Rebekah’s Summer Reflection

Through the TOMODACHI Program I have learned a lot about my own culture, Japanese culture, and built long lasting friendships. I wasn’t sure at first how the exchange would go, I knew I would make friends and learn new things but I wasn’t sure how smoothly things would go. I had previously had an exchange student and while it was fun having her she wasn’t the friendliest and wasn’t too respectful of our home. I expected the Japanese to be reserved and quiet for some time, but they ended up proving me wrong. Instantly we clicked, there were many different conversations going between the Americans and Japanese and plenty of pictures being taken. By the third day I felt like I had known these students forever and I knew I had made strong bonds with all of them.

The bus ride around DC was the first time I was able to look at my own culture through another’s lenses. I never thought about how much we love or use our flag until the Japanese brought it to light. Yes, I knew the flag was important to us but when comparing our national anthems and traditions I realized it is what brings us together as Americans and keeps us unified. The Japanese don’t have to express their love for their flag as much because they are a homogeneous country and know who they are as a unified nation. I found it amazing how good their English was as well. When talking to my homestay I would sometimes mistake her for an American teenager and would forget to speak slowly. There were some things I knew already about my country and could explain to the student quite easily and it was exciting going into depth on certain topics that they and I found interesting. However, I found out there were several things I couldn’t explain.

When we took a few to the Marine Barracks they asked a lot of questions about the military and the drills they were doing. I never even realized how much I didn’t know about my dad’s job and life I’ve been living. Being military I thought I knew everything. That was not the case though, I wasn’t prepared for their questions and I felt a little embarrassed that I have been living this life but never asked any questions. I didn’t know too much about my dad’s job or the ceremony going on. I know it opened my eyes to asking more questions to broaden my knowledge. That situation reminded me that most kids who live in dc don’t go to the museums or use the resources they have all around them.

Through the program I have also seen my growth as a person. My networking skills have improved, since we had so many opportunities to meet with important people. I had never heard or been to some of the places we visited. I got to see different organizations that broadened my view of social entrepreneurship and began to find organizations that interest me. Even though we are two different groups we were able to take a lot of similar ideas from certain speakers. We all got “don’t be neutral” from Mike Honda and how good diversity is. Over all through this program I have been able to meet so many new and important figures that opened my eyes to the opportunities around me. I have made long lasting friends helping me to become cross-cultural, and I have been able to help them understand America.

This summer has helped me look at American and Japanese cultures differently and taught me that even though we are far away we are also the same.

Rebekah Armstrong
School Without Walls
Washington, DC

H.O.’s Summer Reflection

Through this program I found that the US is really a country of diversity. I talked with various people from different parts of the world in DC and NY. I was surprised to see that so many different cultures coexist in the US. Until now I have grown up in Japan with people with similar backgrounds ——– I am going to a school which has an entrance examination, so friends are similar in academic ability.  I live in a suburban residential area and the people there have a lot in common, for example, lifestyle and occupation. But this exchange program expanded my horizons through meeting and talking with various people.

I had many opportunities to take metro in Washington DC, and there I saw many people enjoy talking with strangers, laughing, and saying “Nice meeting you.” I was also talked to by strangers every so often, and asked, for example, where I came from, what I was doing in DC, where I was going, my future dream, and so on. I was really surprised at the way American people talked. In Japan, parents tell their children not to talk with strangers for fear of kidnap and other problems.  Adults also don’t talk with strangers on the commuter train, because they are tired and usually sleeping, which I heard is surprising for Americans.

As America is a country of immigration and diversity, verbal communication must be an important factor for their social life. In other words, it must be difficult for them to communicate without words. To understand each other and live harmoniously with various kinds of people in this country, Americans value to speak out, I suppose. I also heard an interesting story about why there were so many museums in DC. Each race wants others to know their own culture and build their museum to exhibit their works. I think that this desire and the conversation on the metro have something in common at the bottom.

This program took me to the world which I never knew. I met people with different backgrounds, values, customs, and I learned the real meaning of diversity. I found that it is difficult to understand other cultures, but learning from different people is really meaningful and rewarding.

Through this program I also found my future challenge. In DC we learned “sustainability” and “social entrepreneurship”. We visited Busboys & Poets, Words Beats & Life, Congress, and so on, which all dealt with social problems and wanted to make society better. We had direct talks with them and learned why they were founded and what the problems were. Through lectures I was made aware that I knew only little about society. I felt ashamed of my ignorance about social problems and my narrow view of the world. Also at School Without Walls, we had a workshop about social entrepreneurship, and at the beginning of it, we brainstormed social problems. At that time I couldn’t come up with problems and I felt it was very difficult. Now I noticed that my lack of social view made it difficult. I am lacking in social and world view and critical thinking for those, for example, “What is happening in our society and in the world?” or “What can we do for them?” At present I am a student and learning for myself, but in near future I will work for society. Working means connecting myself with society and trying to make it a better place. Therefore it is time to think of things socially. I am happy to be able to notice the importance of social perspective.

