A memory from Japanese school:
(not a picture of my school; this is similar to what it looked like, though)
It’s my first day of fourth grade, in Japanese School. Mom is going to walk with me and the other girls, who I don’t know yet. Our neighbor, Yoko, is coming also, since she’s the only one we know who speaks both English and Japanese.
The walk is long.It goes across a busy street, through a neighborhood and up a steep hill. We pass bright green sakura trees on the way and I wonder what they will look like in Spring. The other girls chatter to themselves. I’m sure they’re talking and giggling about me.
I’m wearing my most Japanese-looking outfit. It’s a brown tiered skirt and a white blouse with lace collar. Very cutesy. My sister had worn a pair of khaki shorts and a florescent-pink shirt to her school, the American one, but I’m pleased I planned ahead. The other girls are wearing skirts, too. I even have my socks pulled up almost to my knees and have on Mary Janes. But it’s not quite right. My socks aren’t long enough to really reach my knees and my shoes are clunky next to theirs. Mine are generic. American.
Yoko and mom talk as we walk. My mother asks her more questions. She thinks I will regret choosing to do this, but she doesn’t say so out loud. I know from her questions and how much more she is talking that she’s worried.
The power lines reach up and up, and they buzz. They’re as loud as the girls. Emi, one of the girls, laughs and says something and then they all giggle. I glance at them, but they aren’t looking at me. Mom and Yoko are ahead, the girls are behind me, and I’m in the middle, alone. I look up and watch as a bird lands on the power line. It flies off when we get closer.
Other children have joined our walk and now we are a parade of kids with backpacks. The first-graders have red or black patent-leather packs and yellow hats. Yoko says it’s because others will know they are young and will take care of them. I want a red patent-leather backpack, but I have my nylon Eastpak one. It’s plain, and American. Emi doesn’t have a backpack. She has a messenger bag slung over one shoulder. Her skirt even has a lacy trim. And so do her socks.
The school is a four-story cement block building with windows streaming across it. Most are open already. It’s September, and the school doesn’t have air conditioning. The air is starting to warm up, but I ignore it. My blood is already hot today.
We go through the gates and my heart thumps in my chest. I’m really doing it. I chose to come here. I am just like Indiana Jones. I will learn this language and some day, I will speak them all.
We part from the girls and go into the shoe changing area, which smells like feet and leather. We are told to take off our shoes and put on slippers. I brought my new school ones; they’re white canvas with red racing stripes on the side. The girls wear red and the boys wear green. Mine are big, bigger than the others ones I see on the shelves. Even bigger than the boys’.
The school principal bows to my mother. She bows and says her one Japanese word,
I’m embarrassed that my mother doesn’t know the language already. I know how to say more than that. I can say the names of the months, count to twelve (which is the same thing, really), and say hello, good evening, and good morning. That’s more than my mom.
They tell us via a combination of Yoko and an electronic translator-calculator that the children are all assembling in the gymnasium for a welcome-back orientation. Watanabe-Sensei will be my Sensei, they also say. He is a man with poofy black hair and a scowl. Then they take us out of the main school building, across the dirt-and-gravel play yard, to the gymnasium. It is filled. Every inch of the floor is covered by children, all sitting or kneeling in neat rows in order of grade and then class and then height. Someone shouts and every pair of eyes turns to look at me.
I see the girls I walked with sitting with their fourth-grade classes. They are looking at me with the same expression as everyone else. There is no sense of recognition.
One boy, probably a fourth- or fifth-grader, calls out,
“Harro!” and half a dozen other boys laugh. I smile at him, but he wasn’t really trying to speak to me. He is grinning at himself.
The principal goes to a microphone on the stage, on the other side of the gymnasium, and says something in Japanese. He speaks for what feels like forever while mom and I stand in the back corner with Yoko and the assistant principal. I try to stand still, but I can’t. I shift from foot to foot, wishing I could go and sit with my class. At least then I would be in the middle of them.
No one is looking at the principal now. They’ve all turned to look at me, and the principal had his hand out to me and bows. The whole school, all four hundred children, bow at me and say konichiwa in one loud, wobbly voice.
I bow back at them. My face is hot and I want to run away. Maybe I should have gone to the American school instead. I would have been in fifth grade. I would have been in the TAG group.
But I am here in this high-ceilinged gymnasium and everyone is looking at me.
Yoko says the principal would like me to speak to the school. I tell my mother I can’t, but she says of course I will. She walks with me to the front, up the stairs, and someone beckons for me to go to the microphone.
“What do I say?” I whisper to Yoko. She says I should introduce myself. “I don’t know how in Japanese.”
“Just say it in English. The will like to hear it,” she whispers back.
I nod and turn to the children. They are completely silent. I go to the microphone and hold on as if it might fall over. And then I say, in English, who I am. And that I’m glad to be there. Although it’s a lie. I want to be anywhere else right now.