Parents and Their Schemes
Uh-oh. Something's up.
I could tell the moment I stepped in the front door. The study was closed off and Mom and Dad were in there; I could hear their voices, but the door muffled their words. Whenever the study door was closed—whichever study door in whichever house we lived in at the time—something was up. I recognized the tones of their voices—Mom's was determined but light; Dad's was enthusiastic but subdued.
My family is crazy.
Yes, they are. No one else in my school had a family like this. Well, okay, so the school I attended at the time was itty-bitty and I didn't know anyone there very well, but I've known enough kids, at enough schools, in enough places to know just what people think of us. Mom and Dad know what people think, which just makes them love their lives even more. Admittedly this gives me lots of great stories to tell, but it's one thing to hear a stories and another to constantly be living them.
I threw my backpack on the floor, just in front of the study door so that it rattled on its hinges. They'd know now that I was home and listening, though they wouldn't care.
Dad said some more things I couldn't make out, sounding quite excited, and then Mom gave a laugh. Ah, the sounds of my parents scheming.
As I was standing there listening, my little brother appeared around the corner. "It's the laugh, you know." He nodded gravely. We both knew what the laugh meant.
"What are you doing home?" I demanded. "Why weren't you on the bus after school?"
"Middle school had standardized tests today." He grinned.
I rolled my eyes. "Let me guess. They didn't even make you take them."
"Nah, they did. Only took me half the time, though, so Mom picked me up around lunchtime."
"I hate you." Not only do I have crazy parents, I have Nathan as a little brother. I guess I'm the one to balance the rest of my family out: every household probably needs at least one member who's somewhat ordinary.
Dad's zealous voice rose so we could understand it through the door and we both shut up to listen. "I talked to Oohira-san about it. It should work out fine! And with his help...." His voice trailed off to a muffled drone again.
"Who's Oohira-san?" Nathan asked.
"Shhh," I hissed, trying to listen.
"This will be so exciting for the kids!" It was Mom's turn to raise her voice. Nathan and I exchanged glances. So we were involved. And it would be "exciting" for us. "And think of how this will affect Alexis! Why we didn't do this when Chloe and Nathan were toddlers I'll never know...."
"Alexis?" Nathan repeated our three-year-old sister's name. "So this deals with Alexis and someone named Oohira-san? Hmmm...." He folded his arms and chewed his lip, the way he did when he was trying to solve this sort of puzzle.
"You're not going to figure it out from two random names like that," I said. "They'll tell us eventually, you know. You're just gonna have to wait."
"'San,' that's Japanese, isn't it? It's like saying 'mister,' isn't it? It must have something to do with Dad's job." Dad worked as a translator. Japanese was one of a few Asian languages he spoke fluently.
I shrugged. The two of us stood listening for a few more minutes, but Mom and Dad didn't get really excited about anything else, so their voices remained muffled.
"I gotta do homework," I finally said. "You're not going to figure it out, you know. I bet we hear at dinner." I picked up my bag, rattling the door on its hinges again, and headed to my room to try to study geometry. But knowing what my parents were capable of, I couldn't quite get my mind off their brewing scheme.
I was right. We did find out at dinner, and not before, even with the impatient Nathan's efforts to drag whatever news there was out of Mom and Dad beforehand. We were both lurking in the small kitchen/dining room combo. Dad was making pad thai for dinner and Mom was doing paperwork at the desk in the corner. We watched them for signs of anything out of the ordinary, but so far there was nothing.
"Aw, I hate this stuff," Nathan whined as he saw what Dad was cooking. "I don't wanna have Thai. I think we oughtta have Italian every night."
Dad smiled. "Then your mother would have to cook, and you know what she'd think of that." Mom was raised in a classic Italian family. Grandma taught her how to cook, and she could make delicious spaghetti, lasagna, and other Italian favorites. But even as good as she was at it, she still hated to cook and only did so once every week or two when we fussed about wanting spaghetti.
