Three week trip, 40 year friendship

“Through time we’ll each go our way,
But still there’ll be ties that will stay,” former Naha exchange student Naoka Nakama sang to the Japanese Four class on September 29. “Like us!” Nakama said pointing between herself and Liz Behlke, the tall scarf-clad woman next to her.
While most current Hale students would not recognize these lines as the opening to our school’s alma mater, Naoko Nakama still remembers the song from when Behlke hosted her in 1977, the first year of Hale’s exchange program with Naha High School in Okinawa, Japan.
“My stay was just three weeks, but it’s changed my life I think,” Nakama said. Now she uses English and cross-cultural skills daily at her job with the Japan International Cooperation Agency. She and Behlke are still best friends and call each other “sister.”
“Knowing someone abroad is wonderful,” Nakama told the Japanese Four class. “It means caring for others, globally.”
After Nakama’s trip to Seattle in 1977, she and Behlke didn’t see each other until 1979 when Behlke went to Naha High School as part of Hale’s first exchange group to Japan.
There was no Japanese class at Hale at the time, so Behlke and nine other students made the trip with former French teacher Dale Fleury.
“I really liked the phrase ‘watashi wa nihon-go ga hanase masen,’” Behlke said, which translates to “I don’t speak Japanese.” This was the extent of Behlke’s Japanese.
Behlke visited Nakama while in Okinawa, however she stayed with a separate host family as Nakama had already graduated. Behlke wore a white short-sleeved blouse and blue pleated skirt for her school uniform. From the pictures Behlke shared with the Japanese Four class, a handful of students recognised these uniforms as the same ones they wore this July.
Nakama and Behlke kept in touch by letters after Behlke returned to Seattle. Nakama remembers coming home from school and if there was a letter waiting from Behlke it made her day. Now they keep in touch via email and occasionally FaceTime.
“Technology helps keep in touch for us,” Nakama said.
They have also reconvened a couple times in person. They met in San Francisco in 2001 and in 2011 Behlke returned to Okinawa to visit with her daughter who is fluent in Japanese after attending a Japanese immersion school. Nakama’s father asked Behlke’s daughter to call him “ojiisan” or “grandfather,” one example of how Nakama and Behlke’s friendship has brought their families together. Even their parents’ shared history of World War II has been a point of storytelling and connection between their families instead of contention.
Behlke has returned to Okinawa one other time and Nakama has come to Alaska and Seattle to visit Behlke and her family. This trip is the first time they’ve revisited Hale.
“We’re kinda celebrating 40 years,” Behlke said. With it’s remodel, Hale is hardly recognizable to the concrete square it used to be, only a couple stair cases have remained the same. The students have changed as well with noticeable lack of puka shells and 70s hairstyles.
Still, the building brings back memories. Nakama remembers the entire school celebrating her 16th birthday here and the surprise party Behlke threw her and her present of a John Denver record. She remembers her surprise at teenagers being able to drive to school and at the PB&J and apple lunches.
“How can it make people big?” Nakama asked.
Likewise, Behlke remembers helping start the exchange program with the other students in International Club.
“It doesn’t get geekier than that,” Behlke described the club.
With the rest of Nakama’s time in Seattle they plan to see more of the city together and get Henna tattoos.
“The message that we have is just keep that relationship going,” Nakama said. As she turns her head her glass earrings show, Behlke has a matching pair and the glass is her favorite a color, a blue that reminds her of the East China Sea.


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