Tina Mitchel spent her senior year at Valley Regional High School teaching herself Hungarian. That’s because Tina, who was valedictorian of the Class of 2016, was going to spend a year as a Rotary exchange student in Hungary before continuing on to college in the United States.
Some of that is true; Tina, whose given name is Christina, did spend a year as a Rotary exchange student, but all the Hungarian she learned didn’t help her at all. That’s because she spent her year in Japan. Still, never one to let a good education go to waste, Tina did manage to find a Hungarian exchange student in Japan and have a conversation with him.
While Tina was in Japan, the combined international committee of the Rotary groups in Essex, Chester, and Deep River hosted Brisa Caroline Sa Braganca, an exchange student from Brazil who attended Valley this past year.
Tina’s destination changed at the last minute when, she believes, a Hungarian student did not come to the United States. That meant there was no place for her in Hungary. She chose Japan from a number of possible countries largely because of her father’s memories of serving in the Marines there.
Tina’s Japanese language skills were very basic when she arrived last August.
“Pretty much what I could say was ‘thank you’ and ‘good morning,’” she recalls. “It was terrifying at first.”
All the more so because Tina was going to attend a year of school in Japan.
The Japanese education alignment, Tina explains, is somewhat different, with high school taking only three years. Tina was not placed with what we would call seniors, closest to her in age. Those students spend their year concentrating on preparation for Japan’s demanding examinations for admittance to one of the top universities. Instead, Tina was placed with a group in their first year of high school and moved up with them, in April, the month in Japan when promotions take place, into the second year.
At first she got very little of what was going on in class.
“It was honestly boring because I understood nothing,” Tina recalls.
Once a teacher asked her if she wanted to learn the Japanese language. The only words she recognized were “Japanese language” and she thought she was being asked if she spoke Japanese. So she answered “no,” where she should have responded with an enthusiastic “yes.” Still, she tried to make some sense of schoolwork. With math exercise sheets, for example, she didn’t do the calculations, but instead highlighted and looked up the Japanese terms she didn’t know.
Tina resolved, limited as her vocabulary was in the beginning, to speak only Japanese. That meant for a while she didn’t even speak with her parents in Connecticut, which would have meant using English.
She is enthusiastic about the help the local Japanese Rotary organization gave her in language learning, purchasing books for her to help her improve. At her high school, she belonged to the Interact Club, an international Rotary student organization for community service. She volunteered in a kindergarten, where she loved speaking Japanese—though she notes the youngsters were so eager to talk, they often spoke faster than she understood. The kindergartners were also curious about why, unlike them, she had red hair and blue eyes.
Tina also helped her high school classmates with English, which they study from an early age in grammar books but seldom speak. She says it gave her great satisfaction to think by helping her friends with English, she was broadening their career opportunities.
In general, according to Tina, Japanese students don’t have much time for extracurricular activities. She says they study far too much—putting in four hours every night is considered a passable amount.
“At least then you wouldn’t be yelled at for not studying,” she says.
Though her classes were co-ed, there was not much dating. It was discouraged, she says, and with study requirements, there was seldom enough time to think of social life.
School ran six days, with Saturday having fewer classes. On school days, students always wore uniforms. In summer, Tina’s uniform was a skirt, collared shirt, and vest; in winter, a dress, a blazer, and a necktie. Now, less than a week home at a recent meeting, she says she misses wearing the uniforms. On Sunday, the day no uniforms were required, Japanese often wore extremely fashionable outfits.
“Everybody looked like a model,” she says.
Over the course of the year, Tina lived with five different families, the longest for a period of four months and the shortest for some three weeks. The usual pattern is for Rotary students to live with a number of families to absorb different facets of local culture. In some homes, she slept on futons; in other she had a bed. In all, she ate Japanese cuisine, always rice at breakfast with things like soup, salad, fermented soy, egg, or seaweed. Lunch, which she brought in a container called a Bento box, was half rice, with vegetables and egg or salad in the other half. Whatever else was on the menu for dinner, the meal always had soup and rice or noodles.
At first, Tina was puzzled by the Japanese fascination with all things Disney, particularly among high school girls. She was, to her initial surprise, constantly asked who her favorite Disney princess was. The answer is Ariel in The Little Mermaid, because like Tina, Ariel has long red hair. In the end, she didn’t become a Disney lover, but grew to appreciate what she calls a softer side of Japanese culture.
“It’s fun and it brings people closer together,” she says.
Tina got used to earthquakes, which were a regular feature of life.
“One even canceled school—annoying,” she says.
The way to identify the smaller ones was when the pictures on the wall started banging. More disconcerting, some houses include a speaker system that alerts people to earthquakes.
“The house starts talking, saying that an earthquake is happening and if it gets to a certain magnitude, the house tells you to leave,” she says.
Now back in the United States after 11 months in Japan, Tina is readjusting. She misses friends in Japan, but can chat using various kinds of social media. Sometimes, she still tries to speak to her parents in Japanese. She notices things about life in the United States that would have passed without comment.
“Bread, there is so much here,” she says. “In Japan, you would just eat it as a snack, never a meal.”
At the end of August, she will start her freshman year at Cornell, where she’s planning to major in gender studies. “I love history; I am interested in minority movements and the role of women in history,” she says.
Tina has picked three of her four freshman courses; she will start Russian, and take a gender studies class and continue her Japanese, but as a result of her exchange year, no longer as a beginner. Now she will be in Japanese 3.