West meets East

Ashley Christopher, Staff Reporter

Nearly three years ago, I walked into a classroom of my old middle school to ask my teacher a homework question that I have now long forgotten. What followed would change my life forever. By the end of the conversation, she had handed me an application for a foreign exchange program and encouraged me to consider applying. I vividly remember sitting down for dinner that night with my family and mentioning the idea to my parents. Their response? “Not gonna happen.” I was thirteen then, and the concept of having their teenage daughter wandering the streets of another country half way around the world did not register well with my mom and dad.

After several weeks full of research and more begging than I care to admit, I finally convinced my parents to at least attend the informational meeting. The exchange was through the Sister City Association of Tracy, a non-profit organization built upon the idea of understanding different cultures and encouraging students to engage with the world. Founded in 1989, the program has sent over two hundred students from Tracy to Memuro, Japan, a small town located in Hokkaido that resembles Tracy in many aspects. After hearing more about the exchange, my parents agreed to allow me to apply. I eagerly wrote my essay and interviewed with the board members. The next few weeks I spent anxiously waiting for a response. I remember getting a call from my friend Sydney Feinstein, who had also applied, telling me she had gotten a letter and that I should check the mail. I sprinted to the mailbox and was greeted by an envelope addressed to myself. Still on the phone, the two of us ripped open our letters simultaneously.

“Did you get it?”

“Yes! Did you…?”


“Sydney… we’re going to Japan together!”

The next few months were hectic and went by in a blur, full of fundraising and planning. I had met the nine other students who I would be traveling with, including current West High juniors Eleazar Lee, Isa Guragain and Daniel Figuroa. Finally, summer arrived and all of the anticipation we had stored inside ourselves was replaced by the overwhelming realization that we were actually going to Japan. We took BART to the San Francisco Airport, then started off on the long trip: an eleven hour flight to Tokyo, a two hour flight to Sapporo, followed by a three hour bus ride to Memuro. When we made it to the sister city, I was terrified to meet my host family. We had emailed back and forth during the months leading up to the trip, but as I stood in the town hall with my suitcase in hand, not knowing exactly what to expect, I was unsettled. All of my worries were washed away however, the moment my host sister Minori Takeda smiled and welcomed me to her town.

I never had a sister growing up, but after meeting Takeda it felt like we had been sisters our whole lives. During my time in Japan, I visited different schools, dined at a conveyor belt sushi bar and finished the trip overlooking the city lights of Sapporo from the fire escape of our hotel. I had also acquired new skills ranging from proficiently using chopsticks to building up my courage to speak to strangers in a different language. By the end of my visit, I had gained lifelong friends and memories I will treasure forever. Departing is still to this day the most difficult thing I have had to do, as I had to leave behind the beautiful scenery of Japan, my new friends and most significantly my host family. That final day, Takeda and I made a promise: It wasn’t goodbye, but see you later.

Two years passed. Takeda and I talked often, despite Japan being seventeen hours ahead of Tracy (or sixteen depending on daylight saving time). “I want to visit Tracy,” Takeda would tell me repeatedly. Rather than merely fantasize about the possibility of meeting again, the two of us hatched a plan for her to visit for the holidays. Amazingly enough, both of our parents agreed. On December 23, my family drove to SFO and, after five hours of waiting (U.S. Customs is a pain in the butt), Takeda and I were reunited once again, just in time for Christmas and my birthday. During her stay with my family, we did a lot of fun things including shopping, eating “American food” (aka In-N-Out), going to a Japanese New Year’s party and even taking a trip to Disneyland. However, of all the things we did, it was the little things that made her visit so memorable, such as going to T4 with friends or late night conversations over ice cream.

I felt that I had a sister once again. Together, we cooked dinner, listened to music, did homework and talked about our goals for the future. I was surprised to hear her say that she wishes to live in Tracy. When I asked her why, she said “[Because of] the people…your friends are so nice. I want to live here when I am older and I want my kids to grow up in Tracy.” I found it so strange that our tiny cow town could have such an enchanting effect on someone, but Takeda insists that Tracy holds a special place in her heart.

By the end of her visit, Takeda had made more friends than I could count; she was a mini celebrity! I thought that saying goodbye would be much more difficult this time around, as it became routine to share a bathroom or set an extra spot at the kitchen table. But Takeda, being ever so wise, told me that it did not have to be hard. After all, we did keep our promise despite two years and 4,753 miles. As she entered the boarding section of the airport, she said “See you later!” and I took comfort in knowing that it certainly was not goodbye.

Although the Sister City Association of Tracy is only for incoming freshman, there are so many incredible programs out there that provide the same blending of culture. Whether you wish to host a foreign exchange student or be one yourself, the opportunity is unlike anything else. Take it from junior Eleazar Lee. “It’s a life changing experience that opens up your eyes to see there are different cultures out there to explore and discover.” I encourage everyone to expand their horizons and embrace the world, you may just find a friend for life.