Akai Kuroi: Chapter Two
Home Sweet Home

        I was certain we were going to die as the plane plunged toward the Pacific Ocean below. Whitecaps on the waves became clearly visible as we descended toward them; the expanse of deep water stretching for miles and miles was all I could see. What happened to the land I had seen a few minutes earlier?!
        Maybe I shouldn't have stolen the window seat after all.
        "Oh my God, we're gonna die," I said, covering my eyes with my hands.
        "You dolt. We're landing."
        "In the water!" Water landings were not, as far as I knew, good things.
        Nathan grabbed my arm and yanked one of my hands from my face. "See? There's the runway. Now you can see it."
        I peered out and caught a glimpse of pavement jutting out into the waves as the plane turned in the air. The runway was built on gravel poured into the ocean.
        "Wow," I said, wide-eyed. The plane descended onto one of the narrow stretches of solid ground, and touched down with a slight jolt.
        We were in Japan.
        The pilot's voice came over the speakers, thanking us for flying his airline and informing us that local time in Osaka, Japan was now 3:37 p.m. With a yawn, I wondered what time it "really" was, but then caught myself—the only way to get over jet lag was to deny it and suffer for a week. Without checking the time on my watch, I twirled the knob on its side until it had no meaning anymore, and only then did I bother to set it to local time.
        I felt my stomach churn as I did so; I wished now that I had at least looked to see what the time was back in the good ol' Central Time Zone, the time zone into which I was born, sixteen years ago in Chicago, Illinois. Well, there was no turning back now: the time we would now go by said it was mid-afternoon, and my brain was too foggy for me to figure out what time it "really" was for me anyway.
        "Dad!" Nathan jumped out of his seat. "We're here!"
        "We are indeed," he said with a smile as he began to unload our carry-on luggage from the overhead compartments. I picked up my backpack and another bag and slung it over my shoulder, and grabbed Alexis by the hand as my mom instructed me to do. "Ready to go, Alexis?"
        "Yeah! Let's go!" I wasn't surprised my little sister was impatient to get off the plane; she hated being kept in one place for five minutes, let alone hours and hours. I don't know how my parents had managed to keep her quiet through most of that trip. I heard mom talking to her a bit, at least, early in the flight; for a three-year-old, she was quite the little chatterbox.
        "I wanna see pink trees," she told me.
        "Pink trees?"
        "Mommy showed me pictures. There were pink trees."
        "Ah, the cherry blossoms! Did Mom tell you they were cherry trees?"
        "They're Japanese trees," Alexis explained.
        Mom had some picture books of Japan, which prominently featured many photos of cherry trees in bloom. That must have been what Alexis was talking about. "Well, we'll get to see pink trees. But they only come once a year."
        "Ooh, not until next spring. After next Christmas."
        "After Christmas?" Alexis looked shocked. I didn't blame her, considering all the pictures of blooming sakura, as they called them. You'd think they never went away.
        "Don't worry, we'll still be here. We'll get to see them." Alexis frowned as she thought about this, but seemed to accept it. I think I made more of an impression on myself than on her: we'd still be here next spring to see the cherry blossoms in bloom. Right now it was July; next spring was ages from now. And yet, we'd still be here. For at least a year, probably longer, until who knows when?
        I sighed and followed Mom and Dad and Nathan off the plane, holding my little sister by the hand. We took a tiny, crowded escalator down from the exit of the plane, and boarded a cute little airport shuttle-train, which took us to our luggage and then the customs area. It took us a little while to get through that, too, but fortunately Nathan and I only had to watch Alexis while Dad, with his fluent Japanese, talked to the customs officers. Eventually we got our passports stamped by some smiling Japanese ladies, and then we were free to depart.
        Lugging all our baggage with us, we emerged into the bustling main terminal of Osaka's Kansai Airport. We looked up to the high ceiling of the large glass-and-steel room we were in, several floors above us, and saw all manner of colors, lights, and flashy Japanese characters on signs all over, only a few of which we could recognize. Footsteps clattered against the floor; cell phones beeped; high Japanese voices chattered excitedly while deeper ones held conversations in businesslike tones.
        "Ah, Paskaru-san!" came a voice. "Nihon e youkouso! Ohisashiburi desu ne!"
