Sixth grade was the year I had no friends and—perhaps not coincidentally—the year I wore bright patterned sweatpants to school every day. My hair stuck out in cowlicks. In my backpack, along with my Trapper Keeper and textbooks, I carried well-thumbed fantasy books and a thick binder of Marvel superhero trading cards. I wasn’t bullied much; mostly I was left alone, wandering the middle-school hallways like a terribly dressed ghost. When I saw a TV promo for a water park advertising a party “for you and twenty of your friends!” I realized I couldn’t scrounge up one friend, let alone twenty—how anyone made that many friends was a mystery to me.
We moved twice in two years while I was in high school, which meant I got to leave behind any human being my age who remembered the Year of Sweatpants. My sense of humor honed to a sarcastic edge, I learned that making friends is easier when you’re “funny.” I also started combing my hair. By the time I started grad school at twenty-three, I had more than enough friends for a water park party. And then I went right back to middle school, only this time I found myself on the other side of the teacher’s desk, and the other side of the earth.
photo courtesy of the author
When I took a job in 2004 as a middle and elementary school assistant English teacher on the rural Japanese island of Tsushima, I fancied myself something of a Frodo Baggins, bravely setting off on an adventure to a faraway land. When I arrived on the island, I quickly realized I was more of a Pippin Took: a fool in way over his head.
Toyotama, the town I lived in, was composed of little farms and fishing villages. It had one stoplight. When I told a group of kids my eyes were naturally blue (they thought I wore colored contacts), they backed away and whispered, “Scary.” The first time I went to the grocery store, my appearance alone caused a small child to burst into tears.
Like most expats, I had bouts of culture shock, made worse by my linguistic and geographic isolation. I loved teaching, but outside the English classroom I felt like a poltergeist trying to communicate a message to the living, one who only succeeded in making weird noises they couldn’t understand. Even after months of language study, my conversations in Japanese often amounted to little more than, “The weather is nice” or, on my more daring attempts, “I was stung by fried chicken while swimming in the sea” (the words for “fried chicken” and “jellyfish” sound similar in Japanese).
I remember sitting at a work party, trying to understand a very funny story the art teacher was telling about his college roommate. “I had a weird roommate, too,” I finally said in Japanese, recalling my freshman roommate and his habit of using our floor as his personal dumpster. The other teachers looked at me, waiting for more. “He was dirty. Trash . . . a lot,” I said. They gave me polite smiles, and the art teacher picked up his story again. I slumped back into silence.
I became friends with more of my Japanese co-workers and neighbors, but my poor language skills and the cultural barriers still created unwanted distance between us. My jokes fell flat, and I struggled to move beyond small talk and really connect with people. I didn’t just feel out of place—I’d expected that, after all. I didn’t feel like me.
During my second year in Toyotama, I began taking calligraphy classes after school with my Canadian friend Sylvia. It was a nice way to learn both a traditional Japanese art and practice my kanji writing. Most of the other attendees were my students from Toyotama Elementary School, sent to brush up their kanji skills. The calligraphy teacher was a grandmotherly woman called Oyama-sensei, who taught the class in a small studio next to her house. We sat on tatami floors at low tables and practiced writing the sample characters in black ink, then took them to Oyama-sensei, who corrected them with red. My efforts usually came back bloodied.
Sylvia and I chatted and joked with the students—all but one, that is. A fourth-grade student with French braids, Yuka, studiously ignored us. She sat at the table in front of us and concentrated on her calligraphy. One day, as I was talking with Sylvia before class started, Yuka dipped her brush deep into her ink, turned around, and stuck it into my mouth. I froze, shocked by the bitter, earthy taste of the ink. Yuka flashed me a toothy grin.
My tongue and teeth were stained black for a few days, and Yuka went from the quietest student in class to the most mischievous. She’d hide my calligraphy supplies regularly. She stole my shoes from the entryway.
And then the drawings started.
One day, Yuka gave me a piece of calligraphy paper with a crude pencil drawing of my smiling face and the words “Osutein wa teki”: Austin is my enemy.
It was the first in a series, always delivered with a smile at the start of class: “Austin is Dracula,” “Austin is the Devil,” “Austin is a mummy,” “Austin is dead.” The drawings became more elaborate, with my pencil likenesses gaining horns and blood-dripping fangs. I decided to play along, and drew a picture of her and wrote, “Yuka wa tomodachi” ( Yuka is my friend) . When I handed her the drawing, she said, “We’re not friends. We’re enemies,” and returned it. I pretended to be distraught. She laughed.