Nathan looked hopefully at Mom, but she shook her head and held up a hand. "Sorry, kiddo. No way that's happening." She got up to look at what Dad was making. "Mmm, Kwitiaow pad thai. We haven't had this in a long time. And this way, we can use up those cellophane noodles." Unlike Mom, Dad loved cooking and had collected recipes on his travels. He learned this one while he was living with a Thai family back in the '70s. Mom got a bowl and put some of the extra tofu, chopped white radishes, peanuts, and noodles into a little bowl for Alexis.
As we all sat down to dinner, with Alexis in her booster seat, Nathan and I glanced at each other, and then at Mom and Dad.
"Sooo," Nathan said, trying to be nonchalant even though he could never pull it off, "Anything interesting going on today? Mom? Dad?"
"Oh, nothing too unusual," Mom said, succeeding with the aura of ordinariness that her son couldn't manage. "How'd testing go, Nathan?"
He rolled his eyes. "I told you when you picked me up. These tests are for the dumb kids."
"Nathan," Mom scolded.
Nathan smirked down at his food. "Well, it was easy. A big pain, though. Why doesn't Chloe ever have to take these?" It seemed that whenever we moved, Nathan would inevitably be in the grade being tested in the area, while I always seemed to miss the local standardized tests.
"'Cause I'm just too smart for them," I said, sticking my tongue out at him.
Nathan stuck his tongue right back out at me. Every time we got his results back, he got straight to gloating. I'm glad I hadn't had to take them recently so he couldn't do any comparisons.
"We do have a little bit of news, though," Dad said.
"We're going to be moving," Mom explained.
"Again?" I exclaimed. "We just got here six months ago! That's short even for us."
"We're not going to Nunavut, are we?" Nathan winced, imagining the newly formed arctic Canadian territory where Mom had been spending a lot of time lately. She had been doing some sort of volunteer work up there while studying with the Inuits and their culture as they organized the new territory, even though she wasn't Inuit or even Canadian. She had gotten quite into it since we moved to Saskatchewan from Newark, New Jersey half a year ago, especially now as they were getting ready to establish their government. She had flown twice from Saskatoon up to Arviat and Coral Harbour on Hudson Bay. I'm not sure exactly what she did up there, and I sure didn't want to come along and see; it was cold enough in the dinky little town of Elbow, Saskatchewan without going even farther north.
Mom laughed. "No, we aren't going to Nunavut. It's someplace even better, if you can imagine that."
"A city?" I cried. "I'm so sick of living in the middle of nowhere."
"We've only been here six months," Nathan said. He wasn't as much a city kid as I was. He was right that it had only been half a year, but after living on the outskirts of New York City for two and a half years, six months in Elbow, Saskatchewan seems like an eternity.
"Well," Dad said. "It's near a big city. You can take a train to the city any time you like, piece of cake, where we're going."
"Where?" Nathan demanded.
"What city?" I echoed.
"Kyoto," he said.
So here we were, seven hours into the second part of our flight to Osaka, Japan. So much for Elbow, Saskatchewan and the middle of nowhere! I squirmed in my economy class seat as I thought about that night last fall when we learned of this, the craziest of all my parents' crazy schemes. The time had passed so fast since Dad made the announcement. I could hardly believe we were already on the plane.
I had already finished the book I brought with me to read, so there wasn't much else to do aside from just thinking. That was okay with me, though; it was my main pastime at home, too. It didn't require any company.
It was funny to recall the fuss Nathan and I made after Dad informed us of the impending move. Nathan had screamed, "No way!" His voice sounded shocked, but not upset. It wasn't like he had any great desire to stay in North America: he would miss even fewer people than I would, and he always complained about how boring things were anyway. I think he figured maybe a more exotic country would be exciting enough for his standards—either that, or he just thought he wouldn't have to go to school and take standardized tests made for mortal children anymore.
But I hadn't taken it so well. "What?!" I had cried. "No way! That's not possible!" But of course, with my family, I knew very well that it was possible. I was lucky that it was only a relatively tame country like Japan, not Cambodia or Mongolia or Tajikistan. Given my parents' past histories, I could just as easily imagine Dad dropping us off in the Gobi Desert to become nomads.
Yeah, so it was just Japan. No big deal.