        Dad suddenly turned and waved at the speaker. "Oohira-san! Hai, hai, ohisashiburi desu. Arigatou gozaimasu!" They exchanged bows, and then dad started rattling off a Japanese conversation with him. He had called him Oohira-san: so this must be Dad's friend from a previous trip to Japan. The one who had helped him get the job at the Japanese/English newspaper he would be working for. The one with the daughter who had written to me—Takara. I didn't see her; she must not have come with him. I wondered when I'd get to meet her, though I was glad she hadn't come now. I was too tired to meet new people right now. That was hard enough when you had actually slept in the past 24 hours.
        "Good afternoon," Oohira-san said to us in English after speaking to my dad for a short while. "Welcome to Japan. Mrs. Paskaru, it is a pleasure to meet you." He offered his hand to my mom who shook it, but then offered a bow as well, to Oohira-san's obvious surprise and pleasure. And Ku-ro-ii-san? It's a pleasure to meet you as well. My daughter, Takara, is looking forward to meeting you." He offered me a hand and I shook it and smiled politely, but didn't bow. "And Nee-san-san." He shook Nathan's hand too; Nathan, the little show off, bowed as well. "And A-ru-ke...Areke-shi...eeto...." Embarrassed, he gave up trying to pronounce our younger sister's name. "You have a wonderful family, Mrs. Paskaru," he said instead.
        "Thank you, Oohira-san," Mom said with a smile. "And thank you for all your help. We really appreciate it."
        "It's no trouble," Oohira-san said. Aside from his horrible pronunciations of our names, he seemed to have no trouble with English. I was impressed—and hopeful. Maybe there would be others who could speak English, if Oohira-san and his daughter could.
        He and my dad chatted, in English now, as we followed him out of the airport to his car.
        "I brought van, so there is room for your bags in back," he said, indicating a small, square-cornered car. The term "mini-van" no longer seemed to apply to American family vans after I saw those Japanese boxish things.
        "Wow, did this thing shrink in the car wash or something?" Nathan asked, gawking at the car. I shoved my suitcase into him. "Hey!"
        "Watch it," I hissed. "Don't insult Oohira-san." But he was right; it sure looked like it had. Oohira-san hadn't heard, or hadn't understood, anyway. He unlocked the back of the car and we filled it with our luggage. Then we climbed inside the car; there were three rows of seats inside, as in a typical American van. I'm not sure how they fit them in, but somehow they did, and it wasn't even cramped. It sure looked bigger from the inside!
        I sat in the very back with Alexis and some luggage. Alexis quickly fell asleep. I was trying to stay awake, engrossed in the surroundings -- Japanese writing on signs everywhere! Amazing!—but flying so many hours without once falling asleep had made my eyelids a bit heavy. Taking a cue from my little sister, eventually I stopped trying to stay awake. It wasn't as though this were my only chance to see Japan, anyway....
        "Chloe, we're here. Wake up, kiddo." Mom was shaking my arm gently.
        "Wha-aa?" I blinked and rubbed my eyes. "Oh, right." Sleepily I climbed out of the car. We were standing in a small gravel lot in front of a small house, next to some playground equipment. The house was two stories tall and covered with brown, weather-worn shingles.
        "Come see inside," Mom said. "Oohira-san already took your dad and Nathan in."
        I followed her in, not through the door that was right in front of us, but around the side to what was apparently, regardless of its placement, the front door. I went ahead of her and was about to step inside, through a small entryway, when both my mom and Oohira-san shouted at me: "Take shoes off, please!" "Chloe, don't forget your shoes!" Ah, yes, I had forgotten—and I must say, this was not making this new house seem anything like a home. Never mind that I never wore shoes at home in the States or in Canada -- it's just that no one would have cared if I did. I sat down on the step up into the home and yanked my worn out sneakers off my feet.
        So this was going to be our house. Stepping up inside, I looked around and saw a few familiar items—we had shipped a small amount of furniture and such a while before we left Canada—as well as some other furnishings that looked much more foreign. Mom and Dad didn't believe in owning that much furniture since we moved so often, so much of what I saw must have come with the house, or been given to us, or something like that. The floor I stood on in the small hallway was hardwood, and I looked forward into a small kitchen with linoleum flooring, but other rooms I could see into—four square rooms with sliding translucent window panels—all had tatami mat floors. I stepped into the dining room next to me. It was furnished with what looked, to me, like a large coffee table: it was low to the ground, with no chairs around it, and had a glass top. The room across from it was a living room, with our television set upon an entertainment system cabinet; across from it was a small, metal framed couch with some cushions on it—nothing at all like the sofas I was used to seeing in America.
