The stares became even more obvious once we were inside the school's gate. One girl gave a huge grin and waved to me—a nice bit of variety amidst all the staring! I smiled and waved back.
Takara pedaled her bike into a large garage on the left side of the blacktop path. It smelled of puddles and rust inside, but it was dry. Bicycles were lined up along parking racks within the shelter. When Takara hopped off of hers, I realized the moment I had dreaded (check that: one of many moments I dreaded) had arrived: I had to get off the bike. Well, either that or crash into the wall. As the former seemed slightly less likely to kill me, I slowed the bike to a wobbly stop and tried to push myself up over the seat and crossbar without tearing that blasted straight skirt.
I jumped a little too high. The bike crashed to the left while I landed to the right, plop, splash, right on my butt in a rusty puddle.
"Ah-ha! I did it! I got off without killing myself!" I said in forced cheerfulness, to keep myself from losing it as I sat in the puddle, my wrists smarting from the fall. "And without tearing my skirt, too!" Now that I had been worried about. As for sitting in a puddle...oh well, I was already wet from the rain—a sopping skirt isn't that much worse than one that is merely damp. I guess. Maybe the skirt would be ruined and I wouldn't be able to wear it anymore! (Hey, I was trying to be optimistic here.)
"Oh!" cried Takara. She pointed at me (as if the few other kids who were in the garage needed the source of the noise to be pointed out) and started to laugh. What she didn't do was make any movement to help me up.
Hmm...thanks a lot, Takara-san. Glad I could provide you with some entertainment.
I sat in the puddle and took the abuse for a moment until both of us heard someone calling Takara's name outside. Takara turned and stepped out of the garage, waving and shouting back to whoever had called her. With a sigh, I picked myself up out of the puddle and stood my bike up next to the others. I then tried to figure out how to lock it, as my dad had told me I should and as I had seen Takara do. I fiddled with the built-in lock; you had to push some spring-loaded buttons in the right combination, both to lock and unlock it. I entered the proper digits, but for some reason, the stupid thing refused to stay closed when I secured it.
"Takara! Can you help me?" I called to her, but when I turned, she was no longer standing where I could see her. I panicked: I was supposed to follow her to class! Where did she go?
I gave the lock one last squeeze and it stayed—finally! (Or at least, I decided it was final enough, and when I heard what sounded suspiciously like it popping open yet again, I pretended I hadn't.) Then I ran out of the garage and looked around frantically. All these kids with black hair in the same uniform! How would I be able to pick out Takara?
But then, suddenly, I did spot her, standing not too far away, talking to two other girls. I hurried over to her.
"Ah! Kotchi Amerikajin!" Takara said to her friends. Here's the American.
The two girls stared at me without saying anything. I don't know if it was just because I was face to face with them instead of riding along side them through town, but now I really felt like they had me under a microscope. Oooh, let's see if we can spot the eccentricities of the foreign specimen; maybe if we look her over with enough scrutiny, we'll see that she actually has chloroplasts with which she makes her food! Well, that's how I felt with these girls, anyway. I don't know, maybe I was just being over-sensitive, but I wanted the girl who had smiled and waved to come back.
These girls just pursed their lips, expressionlessly.
Then one of them finally said something, and I felt better for a moment, because her voice sounded light-hearted and she laughed. Laughter is generally good, right? So I smiled, and then the other girl laughed.
Takara said something to her—I think it was just that I didn't understand—and then, "Ikou ka?" which I think means "shall we go?" I guess I was right, because they started walking away from the garage, toward the three-story building that loomed ahead. They chatted in what seemed to be particularly rapid speech (What? You mean everyone doesn't speak as slowly and clearly as the people on those Teach Yourself Japanese tapes?) while I followed along, silently.
I wondered what the girls were saying to each other. Wasn't Takara going to translate anything? I didn't want to bother her, but I remembered her saying something in that first letter she sent me about translating for her classmates, since her English was so good....
I looked around. All the other kids seemed to be gawking at me. I wondered what they were saying, too. I noticed one girl point at me; she and the boy she was talking to both ducked behind a corner when they realized I saw them.
I really wanted the girl who had waved to come back.
We entered the building through a room that had squares of astroturf on the cement floor and shelves of cubbyholes where people had stowed pairs of shoes. Takara and the two girls went to their assigned cubbies and pulled out pairs of slippers, all of a matching blue plastic variety. I saw kanji written across them in Sharpie marker. Probably their names, I presumed, since all the slippers looked the same.
