Above, from left, L.A. Unified students Laurent Chang, Yani Martinez, Briana Morales and Trinity Costodio visit the sights during a three-week exchange program in Japan.

By Briana Morales
Ramon C. Cortines Visual and Performing Arts High School

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I started my trip to Nagoya, Japan. Maybe it was when I got the call notifying me I had been selected to be a part of the exchange program sponsored by the Los Angeles-Nagoya Sister City Affiliation. Or maybe it was at the first orientation where I met my three fellow L.A. Unified ambassadors – 11th-graders Laurent Chang, Trinity Custodio and Yani Martinez. But I actually think it was the moment we arrived at the airport in Nagoya and walked toward the four families holding American flags, Japanese paraphernalia and signs bearing our names. That’s when it suddenly became real.

L.A. Unified students and their host families include, from left, Tina Bowden, Yuna Shibata, Naoki Asada, Trinity Custodio, Laurent Chang, Briana Morales, Yani Martinez and Naoko Toda.

Mornings in the Toda home are unforgettable – my host mother doing her usual rounds of morning calls “Naoko, Briana, Time to get up!”  while allowing the sunlight in through the covered windows. I would look over to Naoko, my host sister, still lying with her books and school supplies after having fallen asleep doing homework.  A speech on the importance of sleep would follow a drowsy Naoko down the stairs and into the kitchen. At breakfast, we had the perfect amount of time to enjoy milk toast and miso soup while surfing TV channels. I didn’t understand any of the Japanese speakers, but the graphics were enough to keep me entertained. After emptying our plates, we rushed to get ready and set off on our five-minute walk to school.  By the end of the week, I knew the streets to Chigusa, the Issha train station, and back home like the palm of my hand.

The word “foreigner” tends to be related with outsider, but although I was immediately recognized as a foreigner, I wasn’t treated like an outsider.  The students and teachers of Chigusa High School were more than welcoming.  Although I don’t know Japanese, the students were kind enough to practice their English with me.  It was through these experiences that I realized that through cultural exchanges such as these, we unite people through our common ground and our differences. These differences create valuable lessons that, when shared, can give new perspectives. This is something we should celebrate.

Exchange students, from left, Trinity Costodio, Laurent Chang, Briana Morales and Yani Martinez pose with their guide.

I had the opportunity to engage with the rich culture and history of Nagoya by visiting the ancient grounds of Nagoya Castle. Standing inside the well-kept space, it was incredible to think that these magnificent views of the city dated back to the 1600s. I also attended the annual summer festival, a buzzing, vibrant tradition with thousands of people dressed in ornate yukatas and waves of delicious smells rising from the street foods. Walking down the streets with my host family felt almost surreal as the bright fireworks display crashed against the night sky.

In retrospect, two weeks of your life should feel almost insignificant. But in these 14 days, strangers turned into family and friends, and unfamiliar places suddenly felt like a piece of home. The end of our stay in Nagoya was inevitable, but it didn’t make it any less hard to say goodbye.

The third week took us to new cities, each bringing their own adventures. We visited the tree of good luck in Kyoto, waded into the high tide surrounding the Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima and gaped at the view of the city from atop the Tokyo Tower.

But, of all these beautiful places we saw in Japan, Nagoya holds a special place in my heart. It was the small moments – karaoke with friends, joining Naoko’s dance club and late-night convenience store runs that complete the colorful senbazuru – a beautiful string of 1,000 origami cranes.  I want to give my deepest thanks to the Los Angeles Nagoya Sister City Affiliation for granting me the best three weeks of my life.

Briana Morales is a junior at the Ramon C. Cortines Visual and Performing Arts High School. She participated in the Los Angeles-Nagoya Sister City Affiliation, which sponsors a biennial student exchange program for Los Angeles Unified School District students. The other 2017 youth ambassadors were Laurent Chang from Taft Charter High School, Trinity Custodio from Eagle Rock Senior High and Yani Martinez from Huntington Park Institute of Applied Medicine at Marquez High School.