I’m writing to share the incredible experience our family had participating in the Haddonfield Japan Exchange program this summer. For two weeks, we hosted Satomi Sekii, a bright, funny and enthusiastic 17-year-old high school student from Japan. Satomi traveled to the U.S. with 16 other students from a girls’ high school in Kasukabe, a city near Tokyo. Families from Haddonfield and surrounding towns, many with current or former Haddonfield high school students, hosted each girl and their two adult chaperones.
What a great way to connect our kids, growing up in a small town, with the bigger world around them! The Japanese girls and their American teenage hosts, as well the parents and other adult hosts, spent time together for two weeks, touring Haddonfield, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., the Jersey Shore and visiting more everyday places like the Cherry Hill Mall (and Satomi’s favorite, Target!) The visiting students shared breakfasts, some dinners and some down time with their host families, with both sides working hard to communicate with one another. Although few of the Japanese students spoke much English, and even fewer of the host families spoke Japanese, every family developed a close, warm bond with their visiting student. My 15-year-old son, Ari, became good friends with Satomi — besides the structured program excursions, they went to South Street together, hung out at open mic night at Jersey Java, played ping pong, shopped at Wegmans, and shared music, meals and lots and lots of laughs. Many tears were shed when our guests returned to Japan.
The Haddonfield Japan Exchange was founded and is run by Haddonfield resident Bill Brown, who not only organized the summer visit, but also personally attended and supervised every excursion that the group made, from D.C. to the Jersey Shore. He deserves our kudos. And kudos, also, to all the folks around town who helped make our guests’ visit memorable. The bank teller who chuckled at Satomi’s amazement at the drive-through and sent her a lollipop; the Haddonfield firemen who let her try on a firefighting uniform; Mr. Janney, the marching band director at the high school, who turned an unplanned visit to a marching band rehearsal into a trip highlight, giving the Japanese students instruments and letting them play with the band. It seemed that everyone we encountered supported our visitors and gave them a warm welcome. I was proud of our town.
Next summer, a group of Haddonfield high school students will travel to Japan to be the guests of the high school girls from Kasukabe. Until then, many of the kids, American and Japanese, and some of the host parents, have connected on Facebook, and will continue to be involved in each other’s lives until we are able to meet again. The world feels a bit smaller and friendlier when Japanese letters pop up on your Facebook page! Our families, although spending our daily lives in a small suburban town, have become part of the global community through this program. I can’t think of a better life lesson for our kids.