The Berkeley Sakai Sister City student exchange trip of 2016 was the first time that I was exposed to a culture that was strikingly different from my own. When we first walked off the plane, I immediately noticed all of the new things all around me-- from the food to the cleanliness, to the street signs and direction of traffic. Having my newly-made friends with me, taking in all of the newness alongside me, made the sense of overwhelm manageable and just a little less scary.
As a young woman, 12 years old, it was an incredible opportunity to travel abroad, to a country whose culture was so different from mine. I remember about halfway through the trip, we were staying in a location near a river. One day, our activity was to go fishing, and much to my dismay my dad made me hold one of the fish I’d caught! That experience pushed me out of my comfort zone, much like the time when we went to the deer park and I fed a deer from my hand. Each day was a new adventure, and without the support of my family and my city, I would not have been able to experience these identity forming memories, which feed in to my desire to travel and learn about varied cultures.
I had wanted to go to Japan for some time, so I was excited to find the opportunity through the Berkeley Sakai Sister City Association. Traveling with a group was great fun. I quickly became friends with not only my Japanese host family, but also my fellow American students, which provided constant entertainment. Another American girl and I stayed with a Japanese girl named Nanami and her family in Sakai. Nanami’s family was extremely kind, welcoming, and generous, and took us to some of their favorite sites and restaurants, showered us with gifts, and taught us some Japanese games. I thought the language barrier would be a huge obstacle, but we were able to get across a lot through gestures and the use of handheld translators. It was fascinating to see how people my age lived in another country, and to have a shared experience with fellow Berkeley students even after we returned home.
I learned a lot while in Japan and the following year when two Japanese students came to stay with my family. We drew pictures to communicate both times, and cooked and ate together. The experience expanded my definition of friendship, which has proven useful ever since.
The trip gave me a perspective on another culture that we do not get without traveling. Seeing sights is fun but the student exchange gets you closer to the real culture. We would do everyday things with local families that brought the experience home for me. We slept on tatami mats on the floor rather than in western style beds. We shopped at local markets and ate local foods with neighbors. We caught a glimpse of how life was for local Japanese families. The more people I meet that have not traveled, the more I value my BSA experience.