12 October, 2009

Student exchange makes the businessman

12th October, 2009

I assume that most of my readers work in some kind of business, and many of you are the parents of children. Maybe you want them to come into your business, or to be successful in their own right. Well I can tell you from my own experience that the best thing to do for them is to send them away.

I discovered this by accident 20 years ago. All I wanted was away to persuade my son to continue his Japanese classes at the end of their first year, when the going got tough and his mates dropped out. “Hang in there and I’ll send you to Japan on exchange,” I promised.

He agreed and two years later, aged 15, set off for Osaka. Fortunately the three years’ Japanese lessons taught him at least how to read the toilet signs at the airport. But from a speech point of view he felt dumb.

He lived with a host family in central Osaka - but none of them spoke English. He travelled an hour and a half each way, by train, to the school. Classes were six days a week, plus two hours’ “club” time each afternoon. Then when he got home, two hours’ homework. Very few people in the school could speak English, but having the agile brain of a teenager he absorbed Japanese like a sponge.

At the end of the exchange year he was perfectly fluent in Japanese - both formal and local dialect - could read and write all three Japanese scripts like a native. He had chosen the school’s Judo Club so by the end of the year he had a black belt and more importantly, his skinny frame had filled out into a muscular, young man.

Did he miss very much? Well I knew from his older sister that Year 10 is not an academically important year. They seemed to spend much of their time on parties, social experiments, and discovering the opposite sex, as they waited for Year 11.

So it was that my boy missed making the front pages when a riot broke out between a large number of his schoolfriends and some gatecrashers. He also wasn’t there when some of his schoolfellows were busted for drugs.

When he returned he was no longer interested in teenage mischief. The Japanese work ethic was so strong that he powered his way through the Baccalaureate. At university the BA in Japanese he did in two years without a strain, and put his efforts into a Bachelor of Commerce.

I first came across exchangers when I worked at an advertising agency in Bangkok. These young executives had spent a year of their teens at school in America or Australia and were the only ones among our local staff who deeply understood western marketing and advertising, and could translate them into a Thai context. In fact the firm would actively seek them out.

So I knew my kid would never be unemployed. Hell, even if the whole world economy collapsed he could still drive a tourist bus. My stepdaughter is a few years older and also exchanged, spending a year in an American high school learning to chew gum and put marshmallows in the salad.

Her mother soon straightened her out that this wasn’t 90210 but the maturing process had done its trick.
She’s now a marketing manager with a world-leading IT company, has a Qantas Club card and takes her husband on overseas luxury holidays on her frequent flyer points.

So, seriously, take a good look at your teenybopper. Maybe the best thing you can do for them is send them away.


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