I believed that I would naturally fall in love with the Japanese people and their culture. After all, I am half Japanese. When I arrived in Japan, I was disappointed and slightly annoyed by the dangling cell phone charms and Hello-Kitty characters visible on every street corner. However, throughout my ten-day stay in Hiroshima, I discovered that our similarities far outweigh our differences, and I learned to appreciate the unique traditions that my grandparents and father have passed down to me as a person of Japanese descent.
Japanese history and culture always fascinated me, so I was thrilled when I received the opportunity last summer to travel to Japan and participate in cross-cultural exchange forums with Japanese high school students, all expenses paid. I traveled as part of a group of twenty students from North and South America, and we were paired with Hiroshima high school students for group discussions and sight-seeing around the city.
The first day, everyone shyly huddled in segregated groups, but after a few introductions, the atmosphere relaxed. Ten minutes later, we were laughing with the Japanese girls, and the boys were inventing handshakes. Even though, stereotypically, the Japanese are reserved, on that first day and throughout the rest of our visit, they gave a concerted effort to become acquainted with us, and in combination with our own endeavors, we soon formed relationships as friends and as students of a global culture. We toured museums, did late-night karaoke, and shared many meals together, and on the last day, we were all wiping the tears from our eyes.
Although I loved participating in intellectual discussions and laughing with these students, the most meaningful part of the trip was the two-night homestay with a Japanese family. I slept with these complete strangers for two nights, but after only a few hours my heart warmed to the young couple and their two children. They hosted me in their small, but cozy apartment, drove two and half hours each way to take me to an art museum over the mountains, endured a small car accident on the way, and paid for all my meals. I thought that I was the only one on the receiving end because of all the work they did to make my visit amazing.
However, my open-mindedness and appreciative nature went farther than I thought. The shared experiences throughout those two days gave us more to carry with us through life than materialistic objects. By the end, their four-year-old boy and one-year-old girl were holding my hand and blowing me kisses, even though I did not understand anything they said when they spoke to me. I have not been around many young children throughout my teenage years, and I do not know what to do when they cry or how to play games with them, but I tried my best and just smiled when all else failed.
Before I went to Japan, I read about the Japanese culture to educate myself about various customs, such as bowing and other mannerisms, but I also discovered a lot by merely observing. Inevitably, I still alienated myself as a foreigner by various things that I did or did not do, but I am sure my efforts to immerse myself as much as possible were respected.
After the ten days were over, I learned to look beyond the Hello-Kitty drawings and cell phone charms, and see the true Japanese culture, which I have come to admire and cherish. I am prouder than ever to be part of the Japanese-American heritage.
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