Exchange of Cultures: Okinawan Students Attend MHS Through HUOA

Jenna Nakanishi, Community Editor

     From Feb. 17 to Mar. 2, several students from Okinawa got the chance to come to Hawai’i as part of an exchange program through the Hawaii United Okinawa Association (HUOA). HUOA is a non-profit organization that strives to promote Okinawan culture, partly through events such as their Hawai’i Okinawa Student Exchange Program. Through this program, Sophomore Chanel Tanoue hosted Annika Higaonna and Freshman Lilinoe Viveiros hosted Momo Shimabukuro and Kaoru Tsuhako throughout the duration of their stay in Hawai’i.

    “Over the past two weeks, I was able to understand and acknowledge the way Annika lives. Her daily routines, school hours, cultural dances, study habits and so forth. I’ve learned that Annika and I are very similar in different aspects of life and because of this, we were able to connect and establish a friendship,” said Tanoue.

    The student exchange program enables the students and hosts to fulfill different motivations driving their participation. For the students, it allows them to travel and experience different cultures. “My dream is (to) travel, so I want to learn about culture of foreign country. And Hawai’i is very similar to Okinawa, so I want to compare and communicate with Hawaiian people,” said Shimabukuro. “(Culture is) very similar to Okinawa, but Hawaiian people is more friendly than Okinawa people. And there is many foreign people.”

    Tanoue and Viveiros have varying reasons behind wanting to host, but their reasons remain similar in that they share a desire to learn. They are able to practice their Japanese and learn firsthand about their different lifestyles. “I wanted to host an exchange student so I can learn and become aware of Annika’s culture and lifestyle. While Annika stayed with me, I loved the fact that we could share and connect with each other about how both of our days went. We were both able to openly express our feelings as if we were friends for several years,” said Tanoue. Viveiros added, “I wanted to host an exchange student because my brother had done it when he was in high school and I had so much fun hanging out with his person. I wanted to try it as having them be ‘my students.’ I also wanted to learn more about the culture itself.”

    During their stay, aside from visiting popular tourist sites on the island with the other exchange students in their program, Higaonna, Shimabukuro and Tsuhako also spent a few days going to school with Tanoue and Viveiros. This experience allowed them to realize how different school is compared to school in Okinawa. “Okinawan school, for example, makeup and (piercings) and smartphone is prohibited. We have to wear school uniform. 7:30 start the school and 6 (end),” said Tsuhako. “I noticed that there are more interactive classes in Hawai’i than Okinawa. Also, there are diversified cultures,” added Higaonna. “If I went to Mililani High School, I would be interested in joining the Japanese National Honor Society.”

    Through the program, the students and hosts are able to create friendships across potential language barriers and learn more about their respective cultures. From the hosts perspective, the experience has been rewarding enough to maintain their interest in the exchange program. “I would definitely host an exchange student in the future because it allows me to be exposed to how people my age live around the world. As part of this student exchange program, I will be staying with Annika and her family in Okinawa this summer. I’m excited to learn and experience more about Annika through my visit,” said Tanoue. Viveiros added, “I would want to host two students again because I think it definitely helped them and my family with communication, it was an awesome experience that I will truly never forget. During the time I hosted I definitely think I enjoyed the company of the girls the most because it was like I had sisters. They are so close to me now even though I only knew them for two weeks — there is this app called Line and we have a chat and I text them every day and we ask each other questions, and send photos.”

    Though Viveiros is unable to participate in the second phase of the program this year, Tanoue will be going to Okinawa from June 7 to 22, where she will be staying with Higaonna and going to school with her. Applications to participate in HUOC’s student exchange program for 2020 can be found at their website