Recently, JCMU has taken lead in coordinating the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange program! Every year since 1990, the program has sent 15 Michigan high school students to live abroad and experience Japanese culture for two weeks during the summer. Our staff had the chance to talk to Lauren Ouellette, a 2012 program participant, about her experience in Japan.
What was your motivation for participating in the program?
My older brother had participated in the program so I was able to see how great his experience was. Furthermore, our family had hosted many Japanese students throughout my life and I loved the experience so much that I wanted to take part in the program not only to experience life in Japan but to host a Japanese student and give them a wonderful experience in Michigan.
What were some of the activities you did and places you visited in Japan?
My host family took me to many places and introduced me to many things during my stay in Japan. I was able to spend a lot of time in Kyoto. During that time I learned how to make pottery from a professional artist who made many different kinds of Tanuki (the famous raccoon dog). I was also able to go to Hikone and visit the Hikone castle, which was an amazing experience. There were also many festivals going on at the time of our visit. Summer presents many opportunities to try new foods made and sold at festivals, as well as see fantastic parades and Japanese traditions.
What was the experience of living with a host family like?
Living with a host family was a huge culture shock and the best way to really understand what it’s like to live in Japan as more than just a tourist. Host families are the ultimate tour guides but are also welcoming people that want to give you the best experience in Japan and help you to acclimate to Japanese society. At first, I was a little uncomfortable living with people I had just met but once I decided to embrace the experience I made wonderful connections and learned so much more than I would have without living with a host family.
Do you still keep in touch with your host family and friends you made in Japan?
Yes! I frequently talk to my host sister and keep up with how her family (and my family) is. I also was able to host a friend I made at school when she visited Michigan this summer. Furthermore, I learned that my host sister is going to come back to Michigan next year and she will be able to stay with me again. Being able to make lifelong friends through the program has impacted me greatly and allowed me to see them more often than I would have ever predicted.
What were some of the differences/similarities of a Japanese high school compared to an American one?
Japanese high schools are very different from American high schools. The students stay with their homeroom class all day and the teachers come to them. Furthermore, I find the relationship between students and teachers to be very different in Japan. I would often stay at school until 5:30 or 6 at night talking to teachers just to socialize. In America, both teachers and students leave right after school is done and more often than not, students and teachers do not socialize about things other than class or grades. That being said, many of the student’s activities are similar to the activities seen in America. I experienced band, baseball, soccer, swimming and many other activities. The students have a lot of spirit and are very welcoming, just like in America.
What do you feel was the biggest impact Japan had on you?
Having the opportunity to visit Japan had a major impact on my life. I was able to experience life outside of the U.S and learn what’s it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes. That experience taught me to be more open minded toward people that are not like me. Going to Japan also sparked my interest in learning about other cultures and further my education of Japan’s culture.
What were you doing before the program, and what are you doing now?
Before the program, I was living in Essexville, Michigan and going to Garber High School as a sophomore. I was involved in band and musical theatre. Now, I am attending Central Michigan University as a sophomore and have a communication major, event management minor, and an East Asian Studies cultural certificate.
What are your future academic and career goals?
My future goals academically are to further pursue my education of Japan and Japanese culture. I am hoping to study abroad in Japan the summer of 2017 through JCMU. Furthermore, I would like to apply to the JET program and teach English in Japan before pursuing a career in event planning, which will hopefully lead to a future of travel and learning more about other countries’ cultures.
Every year, Michigan high school students have the opportunity to work with Shiga high school students and participate in the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange program. In the program, American students live in Japan for 2 weeks with a host family. After this, their host brother/sister comes to America to live with them for a few weeks.