A distinctive cultural exchange between the U.S. and Japan for sophomores and juniors
“This is going to be the best ten days of your life!” I sat puzzled, wondering what that was really going to mean to me. As I dragged my oversized duffel to the bus headed for Princeton, I never would have expected how much HSD was going to change my life.
High School Diplomats is an all-expense paid ten day cultural exchange for eighty American and Japanese students. Sponsored by the AIU Insurance Co. of Tokyo and the Freeman Foundation, students are paired off with a roommate from the opposite country to form lifelong friendships. From all over both countries, we were given the opportunity to learn from and grow with each other. The first night was surreal. Looking out from my Princeton dorm window, I couldn’t believe how I got here. The Japanese students would be arriving the following day, and I felt nervous. Would my roommate like me? Would the language barrier be too much to handle? What if we don’t “click?” It wasn’t a unique feeling; the American students were all feeling the same way. But I can imagine the Japanese students feeling the just the same, talking about their arrival to meet their American counterparts.
Packed away in my backpack were two posters I made for my roommate, Akari. HSD has a homestay component, but I thought that a homestay with my family wouldn’t be the typical “American” experience. I live with my Japanese father, so I thought it defeated the purpose of an homestay. These thoughts were swirling in my mind as I pulled out the posters I made weeks before, hoping to have been able to give them to Akari prior. But nonetheless, I unrolled the glittery posters, and positioned them in full view on top of the old dorm fire place (I ended up making more posters!).
A plethora of hugs, blue shirts, and suitcases rolled out of two coach buses from NYC. I nervously was holding my poster as students got off the bus. All around me, people were hugging and smiling, and my nerves suddenly evaporated. When my roommate and I finally met, the whole surreal feeling came over me again. Other than being extremely happy that I could finally meet Akari, I was wondering how the next several days were going to ensue. Each day had a specific theme, from Halloween to Date Night, to the Diplomats Talks to Culture Day, and so much more. I scribbled down in a notebook that night, “This will be the best ten days of my life.”
Every morning, we did Rajio Taiso, a series of light exercise with music to get ready for the day. The synchronization of the Japanese students caught me off guard; Imagine my messy movements trying to keep up! Our meal times were long, and I appreciated how much time was valued into sharing a meal with others. As day after day went on, I was learning so much more about what it meant to be a global citizen. I would have a conversation about being mixed-race in Japan to having another about Japanese cram schools with different students everyday. But not every conversation was heavy; my roommate and I talked a lot about music, singing songs together that we wouldn’t have thought the other would know about.
Several mornings, students would present their group presentations, topics ranging from English education in Japan to how the American and Japanese governments work. Along with daily language classes, I was learning to be more aware of others’ stories. Something I truly value is being able to listen to and appreciate someone else’s story. Akari and I had been learning to appreciate each other’s experiences, along with the other students.
Halfway through the program, an unexpected 3am event brought us closer than ever. We had bunk beds in our room, and Akari opted to choose the top bunk. But one night, I awoke to a loud THUMP onto the wood floor. I immediately turned on the light, and Akari was laughing on the floor while saying “Ow!” I was confused and worried, but also laughing because of her laughing. Thankfully, I brought a small first-aid kit. We were both crying of laughter by the time we fell back asleep.
High School Diplomats is unlike any other summer program out there because it allows students to get to know each other through the many challenges that come from different cultural and language barriers. No other program pushes students to find other ways to make meaningful relationships. Before I came to HSD, I thought that I could easily overcome these challenges because I had grown up experiencing cultural sensitivity and appreciation firsthand. But everyday, my roommate and I worked hard to make our relationship as solid as possible. In only ten days, creating lifelong relationships can be difficult. But since HSD, Akari and I have been talking on a regular basis. One of our goals for after HSD was to keep building our relationship even though we are oceans apart. I also became friends with many other students, and continue to communicate regularly.
I came back home with my oversized duffel filled with origami cranes, string bracelets, America tattoos, dried flower petals from date night, my Japanese calligraphy attempts, along with a new lease on who I was. Before HSD, I didn’t associate myself as being Japanese. From previous visits to Japan, I felt alienated and frustrated on why people couldn’t see me as Japanese because of the color of my skin. It wasn’t until HSD that I realized how many things the Japanese students and I had in common. I started to notice the similarity between the values that my father had instilled in me and the values of many Japanese students. I came back wanting to learn more about my identity, and how I could connect myself back to a community I was neglecting. HSD has changed my viewpoint about how Japanese young people view mixed-Japanese people into a positive one.
The 2015 High School Diplomats program will be at Princeton University from July 28th, 2015 to August 8, 2015. Applications will be available from September 15th, 2014 to January 7th, 2015 online at the HSD website. An mailed application packet consists of short essay questions, a teacher recommendation, and passport photos, along with an interview in March. For more information and access to the HSD 2015 application, please visit www.highschooldiplomats.com. It was the best ten days of my life, and it will be for you too!
Guest Contribution by Alani Fujii