Amazing host families, face time on local TV, karaoke and exotic
mystery foods: Students from the Gilroy-Takko Student Exchange
Program are back in the states with stories to tell.
Amazing host families, face time on local TV, karaoke and exotic mystery foods: Students from the Gilroy-Takko Student Exchange Program are back in the states with stories to tell.
“It tasted like feet,” said Andrew Mikkelsen, 17, of the natto – Japanese fermented soybeans.
John Perales, principal of Christopher High School who accompanied the students on the 10-day trip beginning June 20 to Takko-Machi, Japan, described the traditional dish as “gooey and slimy … they taste like they’re rotten.”
The popular exchange program allows GUSD students to become enmeshed in Japanese culture, traditions and lifestyles, while strengthening a transcontinental relationship and forming new friendships with Gilroy’s sister city in Takko-Machi. This is the second year GTSEP has been in existence, as exchanges made prior to this took place solely with the Gilroy High School Chamber Choir beginning in 1989. Takko students started coming to Gilroy a number of years later. GUSD Choir Director Phil Robb explains GTSEP came about as he felt the need to expand the opportunities for high school students to visit Japan.
“Instead of just choir students traveling, we, Pam and I, wanted to open the door for any student that wanted to apply and put in the effort to prepare and go,” said Robb, referring to his wife – “the glue that holds this program together.”
To get into the program, students had to obtain letters of recommendations, write their own letter and fill out applications. They’re also financially responsible for funding 60 percent of the cost of their own trip. In months prior they were polished and prepped as Garlic Capital ambassadors in monthly training sessions from GHS alumnus Rolph Siverson, 26, who is on the exchange program board and instructs students in Japanese custom, culture and language.
Of the seven students who made the 5,000 mile journey across the Pacific Ocean, four of them regrouped Friday to share about their experience. All of them, including Perales, gushed about their host families.
“You get your own experience,” pointed out Michelle Shield, an 18-year-old who will be a senior at Gilroy High School next year. “You’re not sharing it with anyone else.”
Shields said the entire trip to Gilroy’s sister city – a small farm town with about 7,000 people – was amazing.
“Now I have a sister on the other side of the earth,” she said. “It was very heartbreaking to leave.”
Heartbreaking falls short as an adequate adjective when Katharine Bright, 17, described having to say goodbye to her host family, which included three “precious” boys she “fell in love with. On their last night in Takko-Machi, Bright said she remained dry-eyed throughout the farewell dinner party but lost it when their group began to drive away.
“One of my little brothers ran after the bus,” she said, of the 4-year-old named Koki. “I broke down.”
CHS student Scott Willard, 17, got a chance to reconnect with two exchange students his family had previously hosted.
“It was really cool that I got to stay in one of their houses,” he recalled. “I got to relive their experiences and see their families.”
Willard said his presentation on American cuisine “like In-N-Out” went well, which is impressive since he had to deliver the entire thing in Japanese.
“Michelle’s hands were shaking the whole time,” said Perales.
The CHS principal bragged on GUSD students’ stellar job as Gilroy ambassadors who made a huge impression on their Japanese friends.
Of his own hosts, “they took me in like family … they went out of the way every evening to cook fabulous meals.”
Except for the natto. Perales wasn’t a huge fan.
He also marveled at the “phenomenal” school system – so “organized and orderly,” he observed – especially the part where everybody takes a 20 minute break every day to clean the school.
Perales, who joked the language barrier was huge but said he got by with some basic hand gestures, plans to return in October to attend the Takko-Machi Garlic & Beef Festival with his wife.
“It reminded me of home and what every American household goes through,” he said, on staying with his host family. “It’s just a different language and culture … we’re very similar in the way we operate and function as humans.”
During their trip, GUSD students presented the Mayor Yoshinori Matsuhashi with approximately 400,000 yen – about $5,000 in United States currency – to aid with ongoing relief stemming from the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami. A large portion of the donation was raised by 210 students in GHS and CHS choir programs.
“Everybody’s eyes widened,” said Bright, remembering when the money was presented at the welcome dinner. .
All four of the students described the mayor as a quizzical character who showed them a good time.
“He has big, fluff-ball hair,” recalled Mikkelsen. “You meet him and he just looks crazy … crazy awesome. He’s this short, energetic, crazy guy running around. He does not look like a mayor at all.”
Mikkelsen got a kick out of being on Tokyo TV and singing karaoke during a trip that was an “absolutely unforgettable experience I will keep with me for the rest of my life.”
His favorite part?
“The food. I went to the best sushi place I’ve ever been to in my entire life.”
The seven students that made trip include CHS students Katharine Bright and Scott Willard, as well as GHS students Miguel Lugo, Andrew Mikkelsen, Janki Patel, Marissa Pham and Michelle Shields.