Woodstock’s Jade Bellairs always has taken an interest in Asian cultures, so when given the opportunity, she jumped at the chance to spend a year in Japan for her junior year.
A foreign exchange student through the Rotary Youth Exchange, Bellairs was not able to choose the country in which she would study, but she was excited to learn that she would spend the 2016-17 school year in Japan.
“My parents always had art and decorations from Asian cultures in our home. I was adopted from China, and my Dad spent three years in Japan [for work] about 30 years ago,” said Bellairs, the daughter of Rick and Ellen Bellairs.
“I went to Japan not knowing any Japanese. However, I had been studying Japanese culture, so that was very helpful.”
While she expected academic student life to be different, such as knowing that students rise and bow to the teacher as he or she walked into the room and that schools were challenging to get into, the logistics of attending were more unexpected.
In Japan, she explained, it might take two hours to get to school. Students vie for private school acceptance, so the school of choice might require multiple modes of transportation. Bellairs traveled an hour or more by bus, train, on foot or a combination of those in order to get to her school.
The academic day routine, while expected, also was unexpectedly taxing.
“During the school day, the students stay in the classroom and the teachers move around,” she said. “Though I took a two-week course in Japanese before my school year began, the academic day there is 98 percent lecture. It was very difficult because there was very little peer interaction or group work.” It was difficult, Bellairs said, not only to be immersed in the language but also not to have any other learning styles addressed.
Bellairs said most of the academic testing was rote memorization and not application. “In one respect, I didn’t think their academic program was that difficult because students were only expected to memorize information and not apply it in any way; however, the students were expected to retain a lot of information, so it probably was challenging to memorize so much.”
Though she was not expected to complete assignments in every class, she did immerse herself in Japanese culture and enjoyed her home economics course.
“I think all of our schools here should have a home ec class,” she said. “We learned basic living skills, baking and cooking, sewing and important homemaking skills. I really enjoyed it.”
With her school having no custodial staff, after the intense lecture-style academic day, students were expected to perform routine janitorial tasks in rotation.
Despite the cultural differences, Bellairs said part of the joy of spending her junior year in Japan was growing in independence and learning that, “People – complete strangers – are willing to help you. There are kind and loving people all over. I’ve lived in Woodstock my entire life and I went to see the world, and it is surprising to see how many strangers are willing to go out of their way to be nice.”
Bellairs had the opportunity to go on a 10-day tour of nine Japanese cities through Rotary Youth Exchange. One of those cities was Hiroshima, where she was able to view paintings created by survivors of the atomic blast.
“This is something that affected not just the Japanese but the world. There is power in those paintings and the message is peace. I think all world leaders should visit,” she said.
Bellairs just recently returned to the United States; she said that she experienced a little culture shock as soon as she stepped off the plane. “In Japan on an escalator all of the walkers go to one side while the people who are standing stay to the other. I was on the escalator wondering why people weren’t moving over! I realized then that I wasn’t in Japan anymore.”
Bellairs will begin her senior year at Woodstock High School in August, and, while she said she is worried that she might have fallen behind her classmates at home, she said she is grateful for the opportunity she was given and has learned more about her own resilience and capabilities than she ever anticipated.
“Being part of the Rotary [Youth] Exchange program was incredible – the friends I’ve made, the experiences I’ve had … I enjoyed it all.”