Japanese cultural exchange student Minami Tajima remembers one of her first visits to an American restaurant. She and about two dozen other students from Japan visited Anne Arundel County last year, and after she befriended Arundel High School student Taylor Niemetz, the two went to a steakhouse in the Waugh Chapel area.
"So this is a Japanese restaurant," Niemetz said.
"They're Chinese,'" Tajima replied, referring to the cooks.
Talk about cultural awareness. Still, Tajima, a student from Sagami Ono High School in a city near Tokyo, said she enjoys American food. She has made a return visit this year as part of a group of more than three dozen students and educators from Sagami Ono who visited Arundel High in Gambrills on Wednesday for the start of a one-week cultural exchange with Arundel's Community Development and Global Citizenship program.
In June, about a dozen students and teachers from Arundel High will pay a 10-day visit to Sagamihara, Japan, as part of the exchange.
This week, the Arundel students were teaching their visitors how to make Maryland crab cakes while the Japanese students showed the Americans how to do calligraphy, according to Sherri Billheimer, facilitator for Community Development and Global Citizenship, Arundel's signature program.
Signature programs are based on themes chosen by schools and their surrounding communities; the goal is to bolster students' classroom instruction with real-world experience before they enter the workforce.
Niemetz was Tajima's host last year and is again this year. "It's been life-changing," Niemetz said, "just having a new view on other cultures and countries."
"The signature program is meant to make learning more relevant in our 21st-century, globalized society," said Barbara Dziedzic, lead teacher for Arundel's signature program. "Our community is one of the most rapidly growing areas in Anne Arundel County. Because we have an increasingly diverse community, community development deals with that local component, while global citizenship deals with the global realities."
Dziedzic said that Arundel's implementation of the cultural exchange with Sagami Ono began as an offshoot from a similar program at Broadneck High School. She said there have been successes but also challenges to the program.
"This is a very popular program; it has gotten a lot of support from colleges in the area," Dziedzic said. "There has been a big push at the university level to globalize education and curriculum. Through those connections, we've been able to bring in representatives from Singapore, South Africa and, obviously, the Japanese students. The students really get excited about engaging with people from around the world.
"Some of the challenges have been that even though the program itself is very progressive, we're still operating in a public education reality that is slow to change and evolve," Dziedzic said. "You have policies in place where you have ways of doing things that aren't moving as quickly as this innovative program. We're essentially effecting policy changes as we're breaking new ground."
Hiroyuki Hayashida, cultural coordinator from Sagami Ono High School, said that before coming to the U.S., the students knew only their own cultures. "After they came they learned that there is another culture, another value. It is the biggest benefit from this exchange program," Hayashida said.
Last year, a group of 23 students arrived shortly after Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami. The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake, which struck the east coast of the island about 230 miles from Tokyo on March 11, had a magnitude of 9.0.
Hayashida said the earthquake and resulting tsunami killed nearly 68,000 people and that more than 3,000 people are still missing. The area is also still coping with massive amounts of debris and concerns about radiation from damaged nuclear power plants. "Many people are still required to be evacuated from the nuclear power plant area," Hayashida said.
Tajima said that last year, she and other students learned a lot about the earthquake after they arrived in the U.S.
"We knew that the earthquake occurred, but we didn't know the details about it," Tajima said. But she added that despite being far from home in the aftermath of the earthquake, she still enjoyed the exchange. "It was a great time," Tajima said.
Hayashida said that the students reside in an area that wasn't affected much by the earthquake and that in their area the biggest concern has been power shortages.
Still, Hayashida said, "Watching what happened, what was caused by [the] tsunami, on TV, was and still is very shocking, and I'm sure they feel so scared [watching] the video of tsunami and earthquake. The mental shock is still going on. But it is not only for students but all Japanese people."
Hayashida told an assembly of Arundel students, teachers and staff that despite Japan's prolonged and difficult recovery from the earthquake and tsunami, "Through these terrible experiences, we have learned one thing: We are not alone. So many people all over the world have supported and encouraged us. We will never forget people's kindness. Now we can say that one of the most precious things in life is relationships with people."