"Here you go," Takara then said to me. "This is your shoe box." A pair of well-worn fake leather slippers with some gold kanji on them sat inside. "These slippers are for you." I took my shoes off and replaced them with the slippers. I immediately noticed they had absolutely no traction left on the bottom, and the cement was slippery.
Now one of Takara's friends said something else which made the others laugh. Takara replied to still more laughter, and then she stopped to translate (yay!).
"They want to know why you have those socks," she said, gesturing toward the short, cuffed, soggy white pair I was wearing.
"What? You want to know about my socks?"
"Yes. I have more socks. You can borrow if you don't have any others." Admittedly, my socks did feel a bit unpleasant at the time, so I would have welcomed a change. "I can bring them tomorrow."
"Huh? Tomorrow? But—" I stopped, trying to figure out why she would be offering me dry socks tomorrow when I presumably would have already gone home and, you know, changed socks for the next day.
"I don't have them now." Now she frowned, as if I were the one being cryptic. "Don't you have any other socks? Maybe in America you don't have them." I was about to say that yes, obviously we have socks in America and I did in fact own more than just this single pair, but then I noticed the socks Takara and her friends were all wearing.
They were big. Much bigger than mine. By "bigger" I mean longer (reaching up to the knees), thicker (at least double the thickness of a pair of slipper socks I had at home), and wider (falling loosely around their legs in huge bunches).
"You mean...socks like yours? Like...really big socks?"
"Yes," she said, sounding rather impatient. "Loose socks, of course."
I looked once again at the socks Takara was wearing. They were as wet as mine were, and I felt a bit sorry for her. Since they were so massive, they must have been especially unpleasant in their waterlogged state. "Ah, I see," I said. "No, I don't have any like that."
"No loose socks? None at all?!" Even if she could accept that we might not have them in America, she still seemed to think this very serious. She translated this to her friends, who seemed similarly shocked. "Well, you should get some, I think! It's very cool!"
Takara's use of American slang, however, made me think of exactly why I did not want to wear knee socks: as much as the rain had cooled the summer air, it was still very hot. The heat this past week had been stifling. Call me a fashion reject, but I've always kind of valued comfort over appearance. "But...it's so hot," I protested, feeling very puzzled.
"Not so hot," Takara said, frowning. "And your socks look not so good."
Now it was my turn to frown at her. I didn't really feel I needed my wardrobe picked apart right now. I had already dealt with enough clothing problems this morning, what with this stupid straight skirt and all. I looked around at other students besides Takara and her friends, and noted with some dismay that absolutely all the girls I could see were wearing "loose socks."
"Let's go now," Takara said. "We will be late to class." She and her two friends—I wondered what their names were; no one had ever told me—headed out from between the walls of cubby holes and into the school lobby.
There were lots of kids hurrying up and down the hallway, or standing in little clusters outside of the classrooms that lined only one side of the building. The stares directed my way continued.
Takara stopped and shouted to someone she saw in the hallway, who turned and greeted her and her two friends. Then she noticed me, and she started rambling off rapid Japanese, of which I understood one phrase: "Amerikajin da yo ne!" This must be the American! So they were expecting me.
Takara started explaining in Japanese that I found easier to follow than the other girl's had been, as Takara wasn't hyper-excited. She said something about her father, and about her father's American friend—my dad. The girl looked amazingly impressed.
"And now I'm bringing her to school," Takara said in English. "I translate for her."
"Oh, su-go-i! Takara, kakkou ii!" I understood what the girl said to her: Amazing! Takara, you're so cool!
Takara rattled off a reply that I couldn't understand (but that sounded very nonchalant) and then we hurried off to our class, the two girls we met in the shoe cubby room still trailing behind Takara. On the way up two flights of stairs, Takara repeated the same scene with a boy who said "sugoi" several times to Takara, and then in the hallway we met another girl who said "kakkou ii!" at least five times. I also heard "Amerikajin" over and over.
What I didn't ever hear was my name.
We stopped outside the last classroom at the end of the hall. A plastic sign reading "2-5" stuck out above the sliding doorway. A few kids were standing in a cluster outside the door, while others were sitting at desks inside.
"OH!" cried a small girl with short pigtails. She immediately leapt out of her desk and ran over, standing right smack in front of us. "Oohira!" she shouted, greeting Takara by her last name. "Amerikajin ga kuru!" The American is here! Then she turned to me. "Hello! Nice to meet you! My name is Tsuchiya Kazuyo!"
