by Tori Hamby
Japanese high school student Hazuki Kondo didn’t take much notice when she felt the earth tremble beneath her feet on March 11, during a sports field day at her school.
“I felt the earth shake, but we have many earthquakes in Japan,” said Kondo, a student at Nanzan Kokusai High School in Nagoya, Japan – located more than 300 miles from most of the devastation. “But when I went home, there were no TV shows, no commercials. All you saw was news about the earthquake.”
Kondo is one of 15 Japanese exchange students studying at Hopewell High School until April 2, as part of the schools’ INTERACT-Student Exchange Program. The program, in its fourth year, aims to provide Japanese and American high school students with an authentic window into each other’s culture.
Japanese literature and Japanese-as-a-second language teacher Aya Takahashi – who traveled with her students – became concerned when the quake lasted longer than the typical 10 to 20 seconds. Although seismic activity is common throughout the region, she said the administration decided to send students home early in case trains stopped running, which would prevent many of her students from returning home.
“Some students were outside and didn’t notice,” Takahashi said. “To me, the earthquake felt like we were on a ship.”
Even though communications between the two schools became delayed during the days following the quake and subsequent tsunami, Takahashi said her students’ plans remained unaffected because they chose not to fly out of Tokyo.
While the they say they are determined to focus on the challenges and excitement of adapting to new foods, customs and friends, their thoughts remain with their friends and family back home suffering from food shortages and the threat of high nuclear radiation levels.
Despite the school’s distance from the tsunami zone, student Natsuko Kikuchi said the region has suffered from a major rice shortage in the days following the disaster, because much of the crop is produced in the country’s northern regions, which were hit hard.
“I went to the supermarket a few days after and there was no rice or cup noodles,” Kikuchi said.
So far, arrangements for a group of Hopewell students to travel to the Japanese private school are still planned for the final two weeks of May, despite the turmoil that the country continues to face. Nanzan High administrators limit enrollment at the school to the children of Japanese workers employed abroad and foreign students.
“It’s a well-known, prestigious school in Nagoya,” said Chester Novitt, who oversees the exchange program at Hopewell. “When you’re in the area and you mention Nanzan Kokusai High School, the people definitely know which school you are talking about.”
Novitt’s program came to fruition after the success of the school’s similar Korean exchange program. The biology and Japanese teacher used contacts developed from his years of studying and working in Japan to create a relationship between Hopewell and Nanzan Kokusai high schools.
Select American students, who were chosen through an extensive application process, will host the visitors throughout their stay – showing them the intricacies and minutia of day-to-day American life, including grocery shopping, cooking meals and going to school.
“When you visit a new country as a tourist, you don’t get to experience the authentic culture,” Novitt said. “There is no better class in American culture than going to live with an American family.”