I looked over at Nathan, who was staring out the window, and poked him. "I wanna sit in the window seat now. You always get it."
He didn't even glance at me. "Nuh-uh, you got it on the flight from Saskatoon to Vancouver."
"Oh, right, like that's fair! I get the window seat on the five minute flight and you get it for the nine hundred year part." I crossed my arms and squirmed again in my too-small seat. Mom and Dad would never, ever consider flying anything but coach. Climbing up and leaning over the seat in front of me, I tapped my mom's head. "Mom, tell him he's gotta let me sit in the window seat. He's had it for most of the trip."
Mom sighed. I knew the response I'd get: "Do I still have to mediate between you two? Aren't you sixteen and thirteen years old now?" But somehow it was soothing to complain anyway. After she gave me the predicted line, I made a mental note to keep talking about how good a Coca Cola sounded right now, knowing how much he loved the sweet liquid, as well as how little tolerance his bladder had for such drinks. I'd have the seat soon enough. But the flight attendant with the drink cart wasn't in sight at the moment, so I chatted with Mom a bit while I had her attention.
"Mom, why are we doing this? We're nuts, you know."
She looked up at me as I leaned over the top of her chair and smiled. "That's what you keep telling me." Sympathetic her answer wasn't, but that was all right—she knew Nathan and I were okay with this. And I was okay with it. I had said I could handle moving to Japan after I had had a few days to calm down after Dad's first announcement. I had let them convince me. After all, what was the difference if, for the next few years, I lived my solitary little life in Japan rather than in some other new city? If they spoke a foreign language, that would be to my benefit: no one would try to make me be anything but solitary. Whatever challenges a new culture brought, at least they wouldn't be the same old frustrations that came from being tossed between English-speaking schools.
Yeah, so I could handle it. But it was still intimidating, and I was still worried.
Mom spoke up again. "If that's what kind of people we are, well, then, that's just what we do, huh?"
"It's what you do. I'm not the one writing ethnographies."
"Writing! Chloe, you kids will be the ones to get the most out of this! I'd take an opportunity like this for you kids whether I'm an anthropologist or a dental hygienist. We're doing this for you more than for either of our jobs. The jobs just made it possible."
Those are my parents for you: they move to Japan for the sake of their American children. I told you my family's nuts. But I guess I really am my parents' daughter, because deep inside—no, not even that deep; just buried beneath a layer of apprehension—I did think what they were doing would be great for me. "I know," I said aloud. "But I'm still a little nervous."
She reached up and clasped the hand I had on top of her chair. "Of course you are, kiddo." She squeezed my dry palm; her hand was warm and moist even in the dry air of the airplane cabin. "I remember my first trip abroad. I mean, my first experience living in another culture; I'm not talking about going to Italy to visit my family. It's hard, going to such a foreign place, going to school there as a high schooler. Hey, at least we're with you, right? When I went to Greece for a semester in high school, I didn't know anyone. I was terrified! But it turned out to be the most exciting time of my life so far. I understand, kiddo. It's normal to be nervous. I'd be worried about you if you weren't."
"Yeah, well, that was a semester—" I began, but I knew immediately that Mom would counter it with other experiences: studying at a university in Sénégal for nine months in college. A homestay in France just after she got her B.A. Meeting her future husband while doing some sort of dangerous volunteer work in Southeast Asia after the war. Yes, of course my mom could understand the fear I was feeling: what she couldn't do was pity it.
"Chloe, you'll do fine, I promise. If not, we'll pack up and go home—we're not about to do something that hurts you kids. But I know you're ready to give a chance, and it'll take some growing, but I know you're ready for that, and I know you're going to love it."
I laughed faintly. She was right: I was my parents' daughter, after all. How could I have agreed to the craziest of the propositions my parents had made if I weren't? "What about this whole Japanese school thing? How's that going to work?"
We had gone over this multiple times already, of course, but Mom was patient. It was something that was worth talking over a few times, especially since we had nothing better to do. "You'll be just like any other foreign exchange student, except you'll be living with us instead of with a host family. So if you look at it that way, it's even easier than what some kids do. You can come home every day to your English speaking family. Oohira-san's already set everything up, and I know his daughter will be just like a host sister to you."
