Carting my luggage across Tokyo’s Narita Airport without anyone else’s help, I was quite pleased with myself. I bought a ticket for the limousine bus to YCAT (Yokohama City Air Terminal), where I would meet a woman named Yumika Ito, the personal secretary to the president of the Happy Learning English School, with whom I would soon sign a one-year teaching contract. A recent college graduate, I accepted the teaching job in order to secure my visa to Japan.
I had always hoped, since I began studying the Japanese language in high school, that I could spend some time living by myself in Japan, immersing myself in her language and culture. And I was finally there. I did it. I thought this much to myself as I sat upright on the airport bus. My face glued to the window, I sounded out the Japanese characters on buildings and street signs, or at least the ones I could decipher, before the sun gave way to evening twilight.
My new coworker was able to find me easily when I disembarked at YCAT. As a five-foot-eight, blond, young, and foreign woman, I was becoming aware of just how conspicuous I would be in my new environment. “You are Lea Jacobson, I presume?” the woman politely asked. I assured her that was my name. She introduced herself with a handshake, although she bowed as a reflex at the same time, and then moved to help me bring my luggage toward her car.
Ito-san (or Ms. Ito in English) was a quaint young woman with a seemingly delicate frame, a high-pitched voice, and a pretty face that only gave a hint of the constant strain underneath. After loading my luggage into her miniature minivan with Hello Kitty cushions on the front seats, we were off.
“This is Kanagawa Prefecture,” she informed me in her careful yet accented English. “It is just south of Tokyo, bordering the sea. Your homestay family’s house is in Yokohama city and our office is in Yokosuka city. Tokyo and Yokohama are nearby cities. It will be about a forty-five-minute commute for you by car in the morning. Is that fine for you?”
“It’s fine,” was all I could reply, feeling overwhelmed.
“Tonight I will take you to your homestay family’s house,” she continued, her speech possibly rehearsed. “They are all very happy you are coming. Your car is already parked in their driveway. Tomorrow is Saturday, and I will come over at ten a.m. to give you your first driving lesson. I will show you the directions to the office in Yokosuka so you can drive there by yourself on Monday morning for your first day of training. The teachers at Happy Learning English usually spend the mornings in the office planning their lessons, then after lunch you will drive to various classrooms around Kanagawa Prefecture. Once you learn to drive on the left side of the road it might be interesting for you to explore different parts of Kanagawa by car.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” I assured both Ito-san and myself. “I’m very excited to begin working for your company.” At that she gave me a nervous smile to which I would soon be accustomed.
With such business taken care of, for the remainder of the trip Ito-san and I chatted in English and Japanese about my college Japanese courses, Miyazaki films, sushi, her daughters, and Hello Kitty. She told me that when she was in college she once stayed with an American family in Wisconsin whose house was so large it had its own golf course. “Everything in America was so big,” she sighed. “You have so much space over there for recreation.”
As we drew nearer to my homestay family’s dwelling I didn’t feel as nervous as I thought I might. This was likely due to the ongoing assault on my senses caused by a combination of jet lag and culture shock; with all the adrenaline in my system, I could only feel eager and energized. “As I told you on the phone,” Ito-san relayed to me, “the husband and wife have one four-year-old little girl. Her name is Ayu and she is sort of a genius at English. She learned to speak English on a native level by watching children’s videos and Disney movies in the English language.”
“That’s incredible,” I said.
“I know,” Ito-san agreed. “Throughout my life in Japan I have never heard of such a child. Her parents brought her to a class at Happy Learning School and she just started speaking perfect English to one of our instructors. Her parents didn’t even know she could speak the language well, since neither of them can converse in English at all.”
“She’s a regular miracle,” I exclaimed in delight.
Ayu’s parents had encouraged their daughter to watch television in English almost since the girl’s birth, seeing as the kindergarten entrance exams for Japanese students will often test English comprehension. It was under these circumstances that the family came to invest in imported Disney movies, and learned of their child’s genius for the foreign language before Ayu ever entered school.
“The mother has agreed to let you stay on the condition that you communicate with Ayu in English during some of your spare time, since the girl is too advanced for any of our classes and her family cannot afford sending her to an international school,” Ito continued. “In return, Mrs. Nakano has pledged to give you room and board, as well as to converse with you in Japanese so as to help you learn the language.”
“Sounds great,” I said eagerly.
“The parents are a little anxious that Ayu not lose this astounding ability of hers.”
“That makes sense,” I agreed.
“So please try to spend as much time with her as you can.”
“No problem,” I said as I relaxed in my seat. “I love kids.”
Upon our arrival, a middle-aged woman opened the door of a house that seemed small yet cozy. There was a small child hiding behind the woman’s legs, but her mother soon shoved her out into the light where Ayu became less shy. She looked straight up at me and without hesitating asked, “Will you be my sister?”
“Sure!” I happily responded. And with that she grabbed my arm, telling me to “Come this way!” up the stairs. Without properly introducing myself to the mother, I followed the child’s orders and we were on our way.
“What’s with the blue doily on her head?” I heard Ito-san ask Mrs. Nakano in Japanese as we ascended the stairs.
“Today she thinks she is Princess Jasmine from Aladdin,” her mother replied with a smile. “Yesterday she was Belle.”
“Don’t step on the mome raths! Don’t step on the mome raths!” Ayu advised me to my confusion while we scurried up the stairs. It was only later that I realized she was quoting from the movie Alice in Wonderland.
Already arranged in what would be my room on the second floor was an impromptu tea party. After closing the door carefully to prevent the intrusion of parents, Ayu sat down next to the teacups and settled into character. I figured I should do the same but she swiftly interrupted me: “No room, no room,” she squeaked with a smile.
“Um,” I said, suddenly remembering how tired I was from my flight, “I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of space for me to sit down. I’m not as big and fat as you might think.” Her tiny voice exploded with laughter while I wondered to myself what I’d said or done that could possibly be that funny. At any rate, I made space for myself and sat down.
“Have some wine!” she said staring at me, eagerly anticipating what I might reply to such an absurd offer. “Wha—?” I began to ask and was interrupted when she blurted out, “There isn’t any!” While Ayu was unable to restrain her laughter, I smiled politely to humor her. I am surely the best toy her parents have ever given her, I thought to myself.
“Okay, well, I’ll have tea then,” I replied. She poured my tea first, politely asking if I desired milk or sugar in proper English before attending to her own cup. She was truly delightful. I sat confused for a while, drinking invisible tea. I understood that this child was a genius, but could she be mad as well? Suddenly something inside of me clicked and I understood the situation. “Miss Ayu,” I asked, rather sure of myself. “Would this by any chance be a mad tea party?”
“Of course!” she said with a smile.
“And did you watch the movie Alice in Wonderland today?” I asked her.
“Mommy lets me watch it every day,” she said rather seriously, it being my turn to laugh.
I hesitated, and then said, “But today you are dressed up like Princess Jasmine, not Alice.”
“But I’m not Alice,” she chirped knowingly. “You are!”
I had no idea how true the child’s words would turn out to be, nor could I ever have anticipated how many mad gatherings still awaited me in this new country.
Copyright © 2008 by Lea Jacobson. All rights reserved.