“Foreign Girl” — a story inspired by a moment in my life


yukata copyI leaned in close, with my nose almost touching the mirror above the sink in the tiny bathroom, and stared at the bemused face looking back at me. I squeezed my eyes closed and then opened them. Same girl.

Ohayo gozaimasu,” I whispered.

Stepping back from the sink, I gathered the long blonde streak from the left side of my face and clipped it back with a bow-shaped plastic barrette, which matched my pleated blue skirt. Turning my head from side to side, I checked both profiles. I didn’t know this girl.

I leaned into the mirror and whispered, “Gaijin?” As I leaned back, my reflection affirmed my fear: “Foreigner.”

“Who is it?” I asked as someone knocked tentatively on the other side of the door.

“Me,” answered a timid voice I barely recognized.

“Me, who?”

“Me, you know who,” answered my sister Meg.

I turned the lock and opened the door. Even my sister had changed since our move to Napa, California. Her bossiness had disappeared, making her seem much younger than the one year that separated us.

“Why are you closing the door all the time?”

Without answering, I stepped aside to let her in. As I brushed my teeth, I could tell she was working up the courage to ask a question she had wanted to ask me for days.

“Do you think we will go back to Japan soon?”

I kept brushing. The various answers to this question that I had come up with to soothe myself to sleep seemed ridiculous in the light of day. One night, I convinced myself that someone had made a mistake when they gave us the keys to this dreary apartment and that my father would arrive any day with the keys to the right apartment. Another night, I conjured up a fairy godmother resembling our Japanese housekeeper who would come to my rescue. The previous night, I saw myself sneaking onto a plane behind another family.

“Do you?”

“I don’t know,” I answered before walking out of the bathroom.

Entering the kitchen, I found our mother serving breakfast to my youngest sister, who sat in a second-hand highchair.

“Your lunches are on the counter,” she said in between a sip of coffee and the buzzing bee sounds she made as she aimed the spoon of rice cereal toward my sister’s open mouth.

As Meg and I stepped out the front door, my mother called out the reminder she had repeated each day, “Don’t forget the cars drive on the right side. Look both ways when you cross the street.”

“We will,” I replied.

As usual, Meg and I didn’t speak as we walked alongside each other. We were still mesmerized by the newness of it all. Big American cars zipped by in the busy street. I sniffed the air and tried again to figure out the precise ingredients that made the smell of America so distinctive. Was it the freshly mown grass and wet sidewalks? Neither they nor the two-story brick building I could see looming in the distance existed in Japan.

Although initially reassured that Abraham Lincoln Elementary School resembled the school in the Dick and Jane books I had learned to read in first grade, I soon realized that neither my teacher nor my classmates were anything like Dick’s and Jane’s. The first two weeks at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School had been horrible and I didn’t think the third week would be any better.

“Pamela has been living in Japan,” my teacher had announced to the class on my first day.

“She doesn’t look Japanese,” blurted a boy.

“She is not Japanese. She is American, just like all of us.” She continued to explain, “Her parents are American, so she is American,” and then, without pausing, as if she were continuing with her explanation, she added, “nevertheless I am sure she will be excited to hear what we are studying in social studies.” She cocked her head, as I had since seen her do on many more occasions, and awaited an answer to a question she hadn’t asked.

“Ja-Pan,” the class had answered in unison.

Then, she had turned to me and added, “I think you will be impressed with how much the children know about the country.”

But I had not been impressed. In fact, during the past two weeks, I saw how little they knew about my country.

I dreaded the third week at our new school.

Meg and I arrived at the corner opposite the school and were waiting for the light to change, when a huge dome-shaped car drove into the gas station. Through the open back windows, two boys argued.

“It’s my turn to get the coins.”

“No, last time it was your turn.”

I knew they were talking about the contest. I had noticed the banner stretched across the width of the gas station. It appeared that with each gas purchase, customers received a packet of aluminum coins, bearing the impressions of the U.S. Presidents. Filling in spaces on a bingo-like playing card, the goal was to fill in all of the spaces straight across, up and down, or diagonally to win the grand prize of a thousand dollars.

Earlier in the week I had seen a man jump up and down like a small child shouting, “I won! I won!”

As the crosswalk light turned green, a woman in a long, shiny blue car with silver tipped wings stuck her hand out the window and asked me, “Would you like it? I already have this one.”

