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.
School Without Walls