Women of Wings link Wisconsin, Japan

When I flew to Japan last year – my first Asian trip – I expected to be amazed, impressed and perhaps overwhelmed by the differences in culture. Little did I realize that I also would become part of a wonderful sisterhood that relies less on language than goodwill to thrive.

Wisconsin and its cities have many types of cultural exchanges, some of which promote business, education, the arts or research. “Women of Wings” is a sister-state exchange that recognizes the work, struggles and successes of women here and in Chiba, Japan. We have a lot in common, even when progress does not occur at the same pace.

This is on my mind because eight talented, energetic and good-humored women from Chiba visited this month. It was my pleasure to help plan their itinerary and accompany them during a part of their stay. For each, it was their second trip to Wisconsin.

Since these exchanges began in 1990, we have been entertaining each other with our tourist attractions – showing off our newest, biggest and most unusual – but the meetings slowly are becoming more than this. We also are learning about what we take for granted, our limitations and our potential.

Our visitors took pictures of bright red leaves, asked us to explain scarecrows, got their first taste of cranberries. They appeared as delighted with the old covered bridge north of Cedarburg as they were with the purity and expanse of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition.

These women were tourists, students and teachers – similar to the roles of previous Wisconsin delegates – and our relationships slowly are gaining depth. I’d say that a theme for this month’s visit was challenge, particularly as it pertains to the challenging populations that each country tries to serve with compassion.

The women from Chiba wanted to know how our elderly live, how a woman recovers from abuse, how severely disabled children are treated, how we care for the dying.

So we toured several Madison places that aren’t in travel guidebooks, from the HospiceCare inpatient unit to the food pantry at First United Methodist Church. The Japanese delegates played with children at a day care center, taught art workshops and danced for 100 residents at Meriter Retirement Center.

We ate exquisite meals, stayed at and visited fine hotels as we toured other parts of Wisconsin, driving from the International Crane Foundation near Baraboo to the new Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan.

But we are beginning to show a few vulnerable spots, too, and that is helping to strengthen the relationship.

Last year, in Chiba, eyes moistened as mothers talked about the deaths of their children and their decisions to divorce.

This year, in Wisconsin, we saw and heard how music therapy – through the right tones or vibrations – sometimes can coax the disabled to relax, eat, stretch their palsied arms, distract them from pain. That is thanks to a presentation by Laurie Farnan at Central Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled.

Our visitors loved blueberries and wondered whether oatmeal was the same as porridge. We learned that illegal immigration is a challenge for both countries, as is bilingual education.

We sorted out the differences between typhoons and tornadoes. We giggled as a preschooler tugged at her dropped drawers. We ate roasted Brussels sprouts, toasted each other with cheers of“kampai,” listened to outgoing poet laureate Ellen Kort’s poetry and took pictures of clouds.

Graciousness and good humor have a way of multiplying, too. One of the heartiest welcomes came from Cedarburg, which sent greetings through the chamber of commerce, a former city council member and an ex-mayor.

“This is a community of volunteers,” explained Jim Coutts, mayor until 2003. That goes for when the city hosts a festival, and when it faces challenges.

Although its population is a mere 11,500, Cedarburg is known for its historic preservation and thoughtful array of shops. “It all started here,” Coutts says, of the Cedar Creek Settlement that he stood in. “Somebody wanted to tear down this building in the ’60s, to build a filling station.”

Because enough people cared, the rundown structure was saved. It has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places and today antiques to wine are sold in its three floors of shops and galleries.

With projects local or global, the initiative, energy and trust have to start somewhere – then build, with time, patience and perseverance.

A “Women of Wings” delegation from Wisconsin will visit Chiba in May 2005. Women who are interested in participating may receive an application from Janie Ritter, on behalf of Wisconsin-Chiba Inc., at (608) 258-3400 or jritter@wmc.org.

Wisconsin-Chiba Inc. is a nonprofit, grassroots group that organizes several types of exchanges between the state and prefecture. “Women of Wings” trips began with a visit from Chiba in 1990. Wisconsin returned the visit in 1999.

A dozen Wisconsin artists – Irish American musicians to Native American artisans – recently returned from a fall visit to Chiba that was arranged by Wisconsin-Chiba Inc. The trip intersected with Gov. Jim Doyle’s first visit to Chiba.