I reached for the coin, “Thank you!” I could see that the image on the coin was Abraham Lincoln.

“Come on,” said my sister, who was totally uninterested. “We’ll be late.”

We crossed the street and walked past the bike stands crowded with shiny blue and red bikes. With each passing day, I knew I would never be able to ride my bike to school. We climbed the steps to the main door, paused briefly to exchange silent looks of despair, and then went our separate ways.

I opened the door to my classroom, where children were speaking loudly to each other as they put away their belongings and settled into their seats. The ringing of the bell brought quiet to the room and cued everyone to rise to their feet. Placing their right hands over their hearts, they recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Although I followed their motions, I didn’t yet know all of the words and so just moved my lips. My hand could feel the thumping of my heart as strong as a taiko drum, pounding out its message, “This is not where I belong.”

The minutes passed as slowly as ever. I looked at the clock as I did many times during the day and computed the time in Japan, imagining what my friends there were doing.

“Which has the greater land mass, Japan or California?” asked the teacher.

I turned my attention to the boards where the maps of Japan and the California were displayed. I tilted my head sideways to imagine Japan running north and south like California. When I did that, I saw the letters spelling “Japan” backward. They spelled “Napaj.”

“Pamela, you need to answer when I call on you.”

Lost in amazement, I jerked my head upright when I heard my name. The children were staring at me.

“Do you know the answer?”

“Did you know that Napa is Japan spelled backwards without the J?” I asked incredulously.

“It’s important to pay attention in class,” admonished the teacher without acknowledging the incredible fact that I had presented to her.

I was afraid if I moved my mouth, the tears would overflow from their ledges, down my cheeks and off my chin onto my white blouse. I tried with all my might to think quickly of something happy or funny to distract me, but the only things I could think of were cherry blossoms, crickets, and rice crackers. I felt a tear hit my blouse.

Mercifully, the lunch bell rang and the children turned away from me, eager to be dismissed.

The teacher’s gaze remained on me as she said, “You are all excused. Pamela, please stay behind.”

I watched as the children spilled out the open door. The doorway was finally clear. Suddenly, as fast as a marble rolling down a chute, I grabbed my bag and ran out the door toward the stairs, where I melted into the crowd of children descending to the first floor. At the bottom of the stairs, everyone scrambled toward the open double doors that led to the playground. I, however, walked briskly toward the main entrance, hoping, by holding my breath and staring straight ahead, that I was invisible.

As soon as I was outside, I sprinted down the steps, stumbling and regaining my balance on the last one, and then ran past the bicycle stands and toward the crosswalk. Reaching the corner, I nearly stepped off the curb before remembering to look left, and then right, just as a car with silver tipped wings flew by. I ran. The smell of America overwhelmed my nostrils and made me cry harder. When I finally reached our apartment complex, I was out of breath from running and crying and my blue barrette had fallen out somewhere along the way. I stood in the walkway, staring at the front door where I finally saw the truth as clearly as if it were mapped out.

When I stepped into the living room, I startled my mother, who was bent over the classified ads, pen in hand.

“What’s wrong? Why are you home so early?”

“You and daddy are getting a divorce, aren’t you?”

My mother set her pen down. That’s all the answer I needed. I turned right around, ran out of the apartment and turned right toward the stupid little swimming pool and row of sheds. Finding a shed number that matched our apartment number, I found my bicycle inside. A Japanese model, its utilitarian design – painted black with a hard, brown leather seat – wasn’t like any of the American kids’ bikes. Just like me, it was foreign.

As soon as I reached the sidewalk, I jumped up onto the seat and started pedaling, at first slowly and cautiously and then, with the sight of cars speeding past, with growing confidence and strength. When I arrived at the gas station, no one was filling up at the pumps, but a young chubby station attendant was refilling a paper towel holder.

“Hi there.” He reached over to a small paper bag on top of the trash bin and said, “I guess someone gave up on the game. They left a whole bag of coins. Would you like them?”

I walked over and accepted the bag. From its weight, I guessed there must be at least 100 coins inside.

“We aren’t allowed to play, if we work here,” he explained.

“Thank you very much,” I said as I rolled the bag tightly closed.

“Wait here, I’ll get a game card for you,” he added.

He walked back into the small building and behind the counter, and came back out holding a card and something else.

“Here,” he said, as he handed me the card, along with a Hershey’s chocolate bar. “A candy bar for the ride. A few got crushed in the box, so we can’t sell them.” He patted his round tummy and confessed, “I’ve already eaten two.”

