The whole world over, travelers are roaming foreign countries wearing Hawaiian button-up shirts, toting fanny packs and being the typical American tourist.
Fifteen-year-old Sarah Dean is not one of those people.
A curiosity about the world and a knack for language has this Blaine sophomore stepping out of her comfort zone and skipping across the Pacific Ocean.
In March, Sarah will leave Blaine High School and travel to Japan where she will spend 11 months as an exchange student.
She’ll be Blaine’s first student to study abroad in Japan, a direct result of the longstanding Funabashi sojourn by Blaine music students that ended in 2013.
“I love to travel, but I hate being a tourist,” Sarah says. “I want to understand how these people live and you can’t get that from just being a tourist.”
The desire to understand foreign lifestyles was cemented in Sarah’s mind last year during a family vacation to Hawaii. As she lay on a beach, enjoying the sun, she thought to herself that she wasn’t satisfied with the typical tourist experience and wanted to learn more about the indigenous culture of the islands. So she set to work learning the basics of the Hawaiian language.
“Learning languages has always come easy for Sarah,” said Paul Dean, Sarah’s father. “It’s definitely something she didn’t get from her mom and me.”
Sarah’s parents think she takes after her grandmother, a Swiss who speaks six languages and taught English to Russian children. Sarah seems to have followed her example, and dabbles in many languages, including Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese and Swedish. To top it off, she hopes to one day become an ESL teacher, like her grandmother.
But it’s not simply language that captures her attention. Sarah’s love of languages stems from something more basic – an earnest longing for cultural understanding.
“A lot of people respond to stereotypes. They don’t understand people’s religion or culture and they get angry about things that aren’t meant to be offensive or they offend others,” Sarah said.
“Misunderstanding is the source of a lot of conflict in the world.”
The solution, for Sarah, is total immersion into foreign cultures. And so she sets out for Japan.
While she may not have gotten her knack for languages from her parents, her wanderlust is a clear inheritance from her father, who spent a school year studying in Asia while in college.
“I hope she gets the same things out of it that I did,” Paul said. “I hope she gains perspective and sees that, even though we all have different lives and cultures, we’re really all the same.”
Sarah has always been a gifted student. By the time she was three years old, she had begun reading. In the fourth grade, Sarah was admitted into Blaine’s Highly Capable program, which allowed her to move ahead in both math and science. And it’s a good thing, too, because without her accelerated education in math and science, her trip abroad would delay her graduation.
Initially, she was interested in going to Italy and began studying Italian, in case her travels led her there. However, last year in February, the Blaine High School Wind Ensemble took a trip to perform at the Funabashi Music Festival in Japan, and Sarah, who plays flute in the ensemble, got her first glimpse of Japan.
“I was in a sea of black hair and brown eyes,” Sarah said. “I’m blonde, so everybody wanted to touch my hair. The young kids would ask me questions like what do I think about true love and they wanted to take pictures with me. A lot of them who don’t live in the big cities have never seen a foreigner before and they wanted to understand how we think.”
That trip lasted five days. From that point forward, her mind was made up. She would go to Japan.
She began teaching herself Japanese at the Blaine Public Library, since the school doesn’t offer Japanese language courses. Soon, she will be putting those studies to the test.
It’s a big undertaking for anyone, let alone a sophomore in high school, but Sarah is ready. Her father once asked a friend if he thought Sarah was too young to journey to Japan for a year. “If everyone went abroad at Sarah’s age, the world would be a better place,” his friend said.