U.S. customs surprise Japanese visitors

Six students from Okazaki, Japan, took center stage this week to share a bit of their culture with students at Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach.

For more than 30 years, the Newport-Balboa Rotary Club, working in conjunction with the Newport Beach Sister City Assn., has organized an annual student exchange that involves six students from Okazaki spending a week with host families in Newport Beach in October. In return, six students from Newport Beach travel to Okazaki in July to spend a week immersing themselves in Japanese culture, said Rotary Club board member Richard Oberreiter.

Ensign students lined the bleachers of the gym Monday morning to watch as the exchange students broke wooden boards with quick karate chops and performed a traditional dance. Later that evening, exchange students and their host families met to carve pumpkins, an activity that the Japanese typically don't experience.

"It exposes people at a younger age to a different culture," Oberreiter said. "The broader exposure you can give to kids, the better understanding they will have of the rest of the world."

The exchange is open to any eighth-grade student who is resides in Newport Beach. Students are selected based on their application, a teacher recommendation and an interview. Japanese students are selected by their teachers and are some of the highest-achieving students at their schools, Oberreiter said.

Sam Wertheimer, 14, a freshman at Newport Harbor, traveled to Japan over the summer to participate in the exchange and said it was a great learning experience.

Now, he is hosting an exchange student at his home. Over the weekend, the host families took the students to a Chargers football game.

"The whole experience of the yelling was new to them," Sam said. "They had no idea what was going on. It was funny. We had to explain that [the people in the stands] weren't yelling nice things to the players."

The Japanese students said seeing the comparatively larger portions of American food, wearing shoes in the house and taking showers instead of baths were among their biggest adjustments in the States.

However, they all agreed that the football game was a favorite part of the trip.

Okazaki, 200 miles southwest of Tokyo, is best known for its production of stonework, miso and fireworks, according to the Sister City website. It is also a center for the automobile, chemical and textile industries.

Oberreiter said Wendal Fish, a longtime Newport Beach resident and rotary club member, came up with the idea for the exchange program in 1983.

"He was a World War II veteran who served in Japan and thought it was a great opportunity for students to travel," Oberreiter said.

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