August 9, 2007 at 7:31 a.m.

Japanese students enjoy a taste of Minnesota life

Japanese students enjoy a taste of Minnesota life
Japanese students enjoy a taste of Minnesota life

A group of Japanese exchange students learned about "Minnesota nice" as they spent last week touring the Chisago Lakes area.

The 30 students, along with five chaperones, including the principal of one of their junior high schools, arrived July 27 to spend time learning about Minnesota.

Coordinator Robin Bjornson helped the students through the busy week, starting with meeting their host families at their temporary academic center - Maranatha Assembly of God in Forest Lake.

The students and families enjoyed a potluck dinner and found out about plans for the rest of their week here.

Day two was on to the Mall of America, where the students reveled in the shopping opportunities.

The next day was devoted to time in the Chisago Lakes area, starting with K-9 demonstrations by North Branch Police Dept. and Chisago County Sheriff's Dept. at Chuckie Lundquist Park.

The crew then took a walk to city hall in Chisago City, where they met Mayor Don Taylor and City Administrator John Pechman.

Meeting the mayor was a big event for the group, Bjornson said.

"Their chaperones told them it was a big honor to meet the mayor and they were given extra reminders to be on their best behavior," she said.

Despite the heat of the day, students dressed as they were told for the occasion, wearing white t-shirts or polos with blue jeans - no shorts.

Mayor Taylor welcomed the group and explained how local government works in Minnesota.

One of the chaperones then presented the mayor with a framed replica of a Japanese decoration that is used in creating a parade float for an annual festival there.

He told the mayor the group is enjoying time with their host families and "exchanging cultures with Chisago City."

Taylor gave everyone in the group a Chisago City pin, and then two students spoke in broken English, thanking the mayor for his hospitality and saying "we want to make good memories here and share our culture with you."

The group also toured the Chisago City Post Office and Fire Department.

"They really loved the fire department," Bjornson said.

Wednesday, Aug. 1, the group headed to St. Paul and Minneapolis, enjoying the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and a tour of the governor's office.

They ended the afternoon with a paddleboat tour on the Mississippi River, heading home on I35W just an hour or two before the bridge collapse. Bjornson heard the news after they returned to Maranatha and almost immediately started receiving phone calls from Japan.

"When the images went to Japan and they saw that school bus, they thought it was their children," Bjornson said. The calls came in all evening from frantic parents.

In the morning, during craft time at Maranatha, their school principal did a wonderful job talking with the students about the bridge collapse, Bjornson said. They also needed to talk about a new plan for the day, because they were scheduled to attend that afternoon's Minnesota Twins game, which was postponed because of the tragedy.

Bjornson had several ideas, she said, but she ultimately left the decision up to the group.

"They asked if they could go to Wal Mart and Target," Bjornson said.

The mega shopping trip to Forest Lake included walks between the stores and to nearby restaurants.

The group visited Chisago Lakes High School Aug. 3, where they met with some students, Principal Dave Ertl and Assistant Principal Sara Johnson. Superintendent Mike McLoughlin also spoke with the group.

Later, the group performed in a "Sayonara party" for their host families.

The week was capped off with a trip to the Capella Speedway, where they were able to go on the track and meet some of the drivers during the track's annual Kid's Night.

Bjornson said the students had a great time learning about local culture and weren't overwhelmed by their busy schedule.

The trip was coordinated through Compass USA, which has exchange programs throughout the country ranging from a 10-day trip to year-long placements.


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