At the young age of 15, it is fair to say Paul Perrone is one well-traveled teenager.
The Oakdale High School junior spent the summer of 2009 in the Azores with his grandparents. A vacation he describes as not only memorable, but the trip of a lifetime.
This past summer, the young traveler earned a few more stamps on his Passport during his travels to Japan. While many of his peers may have busied themselves with video games, rafting trips and ‘hanging out,’ Paul spent eight weeks in Japan with two separate host families.
The Perrone family is active in the Orange Blossom 4-H group and Paul’s parents serve as the International Exchange Leaders for the group.
The family first became affiliated with the organization three years ago when Paul was 12 years of age. During that first summer the family hosted a Japanese exchange student for a 30-day “Homestay.” The exchange is a partnership between the 4-H International Exchange Program and Labo, a youth development organization in Japan.
The family enjoyed the experience so much that first summer, that they hosted a female student – Karin — their daughter Anna’s age last summer.
Earlier this year the family began kicking around the idea of allowing Paul to travel to Japan as an additional part of the program. Through International 4-H and the Labo program, students have a choice of participating in the Nihongo Course or a “Homestay.”
Paul was intrigued by both options and with the help and guidance of his parents decided to spend eight weeks of his summer vacation in Japan.
“It started with an interest in video games,” Paul said of his intrigue with the Japanese culture. “Then there are the cultural differences. Their society is cleaner and neater. It is normal socially to be polite.
A lot of the cultural aspects are really what drive my interest in Japan.”
The high school junior also said much of what he learned from Ryota, the family’s first exchange student in 2007, was a contributing factor to his interest in the country.
“He introduced me to a lot of the pop culture stuff,” Paul said. “That’s when I really became interested in the culture.”
The first leg of his eight-week stay had a purpose beyond being immersed in the culture. Paul spent the first half of his stay as a participant in the Nihongo Japanese Language Course. During this part of his stay he stayed with the Miyamoto family in Yokohama, Japan. Classes were conducted in Tokyo, which was about a one-hour commute by train and were held from 10:30 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. five days a week.
According to Paul, it is a requirement of the program that the students travel to the campus in Tokyo on their own accord. Host families are permitted to bring the students for the first two days of class only.
“I wasn’t the smallest bit intimidated or concerned about getting lost,” Paul said of his travels to the campus, indicating he had a dictionary and figured if all else failed, he would use it.
As his first week continued, the young traveler befriended a few other students of the program and they would enjoy the commute together, as well as their lunch breaks.
The students were given a one-hour lunch break and with the school right in the heart of Tokyo, Paul and his friends took advantage of the opportunity. The group took field trips with the school as well, which Paul shared he really enjoyed.
“We all really liked what we were there for and what we did,” he said of himself and his classmates.
As the 15-year-old made his way around Japan with his new friends and families, his parents had little contact with him. All communication during the eight weeks was restricted to e-mail.
“Our experiences with Ryota and Karin gave me tremendous confidence in the program,” Monica Perrone, Paul’s mother shared of hosting the two students previously. “Labo and the 4-H Exchange have had a relationship for over 30 years. They just have things in place, if anything should go wrong.
“I think he appreciated that it was a great opportunity.”
Of the many sights he took in during his Tokyo stay, Paul enjoyed a number of things including Akihabara, also known as “Electric City.”
Akihabara is described as the world’s largest collection of stores selling electric and electronic goods. It is also regarded by the Japanese as a symbol of their scientific and technological potential.
According to Paul it is also devoted to everything Anime, an art form for which he has a special appreciation. “Anime” is animation originating in Japan and has increased in popularity in the U.S. in the past two decades.
After completing his four-week stay in Yokohama and his schooling, it was off to Fukushima to reunite with Karin Watanabe, whom the Perrone family hosted last summer in Knights Ferry.
Paul spent his final four weeks with the Watanabe family for a “homestay.”
“It kind of felt like a break when I was with them,” Paul said of the change in pace between the two stays.
“I was very blessed, both of my families spoke remarkable English,” he added.
In addition to overcoming the language barrier, Paul also enjoyed the cuisine in Japan.
“I love the food,” he said. “I ate a lot of rice. There was a lot of variation, more than I expected. Everything is lighter in Japan. Not like a stew broth, it’s like a lighter type of broth.”
He also attended a three-day camp with the Watanabe children, something he was hesitant about at first, but admits he actually enjoyed.
Now as the high school junior settles back into his everyday life at home and school, he shared his feeling of gratitude for such an opportunity.
“I’m hoping to go back for an extended period of time. Japan is much more of a community. It’s not as fractured as we are here,” he said referring to cultural differences. “There’s less focus on differences. Mainly there seems to be more of getting past differences and accepting everyone.”