Ken Saito, a social studies teacher at Naha Nishi High School in Okinawa, asked his students to write – in English – what they know about New York City. The overwhelmingly popular answers were “Statue of Liberty,” “yellow cabs,” and “tall buildings.” These teenagers’ perceptions of New York are most likely shaped by movies and television, as one response was Sex and the City, and someone mentioned Jay-Z.
Hearing what these children, who live more than seven thousand miles away from “the center of the world economy and market” (another observation), had to say about New York was part of an eye-opening cultural exchange program affiliated with the 5th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival. The festival welcomes Uchinanchu (which means “Okinawan people” in the local dialect) Okinawan immigrants back to their native homeland for a week of activities and cultural exchange.
As a New Yorker of Okinawan descent, I was given the unique opportunity to visit a high school in Naha, the prefecture’s capital city. English teacher Masaki Takara arranged for me to observe several classes, including music, calligraphy, English, and the aforementioned social studies lesson.
The students I met may be from a different country, but they are typical teenagers. Several girls in the class wanted know what my favorite “brand” is and if I often have celebrity-spotting moments in New York. Some were shy; others exuded confidence. Some were eager to ask questions in front of the class; others were content with just listening. I was impressed with their ability to speak English so well and to communicate their thoughts.
The purpose of this program is to provide cultural exchange for Okinawan students to learn about Okinawans abroad, but it left me wondering what it would be like if the tables were turned. What would the responses be if a social studies teacher in New York City asked his or her students to list what they know about Okinawa?