        I heard Mom and Dad talking in the next room, the kitchen, so I wandered in there. They sounded chipper; I wondered where they found all this energy. "Oh, Chloe, there you are," Dad said. "Isn't this house great?" I nodded. "Have you seen your room yet?" I shook my head.
        "Come on, let's go take a look upstairs," Mom suggested, so Dad and I followed her and Alexis up a steep, narrow wooden staircase from the main entryway to the small second floor. Nathan was already up there.
        "I want this room. It's the biggest," he said as we reached the top stair. He was leaning against the doorway of the first room.
        "Nuh-uh! I'm older. I should get the biggest room." I stepped inside. The room was empty except for a small desk with a chair, and a very small bed with a wooden frame. I noticed there was nothing resembling a mattress on the bed.
        "Why don't we have a look at the other room before we fight over this one," Dad suggested.
        "I already did," Nathan said, looking at me through narrowed eyes, which made me roll my own as I followed Mom and Dad and Alexis to the next room. To me, it seemed exactly the same size as the other one. There was a small desk and bed, also sans mattress, in here as well, and some shelves lined the wall next to the window.
        "Hey, Chloe," Mom said to me in a low voice. "See that tree right outside the window?" I nodded. "Don't tell Nathan, but your dad and I heard from Oohira-san that it's a cherry tree. In the spring, you'll look right out at the cherry blossoms."
        I smiled. "Yeah. Like Nathan would care about that."
        Mom shrugged, trying to conceal a grin. "He wants the best room, doesn't he?"
        I went back down the hall and told Nathan he could have the "big" room. "Why do you even care? They seem like they're exactly the same to me."
        "This one's almost a foot bigger on one side. I paced it off."
        "You're a nut." I left him to preside over his palatial suite and returned to my own itty-bitty chamber. "Um, do we get mattresses for these?" I said as I sat down on the bed. "Otherwise we might as well be sleeping on the floor."
        "Well, that's what they do here, after all," Dad observed. "Oohira-san made sure there were beds here for us, but I don't know if he has a Western-style bed himself. Maybe he didn't know exactly why we tend to like beds." Dad sat down next to me and rapped on the smooth surface of the bed with his fist.
        "Look underneath the bed," Mom said, pointing. There was a pastel-plaid mat folded in half on the floor.
        "Ah, there you go," Dad said. "There's your mattress. I knew they wouldn't leave you without anywhere to sleep."
        I pulled the mat out. It was about two inches thick and slightly squishy. "Ummm...."
        Nathan appeared at the door of my room, apparently wondering the same thing I was. "I might as well sleep on the floor if that mat is all we get to sleep on!"
        "It's not all you get to sleep on," Dad said. "They gave you a bed to keep you off the ground."
        "I don't care if I'm on the ground as long as I'm on a mattress on the ground," Nathan said, crossing his arms in a pout.
        Dad stifled a laugh. "Like I said, not everyone over here uses a bed. Lots of people sleep on futons on the floor. Maybe they just figured you wouldn't want to be on the ground."
        "We're the foreigners here, you know," Mom observed in that academic writer's way she has that makes me feel at times like I'm living in a textbook. "Mattresses and being up off the ground are the weird ideas to the Japanese."
        "Yeah. So you should be more culturally sensitive," I said to Nathan, who scowled at me and stomped back to his room. While I reprimanded him to pick on him, though, I tried to pretend that I didn't need to tell myself the same thing.


        Dinner that night would be at the Oohiras' house. As the only thing keeping me from falling asleep at the time was my stomach growling, I was okay with this so long as I got food, but I wasn't sure this was the best time to be meeting people.
        After we had finished exploring the house, we piled back into Oohira-san's car and drove to his house. It wasn't far away; we could have walked there, though it would have taken half an hour or so. Oohira-san let us in the front door when we arrived. The house was dark and quiet. I looked around in the dimly lit room and was noticing it looked very much like ours, until--
        "Surprise! Welcome to Japan!" The lights came on and three people popped up in front of us, blowing on noise makers. One must have been Mrs. Oohira; there was a boy who was older than me, and a girl about my age. Takara, I presumed.
