Parkway West High junior Meghan Beckmann may be vice president of the Spanish Club at her school, but she had the unique opportunity to travel to Japan this summer, thanks to Kiwanis International’s K Corps program.
Since her sophomore year, Beckmann has been involved in Key Club, which is the high school division of Kiwanis Club. With over 5,000 clubs worldwide, Key Club is an international, student-led organization that provides its members with outreach opportunities while building character and developing leadership skills.
Through that involvement, Beckmann applied to participate in a youth exchange program for Kiwanis family teens. Despite not taking Asian studies or studying the language, Beckmann was selected for the Japanese exchange program after submitting two essays: one to her potential host family and one to detail what she hoped to get out of the opportunity.
“I was pleasantly surprised to be selected,” Beckmann said. “I study Spanish, not Japanese. Still, the opportunity was really about celebrating and sharing cultural differences.” Sponsoring Beckmann was The Kiwanis Club of Meramec Valley Community, in partnership with PAX Laurasian Exchange. After returning from her trip, she attended a Meramec Valley Community meeting, where she gave a video presentation of her experience. In addition to Parkway West, Meramec Valley sponsors the Key Club at Eureka High. Also, local Kiwanis clubs support Camp Wyman in Wildwood, which provides free camping to disadvantaged inter-city youths.
Beckmann arrived in Tokyo on June 15 and was one of three Key Club students from around the U.S. who stayed with the same host family in Kyoto, Japan. Speaking no English, the host family hired an interpreter to minimize the language barrier.
Beckmann described the family home and customs as “traditional.” It is customary to remove one’s shoes just after entering a home. The area just inside the entrance of a Japanese home is called a genkan, which is one step lower than the main part of the house. After stepping up into the main part of the house it is a custom to turn your shoes so that they face the outside, while donning the slippers they offer you.
Additionally, Beckmann said they sat on the floor while dining on short tables, enjoying an array of savory sushi-style fish, miso soup and Japanese-style rice dishes, which Beckmann raved about.
“Everything was very traditional in the home, except when you saw a large screen TV on the wall,” she joked. While staying with the host family, Beckmann learned simple phrases, such as thank you, please and good morning; and to bow rather than offer the traditional American embrace.
Following the exchange host visit, Beckmann participated in a Yokohama Service Day where various Kiwanis students worked together to paint a mural tapestry. The tapestry highlights Kiwanis values and will be showcased on a boat next year during World Fest.
The second week of the tour was spent sightseeing in Tokyo and Osaka [the second largest metropolitan area after Tokyo]. Beckmann enjoyed experiencing the bullet train, traveling at speeds up to 199 miles per hour. She spent time in Olympic Village, Disneyland Tokyo, visiting temples and even a nude bath house.
One of Beckmann’s favorite places was a Cat Café, which is a booming business venture in Japan, feeding off their “Hello Kitty” frenzy. Imagine a cozy café where you can have a cup of tea or visit a makeshift library with comfy pillows, all the while enjoying a feline friend to sit on your lap or rub up against you. Beckmann paid a per-hour fee for time with the 30 to 40 felines that occupied the dwelling.
“Despite the unrest in North Korea, I felt safe sending my daughter on her first international trip, which was such a great, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” explained her mom, Karen Holschlag-Beckmann. “The organizations that were involved, Kiwanis and Pax Lorasian specifically, had safeguards in place and really made it a special trip.”
Beckmann agreed. “The main reason I went on this trip was to develop relations with people of different backgrounds. We bonded in an incredibly short period of time. Every person on this trip has changed me for the better,” she shared. “They have forever influenced my life and the way I look at the world.”
To find out more about Kiwanis Club of Meramec Valley Community [which serves the Ballwin, Ellisville, Eureka, Manchester, Valley Park and Wildwood areas], join them on the first and third Tuesday of each month at noon at Lazy River Grill in Manchester.