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Former Sandwich exchange student attends 50th class reunion

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(John Sahly – jsahly@shawmedia.com)
Shu Ueyama talks about his experiences as a foreign exchange student at Sandwich High School in 1962-62 on Saturday at the home of Barb Makela in Sycamore. Ueyama came to Sandwich from Japan in 1962 as a foreign exchange student and stayed at Makela's home for his stay. He returned to the area this weekend for his 50th high school reunion.

SYCAMORE – Shu Ueyama couldn't find Sandwich on his map in 1962 when the 17-year-old learned he would be placed there as a foreign exchange student.

The Tokyo resident went to the library to figure out where the town of just a few thousand people was.

Ueyama, whose nickname is pronounced "shoe," passed the examination to become an exchange student with American Field Service, which matched him with Maynard Ferden's family and sent him to Sandwich High School as a senior.

"It was actually the very first step for me to become a global citizen," said Ueyama.

In the five decades since then, Ueyama has worked as a senior executive for Sony Corporation, which took him to England from 1971 to 1981, and represented Margaret Thatcher in Japan for 10 years starting in 1990, he said. He's also written and translated more than 40 books and raised two children, whom he believes also are citizens of the world.

"Now I have a strange mixture of American Midwest accent and British accent – and Japanese accent," Ueyama said. "But the main thing is: I can communicate now with almost anybody in the world without any sort of complex."

He hasn't forgotten his American classmates or family, though.

The 68-year-old flew back for Sandwich High School Class of 1963's 50th reunion Saturday and stayed with his host sister, Barb Makela, in Sycamore.

"We look different, but he's still a member of our family," Makela said, remembering how relieved she was when he called her within hours of her learning the tsunami hit Japan in 2011.

Ueyama's 90-year-old mother sent him with two kimonos and a letter for Makela, who was working as a flight attendant in Salt Lake City when he lived with her family in Sandwich. She came back home in April 1963 to get married that June, and Ueyama sang at her wedding.

At Sandwich High School, Ueyama palled around with Makela's younger brother, Denny Ferden, who was a high school senior, too. Maynard Ferden was the school district's superintendent then, and the 1963 yearbook shows Ueyama in student council with Denny Ferden, wearing a "traditional costume" while riding in a convertible in the homecoming parade, and talking with an English teacher about the differences in languages.

Ueyama had studied English before the exchange program, but was much more confident reading and writing it than speaking it when he arrived. It took him three to six months to get used to the Midwest accent, and he admits he made a few humorous mistakes while speaking with local church and civic groups.

Once, he told a church group that Japanese people boil and eat lice – and that they taste very, very good. It took a few moments before they realized he meant rice, not lice.

Now, he speaks German, French, English and, of course, Japanese. His 41-year-old son works for an American company in Japan, and his 37-year-old daughter plays harpsichord, regularly performing in Japan, France and Italy, he said.

Both his children were born while he was working for Sony in England, so they received their early education in English schools.

"For them, it was quite natural, even after they came back to Japan, to look outside Japan," Ueyama said.

Looking outward is important, even at age 68, Ueyama said. He didn't commit to attending the reunion until the last minute, partially because his business schedule is so busy. His graduating class had 80 people in it, so he expected to see 40 or 50 people at the reunion dinner Saturday night.

He figures making time for quick trips – he expected to be in the United States for three nights this weekend – is part of living vibrantly. He likes to say he behaves like he's 45 and feels like he's 29.

"If you think you're old," he said, "you get old all of a sudden."

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