by Suzanne Kamata
This necktie is choking me. And these pants, they’re what – polyester? Jamal and Rico would be laughing if they saw me now. But they’re in Atlanta, on the other side of the world. No more jeans and sweatshirts for me, at least not on a school day. No more polo shirts and khakis. Here at Tokushima High School, in The Boondocks, Japan, I’ve gotta wear a jacket to school.
I look around at my new classmates. One boy sitting over by the window looks familiar. His eyebrows have been razored into thin lines. His hair is kind of long, curled up at the ends. When I realize who he is, I feel a jolt. It’s Shintaro Nakamoto. He and I played on the same team in elementary school, but we weren’t exactly friends. His father owns a nightclub and he has some sort of connection to yakuza– Japanese mobsters – so everyone was always a little afraid of him. I’m not scared, but I look away before I can catch his eye.
There’s another kid I remember from before – Junji. He and I used to go fishing together once in awhile, when we weren’t playing catch. Now he has a bozu, head shaven like a Buddhist priest or an American army recruit fresh out of boot camp – so I know he’s on the baseball team. He recognizes me and nods.
A little group of girls huddles at the back of the room. They all look alike with black bobbed hair and plain, unmade-up faces. They seem to be showing each other photos on their cell phones. And then one of them glances toward the door, leans forward and whispers something to the others. They all turn at the same time and glare.
I look in the direction of their gazes and see another girl has just walked in. Her skirt has been hemmed just above her knees, and her hair is streaked with magenta.
The girl glances around the room, then lowers her head. She doesn’t seem to know anyone, or at least she doesn’t seem to want to talk to anyone in this room. She takes the empty seat in front of mine and lets out a sigh. Her long hair is damp. I lean forward and inhale the scent of shampoo – something floral and fresh.
By the time the second bell rings, all forty seats are taken. The room is buzzing with chatter and laughter – that is, until the teacher walks in. Then everyone immediately goes silent.
“Good morning,” the man says in English. Except it sounds like “Good-o moaning-goo.” He looks to be in his forties, about my father’s age.
“I am Tanaka-sensei,” he says. He writes the ideograms for his name on the blackboard – the kanji for “field” and “in.” Mr. “In the Field,” I translate.
He tells us that he will be our homeroom teacher and our English teacher, and then he lays down the rules about cell phones (not allowed during class!) and tardiness (punishable by extra homework!) and hair color (only black!).
Next, he takes roll, starting with the boys’ names.
I look out the window, thinking about how I can’t wait to tear up the clay with my cleats. I want to be running bases, throwing balls, not stuck here in this room…
I’m startled by the sound of my name. “Here!” I say, automatically.
The other students start to laugh.
Mr. Tanaka frowns.
Great. Now everyone thinks I’m a show off. “Sorry, sir. I mean,hai!” I say, trying to correct myself.
But it’s too late. The little group of girls across the room cut their eyes at me, and whisper to one another. They giggle until Mr. Tanaka tells us all to be quiet.
I try not to let my mind wander. I listen to the names, and make an attempt to memorize them. Especially Watanabe Misa, the name of the girl sitting in front of me.
At the end of homeroom, Mr. Tanaka goes off to teach a class somewhereelse, or maybe to hang out in the teacher’s room. A woman with glasses comes in to teach us math, and then we sit through fifty minutes of social studies with yet another teacher. Third period, Mr. Tanaka comes back for English.
He greets us again. “Good morning.”Good-o moaning-goo.
The class responds: “Good morning, teacher!”
“How are you today?” he asks.
The class, in unison: “I’m fine, thank you. And you?”
I just sit there, wondering if my classmates have all been brainwashed. They sound like machines. They must have been all been trained in junior high school.
Mr. Tanaka takes a long look at me, then turns and writes a sentence in Japanese on the board. There are a couple of kanji that I don’t know.
“Okay, Mr. Returnee,” he says, looking back at me. “Stand up. Show me what you learned in America.”
Oh, great. He’s read my file. He knows that I’m just back from the States. I push back my chair, and stand.
“Please translate this sentence into English.”
Everyone is staring at me, except Misa, who seems to be studying the gouges in her desk. My heart starts pounding, and I can feel the blood rush to my face. I clear my throat.
