When I was 12 years old, the whole trajectory of my life changed when my family hosted a foreign exchange student from Yokohama, Japan. Before meeting Mina I had never really given much thought to the way people lived outside of my white, suburban bubble. The only real exposure to the rest of the world came from National Geographic and “missionary week” at church. While fascinating, what these two things taught me was that people who don’t live in America live in funny houses, eat funny food and generally have a lower quality of life than we do. It never occurred to me that someone living in another country might have anything at all in common with me.
Enter Mina. Mina, the 16 year old Japanese girl who played bass guitar in a rock band; Mina, the Japanese girl who was passionate about baseball; Mina, the girl who lived in a house not too different than mine and went to school like I did and had a pet cat like me; Mina, who went to McDonalds after school with her friends and ate the same crappy cheeseburger than I occasionally indulged in.
While Mina’s English skills left much to be desired, we were able to communicate, play games with each other and learn from each other. I learned that Japanese kids like the same things American kids do. They are not all perfect, and they do not all love to study. I learned that our cultures are different in many ways, but our similarities far surpassed our differences. And, most importantly, I learned that my entire worldview had to shift beyond my neighborhood because there was a big world out there for me to discover. Pretty profound for a 12 year old, huh? Well, I may not have realized that I was learning those things at the time, but I do know that my life was never the same after Mina left. I found myself asking more questions about the world and developing a passion for travel (a passion that I would not fulfill for a number of years, but nevertheless was there). My family continued hosting students after Mina, and my husband and have been hosting in our home for years now, too. My love of travel has continued to grow, and every new country I visit, and every foreigner I come in contact with expands my worldview even more.
There are so many moment in my life that have shaped who I am today, but I really believe that hosting Mina was a pivotal moment in my life and I would have become a very different person had I not been exposed to another culture at a young age.
The moral of the story is this: parents, don’t allow your children to grow up in a bubble. Find ways to expose your children to people of different cultural backgrounds. Helping your children realize the fantastic diversity of this world is one of the greatest gifts you can give. Hosting exchange students is a wonderful way to do this if you are able. (For information about hosting a student, click here). But even if you can’t bring other culture directly into your home, there are plenty of ways to expose your children to the world out there. Go to international festivals; go to ethnic restaurants (not the local Mexican joint where the suburban white folks hang out, but a real, authentic ethnic restaurant- like ones where the English menu doesn’t make sense and most of the diners are foreigners); volunteer with the immigrant and refugee community. You may have to get out of your comfort zone, but the benefits are so worth it!
Today is September 11th. Eleven years ago today everything changed. Our country entered what will forever be referred to as the “post 9/11” era. America became forever aware that we have enemies who are willing to die in order to see our country fail; enemies who hate our way of life so much they will to go to any lengths to kill as many of us as possible. I really hate using the words “us” and “them” in the context of talking about Americans and other culture groups, but in this case I can’t think of more appropriate words. 9/11 really marked a clear case of “them” wanting to destroy “us.” September 11th not only changed the way we see security and air travel, but it also plunged us into a war that is still going on 11 years later.
I am often asked, as most of us are, where I was on September 11th. Short answer: I was on an airplane. Yes, you read correctly, I was on an airplane on September 11, 2001. I left Seattle on September 10th to travel to Japan to study for a year. I landed in Tokyo on September 11, and have a 9/11/01 stamp in my passport. With the time difference, I had already left the airport before the planes hit the twin towers, and was on the bullet train to Nagano completely sheltered from any breaking news. I distinctly remember getting to my host family’s house and taking a bath. While I was in the bath my host brother, Kazu starting yelling at me that “a plane hit a house” (at least that’s what I understood with my limited Japanese at the time). I couldn’t understand what was so urgent, so I came to the conclusion that this must have happened in our neighborhood, because he was so upset about this plane crashing into a house. I got out of the bath quickly and ran down the hall to find out what happened.
I will never forget standing there in the hall catching a glimpse of the tv and watching the planes hit the towers over and over again. Even though my Japanese was decent at the time, I really felt in that moment that I didn’t understand anything. I couldn’t keep up with the commentary on the Japanese news. I had never learned the Japanese word for “terrorism” or “attack” and I had no idea what was going on. I know that everyone watching these terrible events in the States felt hurt, confused and angry, among many other emotions. I didn’t know what to feel, because my language skills weren’t good enough for me to figure out what was going on.
One of the wonderful things that happened after the attacks was the camaraderie of the world. America was shown so much love and support from all corners of the globe, and I experienced that love and compassion first-hand. For the first week I was in Japan, I was the “American girl.” The Japanese people were so wonderful and supportive and quick to offer their sympathies. I saw Japanese people who were so desperate to offer any support they could to our country, and didn’t know how, so I became the representative of the United States to the people of Nagano.
Sometimes I feel like I missed out on the most important event in recent history because I was out of the country. I didn’t get to experience the amazing coming-together of the nation that occurred in the aftermath of the attacks. I wasn’t around to take part in the national unity that our country experienced. But I did get to experience the amazing love and caring of the people of Japan, who felt so much compassion for us and needed a way to show it. For the love and support I received from the people of Japan, I will be forever grateful.