Rotary Club sponsors summer exchange program in Japan

Erin Woo and Larissa Qian pose with Kanto Daichi High School students at a temple in Kamakura, Japan.

Erin Woo and Larissa Qian pose with Kanto Daichi High School students at a temple in Kamakura, Japan.

The Burlingame Rotary Club is partnering with its sister club, the Rotary Club of Tokyo Edogawa in Tokyo, Japan, to sponsor a summer exchange program for four high school students in Burlingame. This will be the second time that the Rotary Club has taken students to Japan; the program was started in 2015, and Japanese students visited Burlingame the following year.

In 2015, current seniors Larissa Qian and Erin Woo, junior Tomas Vera, and 2016 graduate Eli Miller were selected. They each lived with a Japanese host family for a week and experienced their host family’s daily life, learning Japanese history and being immersed in Japanese culture.

“This trip is a really good opportunity for people who have not traveled outside the country,” Woo said. “It exceeded my expectations. [The Rotary Club] provided us with so many resources and opportunities.”

Staying with host families was a big part of the experience, and both Woo and Qian emphasized how accommodating their host families were.

“They’re all so nice and so catering,” Woo said. “They really immerse you in that culture, and you experience the life of a person who lives in Japan, and more specifically, in Tokyo.”

The students stayed in Tokyo but also traveled by train to visit a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. They were able to see all of the shrines inside the temple, which are normally open to the public only on holidays or special occasions. The students were not allowed to share their photos of the temple with friends or on social media.

They also went to an onsen (a Japanese bathhouse), a summer festival, a high school baseball game, a garden and a history museum. At the summer festival, known as a bon festival, they got to wear and keep kimonos.

“There’s hot springs in there, and it was amazing how comfortable everyone [was] with each other,” Qian said of the onsen. “I had a temporary tattoo on my arm, and they made me scrub it off, because in Japanese culture, tattoos are kind of taboo in public areas. Overall, since it was my first day, I was amazed by everything around me.”

The Rotary Club describes the program as “one of the greatest opportunities for the youth, our future leaders, to nurture global understanding by sharing and embracing different cultures and rediscovering themselves and their home country.” This stems from rotary’s mission of preparing global citizens.

“Our goal at Rotary is peace and understanding, [so] how better to do that than to get to know other people that we don’t know or understand,” said Bob Doerr, former President of Rotary Club of Burlingame.

Woo and Qian agree that one of the most interesting aspects of the trip was having the chance to eat authentic Japanese food, which is much different than Japanese food in the U.S.

“My host family took me out to a sushi bar,” Woo said. “We got to try the weirdest fish. I ate octopus and squid. It was so good. There’s no such thing as bad food there. They ate really healthy too, which is nice.”

Qian, who runs the popular Bay Area food Instagram account Sanfoodcisco, concurred.

“The food was beyond belief,” Qian said. “I’ve always loved sushi, but when I went to Japan, I discovered this huge array of other Japanese foods I’d never tried before. I had all sorts of different types of sashimi, which is raw fish. I had fatty tuna for the first time.”

Japanese language skills are not required for the program, but applicants must be open-minded and willing to try new things. Prior to their departure, participants will take six enrichment classes to prepare for the trip.

Because this trip is not sponsored by the school or the district, it is not as well-known as some of the other summer trips available to students. However, interest in this program has greatly increased since its inception two years ago. According to Career Center assistant Carrie Hermann, 26 students have picked up application materials so far.

One of these students, sophomore Jason Shevach, is applying because he has always admired Japanese culture, particularly Japanese art, and wants to experience it firsthand.

“I learned that a lot of the French Impressionists were inspired by Japanese art,” Shevach said. “I hope to better understand their history and their culture because it’s not something we really study at school.”

Because only four students (two boys and two girls) attend the program from Burlingame High and Mercy-Burlingame, selecting students can be a difficult process. The Rotary Club is looking for students who are ready to embrace the challenges of living in a foreign country, learning a foreign language, and experiencing a unique culture.

“We want students who have the capacity to achieve,” Doerr said. “They don’t have to be an outstanding student, but you have to have something within you that says to the committee, ‘that person’s going to be a good representative for our club, for Burlingame, for the school, and for our country.’ ”

After they returned, the participants felt that they gained an appreciation for Japanese culture and lifestyles, as well as how American culture is viewed in Japan. They strongly encourage students to apply for the program and experience Japan the same way they did.

“They get to experience everyday life in a Japanese home,” Qian said. “I learned so much about Japanese culture, and now I feel forever connected to Japan even though I’m not Japanese.”

The 2017 trip begins on Saturday, July 8 and ends on Sunday, July 16. Applications are due by April 14 and can be found in the Career Center.

Posted on March 4, 2017 .