"Hello," I said, smiling. The girl was practically bouncing up and down on her toes, she seemed that excited to see me. And I finally knew someone's name besides Takara's! "My name's Chloe. Chloe Pascal."
The girl repeated it slowly. "Kuu-ro-ii Pas-kaal."
"That's right," I nodded. Close enough, anyway.
"Suwarinasai yo, Tsuchiya," Takara said, frowning.
Tsuchiya stopped bouncing, frowned sharply, and mumbled something that sounded defiant. Then she grinned at me and said in English, "Okay okay, I will sit." She went back to her own desk across the room and did so.
Takara looked annoyed. "Chloe, you sit here," she said, pointing to a desk behind her own. I did as she told me, and she didn't say any more. I looked around the classroom; I was near the windows that lined one side of the room. Outside I could see the bicycle garage and beyond that, rice paddies. Inside, more and more people were filing into the classroom and taking their seats. The girls all wore white shirts, some long-sleeved and some short, with navy vests and skirts (theirs were pleated, of course), and the boys all wore white shirts and navy pants. I saw small group huddled together around the desk where the friendly and energetic girl, Tsuchiya, was sitting. They were all looking at me, though when they saw me watching them, they all looked away.
People kept coming up to Takara, too. Though I couldn't understand much more than the typical "this is the American, isn't it?" and "Wow, Oohira, you're so cool!" I could tell that Takara seemed to be enjoying telling my (her?) story over and over again. The kids looked more and more impressed each time she said something. She still didn't bother to introduce me to any of them.
Soon the crowd dispersed and everyone sat down at their desks, and at 8:30, a bell sounded throughout the school that sounded just like the chime a grandfather clock makes every hour. Was this their bell for starting class? How cute!
The teacher stepped into the classroom, and everyone stood up. He said something, and everyone sat down again. He then proceeded to give what must have been announcements. I sat there listening and not understanding, wondering what I was supposed to do. Then I heard him say something about an Amerikajin, and about Oohira-san, and he looked in my direction.
"Welcome to our classroom, Miss Pascal," he said. His accent was atrocious and I could only just understand what he was saying. "My name is Ikeda. Would you like to introduce yourself?"
"Go to the front of the room," Takara added.
Hesitantly, I stood up from my chair and made my way carefully up the row. When I faced the class, I saw five rows of wide-eyed Japanese students looking back at me in anticipation.
"Konnichiwa," I began.
I didn't get a chance to say more. Everyone burst into applause.
"Whaa—?" I blinked. Why were they applauding?
"Good Japanese, good Japanese!" said Tsuchiya, who nodded several times.
"Er...thank you," I said, and then in Japanese: "Arigatou!"
"Oh! Sugoi!" I heard several students say, and I saw several students exchange looks of amazement.
What was all this fuss? All I had said was "hello" and "thank you." Very weird. Well, if they liked that, I had more! "Namae wa Chloe Pascal desu. Hajimemashite dozo yoroshiku." My name is Chloe Pascal. Nice to meet you. They were stock phrases from the first lesson of my Teach Yourself Japanese book—nothing in any way difficult.
Now the class was shocked speechless. At least, they were for a moment before Tsuchiya lead the room in another round of applause. I bowed slightly and then stood there awkwardly, my knowledge of Japanese suddenly evaporating along with my momentary boldness. Could I sit down now?
"Thank you, Miss Pascal," said Mr. Ikeda. "Your Japanese is very skillful." He then looked toward Takara, who was sitting in her seat, frowning. Was she upset about something? Well, if she was, what Mr. Ikeda said next snapped her out of it. "Oohira-san, will you please help to introduce Miss Pascal?"
Takara came to the front of the room, stood next to me, and cleared her throat. "This is my friend Chloe. She comes from the USA. Chloe is my father's friend's daughter. I will translate for her, so please ask me if you wish to speak to her!"
Well, I could have said that, if I had known they wanted English.
Then she said something in Japanese, which I think was just the same thing over again. Several kids were looking at her with obvious awe.
"Arigatou, Oohira-san," said Mr. Ikeda.
Her frown had evaporated, replaced with a proud, thin smile. Hmm...I guess she just wanted some recognition. But what did she mean that people should ask her if they wanted to speak to me? I wasn't so sure I liked that. I wouldn't be surprised if no one else's English was as good as Takara's, but still....
