September 3, 2009 in Washington Voices

Sister city program sends Spokane high-schoolers to Japan

By The Spokesman-Review
Photo courtesy of Samantha Brown photo

From left, Samantha Brown, a Ferris High graduate, Jesse Shooter, a Rogers High student, and Jordan Rogers, a North Central High student, participated in a traditional puppet show in Nishinomiya, Japan, this summer. Photo courtesy of Samantha Brown
(Full-size photo)

When Jordan Rogers turned 16 on July 2, he had to wake up and go to school. He didn’t mind, however, because school was in Nishinomiya, Japan.

Japanese schools run year-round. The North Central High School teen was one of three students chosen to represent Spokane from June 22 to July 17 as part of an exchange program sponsored by the Spokane-Nishinomiya Sister City Society.

“It was one of the best experiences ever,” he said.

For more than 30 years, the society has sent student ambassadors to Nishinomiya and hosted their Japanese counterparts here. Joanne Rehberg, involved with the organization for 22 years, said Spokane is at the forefront of the cultural exchange program.

“We were one of the first sister cities associations formed,” Rehberg said.

Nishinomiya became Spokane’s first sister city in 1961. Rehberg said the goal of the program is to foster international understanding.

“It’s a life-changing experience for the students,” she said. “They don’t just visit. They stay in each other’s homes and get to see how the Japanese live and vice-versa.”

In September, the Spokane students will welcome the Japanese students they stayed with into their own homes and schools.

That’s what Rogers most enjoyed. “It was the greatest cultural experience – living there instead of just being a tourist.”

The Spokane-Nishinomiya Sister City Society pays 75 percent of the airfare for students, and the families pay the rest.

Rogers High School junior Jesse Shooter and Samantha Brown, a recent Ferris graduate, joined Rogers on the 3 ½-week adventure. The society usually sponsors two students, but Misako Enger, who served on the selection committee, said this year they couldn’t choose just two of the top three applicants. “They were all so good we couldn’t say no to anybody,” she said.

Students are required to have at least a 3.0 grade-point average. In addition, all three teens had completed at least one year of Japanese language studies. However, Rogers said, laughing, “They knew a lot more English than I knew Japanese.”

It also helps to be handy with chopsticks. “I practiced before I left,” he said. “Sometimes they’d offer me a fork, but I always tried with chopsticks first.”

All three students enjoyed the Japanese delicacies their host families provided. “I’m an adventurous eater,” Brown said. “My new favorite dish is okonomiyaki. A Japanese person will tell you it’s like a pancake, but that’s probably the worst description ever. … It has cabbage in it, and the kind I had was squid and bacon.”

It might not sound appetizing to Westerners, but Brown said it was delicious. Even better, she got to help prepare it in her host family’s kitchen. “I never thought squid and bacon would be a good combo, but it worked in okonomiyaki,” she said.

Other Japanese culinary habits were a bit more perplexing. Rogers bemoaned the liberal use of mayonnaise. “Of all the cultural traditions they borrowed from America, they chose mayo,” he said. “They have it on almost everything, even pizza. You can buy bread with mayo already on it!”

He was touched when his host family helped him celebrate his birthday American style. “They asked me, ‘In America you celebrate by having cake, right?’ ” he recalled. “Then they brought out five pieces of cake, all different flavors.”

The students were overwhelmed by the graciousness of their hosts. Rogers said, “They’re very respectful. They treat each other well.” That courtesy is extended to visitors. “They try to shake your hand because they know it’s the American way.”

Shooter agreed. “Everyone was so polite. I didn’t meet a rude person there.”

They received an especially warm welcome at school. “They made a big deal of us being there,” Shooter said.

Rogers added, “Within a matter of two days, we became instant celebrities. … We were the most popular, well-known kids in school.”

The teens were amazed by the long hours Japanese students spend at school, and they found the schedules a bit confusing. “I never got their schedule,” Shooter admitted.

While the Spokane teens were in Nishinomiya, the schools held their annual cultural festival. Each class presented a project or activity.

“One class danced to songs from ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and my school had a synchronized swim team,” Brown said. “I got to see them perform.” She said Japanese students were surprised to learn that most U.S. schools don’t have pools.

In addition to school activities, the students visited various sites of interest in Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka and were exposed to ancient traditions like Ikebana (flower arranging) and the tea ceremony. Brown found the intricacy of the tea ceremony fascinating. “There can be as many as 100 steps to serving one cup of tea,” she said.

As the Spokane students prepared to return, Garfield Elementary teacher Elliot Wilde was getting ready to depart. Over the years, the sister city society has helped send teachers to Nishinomiya as well as students. Wilde will teach English at a middle school.

“My contract is for one year, but I may stay longer,” he said. “I really enjoy the Japanese focus on education. In Japan it seems teachers are treated with great respect.”

Wilde is also an avid student. “I’m excited to put myself in a new situation and see how I function. I’m excited to learn as much as possible.”

According to the teens who recently returned, one thing Wilde will discover is the generous hospitality of the Japanese people. Brown said, “You will never feel more welcome.”

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