STEVENSVILLE — Kent Island High School student Ella Strader returned late this summer from the adventure of being a foreign exchange student in Japan for the past year.
Sponsored by the Kent Island Rotary Club, she participated in the Rotary Youth Exchange program. Tuesday morning, Sept. 24, before school, she attended the monthly Rotary Club meeting at the Kent Island Yacht Club, where she gave a PowerPoint presentation of her experiences.
Since middle school, Ella said, she dreamed of going to Japan to become totally immersed in the culture. In preparation, she spent many weekends going to Washington, D.C., to learn to speak Japanese and studied about Japanese culture.
“I also watched a lot of Japanese cartoons for children, which helped me learn the language,” she said.
“I became part of a Japanese family of seven, plus me,” Ella said. “The Japanese host family’s last name is Shimoichi, and (they) live in the former imperial capital city of Kyoto, Japan.
“When I arrived, the oldest daughter was participating in the same program, living in Brazil. In Japan, they have year-round school, so school was already in session when I arrived. The Japanese school year begins the end of April and ends the beginning of April each year.”
Students, on average, in Japan attend school 240 to 250 days each year, including every other Saturday, compared to the 180 required days required in Maryland.
“Their school year has many short breaks/vacations included with their school calendar,” Ella said, “the longest break being about one month.”
While in Japan, Ella learned to speak Japanese much more fluently, however, she said: “I’m not proficient enough to serve as a certified translator, yet. I’d have to go to school and increase my vocabulary. I can speak in the dialect of the youth in the area where I lived, but the dialect is different in different parts of Japan.”
She also took in several events she had wanted to see while living in Japan; one was to witness sumo wrestling.
Another, she and her best Japanese girl friend, Mio, went one day and dressed in traditional Japanese female attire, wearing a kimono and having their hair done in the traditional way.
“There were some elderly Japanese women who saw us, and came over to thanked us for learning about the traditional dress of Japanese women from the past,” she said. “Personally, I didn’t really like wearing a kimono; it was very difficult to walk in.”
“Japanese people wear clothes in layers much more than in the U.S.,” Ella said, “as most homes in Japan don’t have the central heating systems we have in the U.S. during winters.”
Also, “we never wear shoes inside someone’s home in Japan,” she said.
While there, a group of other Rotary Youth Exchange students from other countries, such as Belgium and Brazil, came together for occasional field trips.
“Our first trip was to Hiroshima, the site of where the atomic bomb was dropped to end World War II,” Ella said. “Our second trip, we went to Nagano, where the Winter Olympics had been held, to go snow skiing.”
She also visited a Samari warrior museum with her host parents.
She attended Murasakino High School while in Japan.
“I had to travel by bus and train every day, more than an hour from my home to get to school and back,” she said. “The school I attended did not require students to wear uniforms.”
Asked if any of the Japanese students ever talked with her about how World War II ended with the U.S., Ella replied: “They preferred not to talk about it. It’s done and over. It did come up as a topic during history class one day, but that was it.”
Ella is a member of the Kent Island High School band. While in Japan, she continued to play, outside school, in a private band. She played trumpet in Japan. Now that she’s back at Kent Island High School, she’s playing the French horn.
The majority of funds to support Ella while living in Japan was raised through fundraisers she and her family did before she left. The Rotary also provided $100 per month in spending money for Ella, of which she said, “I learned to manage my money very well.”
“While living in Japan,” Ella said, “I learned to travel by landmarks more so than I did previously, and I learned to be more responsible for myself. Children in Japan learn to take responsibility for themselves at a much earlier ages than I see among my U.S. peers.”
Being totally immersed in Japanese culture for a year, Ella experienced what some may refer to as “cultural shock” upon returning to the United States.
“Japanese culture is all about uniformity,” she said. “Everyone doing the same thing. It allows you to be an individual, but it is a peaceful culture. When my plane arrived in California, I got off the plane for a while and immediately noticed how angry Americans, in general, appeared to be. It bothered me. It was very different from how I had been living in Japan.”
Ella told the Rotary club members she does not plan to go to college immediately upon graduation from high school next spring.
“I plan to take some time to think about what I’m really going to do with my life for the future,” she said. She plans to speak in at least one of her classes at Kent Island High School about her experiences of living in Japan.
Rotary Club President Pat Perry said: “The RYE program is a great opportunity to learn first-hand about another culture. The students learn to appreciate and respect other peoples cultures.
“Bringing people together, that’s what Rotary is all about. Our world today could use a lot more of that. Rotary is an international organization. I think the RYE program helps make ambassadors out of all the students who participate.”
Ella is the daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Strader of Chester. She has an older sister, Tess, who graduated from Kent Island High School a couple years ago.