BARBERTON: Friday morning, Barberton students took social studies instruction from a panel of foreigners who injected life into lessons through humbling and poignant tales of their childhood and home.

The lecture was part of an ongoing collaborative that began three years ago between Barberton schools and the University of Akron, which had launched the program with Akron schools nearly two decades ago.

UA hosted the forum — part of a curriculum developed by UA graduate student Jessica Petersen and undergraduates in the education department. Five international undergraduates from the allied, chastised or sometimes disenfranchised countries of China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and Cuba led the discussion.

The lecture engaged 42 Barberton students through a question-and-answer discussion that drew on the personal lives of the UA international students, who talked passionately about culture, religion, life, stereotypes, misconstrued perceptions and seemingly troubled foreign relations.

“We are complete enemies,” said Emmanuel “Manny” Gonzalez, a 30-year-old aspiring Spanish teacher from Cuba.

He sat below a 12-foot projection screen while describing the schools he attended growing up in Cuba. The better ones came equipped with glorified typewriters that would be considered outdated, boxy computers in America.

Gonzalez grew up in a community where kids used their hands instead of baseball bats and fashioned basketball hoops out of bicycle rims and lamp posts.

“Everything is what you can make with your hands,” he remembered.

At 15 years old, students who normally undertake driver’s education in America are thrust into the military in Cuba.

That’s when Gonzalez moved to the United States, a place he said no one speaks of in Cuba for fear of being punished by the Communist regime.

“Everything is controlled by the government,” Gonzalez said, elaborating on the two-channel televisions that provide filtered news of only crime and corruption in America. It wasn’t until 1997, when the Pope visited Cuba, that the citizens were allowed to congregate in church, a hotbed for organized thinking, he said.

“The government controls everything.”

Barberton students gasped at the prospect of a two-channel cable service and no Internet. As they listened, they found more about their lives they take for granted than they realized.

From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; that’s how long Lu “Lucy” Han and other children in China attend school each day. Students are assigned to a Chinese soldier and taught how to march and follow orders.

In neighboring Japan, Yukie Tanii rides a bicycle for a half-hour to the train station, then catches a train for 10 minutes before walking another 20 minutes to school. And it’s not just the commute that burdens her days.

Nearly 70 years after the atomic bombings, some Japanese refer to American helicopters still stationed near Okinawa as “human killers” and “widow makers,” Tanii, 21, said.

But she sees that times have changed. She said American and Japanese emotions must change, too.

“Japanese have bigoted feelings,” she said, noting her own negativity toward the U.S. military.

Each of the five panelists voiced a misconception they had of American culture before their arrival. They said ignorance of the U.S. pervades some countries, like China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, where government controls media and media controls minds.

“All these terrors that they create in your head,” Gonzalez said.

“If you believe in that, then they are manipulating you. Try to see many perspectives,” Han said.

It wasn’t until after Abdul AlGhamdi offered coffee and dates to the students — a hospitable custom among Saudi Arabians — that he began to speak about his misconception of Americans.

“We don’t have a clear view about the American citizen because of the bad media,” he said.

Crime, murder and drugs that blanket U.S. movies funneling into Saudi Arabia had altered AlGhamdi’s view of the typical American. They are “hard-working” people, he now says.

After viewing American media from inside the United States, he said he sees why some might think of him — an olive-skinned man in traditional garb — as someone capable of terrible things.

“In everywhere there is good people, bad people and extremists. So don’t judge people based on the media,” AlGhamdi said.

“Meeting him, he’s nothing like they say,” said Justyce Smith, a 10th-grader in the audience. She now realizes that her hair, dyed in an unnatural crimson hue, would be unacceptable in some schools abroad. It’s a head of hair that would be hidden beneath a black abaya in AlGhamdi’s homeland.

After the lecture, Smith exchanged phone numbers with a South Korean woman who presented her life alongside a Cuban national studying to be a Spanish teacher, a Chinese polymer science major, a Japanese marketing exchange student and an Islamic secondary education major.

“Media sometimes destroys the image of countries,” AlGhamdi said.

“They hold back what is true and tell you what they think you need to know,” Smith said, reciprocating the sentiment.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.