CORONA DEL MAR — Everybody inside the Corona del Mar High School gym rose as the National Anthem was played on Friday.
But when the Japanese foreign exchange students started to sing John Denver's "Take Me Home," the hundreds of American middle school students there fell relatively silent — some of them not really familiar with the song.
Then Katy Perry's "California Gurls" started playing on the big screen at the front of the gym, and that's when there was a noticeable stir of familiarity as some of the 400-plus students from Corona del Mar Middle School started to sing along.
Welcome to the world of foreign exchange, where cultures not only come together, but occasionally overlap. Japanese students flashed peace signs from the Vietnam era while some Corona del Mar students bowed in respect.
And the meeting of the students from the two different cultures was made possible by the Newport Beach Sister Assn. in conjunction with the Newport-Balboa Rotary Club.
Virtually every year since 1984, a half dozen students from Corona del Mar and Ensign middle schools board jets and cross the great Pacific Ocean during the summer to visit the town of Okazaki, Japan, one of Newport Beach's sister cities.
Then, in the fall, there's the ol' switcheroo, with Japanese students visiting Newport Beach.
The purpose of Friday morning's rally was to introduce the present-day American middle schoolers to the concept of the foreign exchange program.
The Japanese students performed a variety of cultural dances and songs while the middle school's cheerleading squad showed off their talents as well.
But if you really want to know whether a trip to Japan would be worth it, just listen to what Jenna Funsten said about her experience in Okazaki two years ago as a Corona del Mar Middle School student.
Now a sophomore, she addressed the crowd in the gym's stands, saying, "It sounds really scary and it kind of was, but when you get there, you feel like a rock star. You should go."
Or you might heed the words of Teddy Parks, also a sophomore at the Corona del Mar High School.
"It was a really great experience," he said. "You should all try to go to Japan. Just try to wrap your head around the concept. It was crazy."
Okazaki is in the region of Chubu, and it's got roughly 360,000 residents, and the car manufacturing industry is big. The Japanese city sits close to a pair of bays on the Pacific Ocean, not much different from Newport Beach, although a few more miles farther from the ocean.
Dory Ford, a parent and chaperone for the visiting Japanese families, visited Japan under the program and loved the experience.
"It's a great experience for the kids," she said inside the gym. "They come back with a completely different view of the world."
Guy Olguin, principal for the CdM Middle School, concurred.
"It's a fabulous program," he said.
Those who participated in the program were Yoshiko Karasawa, 54, vice principal of Atago Elementary School; Naoya Ando, 49, an elementary school vice principal; and students Yoshiyuki Sugiura, 15, Eimi Ando, 15,Tomoya Koketsu, 14, Wakana Endo, 14, Koyuki Baba, 14, and Yuki Osaki, 15.
Those from Corona del Mar and Ensign Middle Schools included Campbell Woods, Bayley Davidson, Teddy Parks, Jenna Funsten, Victoria Lewis and Delaney McCardle.
The Newport Beach Sister City Assn. is a nonprofit, volunteer organization that endeavors to promote international communication, understanding, education and friendship between the people of Newport Beach and the people of foreign cities.
In 1956, President Eisenhower initiated the "People to People Program" as a conduit for "Greater International Understanding" through "direct, close and abiding communication between cities." Today, more than 900 U.S. cities have established affiliations with cities worldwide. California leads the country with 188 sister cities, according to Laura Boss, spokeswoman for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.