Amidst the kind of bubbling excitement that only youth and new discovery can bring, and amidst the constant laughter and posing for pictures and exchanging gifts--one would never believe all the people in this room met just one week earlier.
But it's true.
For the first time ever, deaf college students and faculty members from universities in China and Japan came to the United States to visit Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf where they met deaf peers from all over the world.
The gathering was a farewell party, as well as a celebration of different cultures coming together for learning and sharing. The weeklong visit was part of NTID’s PEN-International, a program funded by The Nippon Foundation and directed by Professor James J. DeCaro to help colleges in other countries help themselves teach deaf college students a technical education.
While communication was challenging at the beginning, most said it only took a few days to sort itself out. Chinese, Japanese and English translators were on hand, alongside Chinese, Japanese and American Sign Language interpreters throughout the entire week.
The Japanese and Chinese faculty and students visited RIT/NTID's high-tech centers, classrooms, and labs. They also took in some local and regional history, visiting Niagara Falls, the George Eastman House, as well as area museums of American history and a semi-pro baseball game.
The Chinese and Japanese students all agreed that life in America is very different.
"What is not the same is that American deaf students attend class together with hearing students," said China's Yan Ronglin, who is studying fashion design. "Their lives are colorful; they have a better learning environment."
"The biggest difference is that with American deaf college students--their independence is expressed stronger than our deaf people," said Gao Peng, a computer science and engineering major who would love to be able to drive a car, an activity that is prohibited for deaf people in China.
"I was surprised to find that this American university was so large, and the facilities for deaf students were so sufficient and accessible," said Japan's Yoko Tanaka, who is studying building engineering. "I also think American students with hearing disabilities can express themselves very well and very openly."
Mami Kichijima, a Japanese student also studying building engineering, agrees. "It is good to see the freedom on the educational side for deciding professionally and advancing personally," she said.
While Chinese student Chen Yu did not like the American students' forward behavior, she did favor the "system of education of NTID; and the translation of sign language interpreter is skilled."
"The American deaf person is open, free, and creativity is strong, with a rich imagination," said Li Xuan, a computer science and engineering major in China. "I think that the science and technology of America are very developed, very advanced; and the environment is pretty. The traffic order [on the roads] is good."
Japan's Ikue Takemoto was surprised to see all the choices for deaf students at NTID, unlike the college she attends in Japan. "NTID has more computers for students to use to study individually. Students at NTID can select their courses from a wide variety of lectures provided at NTID. At my college, the choice is very limited."
She was also impressed with the campus safety and the range of security measures on campus, which she said, isn't available on her campus.
Halfway through the party, NTID's deaf Hispanic and Asian clubs performed a play and an upbeat, hip-hop dance, dressed in jeans and t-shirts with their nicknames printed on back. It was indeed a contrast to the next performance by the visitors: a traditional Chinese dance by a woman in formal Chinese attire. That contrast was part of the fun of the constant cultural exchanges taking place among the students.
Japanese student Kiichiro Sach has long yearned to visit the United States, and very much enjoyed the multi-cultural experience. "I had a good time," he said. "It gave me a feeling of what it is to be an American."
"It was a rare chance for me," said Yoko Tanaka. "I was able to enjoy various experiences because there were so many different people!"
Seeing the difference between deaf cultures and customs among American, Chinese and Japanese people was especially interesting for Hiroko Hirabayashi of Japan.
All of the students enjoyed touring Rochester Institute of Technology's campus, and surrounding tourist attractions. Less popular, however, were the American-style meals.
"I don't like American cheese," said China's Peng.
"I got a bit weary of the same type of food. I missed Japanese food, especially rice," echoed Sato of Japan.
But after a week together this group of people, who don't use the same language, don't eat the same foods, and enjoy completely different arts and entertainment, all gave a resounding "YES!" when asked if they wanted to stay in touch with their new friends. Through e-mail, everyone is eager to continue communicating and deepen the understanding of each other.
"The goal of these student exchanges is to expose students to the educational system and cultures of other countries while simultaneously fostering their own sense of self-identity," said PEN-International director, DeCaro. "The results of the exchanges have exceeded our expectations. Undoubtedly, the strong bond these students made in such a short time will continue to make an impact for years to come."
The first and largest technological college in the world for students who are deaf and hard of hearing, NTID, one of eight colleges of RIT, offers educational programs and access and support services to 1,100 students from around the world who study, live, and socialize with 14,000 hearing students on the RIT campus. Web address: www.rit.edu/NTID.