It is almost four o’clock on a Saturday evening, and I have just dragged my burned out body and brain out of bed from a three-hour nap in order to complete a promise made to myself made earlier this morning: to finally continue the story of my Tokyo life on this blog, after a two-week blank. So, I begin now the task of recounting a seemingly distant history…
Two days after my first introduction to school, I got my first taste of a full day of classes. Contrary to the United States, each day has a different line up of classes. Each class is not taken every day, rather, ten or more classes are scattered throughout the week. Also, in high school, Japanese students are typically separated into two groups: math and science centered and literature centered. My class, for example, is math and science centered, so students have to take two math classes and a science class at more difficult levels than other classes.
World History was my first hour class that morning. An older man with a square face and smiling eyes framed in glasses walked into the classroom and set his materials on the podium in front of my desk, and when the bell- which is not just one ring, but a chorus of bells- sounded, one of our class leaders called out an order for us all to stand, bow, and sit down again. The same practice is carried out at the beginning and end of every class, including homeroom and at the end of the school day. The teacher, of course, noticed me in the front of the class and after learning that I was a foreign exchange student from America, he tried out a few words of English, which produced laughter from the girls. Then a lesson was started. Since I did not have a textbook yet (Textbooks in Japan are a total opposite to the heavy, hard cover books of America and instead are light and soft covered. They are usually bought by the students, but in my case the school has offered to let me borrow them.), I asked the girl on my right if I could share hers and in reply, she nodded her head and pushed her desk closer to mine. By this time, the teacher was in full out lesson mode and was talking excitedly about ancient Chinese history, speaking and writing and pulling questions out of the air and throwing them, randomly, at us. Someone would guess the answer, and he would smile and shake his head dramatically when it was wrong, causing us all to giggle. It was a fifty minute lesson, but time passed quickly and I found myself very interested in the subject, even though big words caused the class to be difficult to follow at times.
As soon as the chorus of bells rang and we bowed goodbye to the teacher, all of the girls went to the back of the classroom, to their lockers, to grab their physical education clothes, and proceeded to change in that very classroom. I followed suit, and after putting my wallet in with everyone else’s into a duffel bag to carry with us- for fear of someone coming into our classroom and stealing our valuables- I tailed after my classmates to walk to the high school gym. Before stepping up onto the gym floor, we took off our shoes and replaced them with tennis shoes. Because I was a PE helper – every student in a class has a job, for instance, grading papers, cleaning the classroom, etc- I stood before the class with Yuuna-chan and Maho-chan to lead the warm up exercises. We paired up afterwards to do a series of sit ups and other work outs, including one called the Russian dance, where about ten girls joined hands in a circle and kick, kick, squatted simultaneously. (This work out later was assumed to be the cause for my upper leg muscle pain that made walking near impossible for two days thereafter.) The rest of the class period was spent hula hooping, which according to the teacher- an older woman known to be strict by my classmates- would be the topic of a PE test later on.
The next two classes, before lunch, were both math classes. One covered sines and cosines and the like, and the other probability. Though I had covered both of these math subjects before, both classes were hard for me, mostly because in Japan, the use of calculators is not allowed. In America, I always had access to my handy graphing calculator, which took seconds to come up with answers, with only a little prodding from me. Therefore, to find the sine of thirty degrees, I only had to punch that into the calculator, and ta-da! There the answer was. But in Japan, I realized then that I needed to come up with the sine of thirty degrees on my own. Thus, I soon became frustrated, especially because even though it was a new semester, instead of starting a new chapter, it was a continuation from before break, which meant I had to jump in halfway through, completely blind and thoroughly confused.
I was indescribably happy, therefore, when lunchtime came. Akiko-san had again made me lunch for school, which was like heaven for my starving stomach. Yuuna-chan, a happy-go-lucky girl who sits in a seat left and behind me, invited me to come eat with her friends, an offer I gratefully accepted, and all of my frustration faded as I talked and laughed and ate. After my stomach was full and happy, the girls told me that they were going to the science lab to take care of crawdads, so with just that knowledge, I walked with them down the halls to the classroom. In the back of the lab, about ten small tanks were lined up, each with an assortment of blue colored crawdads. I learned later that Yuuna-chan and the other girls, along with some girls from another class, were taking notes for an ongoing experiment. They weighed each crawdad, noted its color and eating habits, and gave each tank food. By the time we had finished, the bell was already ringing, so we rushed back through the halls and to our classroom for English class.
