Senior Emma Boersma and a Japanese friend from the 2017 Putney School Summer Arts program in Vermont hold hedgehogs at a hedgehog cafe in Harajuku, Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Boersma)

Cavs around the world: senior spends six weeks immersed in Tokyo program

In the “Cavs around the World” series, students discuss their summer internships, jobs, volunteer work and classes. 

Senior Emma Boersma participated in an exchange program in Tokyo for six weeks through Youth for Understanding (YFU). 

Q: Why did you go to Japan? 

A: I’ve always been exposed to Asian culture because I’m half Korean and my aunt speaks Japanese. She lived and worked in Japan out of college, and now she’s a high school Japanese teacher in New York. Every summer, she takes her students to Japan on an exchange trip, and she takes my cousins as well.

When I was little, she sent my family a box set of Studio Ghibli (Japanese animation) movies, and I fell in love with them. That piqued my interest, and (learning Japanese) has been a hobby ever since. Going to Japan seemed like the logical next step, but I didn’t want to go as a tourist. I wanted to really experience living there. 

I chose YFU because they have a bunch of scholarships I applied for. I earned the Japan-America Friendship Scholarship, which cut my tuition in half. So if you’re looking for an exchange program, I recommend YFU.

Q: What did you do in Japan?

A: It was a six-week program. I lived with a host family — two host sisters, a mom and a dad. I went to a Japanese high school with the oldest host sister for a week, which was really fun. My host mom didn’t work, so I would go grocery shopping with her, she would take me out to lunch, she would show me around Tokyo, and we would do some sightseeing. I also made some friends through the program, and one of them happened to live in Tokyo as well. So once or twice a week, I would hang out with him, and we would see a movie, do karaoke or get food. Another friend lived in Nagoya and took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo, so we spent the day with him twice.

Q: What was the best part of the experience?

A: I enjoyed being in Tokyo. It was hard to form super strong connections with people when I barely spoke the language. That’s not to say I didn’t form any connections, but I feel like you can do that anywhere. What really made the experience unique was being so completely immersed in this new culture and in a major city. Sacramento is completely different than Tokyo. So just physically being in Japan was my favorite part. 

Senior Emma Boersma (back row middle) and classmates celebrate the last day of high school on July 5 in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Boersma)

Q: What was going to high school in Japan like?

A: I went to a very big private school. Japanese school is completely different than Country Day. I really liked their routine. They take their shoes off when they enter buildings and put on slippers. Instead of moving through classes, we usually stayed in our seats during the day, and the teachers came to us. We ate in a cafeteria that had really good, inexpensive food. They don’t have electives, but all of their non-academic activities are called clubs, and they do them after school. The school’s facilities were very nice.

Q: Was speaking Japanese difficult?

A: My host mom actually studied in Canada for a year, so she was basically fluent in English, but I didn’t want her to speak English at all. I spoke my limited Japanese, but if there was something I absolutely needed to express and couldn’t do it in Japanese, then I could speak in English. I would say 95% of the time I was speaking in Japanese, and it was hard. I wouldn’t say I got better at it; I just got quicker. My Japanese is level one. I (have only been learning it) for about a year, and it was all self-study. I’m going to sign up for the local Japanese school in Sacramento and take formal classes. Hopefully my friend from YFU decides to do that with me. I’m also definitely planning on taking more Japanese in college.

Q: What surprised you about Japan?

A: Probably how different Japanese people are. They have certain values that make their whole society different than mine. For example, Japanese people care about cleanliness and clean spaces. That meant that even Tokyo, this huge city with all these people, was super clean. There was basically no trash, and everything felt super safe because people value that. Tiny values like taking your shoes off before you enter a house kind of translate to the entire country. 

Q: What was your biggest takeaway from the experience? 

A: The Japanese value of the group over the individual. I want to implement it more into my life. Americans are very individualistic. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing, but I think it would be nice if everyone cared a little bit more about the group rather than themselves.

Q: Do you want to return to Japan?

A: I’m 100% going to go back. I think it would be fun to work or intern in Japan and live as someone who belongs there. I’m looking at colleges that have exchange programs in Japan.

By Anna Frankel

Excerpt originally published in the Sept. 17 edition of the Octagon.

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