"Welcome to our class, Miss Pascal," said Mr. Ikeda. He extended his hand; I shook it, and then he said, "Now you will go to meet our principal, Mr. Yorimoto. Oohira-san, please take Miss Pascal to principal's office."
Takara gave a slight bow and then looked out at the class with what seemed to me a proud smile, while the other kids still looked supremely impressed. "All right, come on," she said to me.
I followed her out the door and into the cement-floored hallway, along which I had to sort of glide in my tractionless slippers if I didn't want my feet to slide out from under me. We went back downstairs and further down the hall to an office. Stepping inside and onto the carpet, I saw a couple of women doing secretarial work. Takara led me past them and up to another door.
"Shitsurei shimasu," she said, which I recognized as a stock phrase used when one is about to enter a room. I heard a reply from inside which I didn't recognize at all, but I guess it meant "come in" because Takara slid open the door and stepped inside.
"Well, come on," she said to me. I stepped inside and found myself in an elegantly decorated office. A large window looked out on the rice paddies, and a polished black table was in the middle of the room. A man sat at this table.
He said something in Japanese, which Takara translated as "Please sit down" as she did so herself. I was grateful that Takara was finally taking her job as translator seriously. When he spoke again, Takara translated, "He says, 'I am Masao Yorimoto, principal of Torahime Senior High School. Welcome to our school.'"
"Er...thank you." I smiled awkwardly, not sure what I should say to this stately and high-ranking Japanese man.
He spoke again and Takara translated: "He wants to know what you think of Japan."
"Oh...uhhh...." The question caught me off guard. All I thought of it so far was that it was very unlike any of the places I had lived before. There were a lot more rice paddies and a lot fewer people who could understand me. But that didn't seem like the right answer to the question. "I like it," I said finally. "It's very interesting. Really different from the United States."
Takara translated this and the principal smiled.
"In two weeks, it will be our culture festival. I hope that you will enjoy this time to learn about Japan," the principal said through Takara. "Our students are very glad that you have come to our school. If you have any problems, please come see me. I will be glad to help. Our teachers are also happy to help you."
After Takara finished translating the last sentence, Mr. Yorimoto spoke again, but I suppose it was directly to Takara, because she smiled and nodded a few times, and replied in Japanese, but didn't translate for me. Finally she said to me, "All right. We can go now."
Mr. Yorimoto stood up and extended a hand, which I shook hesitantly. "Very nice to meet you. I hope you will enjoy your time at Torahime High School," he said through Takara. Takara bowed quickly before leaving the office, and with a last glance at the principal, I hurried out after her.
"Now you're going to the library," Takara explained to me when we were back in the hall.
"What? To the library? Why?"
"Mr. Ikeda said to take you there after the principal."
That wasn't really the sort of explanation I was looking for, but I didn't ask any further.
We left the main classroom building and followed a short covered walkway, outside of which a steady drizzle was still falling. This lead us into another building. Judging from the many shelves of books I saw when we stepped inside, it was the library.
A petite middle-aged woman stepped up to greet us. "Ah, you must be Chloe Pascal. My name is Umeko Nagae. Welcome to Torahime High School."
She extended her hand, and I shook it. "Thank you."
"Thank you, Oohira-san," said Mrs. Nagae. "You may return to class now."
Takara looked at me. "I will come back at lunchtime and get you. Wait here for me." With that she turned and disappeared through the door.
For just a second I panicked about Takara leaving—she was my guide, after all. But that feeling passed quickly. It sounded like Mrs. Nagae could speak English very well, so I would be able to communicate on my own.
"Now we will talk about your schedule," said Mrs. Nagae. She pulled out a chair at one of the library tables and motioned for me to sit, while she sat down across from me. "I am an English teacher for your class. I would like to know if you will come to English lessons with your class. Could you help with English?"
"Sure," I said. Even if I didn't have any idea how to teach English as a second language, was declining even an option?
Mrs. Nagae puffed with pleasure. "Very good! Your class has English lessons every day, except Thursday. So you will be in English class at that time. Also, you will take Japanese language here in the library every day. But, I am sorry, but our Japanese language teacher cannot meet you today. So I have a project for you."
She disappeared into a room off the main library for a moment before returning with a stack of brightly colored paper squares.
"We are making a gift for our ALT. You can help us. Do you know how to make cranes?"
"What? Cranes?" And what was an ALT, anyway?
"Yes, cranes. You don't know? I will show you." She took a sheet of yellow paper and began to fold it, crease it, and pinch it; in a moment she had shaped a small crane. "Can you do this?"
