For SH Josai visitors, trip to Japan is following others’ (or retracing) steps

Audrey Caro Gomez

Since its inception 34 years ago, the Sweet Home-Josai High School Exchange Program has offered the chance to learn about another culture and create bonds between people who may not have otherwise met.

“We were the guinea pigs,” said Allen Buzzard.

He and Dawn Barringer Waldrop participated in the first exchange in 1982.

The cooperative agreement between Josai University High School in Tokyo and Sweet Home High School, is a bi-annual exchange program that not only includes two-week summer exchange trips, but a year-round exchange in which Sweet Home hosts Josai students for the school year and local students stay in Japan.

Sweet Home students participate in classes and activities with Josai students, often participate in cultural activities such as Japanese brush writing and origami, and generally get a good taste of Japanese life.

The trip also includes early daily excursions to cultural and other landmarks in the Tokyo area – temples, shrines, museums and the Imperial Palace, shopping, entertainment and more during an intense two weeks.

Buzzard noted that during a morning visit to the Tokyo National Museum, this year’s six tour members discovered “another important ‘cultural asset’ – a Starbucks – on the museum grounds.

“With all nine of us appropriately ‘refreshed’ (i.e. caffeinated) we are now ready to work hard the rest of the day and evening.”

Buzzard, who teaches computers at Sweet Home Junior High, and his wife Shih-Lin Shen escorted the group of Sweet Home students – senior Shiloh Moore, juniors Katarina “Kat” Kinker, Anakin Leyba, sophomores Colby Montigue, Rose Wingo, and Quinn Dinsfriend – on the tour in June.

“First and foremost, it’s all about the students,” he said. “There are a lot of differences between life here in the States and life in Japan – wonderful differences.

“Secondly, I think it’s about the bond that you make for years and years on into the future.”

Buzzard speaks from experience. He and his wife, Shih-Lin Shen, took an excursion on one of their days off during this recent trip.

“We thought, well, we’ll get on the train and we’ll go out to where I used to live, which was Sakuragi,” Buzzard said. “We’ll just knock on the door and see if they were there. And they were there.”

They visited with his former host family and took photos together.

“It was really heartwarming, really touching,” Buzzard said. “After 34 years, to still have the bond and the connection with a host family that took care of me for a whole year – sheltered me and fed me for an entire school year.”

Though the six students who went on this most recent trip only stayed for two weeks, they appreciated their host families and the experience.

Rose Wingo, 16, who will be a junior next year, has participated in the program as part of a host family and as an exchange student.

“(Five or six years ago) we had an exchange student and then my brother went over there,” Wingo said. “The following year we got (another student) and then my sister went. Since all my siblings went, I had to go to experience it too.”

Her experience was somewhat different because she had two host families.

“The first family I stayed with was the girl who stayed with me last summer, so I already knew the girl and the family was really sweet,” Wingo said.

The second week, Wingo switched families.

“Their family was very similar to my family. They were very nice and understanding. Very similar to my family at home, so it was good.”

Both of the families Wingo stayed with were trying to learn English. They would ask her about English sayings, she said.

Wingo learned some Japanese, too.

“Just the basics, like ‘good morning,’ ‘hi,’ ‘bye,’ and ‘excuse me,’ because that was on the train a lot,” she said.

She also learned the meal-time prayers.

“I’m a Christian and they like kind of knew that,” Wingo said. “Generally, we pray before their meals. They would have me do the Japanese (prayer) and then I’d pray to myself and then we’d all eat.”

Katarina Kinker, 17, also knew her host sibling.

“I had Maki for two weeks last summer, and so we just sort of clicked,” Kinker said.

Since, the group has returned to the states, Kinker said she talks to her host sibling daily.

“We send funny pictures and videos,” Kinker said. “We try to teach each other our languages over the phone.”

Shiloh Moore, 19, who graduated this year, said her host family was wonderful, but there was some difficulty communicating.

Her host sister was 13 years old.

“The first night it was very hard to communicate and I had to draw pictures of stuff so I could get to know her and asked about her house,” Moore said.

Over time, the conversations started better.

“Before we left, she got very comfortable with me and I got comfortable with her,” Moore said.

Colby Montigue, 16, had an easier time with communication.

“The family speaks quite a bit of English which was really nice, because the dad works for 3M in Minnesota, so he’s over here quite often and so he knows quite a bit of English,” Montigue said.

Montigue’s host family took him to meet a calligraphy teacher at a local festival. Japanese youngsters take calligraphy to learn the art of writing the Chinese characters, used in their language, with a brush.

“He wants me to start up a club here, possibly for Japanese calligraphy, and see if he can Skype with us and show us how to write in Japanese calligraphy until I get it down and then I can be the teacher of the club,” Montigue said.

Montigue is already planning another trip to Japan.

“Next April, I’m planning on doing a slightly longer short-term stay or full-year stay,” Montigue said. “I would come back the last trimester of my senior year.”

He has started JPLT, which is the Japanese language learning service that Josai recommends for foreign exchange students.

Buzzard has started a basic Japanese club at the junior high school to help “drum up interest among future Huskies” for high school’s Josai club, which is coordinated by Suzette Andersen.