Goodwill and fun promoted by Duluth-Isumi student exchangeWho could have guessed that Super Mario could function as cultural envoy, as goodwill ambassador?
By: Tony Bennett, For the Budgeteer News
Who could have guessed that Super Mario could function as cultural envoy, as goodwill ambassador?
The popular Nintendo video-game character will likely be a bonding agent between Brian Barber’s son, Wyatt, and Takehiro, the exchange student from Japan’s Ohara-Isumi City who began a ten-day stay with the Barber clan on Tuesday as part of the Duluth Sister Cites International program. The program
welcomed 14 students and two teachers in total, last week.
“Wyatt and Takehiro are gonna just take over the basement,” Barber, who is a co-chair at the Sister Cities program, said. “That will be their place to hang out. We’ve got the Nintendo Wii set up. We’ve got Netflix. We’ve got a foosball table.”
Barber said he got the idea to hook up the Nintendo from something his son mentioned about the time he spent in Japan as an exchange student, last year. “He said that it was nice to just sit down and play Wii. He didn’t have to talk, and everybody understood what was going on. You’re still hanging out and doing something, but you don’t have to try and communicate.”
The language barrier is an issue for exchange students not fluent in the native tongue of their host families, so mitigating that in creative ways is important. In addition to providing opportunities for nonverbal communication, Barber and his wife also spent time attempting to learn some Japanese to make their guest more comfortable.
“We took Introduction to Japanese Language and Culture, which was a six-to-eight-week class” at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Barber said. “It was earlier this spring, and, to be honest, we haven’t practiced like we should have. We weren’t the best students, as far as keeping up with the homework. But we learned a lot more than we could have, on our own.”
Barber says he never purposely set out to become involved with a sister-cities program. “This is completely foreign to me, if you’ll excuse the pun,” he said. “It was nothing that I ever expected to do.”
But, now that his own son has traveled as an exchange student, Barber is doing his part to make sure that the kids from Isumi City are made just as welcome in America as his son was in Japan. And that means tons of fun things to do.
“There’s kind of an expectation,” Barber said of the mindset of the incoming Japanese students. “They want to go to the Mall of America and do some shopping. Camping seems to be a good activity. Someone has a cabin that they offered up.”
In addition to these activities, the students will visit the Japanese Bell Garden at the foot of Enger Tower, play games on Park Point, travel to Valleyfair for a day of rollercoaster action, take in the sights at Gooseberry State Park, and immerse themselves in nature at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center.
All of these things are meant to be fun, of course. But there’s also a strong lesson for the kids that different cultures are nothing to fear, and that empathy and maturity can be gained from exposure to new environments.
Susana Woodward learned this firsthand as a person coming to Minnesota from Mexico City, and she’s passing these lessons on to new kids as a member of Duluth Sister Cities International. As is the case with Brian Barber, Susana’s son traveled to Japan as an exchange student, and now she’s opening her home to reciprocate the warm welcome her son received.
“I have been connected with international issues since I came to Duluth in 1984,” Woodward said, adding that her host family was very active along those lines, and that her host mother is still someone she’s close with. “It’s part of who we are as a family.”
“The hospitality that my host family and other people in Duluth gave me” has inspired her to do the same for others, Woodward said. “Now it’s time to give back in that way to other international visitors. And it’s amazing that my son went to Japan, and now his host brother is coming to Duluth and staying in our house.”
That shared experience between host brothers has inspired a friendship between host mothers, too — even though they have yet to meet, in person.
“I’ve been communicating with his mother in Japan,” Woodward said. “We have the connection of our children. We haven’t met, but she and I write each other. We’re friends on Facebook. We exchange pictures — I ‘like’ hers, and she ‘likes’ mine. Technology is an amazing thing. It’s so delightful.”
To Woodward, the joy is in giving back to the world the kind of experience she once was gifted with.
“Bringing people from different countries together opens doors and presents an opportunity for us to learn from each other,” she said. “Many times, you can read about what is happening in the media, but once you actually meet people, I think you understand that there aren’t that many differences, and that there are more similarities.
“It’s an opportunity for us to share with each other, as people,” Woodward says. “What a great thing we have here in Duluth.”
Bennett is a writer living in Duluth.