The best fruit of this program, however, is that I could make many wonderful friends and acquaintances. Thanks to them, I could understand different ways of thinking. Through discussions and casual talking with them, I was made to know that the world is really vast and diversified. I am sure that this experience is a treasure of my life.

Keio Shonan Fujisawa High School

Delmar’s Summer Reflection

More than a month has passed and the TOMODACHI U.S. portion of the exchange is long gone.  It feels like forever ago since I walked the streets of D.C. accompanied by 11 other amazing students.  However, as each day passes, it also means that I am one day closer to going to Japan and being reunited with my 6 Japanese friends, while being immersed in a culture that is not my own.  Despite not having been to Japan yet, I still have experienced and learned a lot from the program so far.  From Congress halls to elementary school classrooms, I had the opportunity to see many parts of D.C. that I would not have seen otherwise.  I learned, toured, and even participated in an array of programs that worked for social change in my community.  Sure I had heard of D.C. Central Kitchen, and the name Mundo Verde might have rang a bell, but with the TOMODACHI program these names became much more than names as I found about how and why these programs operate.  I helped teach a class at Mundo Verde, I prepared food at Martha’s Table, I saw the workings of a solar powered house at Catholic University, and I truly became involved in these programs, even if just in a small way.  I was no longer a mere bystander in the struggle for social change, and I did all of this while laughing and smiling, and having a great time with my American and Japanese friends.

I remember walking into American Councils on the very first day of the program wondering how the next couple of weeks were going to play out.  Still, a month later, some days seem like a blur of amazing activities and experiences, but it is safe to say that the program was a success (and I haven’t even gone to Japan!).  I met a group of out-going, lively, energetic, and open-minded students that I had the pleasure of working and spending time with.  Many of these students did not look like me and did not have the same experiences as me, yet the 12 us got along very well and learned a lot from each other.

Some of my favorite experiences from the program were my interactions with my Japanese counterparts as we spent time together and explored the city.  We take our daily lives for granted, just assuming that what we do is normal, but little do we realize that what might be normal for us, might be different and perhaps even strange for people elsewhere.  As cliché as this might sound, it is honestly true, as I know for a fact that very few times do I actually sit down and reflect on why it is that I live my life the way I do.  With the Japanese students visiting D.C. however, I had an opportunity to see my culture through their eyes, and hear their observations on a lifestyle that I live each day.  “You let your guests just serve themselves?” they would ask in disbelief.  “Why are there so many American flags throughout the city?”  “Why are portions so big?” “There’s so much space!”  As they asked questions I would ask myself for these answers and begin to think about things that I hadn’t thought about before, even if these were things that I would experience near-daily.  Why are there so many flags in D.C., and in the U.S. in general?  Oh, it’s because we like our country.  Wait, why do we express this patriotism by hanging flags on our buildings?  Why is it so widespread?  What does the flag symbolize?  Don’t flags in other countries symbolize the same thing and have the same significance?  They don’t?  And thus the dialogue was created not only within myself, as I began to think about my culture, but also with my Japanese friends as I tried to give them answers and as they fed me information that not only helped me understand their culture, but also mine.

Despite whatever differences our two countries might have, there is also much that we have in common.  As a teen I have hobbies and interests that I enjoy, and of course teens across the globe, including Japan, will have similar passions.  Throughout the program students pulled out their Ipods, sharing headphones, as they showed each other what kind of music they enjoyed and what kind of music they were familiar with from each other’s country.  I saw this universal appeal of music in a picture perfect moment while visiting Words Beats & Life, a hip-hop non-profit in D.C.  The DJ was showing us how to mix music and as his hands moved back and forth on the turntable, the group, Japanese and Americans both, bobbed their heads as they stared intently, watching what he was doing.  Nobody dared to speak, entranced in the music that he was playing.

One of my interests is sports, and one of these sports is Frisbee.  I remember very well taking a lunch break with the group and pulling out a Frisbee from my backpack.  The second that the Frisbee made its appearance, people’s eyes lit up, not because people had had experience playing Frisbee before, but because the game could appeal to all.  Moments after I had unveiled the disc, the Frisbee was soaring in the air as the whole group cheered and laughed as we passed the Frisbee in a circle.  It was experiences like this one that perfectly characterized our group and our cultural exchange as we were so quick to work together and to have an amazing time as a group.

