When you think of an overnight summer camp, you think of all the benefits it will have for the campers. But instructors and staff like myself learned a lot, too.

I was fortunate to attend Yo! Camp as an instructor for the first time this year, and came back energized and excited to talk about the impact it had on me. 

For a little bit of background, Yo! Camp is a seven-day overnight experience that provides teens in the Japanese American community with a safe space to discover friendship, mentorship, and the discovery of the self through a hands-on, engaging curriculum. As an Instructor, we got to interact with all of the kids daily, and our core responsibility was to lead and execute the activities throughout the day.

So, let’s dive in. Here are 5 things I learned at Yo! Camp as an adult instructor.

Our Youth/Next Generation Is Resilient and Energized

One key thing that I learned about our Japanese American youth is that they are extremely resilient and full of energy. 

In a year that was affected by the pandemic, the group adapted well to changes in their cabins, counselors, and activities. Their ability to bounce back quickly made it easy for us as instructors and staff to adapt and tailor our days to create the best possible experience.

Maybe it’s their youthfulness, but this next generation is also energized. They came to workshops and activities ready to learn and engage. And through their participation, you could start to see their understanding of the Japanese American culture and what it meant to them. 

It was exciting to see these qualities come out at camp, as I know they will be great leaders for our community in the future, despite whatever obstacles come their way. 

There's Always Things to Learn about Culture (Even as an Adult)

Not only did the kids learn about cultural activities, but so did I! As an instructor, I was able to experience and lead traditional Japanese activities that I’d not had the chance to do in my youth. 

One of those activities was Daruma Otoshi, a traditional game played with a daruma doll in multiple pieces (usually in multiple colors with a face/head at the top). The game is played by using a small mallet to hit each of the colored pieces, from bottom to the top, without letting the pieces fall. This activity was a fun game for everyone to play, but more importantly it also allowed us to introduce the concept of pride in one's cultural upbringing and how it helps shape their identity. 

Food is a Common Language

One of my favorite parts about camp was our meal times – not only because the food was delicious, but because it was a time for campers and staff to learn about each other, develop friendships, and tease the counselors.

Everyone would look forward to breakfast, lunch, and dinner and we were spoiled to have an extremely sweet and hard-working kitchen crew that cooked Japanese American dishes like spam musubi, shoyu chicken, and somen. These dishes were familiar to all, tasty, and as the campers would say, bussin’*. 

Food was also a way for our campers to learn about Japanese food traditions like Nagashi Somen and Suikawari. It was a means for our Japanese American youth to understand how kids in Japan experience the same foods that they are used to eating in America, but in a different and fun way.

* I also learned Gen Z slang! One of those words was “bussin,’” which is a way to say that the food is delicious!

It's Possible to Reconnect with Your Roots

As a Japanese American yonsei, it has always been important for me to connect with my Japanese heritage. And growing up, I’d see my grandparents every week and learn about my Japanese culture by going to Japanese School, playing basketball, joining Sangha Teens and Jr. YBA, and participating in youth leadership, exchange, cultural and community programs. However, during and after college, I lost touch with the community as my involvement and engagement dwindled. Since then, it was always in the back of my head that I wanted and needed to reconnect with what made up so much of my upbringing.  

Going to Yo! Camp was the perfect gateway for me to feel reinvigorated by the community and the comfort that comes with being surrounded by people that have the same values and experiences as me. 

It’s the small things that made the biggest difference for me - using everyday Japanese words like “hashi” and “shoyu,” talking with campers and staff about where they grew up and what community center they might be involved with, an unspoken understanding that my peers around me likely have a similar upbringing and values as I do. Being at camp gave me that spark I needed to feel engaged with my Japanese American roots. 

The Power of Community

There’s something about Yo! Camp that created a spark of magic. It’s difficult to describe, but there was a euphoric energy that bonded everyone together as one unit, whether you were a camper, counselor, or staff member. Reflecting back on it, that magic was the feeling of community - people coming together with a common goal to ensure the campers were safe and having fun, while teaching them about their identity and culture. 

It was felt all throughout the week, but the closing campfire on the last night stood out to me. You could see through the skits that each cabin prepared that those who were a little bit timid on the first day had come out of their shell, and everyone had made lasting friendships. And as we closed out camp and shouted “One more year! One more year! One more year! Yooooooo! Camp!,” you could feel the excitement we all had to take these memories and experiences home and save them until new ones were made next year. 

This feeling reminded me of how powerful and impactful we are as a community when we work together towards a common goal – and it’s what keeps me wanting to stay involved and come back next year.

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