When It's All Unfamiliar

Letters and living in an unfamiliar culture. The two have obvious things in common. Move far away from the familiar, from family, from cheap telephone calls, and suddenly mail takes on new importance. You may find time you didn't know had to write to friends and even relatives.

Take the woman to the right, who's composing one of the 200-odd letters she writes each year. Her training for this effort? Working for the Foreign Service. Pass through eight countries in 17 years, and letters become a cornerstone for friendships and a tool for recording a life's history.

Adults, of course, aren't the only ones globe-trotting and learning to adjust to unfamiliar ways. In a world where work borders are increasingly fuzzy and families move for many reasons, countries are having to educate children who at first don't have a clue as to what's going on or even being said.

Some nations, like the United States, have been in this business for a long time - and still find it's not an easy task. But for more homogeneous societies only recently experiencing an influx of foreign children, the challenges can be enormous.

Take Japan. In her story about that country's growing numbers of foreign students, Nicole Gaouette reminds us of a well-known Japanese maxim: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

Many Japanese schoolchildren find it's not hard to fit in. But what if you can't help being different? What if your blond hair means you always stand out? What if your parents can't help you with homework because they can't read your texts - or the notices sent home from school?

For Alex Sayle, who grew up in Japan with his British and Australian parents, that had its advantages. But it wasn't easy. He had his struggles with total immersion.

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