“Thank you very much,” I said.

I placed the bag of coins and candy bar in my bicycle basket, atop the playing card.

“Good luck,” he shouted, as I maneuvered my front wheel toward the sidewalk.

I didn’t know where I was going to ride. I just knew I wanted to get as far away from Napa as possible. I rode for a good twenty minutes. At the edge of town, I found a park. The playground was empty except for a couple of toddlers and their mothers and I walked my bike down a path toward the shade of a tree. Leaning my bike against the tree, I removed the candy bar, bag of coins and game card from the basket, and sat down to study the game card, with the grand prize — $$$ONE THOUSAND$$$ — noted in bold gold letters. I was sure that was enough to buy a plane ticket to Japan.

One by one, I began removing coins from the bag. I felt my heart skip a beat when the third coin had a matching square on the card. I continued pulling out coins and filling in the squares, until only two squares needed filling to complete a row. The next ten coins I pulled out were duplicates. Coin after coin, I scanned the card praying for a match. Finally, I pulled out a coin and caught my breath. The coin filled one of the two remaining squares needed to win. I peered into the bag and pulled out the three remaining coins at once. I groaned. None of them was the coin I needed. I leaned against the tree and closed my eyes. My eyes popped open. I looked back down at the card.

“Abraham Lincoln,” I whispered.

Standing up carefully, so as not to upset the playing card, I dug deeply into my front shirt pocket. I pulled out the coin and let out a squeal of excitement. I had won!

In celebration, I unwrapped the chocolate bar carefully so as not to tear the outer wrapper. I was hungry and the chocolate tasted delicious. I smoothed out the paper wrapper next to the game card. Removing the row of winning coins, I stacked them inside the chocolate wrapper and rolled them up. Then, I scooped up the pile of discarded coins and dropped them into the bag. The roll of preciously wrapped winning coins, I placed on top.

As I pedaled away from the park, I went over my plan. I was going to return to the gas station to turn in my winning coins and card and claim my prize money. Then, I was going to return home and act normal. Later in the night, when everyone had fallen asleep, I was going to pack my school bag with a few things. I wouldn’t need much. I pedaled as fast as I could. I could be on an airplane to Japan by tomorrow night.

I slowed down as I approached the gas station. A different attendant was cleaning the windshield of a customer’s car, while the gas tank filled up. I walked my bike up to the door of the office and peeked in, looking for the other man.

The car drove away and the attendant approached.

“Do your tires need air?” he asked.

“No,” I answered.

I pulled out the game card and the roll of winning coins and handed them to the man.

“I won,” I announced with an excited tremor in my voice. “The coins are wrapped up in there.”

The man said excitedly, “Let’s take a look.”

I followed him into the office where he placed the card on the counter, unrolled the coins and began to place them in their matching squares.

“If it all looks good, I’ll give you the form that your dad or mom can fill out. They’ll have to bring the form with the card and the coins back and then we’ll send them off to the main office. You’ll get your check in about eight weeks.”

“Eight weeks?” I asked.

“Just in time for summer vacation,” the man responded with enthusiasm. “Maybe you can take your family on a trip.”

The phone behind the counter rang.

“I better get that,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

He stepped behind the counter to answer the phone on the desk.

“Hello, Hal’s Service. Hiya, Steve. We should have that tire in stock, but let me do a quick check to be sure. Give me a minute.”

He set the phone down and turned to me. “I’ll be right back.”

Through a blinding blur of tears, I waited for him to disappear into the garage and then I walked out of the office, leaving the card and coins behind. Climbing onto my bike, I clenched the handlebars tight and pedaled as fast as I could. My leg muscles burned. My bottom felt bruised from the hard seat. My cheeks were chapped from the wind. But before I knew it, as if on automatic pilot, I was entering the park and approaching the tree. I leaned my bike against the trunk and sank down next to it, pressing my face into my hands.

I was stuck in a place I didn’t belong and there was no escape. How would I survive? I looked up, saw my bike, and knew the terrible answer. If there was any hope of ever belonging, I would have to cut away all of my Japanese parts, inside and out, and the sooner I started, the easier it would be.

I stood up, took a few steps, stopped, and turned to take one last look at my bike. At the edge of the park, as I passed under the shade of a cherry tree in full bloom, I paused briefly to take one last look at my old self.

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