<bt>When Michael Geyer, 16, packed for his trip to Japan as a foreign exchange student, he made sure to pack his size 14 shoes and slippers, knowing that shoes that large are unheard of in Japan. At 6 feet tall, the West Springfield junior will also tower over most of the people he meets.
"He'll find that he will stand out wherever he goes," said his father, Charles Geyer. "He will be the focal point of attention."
Michael Geyer is accustomed to some attention, however. The Geyer family was stationed in Japan for five years, and as a child, Michael got used to being different, especially because of his blond hair. "When I was little, people would come up and rub my hair for good luck," said Michael.
He lived in Japan between the ages of 3 and 8, and those formative years have stayed in his mind.
"Ever since I was in Japan eight years ago," Michael said. "I thought it was the coolest place ever.
"I like the Japanese people so much and their way of life, especially Japanese history."
Michael knew that he wanted to return to Japan. "This was the first opportunity I had to get back," he said of the Youth for Understanding (YFU) exchange program, which arranged his six-week trip.
Michael found out about YFU through his sensei, or Japanese teacher, at West Springfield. Youth for Understanding is an educational, non-profit organization that works with thousands of students in 50 countries to allow young people to integrate themselves into another culture. In order to apply to be an exchange student, Michael was required to write a five-page essay about himself and a letter to his host family and undergo a two-hour interview process. He was chosen to be one of the 100 students throughout the United States who will participate in the Japan-America Friendship Scholars program, and because of his Japanese language skills, he was able to obtain a scholarship, which covered most of his expenses.
Katie Riley, a YFU employee who worked with Michael, said, "He has a strong sense of self, he's mature, and he has a strong interest in studying abroad, especially in the Japanese program. He exemplifies the qualities we're looking for in students."
MICHAEL left for San Francisco on Saturday, June 14, to attend a three-day orientation session with other YFU scholars traveling to Japan. On Tuesday afternoon, June 17, he boarded a plane for a 16-hour flight to Hokaido, Japan. He will be staying with the Tanimura family, where he will have three Japanese siblings: a brother, 17; another brother, 16; and a sister, 7. Michael will go to a local high school for four of the six weeks of his trip. He'll introduce himself to teachers, take academic classes and try to experience what it is to be a typical Japanese teen-ager.
Michael said that he is most excited to meet the family he will be staying with during his trip.
"It's really fun and cool to be with an actual Japanese family and doing what they do, seeing what activities they have in store for me," he said.
The only concern he has is that the family won't know any English at all and that he will have trouble communicating, but he acknowledged that his language skills will dramatically improve. Michael is passionate about not just seeing Japan as a tourist but looking at life through a different cultural lens.
"I hope to learn about lifestyles, culture, high school, their way of life, what they do when they're bored, anything I can take in," he said.
Michael's parents, Charles and Rhonda, are so dedicated to helping him have a true immersion into Japanese life that they've encouraged their son not to communicate extensively with them.
"Mike will experience this all by himself," Charles Geyer said. "We've encouraged Mike not to communicate, because his host family will be his family for that time."
As he travels to Japan on the cusp of adulthood, Michael Geyer will contrast the Japan of his youth with what he learns as an exchange student.
"It will be different to experience Japan as an adult," he said. "When I was a child, I was overshadowed by my parents. Now I'll have different parents. I will be on my own and have my own responsibilities."
“We lived there before, and he always wanted to go back," Charles Geyer said. "It's important for him to experience cultural diversity." Charles and Rhonda Geyer have traveled throughout the world, including South America, Africa, Australia, Guam, Thailand and most of Asia, but Charles Geyer asserted, "The best part of going overseas is not the food, its not the sights, it's the people."
In this spirit, Charles Geyer understands that his son will learn much about himself in addition to learning another language, different customs and traditions during his six weeks in Japan.
"We don't think, we know that he will come back a different person," Charles Geyer said, adding with a laugh that the family's only concern about Michael Geyer's trip is "that he won't want to come back!"