For two weeks this past June, Professor Gabriella D’Angelo, William Smith sophomore Carly Shiever, and I were able to travel to Japan free of charge to participate in an international exchange program. The trip included interactive workshops at Technos College, which is outside of Tokyo, a three day stay at a traditional Japanese onsen (a hot spring with baths), a visit to Mount Fuji, much more sightseeing and many day trips in between, and lots of free time to explore Tokyo. As my travel companion, Carly, said, the trip was, “simply put, unforgettable.”
The Tanaka Ikueikai Educational Foundation supports the exchange program, with the aim to encourage cross-cultural friendship and learning. It also gives students who might not otherwise be able to travel the opportunity to learn about and travel to other places. Interaction with other cultures, especially those vastly different from our own, while traveling abroad gives us the opportunity to gain new insights and experiences that can inform and improve our own lives.
In return, Hobart and William Smith Colleges host two Japanese students from Technos College each September for a week or so. This year Ms. Takumi Yoda and Ms. Yuri Sonobe were able to visit HWS and other places in Western New York. It was the first time that either student had visited the U.S. At Technos, Takumi studies English and Yuri studies Hotel Management.
When I talked with them in September, both Takumi and Yuri each had a mental list of places to see and new foods to try should they ever return to the U.S., just as Professor D’Angelo, Carly and I each have our own list of things we want to see and do should we ever return to Japan. Takumi wants to see the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Statue of Liberty in New York City. Yuri wants to go to Disneyland in California, see the Grand Canyon, and eat Chicago deep-dish pizza. It’s funny in a way how travelling abroad, and being in new places away from home, can spur a yearning to return to those places and to explore again and again.
Both students enjoyed eating at Saga. Takumi liked the apple pie and Yuri liked the pasta. When I was in Japan, I remember everyone in our group enjoyed going to the Technos cafeteria and eating the very good ramen. To some of the Japanese, this may have seemed odd, but to us, the visitors, it was a welcome opportunity to eat good ramen, among other new foods. Likewise, it might seem odd to us that Takumi and Yuri were so enthralled with staples of American daily cuisine, but to them it was outside of the norm and a chance to experiment and explore.
Some of the most interesting things Takumi and Yuri said they learned were about the differences between U.S. and Japanese culture. And both noted that they especially enjoyed observing a Japanese language class here at HWS. They thought it was interesting to see how Japanese is taught in the U.S. because they grew up with the language rather than learning it largely in a classroom. Likewise, I found witnessing how English is taught in Japan to be intriguing while I was there. For instance, one difference is that there is a lot of speaking in Japanese in the Japanese language classes here, while Yuri noted that the English class in Japan is largely taught out of an English textbook.
One of the special things about Technos International Week was that while there we developed relationships not only with the Japanese students hosting us, but also with other students from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Taiwan, and New Zealand. As Carly noted, “Together, we not only discovered the boundless differences between our home countries and Japan, but also between each other’s own backgrounds and upbringings.”
Professor D’Angelo, Carly, and I all found the Japanese we met to be some of the kindest, most helpful people we had ever met. As Carly noted, “A cultural custom prevalent in Japan is the importance of instilling respect and politeness in relationships, something that can be traced back to Shintoism, a traditional life philosophy found in many aspects of Japanese life even to this day. When asking for directions in public places, strangers often took me by hand to the destination I was seeking … The open-minded, kind way in which I was treated has inspired me to instill this method of communicating in my future intercultural interactions.”
What makes travel abroad and meeting new people from new cultures so much fun is not just seeing the major landmarks and sights, but also learning about new cultures and ways of life. Yuri and Takumi’s experiences here, as well as my own experiences in Japan, are quite clearly testaments to this. Norms and ways of life that might seem rather mundane to Americans became rather humorous to Yuri and Takumi. We had quite a few chuckles over things I had never thought of as funny.
Experiential learning is often far more powerful, informative, and memorable than any class, book, or documentary movie. Travel abroad and cultural exchange help the engager acquire and use new perspectives and be able to look at a problem or solution from multiple angles, making that person more flexible, more open, and more versatile. There are far more opportunities for cultural exchange on campus and chances to learn from one another than most students suspect. Often, it merely takes a bit of curiosity and willingness to put a foot forward, and opportunities and knowledge will present themselves.
Early next semester there will be a call for applicants from this year’s freshman and sophomore classes. The trip, usually in mid-June, is fully paid for and even includes a stipend. I highly recommend that eligible students apply, or at the very least inquire about the program. The two weeks I spent in Japan were two of the mostly relaxing, fun, and informative weeks I have had in many years. Applicants need not be able to speak Japanese (I can’t), nor have travelled abroad before (my roommate for the trip had never left the state of Michigan), nor be majoring in something related to Japan (there were a number of biochemistry and math majors on the trip, as well as an American history major and an economics major). The trip is much more about learning from other people, experiencing an amazing new culture, and pushing yourself outside of your boundaries. This trip is truly an experience to open yourself up, experience an amazing culture on the other side of the world, and meet some of the kindest, most incredible people from around the world. At least give the application a shot; it can’t hurt.
I knew very little about Japan when I hopped on the plane for my flight over. I’ve been planning my return to the country ever since I landed.