I woke up, already exhausted, on the first day of school- tired from tossing and turning all night from nervousness. After putting on my school summer uniform – a white, short-sleeved polo shirt underneath a blue vest, with a long, blue, plaited skirt underneath, long white socks and school loafers- I ate breakfast in a daze and lugged my fatigued body to the train station, following Akiko-san and Saki-chan’s lead. But the sight of so many people, moving, walking, running, ten thousand different ways soon woke me up…even Saki-chan and Akiko-san were walking so quickly that I had to increase my pace in order to catch up. When the train shooted in, I gasped at the sheer number of people crammed into the tiny space of the train and thought that I could not possibly fit, but Akiko-san and Saki-chan went right ahead and dragged me in, pushing for space. Before I knew it, the door was closing and people surrounded me on all sides, all touching, all so close that I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. I was just thinking, so this is the famous Tokyo morning rush, when Saki-chan bended toward me to explain that what I was experiencing right then was not even the usual rush. I did not believe her, for I could not comprehend having even more people on that train. In my mind, it had reached its limit.
As we passed through two or three stops, more people got off than on the train, so the ride became more comfortable. Saki-chan got off next at the stop closest to her school, but Akiko-san (who was helping me get to school this first day) and I rode to the next stop in order to switch trains. I followed Akiko-san and the green circle signs that said the name of my next train line, walking up and down stairs and showing my train pass a couple times.
The next line was quite unpopulated compared to the major line I had just got off of and we were even able to sit down. We rode to the Komagome station, got off, and walked the three minute route the high school that I will be attending these ten months in Tokyo- Bunkyo Gakuin University Girls’ High School. The whole trip had taken about forty minutes.
At the school, Akiko-san and I met the other two exchange students also attending the school for an academic year – one short blonde-haired girl from Belgium and the other girl, who had a darker complexion, from France- before bidding Akiko-san goodbye, for she had to go back to work. After short introductions were made between me and the other two girls, we walked to the auditorium for an assembly, where we were expected to make short speeches in front of the entire student body. My stomach clenched at the thought, for already, girls in the same blue uniforms as me were spilling into the room and taking their seats. I tried to run over the words to my short introduction, but my mind and body could not keep still, so I soon gave up.
When everyone had taken their seats, an annoncer commanded everyone to stand, bow, and sit down again. This was followed by the introduction of the student council leaders, who lead the school song and reading of the school motto. Then the powerpoint switched to say ‘Introduction of the Foreign Exchange Students’ and taking this as our cue, all three of us stood up and walked up the stairs and unto the stage. My heart leaped inside my chest when I noticed that there was a cameraman who was video taping the whole assembly. The Belgium girl went first, producing oohs and ahhs as she spoke Japanese, then French. Then it was my turn, so I stepped toward the mike, looking out into the sea of alert, interested faces of the students, and strangely, my usual nervousness faded. I did not know any of these people, and they did not know me, and these facts was all it took to put me completely at ease, and my voice was clear and strong as, smiling, I introduced myself in English and Japanese.
Later, after buying my inside school shoes, I went to my homeroom class, which is named Ran, or orchid. In Japan, instead of the students walking to each class, the teachers move. Therefore, I would be spending every single class with these same classmates. When I entered and said hello to everyone, the twenty-seven girls in my class clapped their hands happily. My homeroom teacher, a wide-eyed, smiley young woman named Saito-sensei, showed me my seat, which was located in the very front and center of the room, which I deemed perfect for taking notes. I hung my school bag on a hook on my desk and sat down. Before me, there was an enormous television screen that showed an older man talking on the very stage and behind the very podium that I had just used for my speech. I assumed that he was the principal and that the video camera that I had seen earlier was being used for this purpose. But it took me a bit more time to realize that not everyone in the school had been sitting in the seats of the auditorium and that most had watched the assembly from their respective rooms. This made sense, since the seats probably could not hold the one thousand student population.
When the long speech, which focused on college choices, ended, the television was turned off. Two girls came forward to make an embarrassed explanation to me of what this particular class was like, and then I was called up to the podium by Saito-sensei for another introduction. Since I had been sitting in the very front of the classroom, I finally got my first look at all of the girls. They are all younger than me, which felt a little strange since in America, I was always the youngest in my class, but I could see that they were all very lively and nice! 🙂 After I sat down, they each went around and said their names, but a combination of exhaustion and short-term memory loss caused me not to remember a single one…
That first day was only a half day, so after taking an English vocabulary test, going to an exchange students’ orientation, and eating the delicious box lunch that Akiko-san made for me, I headed home. This time, no one was there to help me get on the right train. I checked and double checked the train route home and felt quite independent when I was able to follow the signs with no problem when switching trains. Before I knew it, I was exiting the Monzen-naka-cho station and was tracing back the steps I had made that morning, this time heading towards home.
I opened the door to the apartment with my key and all but collapsed on my bed, exhausted but happy. I felt something shift inside of me as I thought about how the old me, who had depended so much on her family and friends to carry her to safety, always, could have never traveled by herself on a Tokyo train, could have never arrived home in one piece, for she had no confidence. But yet, the new me, the strong, independent, proud me had just completed a successful adventure home.
What surprised me most was that it had seemed so…easy.