ENCINITAS — Students from San Dieguito Academy mingled with peers from Japan on Jan. 6. The school’s robust Japanese exchange program supports a myriad of events year round to encourage students to learn more about one another.
“We host one or two groups of exchange students from Japan every year,” said Rie Tsuboi, a Japanese teacher at the academy. With six levels of Japanese classes, including language and culture, hundreds of high school students have been exposed to a wide range of Japanese language, history and culture.
But the person-to-person interaction cannot be replaced by any lessons out of a book. “By interacting with Japanese exchange students, our students can learn so much,” Tsuboi said. “They get to hear ‘real Japanese,’ practice speaking with the native speakers and learn about their culture.”
Most of all, both Japanese and American students enjoy making connections with each other, with the people who live so far away. “Some students told me that having exchange students could be the most valuable learning experience,” Tsuboi said.
The commonalities are as apparent as the differences when the two groups of students interacted in the academy classroom. “It’s very nice that different people from different cultures find out that there are more similarities than differences,” Tsuboi said. “One of my students told me, ‘teenagers are just teenagers.’ We are the same.”
The dozen Japanese students presented demonstrations of culturally specific traditions, from origami to Shogi, a game similar to chess. Yumi, 14, displayed her talent for making delicate swans out of brightly colored paper. “This is very fun,” she said with a shy smile. The Japanese teenager said her first trip to America was “going very, very good.”
Another student guided Stan Austin, 16, on writing his name in Japanese characters. “Very cool,” he responded with a thumbs-up to his high school counter-part.
The weeklong visit is an annual affair that offers students time to just “hang out” with one another without constant instruction. “It’s just about learning what each of us likes and dislikes,” Fox said.
American students also have an opportunity to visit the home turf of their newfound friends. Tsuboi organizes a trip to Japan for 10 to 20 students to her hometown, Kyoto, Japan, every summer.
“During the trip, we usually stay at a Japanese style inn and some years students stay with Japanese families,” she said. “We do various things such as visiting temples and shrines and go hiking. Like most teenagers, she said the students really enjoy shopping, playing games at arcades and singing at a “Karaoke box” with Japanese friends.
Senior Zoe Fox was one of a couple dozen Academy students interacting with the Japanese exchange students on Jan. 6. After taking three years of Japanese, Fox said she is able to communicate well with native Japanese speakers. But it’s the cultural aspects that draw her to all things Japan. “I got involved first because of the animation but I fell in love with the history and comparing the past to the present,” she said.
Fox hopes to travel to Japan soon. “I’ve made a lot of friends through the exchange program,” she said. Despite thousands of miles separating her from friends overseas, Fox said their friendships continue to develop. “I actually spent New Year’s Eve Skyping with a friend in Japan.”