Japan, U.S. pen pals meet – 40 years later

When Tetsuji Ogawa of Japan recently visited the United States for the first time, his destination was Wisconsin and he brought along a 40-year-old state map that had been refolded many times.

Only two places on the map were circled: Wausau, the hometown of his childhood pen pal, and Hazelhurst, where the friend’s family had a summer cottage. The two had exchanged dozens of letters from 1969-71, then lost touch. They had never met, until this summer.

I got a call in April from a Madison friend who arranges goodwill exchanges to and from Chiba, Wisconsin’s sister-state in Japan. “Help me find a lady named Ann Bartelt,” she implored, after hearing about how Tetsuji had wondered (during a reception for Wisconsin visitors in Japan) about his pen pal’s whereabouts.

We only knew that Ann grew up in Wausau and had a brother named Mark. Sleuthing was not futile, thanks to the Internet, where I found an obituary for Ann’s father, who died in 1992. That’s how I learned her married name was Goetsch, her husband’s name was Kevin and they were living in Merrill.

After a couple of phone calls and e-mails, Ann and Tetsuji were reconnected. Soon he was making plans to bring wife Harue and 13-year-old daughter Ryoko to the Midwest, traveling from Tokyo to Rhinelander for a six-day stay (barely enough time to shake off transcontinental jetlag).

It was an enthusiastic, brave and trusting move – for both families – and this is what the deepening of cultural connections is all about.

The Goetsch family lined up a stellar itinerary for their visitors: Waswagoning (the re-created Ojibwe village), Lac du Flambeau; Scheer’s Lumberjack Show and Northwoods Wildlife Center, both in Woodruff; an Original Wisconsin Ducks tour on water and land, Wisconsin Dells; and the International Crane Foundation, Baraboo.

At the crane foundation, “Tetsuji made an interconnected, circular set of four cranes,” Ann said, and the reminder of authentic Japan was given to gift shop staff.

I met them at Olbrich Gardens in Madison, for a glimpse of the glittery Thai Pavilion and a seasonal butterfly exhibit (now closed). Tetsuji’s English was good, but when language was an obstacle, smiles and gestures did the job.

What do you offer foreign visitors, to help them better understand your part of the world? I put together a little assortment of cherries and berries in season, plus notecards with my photography of Wisconsin foods and places.

“I want to go to the places you had taken those pictures,” Tetsuji later wrote, in thanks. I have a feeling that he will get there.

He asked Ann why we use the phrase Up North. He was shocked but happy to see his friend wear a kimono that his aunt sewn for her decades ago.

“They were curious about how deep the snow gets here, since they only get a little snow, and it melts quickly,” Ann said. “It amazed them that we could have so much snow that the school buses could not pick up the students, and school would be canceled.
“Ryoko was fascinated with the chipmunks and red squirrels around our cottage. We stopped and watched a doe and two fawns for several minutes along a road, and then they walked in front of the car and went into the woods. We also had a deer dart in front of us in the dark, while we were driving.”

The Goetsch family made sure that their visitors tasted fresh curds from Mullins Cheese Factory in Knowlton and sent maple syrup home with them. “We gave a quick tour of the woods and cooking shack where the syrup is made,” Ann said. “They were amazed that our family makes this.”

Extended family gathered at the Goetsch cottage in Rhinelander, for “an international day.” That meant a cookout of brats, shrimp kabobs and traditional Wisconsin picnic foods – plus two types of Japanese rice and Japanese noodles.

“Tetsuji gave an origami class, and Harue presented a Japanese tea ceremony,” Ann said. “Everyone had a great time interacting.”

After our brief meeting in Madison, I left thinking about how much good can be done when we make personal connections with people in other cultures. Japan no longer will be just another anonymous country for the Wisconsin people who met the Ogawas.

“Ann and her family were all very kind for us,” Tetsuji wrote, after returning home. “We never
forget those memories we had at their cottage.”

“Once we can determine a time that fits everyone’s schedule, I believe that we will be going to Japan,” Ann reports. “Tetsuji says he wants to be part of our family.”

For more about goodwill and business exchanges between Wisconsin and Chiba, consult Wisconsin-Chiba Inc. at www.wisconsinchiba.org. The next Women of Wings delegation – for women enthusiastic about being goodwill ambassadors – happens in 2010.

We were preparing to greet visitors from Chiba next month, but the group has called off the trip because of the H1N1 virus. The cancellation is one indication of the effect this flu strain is having on global travel. Do you have other examples for me to share?

Also: Who else keeps in contact with a pen pal from another country? If you have a good story to share about your own cross-cultural connections, do tell.