“Uh, ‘In the spring…’”
My mind flips through all those kanji workbooks that my parents made me do while I was in the States, but the pages are a blur. Did I actually learn this character? Or is it something that will come up in the first year of high school, something that my classmates learned in extra-curricular cram schools during spring vacation? Maybe it’s something really easy, and everyone is thinking that I couldn’t have possibly passed the entrance exam for this school, and that my father must have given the principal some kind of, uh, gift. To be honest, that’s what I’m thinking myself. I don’t belong here. I’m an idiot.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I say finally. The air suddenly feels heavy, like a pile of bricks on my shoulders. “I don’t know.”
There are a few titters. Mr. Tanaka sneers. “So you’re not such a big hot shot after all, huh?”
I don’t know what to say.
“Sit down,” he orders.
I crumple into my seat.
“Can anyone else translate this sentence?”
Immediately, seven hands shoot up.
Luckily, he doesn’t call on me for the rest of the period. So much for High School. I can see what I’m in for, but I tell myself it could be worse. Back in the day, when Japan was closed to the rest of the world, the punishment for going abroad was death.
At lunchtime everybody starts moving their desks around. The girls who were showing each other photos earlier, form their desks into a pentagram. Shintaro drags his desk over by a couple of kids I don’t know. Junji looks over hiss houlder and motions me over. Only Misa stays put, her desk still facing forward. She unwraps her lunch box and arranges her chopsticks and then starts eating, her eyes downcast.
Junji tears the plastic wrap off of a couple of store-bought rice balls.
“That’s your lunch?” I say.
He shrugs. “Since my dad was transferred to Tokyo, my mom stopped making an effort.”
I nod. We were lucky to stay together as a family when my father was sent to Atlanta. If he’d been dispatched to another prefecture for two or three years, we probably would have seen him only on weekends. We would have stayed behind, in the house where we’ve always lived, and kept going to the same schools. I was always amazed when I heard about Americans who sold their houses and moved their families to a new city every few years.
I unwrap my bento and take my chopsticks out of their case. Junji practically drools when I lift the lid. The box is packed with rice sprinkled with black sesame seeds, fried chicken, a rolled omelet, little cherry tomatoes and sprigs of broccoli, and sweetened black beans.
“You going out for baseball?”Junji asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “You?” I already know the answer, of course. I can tell by his hair, or lack of it. Junji played first base when we were in elementary school. He was really good, hardly ever made an error.
He nods, and stuffs half a rice ball into his mouth.
“Did you play in America?” he asks.
I nod. On my team in Atlanta, I was a star. I had the highest batting average of anyone – .412. And I caught every fly that came my way, even if I had to jump or dive or do a somersault. They called me Little Ichiro. My coach invited me to live with him so I could stay in America and play baseball. He had this idea that I could go pro in a few years, but my father said I couldn’t stay behind. “We are a family,” he said. “We stay together.” I don’t tell Junji this, though. I don’t think he’d want to hear me brag.
Instead, I jut my chin toward Shintaro. “What about him?” I ask in a low voice Do you think he’ll join?”
Junji leans closer and whispers. “I heard a rumor that he was recruited. He didn’t do so well on the entrance exam, but the coach was impressed by his pitching. They let him in.”
My scores weren’t that great either. My mother and I flew back to Japan for the entrance exams. I didn’t do so well on the kanji part of the test, but I aced the English and scraped by on the math. Exams are another thing I don’t really want to talk about, so I look around the room, trying to think of a different topic. And then my eyes fall on Misa, eating alone.
“Hey, do you know that girl?” I ask.
“Misa? No, not really. But word has it that she goes out on dates with older men for money. I saw something about girls like that on TV. Some will go all the way just for a designer purse or an iPod.”
“Like a hooker?” I ask, thinking of the heavily made up woman I once saw on an Atlanta street corner.
Junji shrugs. “Yeah, I guess.”
An image of Misa out in a restaurant, flirting with some guy my dad’s age, pops into my head. Just the thought of it makes me feel uneasy. I try to hide my disappointment. If Misa is that kind of girl, then she’s definitely not my type. But what do I care? I’ll probably be too busy with school and baseball to have time for girls.
The next morning I’m a little late for school because the batteries in my alarm clock died during the night. I slide open the door at the back of the classroom as quietly as possible and try to skulk to my desk without being noticed, but as soon as I’ve stepped over the threshold, Mr. Tanaka turns from where he’s been writing on the board and looks straight at me.
