Ted Roberts, rear, and John Lotter, right, help Japanese exchange students, left to right, Megumi Nakao, Asami Oki, Tatsuki Yokonuma, Arika Tanaka, and Saori Mimaki during a kayaking trip on Lake Erie.
Five Japanese teenagers who came to Monroe County said they will return to Asia from their three-week trip with an understanding of Big Boy, a sense of American baseball - a la Toledo Mud Hens - and a greater appreciation for cars.
Five Monroe County high school students who went to Japan said they returned with a more open mind.
"It builds the knowledge of other cultures and makes the kids more accepting of difference," said Kim Steve, the president of Monroe International Friendship Association, the nonprofit organization that runs an annual exchange program.
On July 15, Monroe County teenagers ages 15 to 17 flew to Japan to begin their three-week stay in their county's sister city, Hofu, Japan.
They each settled in with a host family and got to know the five girls who a week later would take the opposite trip - Japan to Michigan.
Last week, after three weeks in Japan, the Michigan students returned home and got to speak with the Japanese students about their stay. Then on Tuesday, the Japanese girls flew back to Hofu, after three weeks of calling Monroe home.
For both groups, there were several first-time experiences.
Saori Mimaki, Asami Oki, Megumi Nakao, Arika Tanaka, and Tatsuki Yokonuma experienced their first time in a kayak, and their first time swimming in the Great Lakes.
Many of them did not know much English. Only Megumi felt comfortable enough to speak it regularly.
The 17-year-old said they made toy cars, caught a baseball game, did the shopping-mall circuit, and perused the Toledo Museum of Art, the Glass Pa-vilion, and the Monroe County Historical Museum.
But, she said, what she enjoyed most was visiting the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.
"I decided to come to the U.S., on this trip, because I wanted to become a police officer," she said.
"I wanted to see how American police worked."
The teenagers seemed to notice the little things most.
The Monroe County students all talked about the odd transition, flying back from Japan and arriving in the United States.
"We saw the airport baggage people in Japan carefully stack each bag on the plane, and then back in the U.S. we noticed how they just threw the bags in and out," said Danny Bender, 17, an incoming senior at Monroe High School.
The other Monroe students mentioned how rude the U.S. airport officials seemed after coming from Japan's more traditionally formal culture.
Japanese gift giving being a traditional cultural practice, the Monroe host families received a handful of items, from paper lanterns, to fans, to painted scrolls, to anime-style kitten figurines.
In return, Barb and John Roberts gave their exchange student, Asami Oki, some culture paraphernalia of their own - a Michigan calendar, a University of Michigan pen, and a diary with the heading "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" from the Dr. Seuss book by the same name.
Mrs. Roberts said she also gave Asami the book I'm a Michigan Kid! by Gary Bower.
The 48-page book tours the Great Lakes state, highlighting the diversity of Michigan, from its scenes of lakes, orchards, farms, ships, and lighthouses - "from Alpena to Zeeland, Marquette to Monroe, Michigan's awesome wherever you go!" it reads.
The Robertses became interested in Japan when their granddaughter, Ashley Boudrie , began taking Japanese at Monroe High School.
When asked why Japanese, Ashley, 16, had a simple answer: "Because I couldn't speak Spanish," she said.
Of course she couldn't speak Japanese either, but now she is learning, and she said she will continue to take Japanese during her junior year.
Danny Bender decided to apply to the program because, "I thought it would look good on a college application and would be fun," he said.
"I told myself to keep an open mind, to try all the foods, try everything while I was there," he said.
He remembers visiting a sword maker in the mountains above Hofu.
He said he ate raw horse meat - a delicacy in some parts of Japan - and cow's Achilles tendon.
George Brown, the city manager for Monroe, said the program allows children and adults to understand the similarities and differences between cultures and people.
"I think it helps people understand tolerance, how to look beyond oneself," Mr. Brown said. "But one of the things you notice overall is: Teenagers are teenagers are teenagers are teenagers."
Last August, the mayor of Hofu Masato Matsuura, hosted Monroe Mayor C.D. "Al" Cappuccilli, Ms. Steve, and another association member - Cheryl McIntyre - during Hofu's 70th birthday celebration.
Hofu and Monroe became "Sister Cities" in 1993 after the two established a student exchange program a year earlier.
President Dwight Eisenhower initiated America's "Sister Cities" program in 1956 to promote cultural ties at the municipal level.
The Monroe association is supported in part by the Community Foundation of Monroe County. Monroe County students also pay for a portion of the trip expenses.
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