Japanese create cultural crossroads at small West Virginia college

October 13, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

SALEM, W.Va. -- When the annual apple butter festival opens in this tiny Appalachian town today, revelers will find many familiar standbys: an apple pie bake-off, a quilt show and a contest for the longest squirrel tail.

But after the clogging exhibition and just before the greased pig contest, they will encounter two new entries that have nothing to do with the traditions of the community and everything to do with its future: displays of origami and demonstrations of Japanese martial arts.

Ever since 103-year-old Salem College took its new name -- Salem-Teikyo University -- East has merged with West in this most unlikely of places.

In the first full-fledged merger of Japanese and American colleges, Teikyo University purchased tiny Salem College for $12 million two years ago, saving the town's largest employer from financial collapse. Half of the 600 students are Japanese.

"Honey, anymore nobody thinks anything about it," said Mayor Donna Stewart, who keeps a giant-size bottle of Suave hair spray next to the small American flag in the potted plant on her desk. "The way a lot of folks here have come to look at it, without the Japanese there might not be a Salem."

Almost from the beginning, this rural community of 2,700 in north-central West Virginia has rolled out the red carpet: The grocery store stocks a few Japanese foods next to the taco shells and chop suey in its "international aisle." The liquor store invested in a case of sake, though proprietor David Taylor was disappointed to discover later that the Japanese prefer "bourbon and Bud." And the Yellow Pages in the new telephone book have at least one listing in Japanese, for an enterprising insurance man.

Still, Salem -- with its three blocks of a mostly boarded-up downtown -- has come as something of a shock to the Japanese students, most of whom grew up in Tokyo, a dynamic city with six times as many residents as all of West Virginia.

Accustomed to a faster pace, the Japanese, most of them men, find themselves 120 miles from the closest city (Pittsburgh or Charleston, W.Va.) and 15 miles from the closest shopping mall or movie theater.

"America is totally different from my stereotype," noted 21-year-old Akira Itoh, who dates 20-year-old Shelley Thies, a student from New Jersey who calls him "Honey-san." "It's not like the movies. It's very countryside."

Salem College, which has a prominent place on Main Street cater-cornered from the Dairy Queen, was the first of five small U.S. colleges purchased by Teikyo University as an educational experiment to promote world peace and further understanding between the U.S. and Japan.

The other institutions, all of which are independently operated, are in Le Mars and Davenport, Iowa, Denver and Waterbury, Conn.

Ultimately, said Ronald E. Ohl, president of Salem-Teikyo University, the school hopes to produce leaders of Japanese corporations who will integrate their understanding of the United States into their companies and communities.

"In America we have Japan-bashing, and in Japan we have America-bashing," said Dr. Ohl, who became president of the liberal arts college in 1983. "These are two very, very different cultures. We're not trying to make Americans out of Japanese or Japanese out of Americans. What we're hoping is that by their mixing will come an understanding that won't be accomplished in any other way. Our focus is to try to bridge the Pacific."

Before they can bridge the Pacific, the Japanese must learn to speak English, and that, as it turns out, has presented the university with its greatest challenge. "Obviously, the experiment won't work if they don't speak English," said Anitta Ward, who heads the Department of English as a Second Language.

During their first year on campus, the Japanese must work exclusively on their language skills, which can be painfully slow and frustrating.

In addition to learning proper English, students are taught how to "talk American" -- "Howyadoin?" "Whaddyaknow?" "Howjadothat?" Pleas from teachers that students refrain from speaking Japanese are met frequently with silence and then whispering -- in Japanese.

As remedies, the administration is considering creating English-only floors in residence halls and demanding that only English be spoken in academic buildings.

Connie Davidson, 18, and Takashi Adachi, 20, found their own remedy: romance. "At first, we didn't understand each other," said Ms. Davidson, a high school senior from Salem who will join the Army Reserve after graduation. "We had to write everything down and carry a dictionary around. But now he speaks really well."

Perhaps the most obvious change on campus since the Japanese students arrived is the parking lot: It looks like a automobile showroom, with the emphasis on sports cars.

It's not unusual for Japanese students, most of whom come from affluent families, to pay cash for a car. University officials have had to caution them about the danger of carrying large sums of money.

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