“Well, Matsumoto,” he says. “I don’t know how things are at schools in the ‘Land of the Free,’ but here, we have rules. I expect you to be in your seat when the bell rings.”
I feel my face go all red. I know that a guy like Mr. Tanaka isn’t interested in hearing my excuses for being late. “I’m sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.”
He stares at me for a moment longer. “Since you were late, you will copy the first page in the textbook three times,” he says, then goes back to writing on the board.
When I’m settled at my desk, I see that Misa has dyed her hair completely black. No more magenta streaks. She’s also gotten some of it chopped off, so now it’s about shoulder length. It looks nice. I lean forward and inhale. Her hair still smells like flowers.
The scent is making me a little dizzy, but then I remember what Junji said the day before. I picture Misa with some old guy my father’s age, maybe in a dim swanky restaurant, and him trying to put his arm around her. Some married guy who likes them young. I get this image of Misa, her face all made up, laughing at this guy’s jokes and pretending that she likes him, all so that she can get some extra money to buy clothes or a fancy new pair of shoes. If what Junji said is true, then she’s definitely not my type. I lean away from her and focus on the blackboard.
“Tomorrow we will have a visit from Jerry, the new assistant English teacher from America,” Mr. Tanaka announces, rocking back on his heels.
A buzz starts up at the back of the room. I catch a few words: “last year…looked like Johnny Depp…surfer…also played the guitar.” It’s those girls, the ones who seem to think they’re so special. One of them actually squeals. They probably think they’ll be meeting a guy who looks like a movie star. Little do they know, most Americans are pretty normal looking. Some are even ugly.
“And don’t forget,” Mr. Tanaka adds. “The day after that, there will be a test.”
Already? There’s a flapping sound as notebooks open. Just about everyone scrawls down a reminder. For me, it’s as if a beast with yellow eyes and fangs is suddenly hovering over me. There’s no need to make a note about the big date because it’ll now be impossible for me to forget. The test will probably be filled with kanji from hell, even though this is supposedly English class. I’ll fail for sure, and then I won’t be able to play baseball.
When I shuffle into class the next morning, I notice that the girls in the back look different. Their eyelashes are a little longer than usual, and their cheeks a little pinker. What happened, I wonder. Then I realize that they are wearing make-up, which is totally against the rules. No doubt they want to look pretty for Jerry from America.
I look over at Misa. Her face is clean. Blank, even. She doesn’t look excited at all. And then I remember that rumor. Maybe she has a boyfriend already, someone older, sophisticated. Some guy with a Mercedes who wears Armani suits.
Mr. Tanaka comes in about five minutes later. He’s alone.
“Where’s Mr. Jerry?” a girl in the back calls out.
“He will be here soon,” Mr. Tanaka says. “He had to use the restroom.”
The room becomes silent as we sit there waiting. Finally, we hear slippers scuffing down the hallway. The door to the classroom slides open and in comes a guy who looks to be twice as big as our English teacher. He’s huffing as if he’s just climbed Mt. Fuji. His stomach oozes over the top of his khaki pants. He looks like he hasn’t worked out a day in his life. Not only that, but his wispy blond hair is starting to recede and he seems to have a rash. His face is all blotchy. He is not what you would call “hot” or even “cool.”
“Okay, let’s begin,” Mr. Tanaka says.
The class leader orders us to stand and bow. After we’re back in our seats, Mr. Tanaka moves to the side of the classroom and holds his hand palm up to Jerry. “Please go ahead,” he says.
For a moment, Jerry just stands there, staring into our faces, as if he isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do.
And then I hear Shintaro say, “Look! He’s wearing the toilet slippers!” There’s a pause as we all take in the green vinyl slippers, no doubt splattered with pee, and then the whole class erupts into laughter.
“Kitanai!” one girl says. Gross!
It takes a moment for Jerry to figure out why everyone is laughing.
Finally, Mr. Tanaka explains. “Mr. Jerry, you have forgotten your room slippers. You had better not wear the toilet slippers in the classroom.”
Jerry’s entire head flushes. “Uh, excuse me for a moment.” He shuffles quickly to the door and goes off to correct his mistake.
Mr. Tanaka smirks. I wonder if he is thinking about how superior he is to the American English teacher.
