Clinton TownshipJuly 13, 2012
Sister City program forms cross-cultural friendships
By Nico Rubello
C & G Staff Writer
CLINTON TOWNSHIP — A dozen visitors from Clinton Township’s sister city, Yasu-cho, Japan, visited the township recently as part of the two municipalities’ cultural exchange program.
For nearly all of the visitors, it was their first time in the U.S.
During the more than weeklong stay between their arrival July 6 and departure July 15, the Yasu visitors were taken through a steady lineup of tours and events, including trips to a Tigers game, C.J. Barrymore’s and Greenfield Village, and tours of the township’s municipal buildings, and police and fire stations.
“It’s not that hard to get accustomed to American life for most of the guests. It takes about a day or two,” said Jason Pellerin, a Yasu resident who for the past four years has worked as the program coordinator and translator during group tours. “Nobody leaves this program without being affected in some way or another.”
While the Yasu guests were introduced to American life throughout the week, a July 11 festival at the Clinton-Macomb Public Library Main Branch — simultaneous to the township’s pre-fireworks festival next door — gave the guests a chance to reverse the cultural exchange. The “mini-Yasu festival,” as organizers called it, featured booths promoting Japanese culture. People circulated among the booths, sampling rice balls, Japanese games, calligraphy, origami and more. There were also kimonos for attendees to try on, as well as demonstrations of kendo sword-fighting and Japanese taiko drumming by the Ohio-based Yume Daiko.
For the Yasu visitors, the learning didn’t stop once the scheduled tours and events ended each day. Each got a firsthand look at American life while living with their assigned host families.
Yasu resident Nukui Toshihiro said through a translator that his stay was comfortable. His favorite part of the trip, he added, were the friends that he met.
Americans are very cheerful and open, even from the first meeting, Toshihiro said.
In the more socially rigid Japan, being so friendly and open when first meeting someone is unusual, Pellerin explained. Americans’ use of hugs to greet one another, for instance, comes as a shock to many of the Japanese visitors each year.
Despite all the differences, Toshihiro came to Clinton Township with the attitude that it will work out somehow.
Both Japanese and Americans try to be kind to most people they meet, he said. Just the way we express ourselves is different.
Now in its 19th year, the Sister City Cultural Exchange program began as the brainchild of Judy Archer. After coming home from a trip to Yasu, she pitched the idea of a cultural exchange program between the city and Clinton Township. After a few initial visits, the program began, and the two communities have since been sending groups of people back and forth, alternating each year.
In March 2011, a tsunami devastated Japan, and news of nuclear radiation fears reached American ears. That July, the Cultural Exchange program dwindled to three people who signed up to visit Yasu.
This year, however, marked a fairly typical attendance, considering average participation ranges between 10 and 20 people, Pellerin said.
Host families are given first priority for taking the trip to Yasu the following year.
To date, hundreds of people have participated in the sister city program, whether it be hosting a foreign guest or making the trip abroad themselves. In the process, friendships formed in the program frequently last long afterward.
Despite cultural and language barriers, it doesn’t take long for the Yasu visitors to bond with their volunteer host families, and vice versa. Departure days can be a tearful occasion.
Yasu resident Mari Yonezawa, who lived in the U.S. as a teenager, came to Clinton Township this year with her son, Reon, 11.
“Ten days is too short,” she said.
It’s an instant friendship, said Tom Bemiss, who along with wife Kathy have hosted multiple families as part of the Sister City program. This year, they hosted the Yonezawas at their house.
“As a matter of fact, I still email and Facebook the girl I hosted 14 years ago,” said Tom Bemiss of Macomb Township.
“I’ve had people who hosted me in Japan; I told them when I was there, ‘If you ever want to come visit me, just let me know,’ and their comment was, ‘How is September?’ Now we were there in July,” he said. “I said, ‘If you want to come in September, you’re more than welcome.’”
Sure enough, his hosts stayed at his house for a week that September.
“You get a bond. … It’s almost like finding a lost brother,” he added.
Ilene DiMaggio, the secretary of the Sister City Cultural Exchange board, has had similar experiences. She said recently she Facebooked a 20-year-old college student she hosted 10 years ago. He now speaks English, and they chatted on Facebook for an hour, she said.
“Over time, you keep in touch,” she said.
For Mike and Teri Garvonic, who this year are hosting 19-year-old Yuhei Komori in their home, even routine affairs, such as going to the supermarket, have become cultural learning experiences.
Komori said most of the foods, all the way down to the sauces and condiments, were new to him.
Overcoming the language barrier requires lots of charades, but it wasn’t been as difficult as they expected, Teri Garvonic said.
“Each day is a new adventure,” Mike Garvonic added. “It’s fun for the host and the guest.”
Still, while the traditions and language can be different, Komori and their own son have found common ground over ping-pong and anime TV shows.
“If we did more of this around the world, it would probably prevent wars and a lot of other things that go on,” Mike Garvonic said. “It gives you a chance to see someone’s traditions. … There’s so much in common.”
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