By Tara Cavanaugh
As 13 Japanese students and their new American friends belted out The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” (see video below) it was easy to see the commonality across cultures. The teens all wore trendy clothes and big metallic smiles, and they all knew the words to the song.
The song and dance-filled party at Conor O’Neill’s Sunday night was one of many activities of the Hikone-Ann Arbor Educational Exchange Program. The program provides young teens from Ann Arbor and its sister city of Hikone, Japan the opportunity to engage with a culture halfway across the world.
The program has taken place since 1979, when Hikone sent its first delegation of junior high students to Ann Arbor to stay with host families. Ann Arbor reciprocated in 1985, and the cities have been participating in the exchange ever since. Hikone sends students yearly, and Ann Arbor sends students every other year.
“It definitely stretches (the kids), forcing them to open up more than they would have to just in Ann Arbor,” said Nan Reed Twist. Her son Adrian went to Hikone two years ago, and her daughter Miranda is set to go in early November.
Eighty percent of the students who go to Hikone haven’t ever left the U.S. or traveled by plane, said Elyse Bairley, Rec & Ed Hikone Exchange Program Supervisor.
Twist, who’s now hosting her third Hikone student, said one of the best things about the exchange is the lifelong friendships that result. A Hikone student her family previously hosted came to visit them a few weeks ago after being accepted into a program at the University of Michigan.
“Thanks to Facebook and email, my kids are very much in touch with the ones they hosted and visited,” Twist said.
During the exchange, students take part in group activities such as the gathering at Conor O’Neill’s, visits to museums and landmarks. They also spend plenty of downtime with their host families, taking part in typical American activities such as birthday parties and bonfires.
As the American and Japanese students spend time together, they work on their language skills. The Japanese students study English at school, and the Ann Arbor students take lessons in Japanese language and culture for the four months leading up to their visit to Japan.
The city of Hikone sends its top-performing students, but the application process for AAPS students is different. Each year, around 40 students apply for the exchange and only 12 are accepted. The students have to prove interest, responsibility and openness to new cultures, foods and experiences.
The students who are accepted have to be dedicated to preparing for the trip. “They can’t miss more than five of the language and culture classes,” said Bairley. “If they do, we excuse them from the program and we have alternates who are ready to go.”
Larry Dishman, the Hikone Exchange Program Coordinator who has been with the program since 1996 at Rec and Ed, said getting accepted into the exchange wasn’t always as difficult. “Anyone who wanted to go, went. But we had all kinds of problems with kids being homesick and shocked by the culture.” The Ann Arbor students are now prepared for day-to-day life in Japan, such as eating raw fish or using high-tech toilets.
“I’m really excited about the trip,” said 15-year-old Ken Simpson, who’s hosting Hikone student Yuma Kutzumizu.
Simpson said he’s had the most fun hanging out with Yuma downtown. “I’ve learned that we really aren’t that different,” he said. “We laugh at the same things. He liked one of my favorite TV shows I showed him. There might be cultural differences, but in the end we’re all the same.”
Hikone student Natsuki Shimomura, speaking through a translator, said here, the whole community feels like a big welcoming family, which was surprising to her.
The program sparks reunions, Dishman said. “These kids bond as a group. They’re tighter with the kids in this exchange program than they are with their classmates at school. They have annual reunions, sometimes more than once a year. They even reunite with the Japanese families they visited. They’ll go over there and get together with them again there in Japan.
“This is a life changing experience,” Dishman said. “People value this part of their education with AAPS.”