When Jerry comes back, wearing cloth slippers in a blue and red plaid, Mr. Tanaka sits down behind his desk in the corner, and nods to Jerry. “Please go ahead,” he says again. I wonder if he is standing aside on purpose, waiting for Jerry to fail somehow.
“Okay, then,” Jerry says, still flustered. “I guess I’ll tell you a little bit about myself.”
He writes his name – Jerry Fisher – and then he draws a map on the blackboard. He is from South Dakota, not California or New York or Hawaii. In other words, he’s not from any place they’ve ever heard of or would want to visit. I can almost hear my classmates’ brains click off. I get the same reaction when I mention Atlanta, Georgia, which might as well be Timbuktu. At my left, another student is quietly studying a list of vocabulary words. One of the girls in the back is braiding her bangs. She’s probably sorry that she bothered putting on make-up.
When Jerry has finished telling us about the corn palace and the Badlands, he asks us if there is anything else we would like to know about him. There are still thirty minutes of class time remaining.
Silence. Everyone looks down at their desks, including me.
“Mr. Satoshi Matsumoto,” Mr. Tanaka says from behind his desk. “Why don’t you ask Mr. Jerry a question?”
I look up. Sweat has soaked through Jerry’s shirt. There are big dark blotches at his armpits.
“Mr. Matsumoto lived in the United States, for three years,” Mr. Tanaka explains to Jerry.
“Cool!” Jerry says, his face suddenly alight. His gaze skitters around as he tries to locate me.
“Mr. Matsumoto, please stand up and ask your question!” Mr. Tanaka says.
I can’t think of anything to say. He’s already told us about his family (two brothers, two sisters), his pet (a St. Bernard) and his hobby (wood-burning). He’s told us more than we’d ever want to know about South Dakota. Should I ask him a sports question? He doesn’t look very athletic, but maybe he’s a Twins fan.
“Do you like baseball?” I ask. It’s a simple question that everyone can understand. I don’t want to be a show off.
“Do I like baseball?” Jerry says. “I love it! I live for opening day.” His enthusiasm is a little alarming. For a moment, I’m afraid he’s going to come over and hug me. Better to cut him off before he gets carried away, I think.
“Thanks,” I mutter, then I sit back down.
He looks a little disappointed, as if he wasn’t finished talking, as if he wanted to tell us about his favorite teams, his favorite players, his all time favorite plays, but then a hand shoots up at the back of the room.
Shintaro scoots his chair back and stands up, a smirk on his face. “Do you have a lover?” he asks.
Jerry seems to shrink back into himself. His face goes all red again. “Uh, not really. No.”
Nobody would have ever asked something like that at my school in the States. I can imagine how horrified Jerry must feel. For a moment, I feel sorry for him. I feel embarrassed on behalf of my rude classmates. And I can’t believe Mr. Tanaka is sitting behind his desk giggling along with the rest of the class. I doubt that Mr. Tanaka has a girlfriend, either. Who’d go out with that guy?
At any rate, for better or worse, Shintaro has broken the ice. Several other students work up the nerve to ask questions after that. We find out that Jerry’s favorite color is blue, that he doesn’t play sports, and that he likes to do Sudoku puzzles in his spare time. Somehow, the hour crawls by, and then the chime rings, setting Jerry – and the rest of us – free.
But the thing is, he doesn’t flee. Not right away. He takes a few steps toward me. “So, Satoshi,” he says, “where did you live in the States?”
The other students keep their distance. I imagine thought bubbles over their heads containing the words “brown noser,”“teacher’s pet,”“Mr. Jerry’s special friend.” I doubt that I’m racking up popularity points by being seen with the foreign teacher. As they make their way to the door, past Jerry, they are careful to avoid eye contact.
“Atlanta,” I say.
“Oh, cool,” Jerry says, coming even closer. “Home of the Braves, right?Hank Aaron and all that.” He seems really eager to talk, and I wonder how long it’s been since he’s had the chance to speak English to a native speaker.
We’re a little island at the center of the classroom. I want to jump into the water. “So, uh, nice class,” I say, feinting to the right. “See you later.”
His smile fades. “Yeah, see you, Satoshi.”
I hurry out of the room, and on to P.E
On the following Monday, when I walk into English class, everyone starts laughing. I stop in my tracks and look around, trying to find out what’s so funny. My hair isn’t sticking up, my fly isn’t open, but it’s obvious that they are laughing at me.