When I arrived at Toyotama Elementary School, Yuka would often greet me with a wave and a smile. “Yuka is my friend!” I would say. “Austin is my enemy,” she’d reply, and run off, laughing. After a few weeks of this routine, I showed up one day at Oyama-sensei’s studio and found a drawing at my usual seat that read: “Austin is my friend.” Though I’d enjoyed all the other drawings, this one touched me. The next time I saw Yuka, I thanked her.
“What?” she said, sounding offended. “I didn’t draw that.”
As it turned out, one of the other kids was worried that Yuka had hurt my feelings and wanted to cheer me up. It was a sweet gesture, but unnecessary: I adored Yuka’s drawings. I also enjoyed her teasing. It was my kind of humor, sarcastic and a little morbid, and also the rare Japanese joke I understood—even if I myself was the butt of it.
Even though I couldn’t yet express how I felt in Japanese, Yuka could. Consciously or not, she had taken my feelings of alienation and monstrousness and turned them into a hilarious joke we two shared. In her own innocent way, Yuka got me—in both senses of the word.
Eventually my contract ended and it was time to move back to the States. After my final lesson at Toyotama Elementary, I was in the hallway talking to a group of students when Yuka walked up and hugged me. She pointed to a poster on the wall of smiling children playing together. “That’s what we are,” she said. “Friends.”
“That’s right,” I replied, and blinked back tears.
A week later, as I was walking down the street to my last calligraphy class with Oyama-sensei, a gray van passed me going the other way. Yuka leaned out the window, and I saw her big, toothy smile. She waved to me. I waved back. Then I watched the van continue down the road until it reached the town’s sole stoplight, where it turned and disappeared.
There are friends we keep for decades through shared experiences and intimacy, the Samwise Gamgees who remain with us on our journeys through life. And then there are the brief, peculiar friends we stumble upon on strange detours off the expected path, our own personal Bombadils. We may not know them well or for long, but they linger in our memories, like dreams of a far country.
While a few of my former students from Toyotama have found and friended me on Facebook—seeing them as grown-ups, with jobs and families, makes me feel both incredibly proud and utterly ancient—Yuka hasn’t. Sometimes I wonder if she would remember me—but I also know that’s beside the point. We all grow up and change, and if part of me is still that lonely little middle-school nerd in sweatpants, it’s only a part. Whoever and wherever Yuka is now, she’s no longer that little girl in French braids. I hope she is happy, and remembers some of the English I taught her.
the elementary school in Toyotama / photo courtesy of the author
I go back to Japan once a year—to my wife Ayako’s hometown near Kobe; to Tokyo, where her brother lives. Now that my Japanese has improved, I can usually keep up with the conversation at gatherings with my wife’s family and friends. But sometimes, when I’m feeling a bit lost, I leave the adults and go outside where the kids are. Playing with my six-year-old niece Haruka, or Ayako’s friends’ kids, feels comfortable and familiar, like slipping into an old pair of shoes, or slipping into English. It’s not just that I have an intimate knowledge of the rules of onigokko (tag) thanks to my time in Toyotama; like the children, I’m still learning how to navigate the adult Japanese world. Perhaps that’s why Yuka got me so well: I might have been her teacher, but in that little studio near Oyama-sensei’s house, we were both students—still learning our kanji, and the rules of the world around us.
Sometimes I think of my old friend Yuka as I watch my son Liam grow up; as Ayako and I try to teach him languages, manners, and rules. He recently turned three and, like most three-year-olds, has started to test his limits. He’s also taken to teasing; he’ll ask for a kiss and then exaggeratedly wipe it off. He’ll stomp around the house and roar, pretending to be a monster, trying to scare us. He’ll point at me, giggle, and shout, “You’re a bad baby, Daddy!”
A few days ago, Liam, Ayako, and I were playing in the basement. Liam put down his toy train, looked me in the eye, and said, “I don’t love you, Daddy”—and then he burst out laughing. I laughed, too. I couldn’t help but glance up at the framed picture on the wall above him: a crude pencil sketch of my smiling face and the words “Osutein wa teki.”