STUDENT 2007: I remember doing this in year seven when I was only 13. I was the youngest person in the group by 2 years and the only boy, nevertheless I was looked after and had an amazing time and still remember ever part of it, if any one is thinking of participating in the program u should definitely do it!
STUDENT 2003: This is an amazing experience! definitely do it if you get a chance!
HOST FAMILY 2011: The joy and elation we get from hosting Japanese students is priceless
LETTER FROM A 2006 PROGRAM STUDENT:
It is hard to believe that eight years have already passed since I was a year nine student studying Japanese in high school. The year was 2006, and I had been studying the Japanese language for about four years. Japanese had quickly become the most enjoyable class on my timetable and I would thrive on new grammar and vocabulary, soaking up every second of each lesson. In winter that year, a friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in participating in a short exchange program organised by our local council, the Sutherland Shire (the Chuo-Sutherland Sister City Exchange Program). A group of twelve or so high school students would travel to Japan for two weeks and spend part of this time staying with a host family in central Tokyo. Although laughable now, as a fifteen year old, Japan had seemed like nothing more than a lofty dream land where Pokemon and Totoro ran wild. I had little concept of what the reality of Japan was, but lost no time in jumping at the opportunity to find out. I filled out the host family application form, writing down my favourite books and interests, and soon after, a short letter from a girl named Kaoru arrived in my mailbox. She and her family would be hosting me during my trip to Japan, and Kaoru had written to introduce herself and her family to me. I remember clearly the letter stating that her brother, Kanta, liked Lego blocks, and that she had a pet bird named 'Bun-chan'. That was the first letter I received from Kaoru, and while over the past eight years I have accumulated what must be over 100 physical letters (let alone 'birthday packages' and countless emails), that first letter remains one of my most precious belongings.
The time leading up to the day of takeoff was one of excitement and tension. We had lessons on Japanese language and culture at a local high school once a week during after school hours, and prepared all the necessary clothing and souvenirs we would need to take with us to Japan. While it may seem strange to people unfamiliar with the Japanese culture of gift-giving (although this is not an exclusively Japanese tradition), we learnt that we must prepare a number of quintessential Australian items to present to our host families upon arrival in Japan. With this in mind, my mother and I went to the Royal National Park gift shop and bought a kookaburra-shaped 'stained-glass' sticker. Eight years later, my eyes are still drawn to that laughing blue kookaburra clinging steadfastly to the bathroom mirror every time I step out of the shower in Kaoru's family's apartment.
In 2006, my four years of Japanese study, while having taught me the basics, had not equipped me for the daunting task of communicating with anyone (who was not my Japanese teacher) using Japanese. In this way, Kaoru and her family were my first challengers. While we had to get by on vague body language and broken sentences, we bonded over strange Japanese television and chocolate-covered banana skewers outside a rain soaked Imperial Palace. Within such a short time that lasted no longer than a handful of days, I came to love Kaoru's family so much that I made quite a scene when we had to part, crying shamelessly on the bullet train platform in front of the other exchange students and teachers. Although I could simplify it down to teenage hormones, I feel that it was more than that. It had felt as though there was a little hole in my chest, and over the past eight years I have come to recognise this odd sensation as the feeling of leaving Japan. Whether I realised it at the time or not, my tears were not those of sadness, but the type that fall when we feel passion or love for someone or something. That day on the train platform, I had discovered that Japan would be an important part of my future.
Upon returning to Australia, I continued my studies of Japanese, and two years later on Christmas Day I was traveling solo back to Japan to stay with Kaoru's family, this time for two weeks. It was my first time experiencing a Japanese winter and new year's celebrations, and on the plane journey back home I cried again, this time more discreetly, while listening to Arashi* on the in-flight radio. In 2010, it was time for Kaoru to visit me. She has become quite the jet-setter since then, traveling as far as Bangladesh to take part in a development aid project in 2012, and is currently considering a similar trip to Haiti. In 2010 I was a first year student at the University of Sydney. Kaoru and I attended lectures on linguistics together, went to karaoke with friends from the university's Japanese culture society, and huddled together under an umbrella on what was the most sudden and heavy rainstorm over Bondi Beach I have ever been (un)lucky enough to experience. In late 2011, I found myself back in Tokyo as an exchange student studying at Keio University. Although I lived in a dormitory at the time, I spent the new year at Kaoru's home eating soba noodles (a new year's tradition) and watching Kouhaku*.
One of the most exciting things about meeting Kaoru and her family is seeing, and more importantly hearing, the way we are changing and growing. By hearing, I mean a number of things, and one of these is simply hearing myself. As I continually study Japanese, I can hear myself communicating with more ease and fluency when I have conversations with Kaoru and her mother Atsuko, which has allowed us to continually deepen our understanding of each other's personalities and thoughts over time. Second, there is Kaoru's younger brother, Kanta. When I first met Kanta he was a tiny boy that barely came up to my shoulders, and now he is a sixteen-going-on-seventeen year old who towers above me, is in a high school rock band, and last time I visited simply called out 'hi' from the depths of his room in a telltale adolescent voice.
Over the past eight years, Kaoru and I have fought over petty things, cooked up concoctions in both our kitchens, shared our teenage love stories and even bathed together (a Japanese tradition). I never grew up with a sister, so my sister-like relationship with Kaoru, who is one year my junior, is one that I deeply treasure. I feel so proud of the internationally minded young woman she has become, and watch proudly as she continues to turn over new leaves on her path to adulthood.
This year I am working in Korea teaching English at high school, and with Japan so close, it would be a waste not to take the one hour flight over during the Korean summer holidays to visit. After all, my second family is there. While I may have met them at fifteen years old and not at birth, once you become family, there's no going back.
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