English and English-speaking class were both, of course, easy for me. What really surprised me was that English was a hated subject for most of the girls in my class and that they believed English was awfully difficult. I should not have been that astounded, since English is indeed a hard language to learn, especially from a completely different language like Japanese. But I guess growing up in a bilingual environment caused me to unconsciously assume that both languages were easy to master. The English class was taught by a Japanese teacher, while the English-speaking class was taught by a young American woman from Pennsylvania. Both classes were a huge relief from the mind-bending morning.
Saitou-sensei returned to our classroom after our sixth hour class and stepped back to let the two class leaders go over reminders and the like. She then gave a closing remark, and we all got up and bowed for the last time that day to say goodbye, then all of the girls began pulling their desks toward the back. Confused, I asked them what they were doing, to which they answered that the room was going to be cleaned and the desks were in the way. Sure enough, a few girls were pulling out brooms from the cabinet and were already sweeping. Because I was not on cleaning duty, I changed my school shoes for my outdoor ones, called out “Sayonara” to everyone, and made my usual route home.
Days like these have continued for two weeks now, and the stress from trying to keep up with all of my classes has gradually built up, causing me to be very hungry and weary. At home, hours are spent studying every night, which is a new experience for me. Back home, I would finish all of my homework at school most days and spend school nights daydreaming, dancing and pondering life. Now, by the time I get home from school, do housework and homework, eat dinner, take a bath and write my day’s summary, there is no time left to do my usual deep thinking before fading off into Dreamland. Thus, my dreams are always jumbled and make no sense, so when I wake up, I am always confused and still tired. I never knew that my seemingly useless hours back home of lying on my bed and staring off into space, or walking slowly down our driveway in the dark with my eyesight blurred from sudden tears and afterwards, looking up into the stars and the moon in search of answers, were so drastically important to me, but now that I do, I miss those precious moments terribly.
I came to Japan to figure it all out: my life, my dreams, the meaning of it all. Yet I find myself stuck, out of breath, needing a break from running in circles, needing the stars and the moon to speak to, to cry to. I have found independence and confidence here in Tokyo, but somehow I am in need of something else…something that will rescue me from this pit of confusion.
Hi Zoe – I just got back from Santa Fe, New Mexico last night, and kept thinking the whole time I was there that I would send you a postcard, but never found a moment to write at all. The first day I was there was Sept 11, and every time someone would make a reference to the tragedy, I would counter that it was a happy day, my niece’s B-day! It was indeed a beautiful blue-sky day, as I wandered their farmers market and had lunch with the cookbook author Deborah Madison. The following days were full of exploring the city and hiking in the surrounding mountains and national parks, including visiting the ancient cliff dwellings of Native Americans. It was amazing, and after Japan, you’ll have to put it on your list of places to go.
About your pit of confusion . . . don’t forget that you are still in the early days of your complete change of daily life, surrounded by completely new people, language, culture, routines, etc . . . and so it is perfectly natural to feel exhausted and confused. I know it doesn’t help much to say that when you are immersed in it all, but try and find a little quiet moment before sleeping, or when you first wake up, to step back from all the activity and say to yourself, “I’m in the early stages of this new way, and things will get better day by day.” And they will!
p.s. Good sleep is super-important, so try and do stretches or something else that relaxes and calms you before getting into bed. (and no green tea!)
p.p.s. The moon and stars (and sun) over Tokyo are the same as the moon and stars over Illinois, so looking at them, you can transport yourself to the dark driveway and put the calmness and peace you found there back into your soul.
zoe, i miss you. a lot. And its all going to get easier :)and i think if you stop searching for that extra something, there will be a point where you will stop and realize that it is there 🙂
and PS. im pretty sure if i heard the chorus of bells at school for the first time i would seriously flip out and be confused haha
oh, zoe, hoping and praying you find that which you need. my heart pounded through this one……..you are brave, indeed. and wise…..hang in there….