"Yeah. I have her letter in my bag."
"You're gonna do fine, Chloe. I know you will. Now don't worry about it, okay? Try to get some sleep."
"Okay." I slumped back down in my chair, but I wasn't sleepy at all. Instead, I pulled out the letter that Dad's Japanese friend's daughter had sent me. It was in an airmail envelope, with the red and blue trim around the edges; careful handwriting had written my name and address back in Saskatchewan on the front. Carefully I withdrew the letter from its envelope: it was on translucent yellow paper with a white flowers pattern along the edges, and written in blue ink that sparkled. Dear Chloe, it began,
How are you? It's nice to meet you. My name is Takara Oohira. I'm a young Japanese girl in the second grade at Torahime Senior High School. I like candy and sweet things, and music, and movies. I really like American stars and pretty things from America. I hope you can tell me about these things.
I also want to tell you about Japan. I told my class you are coming, and they are looking forward to meeting you very much! They are a little afraid, because they can't speak English well. But don't worry! I will be your translator. I'm excited about this!
I hope we can share many things when you arrive. I am looking forward to it.
Bye! Bye! For now.
I looked over the letter for the millionth time, trying to pull out of its short text answers to all the questions that were rattling inside my head. So this girl would be a sort of pseudo-host sister to me. I'd go to school with her, because unlike normal American students in whose families live in Japan, I would be spending a year at a Japanese high school pretending to be a foreign exchange student. At least she sounded like she spoke English well enough. Okay, so I admit it: even though I'd never really cared to hold deep conversations with American students—there never was any point in getting to know anyone well enough to do that—it would be nice to have someone to at least ask where the bathroom was. And she did sound nice—and the whole class was looking forward to meeting me? Now that was new! So this time I wouldn't be the unnoticed new kid in the corner: here people were actually waiting to meet me. Wow...I wasn't sure how that made me feel. It was nice, but....
Different. As everything else was. Obviously, Chloe, I chided myself mentally. This wasn't just another move. For better or for worse, this was going to be different.
I sat there zoned out for a few minutes, overwhelmed by it all. Eventually the flight attendant approached down the aisle with the drink cart; he caught my attention and brought me back to the present.
I glanced over at Nathan, who wasn't even looking out the window. He was reading a book. Who did he think he was, squandering my window seat like that?
"Oooh, finally. The drink cart! I'm dying of thirst," I said. "You thirsty, Nathan? This dry cabin air is awful. A Coke sounds really good to me right now."
He gave me a funny look, but if he thought I was being weird, he obviously didn't guess I was being sneaky. "Yeah, that does sound good," he agreed. We each got a can of Coca Cola; I sipped mine slowly while Nathan downed his in about two gulps.
"I can burp in Japanese," he said.
I cringed. "You're very talented."
He demonstrated anyway; I couldn't hear anything Japanese about it; vulgar Japanese little boys probably sounded a lot like vulgar American ones. I wondered if there were as many of them. "See? I said 'ohayou.'" He laughed.
"You'll make lots of friends over there that way," I said and tried to ignore him after that. I glanced at my watch. It was 6:50 p.m.—at least, it was in Saskatchewan, and it was on my watch, whatever time it was wherever we were now.
And just as I had predicted, at 7:21 p.m. Central Daylight Time, the seat was mine.
"Hey! No fair!" Nathan whined when he got back from the bathroom. "That's my seat!"
"Not anymore." I made silly scrunch-eyed tongue-biting grin at him as he plopped into my former seat, glaring at me. "Well, you'll have to go soon enough."
"I don't know about that," I said, picking up my can of pop and swishing it around. It was almost completely full.
"You're a pain," he said to me, folding his arms and preparing to sulk.
I wasn't paying attention to him anymore, though. Looking out my hard-won window, I watched as we soared thousands of feet above a layer of clouds. Below them was an expanse of ocean, the ends of which we couldn't see in any direction. Still, beyond what we could see, beyond that distant horizon, we knew there was land. We just didn't know what we would find there.