I also found our visit to Congress to be an outstanding experience from the program.  As we walked through the halls of Congress, with interns and representatives zipping  to and fro from meetings, it was quite amazing to think about what makes up D.C.  The federal buildings, like the Capitol, is the part of D.C. that is immediately thought of when mentioning the city, but until then, it was a part of the district that had felt pretty distant to me.  As I stood in one of the most important buildings in the country, I couldn’t help but think about how different it was from the rest of the city.  Sure, I had known that there was a stark divide between the federal aspect of the city, and the part of the city that I more so call my own, but actually being in the Capitol and seeing the suits and ties and our lawmakers walking by, really drove this point home.  Being in the Capitol felt like being in another world, one quite different and quite distant from D.C.  I really enjoyed meeting Representative Mike Honda from California, not just because of what he said, but because of the experience that surrounded it.  We stood outside of an Appropriations Committee meeting, waiting for him, and sure enough he appeared.  He was not tall and presidential like, but still he commanded attention as he talked and answered our questions.  He went straight to the point and made sure that his position was clear on each issue.  Our question and answer session, which was merely our group huddled around him in the hallway, was cut short however, as Mr. Honda had to rush back into the meeting to vote.  This really left an impression on me, as Mr. Honda was able to take the time out to talk to us, leaving a meeting to do so, and having to return to vote on a decision that would affect our nation.

I’ve had an amazing experience in the program so far, and I know that our trip to Japan will not let me down.  I’ve made such amazing friends not only with my fellow D.C. students, but with a group of six kids that live an ocean away in Japan.  I look forward to stepping off the plane and setting foot in the land of the rising sun, and being able to say “I’m here!”.  I look forward to meeting the rest of my host family and seeing how they live, as I know that as similar as their life might be, there will also be many differences.  Overall, I am excited to be around the hustle and bustle that makes up their everyday lives, whether it is during a touristy visit to a famous location, or during my commute to school.  As the Japanese students saw when they visited D.C., the everyday happenings that we take for granted can be so interesting for someone coming with an outsider’s perspective and it is these daily experiences that I look forward to while in Japan.  The U.S. portion may have come and gone, but I know that our trip to Japan will be here before I even know it.

Delmar Tarrago
School Without Walls
Washington, DC

Atiya’s Summer Reflection

This summer has been an eye opening, life changing, and unforgettable one for me. I had the pleasure of not only meeting, but also forming personal bonds with eleven teenagers. I saw my own city in a way that I had never seen before. My mind expanded to great measures as I learned to question everything. I also learned a lot from the mentors I met this summer. Overall, the TOMODACHI program opened the door to the inquiring, open minded, daring, alert person I am today.

When the program first began, I trembled with both fear and excitement because I could do nothing else but anticipate what was in store for me. During the first few days, I, along with some of the other TOMODACHI participants, shared some of the stereotypes that we unknowingly had about each other and our backgrounds. This was a pivotal moment in my way of thinking because it was then that I realized that in order to conclude anything about anyone, I first have to step out of my comfortable way of thinking and enter a more complex one. As soon as I changed my thought process, I began to see things from multiple perspectives.

Throughout the summer, we, the TOMODACHI participants, had the pleasure of meeting many mentor-like people associated with Japanese-American relations. These speakers each taught us something different but in my opinion, Andy Shallal, the owner of Busboys and Poets, stood out the most. He was extremely opinionated and very serious about exercising the freedom that the American constitution grants us. What intrigued me most about this was the response from the Japanese students because I understand that in Japan, they are not as outspoken, especially when it comes to an opinion about their government.

Aside from gaining lessons from mentors, we also visited many places in Washington DC, being sure not to only visit popular tourist attractions. Although I am a Washington DC native, I retained a lot from each place we visited. Seeing things I barely notice on a regular basis with peers who are visiting for the first time is an interesting experience. It not only allows you to see things from another point of view, but it also makes you continuously ask yourself why you’ve never noticed it before. While visiting the urban areas of the city, I smiled knowing that the Japanese are getting a view of the entire city, and not just the attractions because those parts of the city are always forgotten when it comes to tourists.

One of my favorite places that we visited was the Holocaust Museum. While visiting, I was flabbergasted at the fact that the Holocaust is rarely, if ever talked about in Japan. I later learned that this is because during these times, the Japanese had an alliance with the Germans. As the Japanese began to understand the hardships endured during the Holocaust, they felt emotional about the crimes that took place. Seeing the emotions overwhelm the hearts of the Japanese students was an amazing sight for me. It made me believe that this world will unite as the TOMODACHI students have. This summer required a lot of dedication, hard work, and sleep, but the experience was a fantastic one and I appreciated every moment of it.

Atiya Artis
Coolidge SHS
Washington, DC