“He’s like a foreigner!” Shintaro says.
Mr. Tanaka smirks, but he doesn’t bother to clue me in. And then a kid in the front row points to my feet.
I look down. Uh-oh. The toilet slippers.
My face is on fire as I back out of the classroom to retrieve my shoes from the bathroom. In Atlanta, everybody wore the same shoes all day, except for P.E. and baseball. In our house, my sister and I go around in our stocking feet. It’s easy to forget to change shoes, but my classmates seem to be on the look-out for the ways in which I am different.
When I get back to the classroom, everyone has sobered up. Mr. Tanaka is standing at the front with the corrected tests that we took last week. The first part was listening comprehension, and then there were a bunch of multiple choice questions. Luckily, there were no essay questions, and surprisingly, no translations.
Mr. Tanaka announces that he will return the tests in order of ranking – worst to first. He holds up a sheaf of papers stapled together. “Nakamoto Shintaro.”
He saunters to the front of the class, snatches his test out of the teacher’s hand, and struts back to his desk. After glancing at the score, he crumples the paper and shoves it behind some books. Looks like Coach isn’t going to be too happy about his grade.
I sit back in my chair, knowing it’ll be awhile before my name is called. I stare at the back of Misa’s head and try to figure out what’s going on inside it. So far, she has only spoken a few words to me. Those words were “thank you” when she dropped her eraser and I picked it up and gave it back to her. Also, she whispered the answer to a question asked by Mr. Tanaka, when he tried to put me on the spot again. I think she must like me a little, if she was willing to help me out like that.
Misa stays in her chair until almost the entire class has retrieved their test scores. Junji goes up, and then those girls in the corner who all look alike. Finally, Mr. Tanaka calls Misa’s name. The girls cut their eyes at her and talk to each other behind cupped hands.
When she sits back down, I lean forward and see that she got a big fat 90. Good for her.
“Matsumoto Satoshi.” He says my name as if it makes his mouth hurt.
I go up and get my paper – 92. I feel like punching the air, but I’m sure that no one would appreciate that, so I keep my poker face on and return to my seat.
After baseball practice I stop by Lawson’s for chocolate and a look at the latest comics. A bunch of bikes are parked in front of the convenience store. I squeeze through them, push through the glass doors and there she is, Misa Watanabe, standing behind the counter.
She’s ringing up another customer’s bento, so she doesn’t see me at first. I watch her fingers fly over the keys. She seems so professional. I’m relieved to see her there. If she’s working a minimum wage job, then there’s no way she’s into compensated dating.I mean, why bother if you could make ten times as much money, and not have to wear the Lawson’s smock? Clearly, the story about her being a junior call girl was just some nasty rumor.
I grab a Ghana chocolate bar and a copy of Jump, step up to the cash register, and take a deep breath. “Hey, Misa. How’s it going?”
She just stares blankly at me at first, as if she doesn’t recognize me. As if I don’t sit right behind her in home room.
“So you work here,” I say. My voice cracks a little.
“Obviously.” She reaches for the chocolate.
She glares at me. Her eyelashes are heavy with mascara, which she must have applied after school. It makes her look older. Intimidating.“What’s it to you?”
I shrug. “Just making conversation.”
She’s silent for a moment as she pecks at the cash register. “Five hundred fifty yen,” she says, her eyes on the counter.
I hand the money over, trying to think of something else to say, but my mind goes blank. Anyway, maybe she has a boyfriend. Or maybe she’s already decided that she doesn’t like me. “Well, see ya,” I say, turning away. I’m just about to push through the door when she calls out to me. “What?” I ask.
“You lived in America, didn’t you?”
So she does know who I am. “Yeah. For three years.”
“What was it like?”
“Good,” I say, thinking of my teammates chanting my name, hoisting me onto their shoulders after a big victory.
But then I remember that time when I walked out of my ESL class and a big kid in chains and a backwards baseball cap slammed me against my locker.
“You Oriental kids, always getting special treatment,” he said, as if needing a tutor was something to be jealous of.
Please don’t give me a bloody nose, I thought.
Luckily, Jamal came to my rescue. “Leave the brother alone,” he said. “He’s our homerun king.” I was spared that time, but I was always a little bit scared that I’d get my face bashed in or my arms broken.
“Sometimes it wasn’t so good,” I admit.
“Kinda like here,” she says. Then she smiles.