I picked up a red square. "Umm...." Was I really supposed to catch on that quickly? "Can you show me again?"
"Yes, we'll do it again." With that she went over each fold with me carefully, and in a few minutes had I produced an only slightly demented looking crane of my own.
"Very good!" said Mrs. Nagae. "Can you do it again?"
I took a sheet of purple paper this time and folded another. When I hesitated, she showed me what to do, and soon a third crane sat atop the table, very slightly less squished than the first one I had made. She watched me fold another one, and when I got it all on my own, she nodded and said again, "Very good. Please make as many as you like. Lunchtime is noon. Is everything all right?"
All right? Well, as all right as it could be with my skirt still unpleasantly damp and my not knowing the language to speak to anyone at this school. "Yeah," I said.
"Please have a good time." She gave me a thin smile and a slight bow, and then left.
So there I was, all by myself in the silent library. I looked at the pile of origami paper, shrugged, and started folding.
Time then ceased to pass.
Well, that's what it seemed like. The air was heavy with humidity, and very, very still. The smell of old books permeated the room—a smell I recognized from every other school library I'd ever been in, and one that always seemed to go with intense quiet. Here, though, the quiet was more striking than ever.
I started folding at about 9 o'clock. By 9:45, my pile of cranes was six inches high and spilling over. Was I really supposed to just sit here by myself until noon folding cranes? I guess so, because no one came to tell me otherwise. In fact, no one came into the library at all. I wondered if anyone else used it or if they just stuck foreigners in there with stacks of origami paper when they didn't know what else to do with them.
I wondered what the class—"my" class?—was doing right now. Could I call it "my class" if I wasn't even part of it right now? It certainly didn't seem like it. Not only had the teacher banished me to the library, but I had also felt like some sort of toy brought for show and tell. I mean, it was really cool that they were all so excited to see me. And I could understand if they were too shy or didn't speak English well enough to talk to me. Still, I would have liked to at least have been told some of their names.
It almost made me laugh, feeling that way. I mean, I hadn't cared about people's names any of the other times I had started at a new school. In Saskatchewan, in Newark, in Salt Lake City, in Maine, in Atlanta—what was the point, anyway? I knew that I didn't fit in with the other kids; I never knew what to say to them; I knew we'd be moving again in a few years; and I got along fine on my own, so who cared? Now here we were in Japan, and here I definitely didn't fit in; and forget not knowing what to say, 'cause I didn't even know how to say it; and I certainly didn't expect we'd be in Japan for more than a year or two. Logic suggested that it didn't make much sense to start caring about people's names now.
I guess the difference, though, was that in all those other places, I could have found out people's names, if I had wanted to. Here, I was trapped on the outside of a bubble.
But hey, at least I knew that one girl's name—Tsuchiya. That was something! As the silent stillness of the library suffocated my brain cells one by one, it was nice to think that at least somewhere in that school, there was someone that loud and bouncy.
And maybe at lunch, Takara would actually introduce me to some of the other kids—I mean giving me their names and everything. I was still a little nervous about what might happen during the rest of the day at school, but I was so bored now that I was ready to take on anything, just so long as it didn't involve origami and three hours of silence.
And so I watched the minutes tick slowly by as I folded more and more cranes. Around 11:30 my stomach started growling. At 11:54 I first heard the shuffling of people outside the library, and then the voices of students, sounding happy to be on their lunch breaks.
The clock struck noon. Takara should be here any minute.
A tiny, older Japanese woman came into the library. She came over to my table and looked at what I was doing. "Ohh! Very good!" she said as she picked a crane off the top of my pile. "You have Japanese hands! Japanese hands!"
This was clearly a compliment. "Thank you," I said. I guess after 3 hours of practice, I guess even my fumbling American hands could get the hang of this. I smiled. There was finally another human being in the library. Takara couldn't be far behind.
The minute hand inched past the twelve. The lady admired my pile-o'-cranes and then went on to browse the shelves. Three minutes past. Five minutes past.
I was really hungry now. How long did we get for lunch anyway?
Seven minutes past. I know she said to wait for her—was she doing something else before she came to get me? She hadn't said so.
Nine minutes. I didn't have a clue where to go if Takara didn't come. What was I supposed to do?
Ten minutes past.
Where was she?
This concludes the segment of Akai Kuroi currently written and available on-line. If you enjoyed the story and are interested in hearing about update versions, please e-mail me or join the mailing list.