EVERETT — Pen and paper bridge teenagers an ocean and 5,238 miles apart.
Students at Mariner High School and a school in Japan correspond the old-fashioned way: snail mail.
Each student exchanges four handwritten letters with a pen pal in a semester. They tell about family, music, hobbies, anime, food and karaoke.
“We don’t let students use social media until the end of the project,” Mariner Japanese teacher Lyn Jackson said.
Letters add a personal dimension to communication.
“They can open a letter, touch that letter,” Jackson said. “It’s not just words on the screen.”
Letters are decorated with drawings, photos, coins and other tokens.
Mariner students have been pen pals for 10 years with Itoshima High School in Fukuoka, a seaside prefecture on a southern island in Japan.
Every letter is written in both English and Japanese. A New Year’s card kicked off this semester.
Decorations included a Japanese coin that symbolized good luck, origami objects and stickers of anime character Doraemon, a time-traveling blue robotic cat from the 22nd century who came back to befriend a boy.
“You meet these new people that you barely understand, but you can relate to them somehow,” Mariner senior Jefferson Campbell said. “That’s what matters. It helps us connect with the world in general.”
For Mariner students, Japanese is a foreign language option, along with Spanish, French and German. For students in Japan, English is a basic requirement, like math.
“When they get their letters from Mariner, almost all of them cry out saying something like ‘Great! It’s real. Look, there’s my name on it. It’s mine. I can’t believe someone really wrote this,’ ” Itoshima English teacher Toshishige Yamasaki wrote in an email.
“They showed off their letters to each other and exchange their letters to read.”
His school has 325 pen pals from U.S. schools in Washington, Minnesota and Florida. About 80 of those students are from Mariner. Students in beginning classes don’t participate. “It’s an incentive for them to learn how to write so that someday they will get a pen pal,” Jackson said.
The classes swap group photos and videos during the semester. The differences are striking.
The Japanese students wear crisp uniforms. The Mariner students come to school in hoodies and jeans.
“Their school seems a lot more strict and professional,” said Kyla Haywood, a junior, wearing a “Radical Feminist” sweatshirt. “There are a lot more rules there I wouldn’t want to follow.”
Seemingly small details are big topics of conversation. Most Japanese students travel to school by subway, bus, bicycle and foot.
“They ask me how I get to school and I say, ‘Oh, I just drive,’ ” said Ashley Cereno, a junior.
That’s a surprise to their Itoshima pen pals. The minimum driving age in Japan is 18. However, they don’t have to wait until they are older to go to public venues to karaoke, a favorite pastime in Japan.
The Itoshima students are Japanese. The Mariner students have heritages including Hispanic, Vietnamese, African, Indonesian and Middle Eastern.
“They found it interesting that we have really diverse backgrounds,” said Ashley, who is Filipina. “We both have the commonality that we have a genuine interest about each other’s cultures.”
Is Japanese hard to learn?
“Their grammar patterns are a lot different than ours. That’s the hardest thing,” said Nhyia Gilbert, a junior, who is bilingual in Spanish and English. “I wanted something to challenge myself and to open my mind.”
Intrigue led Anna Bragg, a junior, to take Japanese starting as a freshman.
“When my grandfather worked for Boeing he got sent to Japan and he came to love it and appreciate it because he thought it was amazing and beautiful,” Anna said.
She will experience it for herself in the fall, when she goes there to stay with a host family for a semester.
It won’t be with her pen pal, who shares a home with three generations of family members. “Mine is small. My dad and me. Only two people in a three-bedroom house,” she said.
Anna has the food down. She packs a Japanese-style bento box for lunch and shops at H Mart, an Asian market where she can read the labels.
Grace Munn, a junior, said the letters are fun and educational. “It’s not just an assignment,” she said.
“What I learned was these Japanese kids are just high schools kids like us.”
She hopes to go to Japan someday. “This is sort of a master plan so I can be a better tourist.”