Former Japanese exchange student, now a teacher, brings class to Perkiomen Valley

Teacher Yukiko Tsukihara visits Perkiomen Valley High School, where she attended as an exchange student 22 years ago. (Kevin Hoffman/21st Century Media)

PERKIOMEN — Twenty-two years ago, Yukiko Tsukihara was a young student from Kamakura Jogakuin Junior-Senior High School in Japan trying out her English on American students at Perkiomen Valley High School.

Last week, Tsukihara, now a teacher, returned to Perkiomen Valley and brought along 13 of her students to enjoy the same “dream.”

“I was a student like them,” Tsukihara said. “It’s amazing. When I decided to become a teacher, it was my dream to come here as a teacher, so I’m so excited.”

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Staying with host families, the students from the all-girls school Kamkura Jogakuin (or Komajo, for short) came to Perkiomen Valley for a three-week visit that will culminate in a trip to Washington D.C.

While attending school at Perkiomen Valley, the Japanese students are sharing their culture with the students there, teaching a little of the Japanese language, simple games from home and origami, among other things.

Tuesday, the Japanese students taught Jerry Tornambe’s 10th grade English class Chinese Kanji symbols and showed them how to paint them calligraphy-style.

“They really enjoy American school life because it (was) their own dream to come here,” Tsukihara said of her students.

Students from both countries worked side-by-side in Tornambe’s class, with the Japanese students frequently showing their American counterparts how to carefully paint the necessary lines and curves before quietly watching as the Perkiomen Valley kids made their brush strokes.

“It’s different than what we normally would experience. Instead of having some other person come in and teach us, we’re learning it straight from the source,” said Perkiomen Valley student Kelly McAteer, taking a break from her calligraphy project.

“I think (the exchange program) is a good idea because it gives us an idea of cultures outside of America,” said Meraf Lemma, another Perkiomen Valley student.

Komajo’s students are also learning quite a bit themselves.

“Here, of course, there is English. We can talk only English (here) so maybe it makes me (have) more progress in English, so it’s a good experience,” said Ayano Yoshimata. “Every day, I’m surprised at the culture difference(s) between America and Japan, so I’m excited every day.”

Yoshimata said the biggest thing she’s noticed about the U.S. is a difference in proportions.

“American size(s) are very big,” Yoshimata said. “At home, my house has only three rooms. My host family’s house (is a) five-, six-, seven-room house, and there’s a room in the basement.”

Hikari Nakayama agreed.

“Every day I’m just so overwhelmed: the food (is) just so big and delicious,” she said, smiling.

Nakayama also explained a few other things she’s noticed during her time at Perkiomen Valley: American students “have to study just as hard as Japanese students,” American students get short bus rides home while she and her classmates take a relatively long train ride, and American students really “jump up and run” when the bell rings in school.

She’s also noticed something else.

“People here are just so kind,” she said. “We don’t do ‘Hi,’ or shake hands. So that was a very fresh experience for me.”

Although the Komajo students are giving back in the form of teaching the Perkiomen Valley students aspects of their culture, they’re also giving back to the community as a whole. Nakayama said she got her first experience at volunteering when she helped out at a food pantry not long after they arrived in the U.S.

Wendy Elser is an art teacher at Perkiomen Valley and has also served as the Japanese exchange coordinator for 12 years.

“My husband was in the military stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and I’ve always loved studying abroad and other cultures,” Elser said. “(It’s) just the marriage of my interests in travel and learning about the world and my husband had knowledge of Japan.”

Elser said she wanted to help run “this wonderful program,” which has continued since 1977, when she got to the school district.

Tsukihara noticed some changes since she visited Perkiomen Valley in the early 1990s.

“The school building has doubled,” she laughed. “But some parts I still remember.”

Tsukihara has also reconnected with some of the teachers she met during her first go-round.

Komajo is on its equivalent of summer break at the moment, which allowed the visit.

In June, 10 Perkiomen Valley students will complete the exchange by visiting Komajo, where they’ll spread knowledge of U.S. culture.

In the meantime, the Japanese students are enjoying their stay.

“I want to live here forever,” Yoshimata laughed.

Nakayama wants their visit to have an impact.

“I hope they enjoy our class,” she said.

Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.