by giggling and laughter, and kids shoved good naturedly at one another.

Along with their host friends

Along with their host friends

It was a typical day in a typical junior high school.

The students gathered around a piano in the music room were full of noise and energy. The tune on the piano was accompanied by giggling and laughter, and kids shoved good naturedly at one another.

It wasn’t until you actually listened to what was being said that you realized what was not typical.

English words were flying just as rapidly as Japanese ones. And nobody seemed to notice the difference.

Just as easily as the black and white keys on the piano form a melody, so too did the different languages flow in sync between the students, each group learning from the other.

And that was how an afternoon went earlier this month in Japan, as a team of nine American students learned they had more in common with their teen counterparts here than they had differences.

No matter what the language.

“I love it here,” said Auburn Riverside High School student Heather Ryan, 15, one of the nine students who took the trip to Tamba, Japan, from Aug. 7-17. “It’s way more than I expected.”

Click here to view photos from the trip

Auburn High School student Kyle Cheney, 15, summed up similar feelings, in an interview after returning home.

“Both our cultures are different,” he said. “But we’re the same people.”

That’s the kind of realization organizers of this summer’s cultural exchange to Tamba say they want students to have.

“They meet, and even though their histories and cultures are so different, they really have a lot in common,” said Dave Mortenson, chair of the Kent Sister Cities program. Mortenson’s organization operates in unison with the Auburn Sister City program to make the youth-ambassador program a reality.

The program consists of a two-way swap with families on both sides of the Pacific – a group of teens from the Tamba region of Japan stay with local families in the Kent and Auburn areas, and then those teens’ families in Japan open their homes in similar fashion to the students from the families here.

Operating with two chaperones (one of whom was this reporter), the American group was following up on an visit to the area in July by four Japanese students and their chaperones. During their stay in the Puget Sound area, the Japanese delegation was treated to a variety of activities acquainting them with America – visits to area landmarks like Pike Place Market and the Space Needle, and a true American pastime that draws plenty of Japanese interest – a Mariners’ game.

In similar fashion, the group of nine American students got a firsthand look at what it’s like to grow up in Japan.

Raw fish and all.

“Last night there was sashimi,” Ryan said in an interview during the trip, taking a break from her visit with the family of student Yuka Hashima.

Of the Japanese delicacy, which consists of raw fish, Ryan expressed some trepidation, but handled it okay.

“It was a little different,” she said. “The texture threw me off. But it’s not bad.”

She also was touched by the generosity of her family.

“They took me shopping for a yukata (a cotton summer kimono),” she said. “That was really special.”

Auburn High School student Christina Jones, 15, said during the trip that she was getting on well with her family, but the most challenging person to communicate with was the youngest brother of her exchange sister.

“He doesn’t understand English at all,” said Jones, who like the other students in her group has been studying Japanese, but found it difficult at times to use in regular conversation.

But it didn’t take the American teen and the Japanese boy long to find common ground.

“I played video games with him,” Jones explained.

Kent resident Alex Hwang, who attends a transitional school through the University of Washington, said during a break in the trip that he was amazed at the generosity of his host family, in spite of language barriers.

“They’re wonderful at interpreting what you want to do,” he said, noting that electronic dictionaries were proving very helpful. “They’re just so hospitable. “

The host families, for their part, seemed equally enthused about their American guests.

Yoko Kashi, who opened her home to Kent-Meridian High School student Dexter Lesaca III, said Lesaca was a big hit in her house, especially with her children.

“My home is very small,” she said, noting that with the sleeping arrangements it required, her youngsters were fighting over who got to sleep closer to Lesaca.

There was also an incident involving Lesaca, a cat, and somebody’s head, but Kashi laughed it off as a funny antic, and made it clear she enjoyed the American teen’s energy.

In addition to the casualness of their home stays, the American teens and their chaperones also had their share of formal events to attend.

The most prominent of those took place Aug. 11, and consisted of a presentation to the mayor of Tamba City, Jyugoro Tsuji.

In an event that was covered by the local Japanese press, chaperone Jim Isom presented Tsuji with a document from the cities of Auburn and Kent, agreeing to continue to pursue a formal sister-city agreement between the three cities.

Tsuji and his officials also heard presentations in Japanese by the American students, as well as speeches from a variety of officials gathered for the event.

He also shared his thoughts on the visit.

“I hope your visit will enable you to broaden your international experience,” Tsuji said. “I firmly believe your experience will serve as a precious memory that will last a lifetime.”

He also opened up the meeting to questions from the students. They were happy to oblige him.

Jones asked him if he planned to visit America anytime soon, to which Tsuji answered he hadn’t yet decided, but expressed hope he would someday be able to.

“If the mayor comes to Washington, he could stay at my house,” piped up Amy Chung, 15, a Kentridge High School student.

The American delegation also took trips to the larger cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, in addition to visiting a number of local high schools and junior high schools, as well as being guests at several banquets and picnics.

But the youngsters were equally enthused about coming home to their families. On Aug. 17, they were treated to a emotional homecoming at SeaTac Airport, following a 10-hour flight.

“I miss him – he was gone for 10 days,” said Shirley Hwang, Alex’s mother, after reuniting with her jet-lagged son at the airport.

“It’s been a good experience,” she said, noting Alex might look at his own world a little differently now.

“I think he should appreciate home more.”

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