I grew up in suburban Ohio and I knew from an early age that I wanted to experience more of the world than the mall. In high school, I applied for a student exchange program and desperately wanted to go to Argentina. Surprise — I was accepted into the program, but selected for Japan. Not just Japan, but a very (very) small town in rural southern Japan. I was the first foreigner that most of the residents of Ogi (the name of the town) had ever seen and I literally could stop traffic while bicycling to school each morning. I certainly wasn’t in Ohio anymore.

In the course of the school year that I spent in Japan, I attended school in an unheated, uninsulated school building in which students learned by listening and repeating what the teacher told them; no room for creative thought. I witnessed a student who had dozed off in classics class (learning 1,000 year old poetry written in archaic Japanese) get hit by the teacher with a book to the head — and no one said anything. I lived in the home of a local sake producer who grew the rice and made the barrels used to age the sake. I attended a Shinto wedding and a Buddhist funeral. I learned how to participate in a tea ceremony, how to create ink paintings, and how to avoid getting hit too hard in kendo class.

It was all strange and difficult and hard to understand until that one day that I came face-to-face with a lesson in stereotyping and sweeping generalizations. Coming back from the movies with my friends, one of them asked me casually how I was able to differentiate amongst my friends in the United States. I was taken aback and, at first, thought I misunderstood the question, but no, my Japanese friends thought “we” all looked alike — tall, blond, and blue-eyed! (I am tall, but not blond and my eyes are hazel colored.) And, there, on the other side of the world at the young age of 17, I learned that we are all very much alike in our prejudices and that to truly know another person means to get beyond the physical characteristics and meet the person on the inside.

– Jim Wagner (History Teacher)