        "Hello," said the lady as she gave a slight bow. "I am Kaeda Oohira." Her English sounded very shaky, but her voice was warm and welcoming. "Please welcome to our house."
        "Nice to meet you," the boy said. "My name is Takeshiro." He extended his hand to my father, then to all of us in turn, giving our hands a hesitant shake.
        "I'm Takara," the girl said, confirming my guess. "I'm so glad to meet you. I hope you will like Japan." She had hardly any accent, and none of the shyness that her brother seemed to have—though her smile did seem strained. I guessed even if she wasn't shy, she could still be little anxious about meeting foreigners. I know I felt anxious—or at least, as anxious as I could feel while my stomach was gripped with hunger pains and my mind was threatening to shut down for lack of sleep sometime soon.
        Dad introduced all of us and talked with Oohira-san for a few minutes—oh, and I mean Mr. Oohira, though Mrs. Oohira would also be Oohira-san, I guess, as would either of the kids. Anyway, Mrs. Oohira brought out ceramic cups of green tea for us. Without handles, I noticed with dismay, as they were steaming hot. As I hurriedly found a place to set mine down, Takara came up to me.
        "So, you are Chloe?"
        "Yeah," I said, smiling more shakily but, I like to think, more convincingly than Takara did. I hoped this wouldn't be a meeting cramped by the shyness of both parties—I sure have had enough of those thanks to our constant moving around! I reached into my pocket and drew out an only-slightly-crumpled envelope. "I got your letter."
        Now she smiled for real. "Oh, I'm glad! I'm so happy that you have come to Japan." Her English was really good. This was a relief! "Come with me! I want to show you some pictures."
        I blinked in surprise. "Uh...what about dinner?" I was hungry!
        "We have a few minutes."
        "Oh...okay, then," I said with a shrug, trying to ignore my stomach's complaints. We went into the next room and sat down on some tatami mats in front of the family's television set.
        "So! I want to hear more about the USA." She pulled a stack of magazines off a shelf next to the TV and opened the one on top to a random page. "Look at this! They're American celebrities. I think you know these people. "
        Unfortunately, Takara thought wrong. I knew most kids in the States and Canada thought I was an oddball for it, but I never really paid attention to celebrities, and I could only name a few of the faces on the page Takara showed me, though I recognized most of them. It didn't bother me that other people thought it was strange that I didn't know much about celebrities; I just didn't find that very interesting. Such was to be expected growing up in a family like mine, I guess.
        I had never felt awkward about this at all before, at least not that I could remember. But for some reason -- and I hate to admit it -- I did a little bit just then. Maybe because Takara seemed to expect that I could tell her all about these people. I didn't like to let her down. "Er, yeah, I know them. Movie stars and singers." I pulled out the only fact I knew—one I was not at all proud of knowing, but which came in handy just then. "He's in a really popular band. A 'boy-band.'"
        "Yes! Boy-banddo. This is very popular in America, right? I think you must have this music."
        I laughed. "Well, actually...in Nathan's grade it's more popular than in mine."
        "Nathan? Your brother?"
        Takara thought about this for a minute. "You know him?" She pointed to another picture. "I think he's very popular in America now. I think lots of girls like him, right?"
        I hope I successfully stifled the urge to cringe. The drooling fangirl group was not one I tended to understand much. "Uh, yeah...he's popular," I said, not even remembering the name of the guy on the page. The magazine was Japanese; I scanned the page to see if I might recognize some katakana, the script the Japanese used to write foreign words and names, which I could read and that might tell me the name of the famous face, but I didn't see any conveniently set outside large blocks of intimidating Japanese text.
        "And she's very popular too, right?" she said, pointing to yet another celebrity who I recognized but couldn't quite name. "I think she's very pretty. I want to have hair like hers." The lady had blonde hair in delicate waves, put up in a diamond tiara.
        "Oh...um, yeah, I guess she's popular."
        "Guess?" Takara gave me a suspicious look. "Why do you guess? I think you know."
        "Er...well, actually, it's not a very big deal where I'm from, so I haven't heard about her much," I said -- yes, I was lying, but only slightly as I figured it. Yes, people loved celebrities in the United States, but I don't think they were quite the novelty that Takara seemed to think they were, so 'not a very big deal' might not be quite a lie, right? Maybe?
        Takara looked at me for a moment, frowning. Then she shook her head and turned the page to one with what appeared to be a Japanese singing group composed of four young girls, as they were standing on a stage with microphones. She pointed to one of them who had dyed her hair bright candy-apple red. "I think you're very lucky. You have hair like they do," Takara said.
        "Huh? My hair?" I managed not to laugh again, but I'm sure I still looked very amused. My stringy hair had certainly never been compared to celebrities' before -- and mine definitely was not dyed! "Oh, no, I don't! But thank you," I said, in case she was trying to give me a compliment.
        "No, you have bright color hair," she said again. "It's very cool!"
        "Well, thank you," I said again. I guess my bright red hair would seem a bit unusual to a Japanese girl who's used to nothing but black when even people in the States commented on how unusual it was. I guess "bright color" was considered "cool" over here—Takara's outfit, now that I thought about it, was certainly bright. Okay, so clothes are yet another thing that rarely catches my attention; what can I say? That's just how I am. Takara's outfit, though, had been an exception in that it made even me pay attention: she was wearing a bright, almost fluorescent, purple baby-tee with some sort of navy blue printed logo I didn't recognize on it and the words "get it! more & more" underneath. With that she was wearing a short skirt of a thin material in green and yellow floral print that I could sort of see through, though it didn't matter because underneath that she had on stretch pants in red.
        Hmm. Interesting fashion. Not that I was the right one to judge, as my wardrobe consisted mostly of T-shirts, jeans, and sweaters, but that was certainly the brightest outfit I'd ever seen. I couldn't imagine seeing one of the trendy crowd dressed that way—actually, I couldn't imagine seeing anyone dressed that way—at school in the USA, but Takara struck me as someone who would probably care to dress fashionably, given that she was pouring over magazines on celebrities and trends and such. Was this how all the kids dressed over here?
        "Takara, Kuroii-san!" Mrs. Oohira stepped into the room behind us. "Gohan ga arimasu yo. Dinner now please."
        "Let's eat now," Takara said, putting the magazine back on the stack. I followed her and her mother into the next room, where we all sat on the floor around a low table, just like the one I had seen at our new house.
        Mrs. Oohira had prepared a special meal to welcome us to Japan. I was so hungry that I was ready to eat just about anything now, which was good, because otherwise I might have been scared of the main course and refused it to the embarrassment of my parents, who have tried to instill a love for all the world's cuisines in me. Not to mention I didn't want to upset Mrs. Oohira when she had been kind enough to prepare such a special dish for us. The main course was fugu: you know, the fish that will kill you if it isn't prepared just right? Yeah. So that's why I was a little bit frightened of it: I thought only professional chefs could make that, but I'm not dead, so I guess I was wrong. That was actually pretty good, though my favorite part was some sort of soup that my dad was familiar with; he told me the name, but I forgot what it was, which was too bad, as I would have liked to ask for it later.
        Takara seemed to be watching me as I ate, but she didn't say anything. I felt kind of awkward being under scrutiny, especially since she would look away immediately every time I looked up to see her watching me. Was she waiting for me to make a mistake with chopsticks or something? I was glad that dad cooked Asian food so much at home that I was already an expert with chopsticks. Of course, she could have just been looking out for me—or maybe I was just really tired and therefore paranoid. As my stomach was appeased, the jet lag came back with a vengeance during the meal, and I wasn't really in the mood to talk. Nathan was similarly quiet. Alexis got a dish of rice and some small pieces of fish, which she ate with her fingers, as Mom and Dad hadn't yet trained her with chopsticks.
        After dinner, Oohira-san invited us to stay as long as we liked, but Mom saved us. "I don't think Chloe and Nathan are going to last that much longer," she said with a yawn of her own. We said our good-byes and our thank yous, and filed out to Oohira-san's car.
        "I'll see you soon," Takara said as I climbed into the car. "You can come to school with me!"
        I waved from the car's open window as we drove off.

Go on to Chapter Three

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