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Kekkonshiki (A Japanese Wedding) MAG
My excitement about attending a Japanese school had given way to disappointment after just one day.
I had been looking forward to spending a week at Keimei Academy with my host sister, Mizuki, ever since arriving in Kobe, and I had expected that these last five days of my visit to Japan would be the best. Unfortunately, in my excitement, I had forgotten to take into account the fact that the only thing more boring than listening to a physics lecture is listening to a physics lecture in Japanese, less than 10 percent of which you understand.
Mizuki's classmates had initially been thrilled to have a real American in their classroom, but they lost interest after realizing that I struggled to express any thoughts more complicated than “Yes, we have cows in America” or “No, Americans are not all left-handed.” By third period Monday, I was left to doodle on the margins of incomprehensible handouts while everyone else read a story that, as far as I could tell, had something to do with a flower (flower being the sole word I recognized).
The only subject in which I was not entirely silent was English. Much to my chagrin, the English teacher, an exuberant British lady who spoke to the students as if they were native English-speakers, insisted that I pronounce every word from the daily vocabulary lists for my classmates to repeat. In addition, she treated me like everyone else in the class, asking me practice conversation questions like, “What do you want to do in the future, Elizabeth?” and “What time is it?” This would have been mildly interesting had she left me in peace to draw while everyone else listened to dialogues and filled out worksheets. But, no, I was expected to participate in every aspect of her class. She chastised me several times for not paying attention.
During one such moment in my second day at Keimei, Ms. Hill called on me to answer a question. I sluggishly looked up from the panda I was drawing on my hand to see her, expectant and stern, staring directly at me. I quickly glanced around; everyone was staring at me. Not knowing how to respond, I blurted, “Yes, of course.”
Clearly, this was not the answer she was expecting. Ms. Hill's eyebrows crept up her forehead in amusement. A few quiet giggles sounded from behind me.
“Really? You want to do that, Elizabeth?”
I looked down at the textbook page we were using; most of the vocabulary words for the day had to do with hobbies. I figured that as long as I wasn't too specific, anything I said would be fitting enough.
“Oh, yes,” I affirmed confidently. “I would love to do that.”
Muffled titters that had been simmering in the room rose to a boil as my classmates uncovered their mouths and began to laugh with abandon.
What? I looked around in confusion. Almost everyone was doubled over with laughter – except one boy in the corner, hunched over his desk, beet red to the tips of his hair. When he saw me looking at him, he turned away.
“So, Elizabeth,” said Ms. Hill, controlling her own chuckles. “You want to marry Hayashi-kun?”
Oops. My cheeks began to warm, and I could feel my coloring begin to mirror Hayashi's.
“No! I'm sorry. I didn't understand what you were asking. I don't want to marry anyone. Sorry.” I looked at him, but as before, he avoided my gaze.
It was too late for apologies, though; some of the more rambunctious boys had already begun to chant, “Wedding! Wedding!” Looking for someone to sympathize with me, I turned to Mizuki, but she was laughing too.
I sank down in my seat and closed my eyes. Of all the opportunities in Japan for me to say something ridiculous, why did I have to embarrass myself while speaking my native language? My chances of having any fun the rest of the week seemed remote.
I sat for a few minutes, mopily contemplating my ruined opportunities for pen-pals, until I realized that the class had already moved on to the next lesson. Ms. Hill had been replaced by a stern-looking Japanese man with a graying moustache, and everyone except me was busily completing a grammar assignment. My eyebrows knotted in confusion. They don't care anymore? Hayashi doesn't hate me? Had I imagined the ridicule?
My lack of understanding was slightly disconcerting. Over the past month, though, in a sea of konnichiwas and sayonaras, I had become fairly used to not understanding. As with most things that baffled me about Japan, I soon gave up trying to figure out what had happened, and I returned to drawing my panda.
I quickly forgot this incident amidst the more pressing events of my last days in Japan: packing, final photo opportunities, and trying to stuff my suitcase with as many souvenirs as its seams would allow.
However, looking back, I realize that that moment was the point at which I began to allow myself to actually speak Japanese, to say what I meant, even if it wasn't grammatically correct. During my last three days, I finally opened up to my host family and had significant conversations about what I thought of Japan. Before, I had been so scared of speaking incorrectly that I'd essentially limited myself to “My name is Elizabeth” and “I like Japan.” After the “marriage” incident, I wasn't afraid of saying things like, “Before I come to Japan, I think it is warm here, but cold is surprise.”
The afternoon of my last day, I was called to the front of the classroom to give an impromptu good-bye speech. I should have expected this. Japanese people love speeches (I gave three or four on my first day at Keimei), but I walked up to the podium entirely unsure of what I was going to say.
I stood in front of 40 pairs of eyes waiting expectantly for me to speak. My heart began to beat faster and my hands started to sweat. I'm a nervous public speaker. I was about to say something short, like a simple “Thank you,” when I realized that I would be leaving Japan in less than 24 hours and I would never see any of these people again. No matter what I said, they wouldn't remember me in a year. They probably wouldn't even remember me in a month. And so I let myself be free (as free as is possible for someone who has a vocabulary of fewer than 1,500 words), giving a speech in the language of a confident Japanese three-year-old.
“Everyone, thank you. I went to Keimei one week only. But it was fun. I saw Japanese school a little bit and learned a lot. I wore a Japanese uniform and everything was very good. I am happy. Everyone is nice. Please come to America. Thank you again.”
I had returned to my seat, still excited that I had managed to speak somewhat comprehensibly, when I heard a whisper behind me. I turned around to find two of the class's rowdiest boys looking at me, murmuring, “Wedding! Wedding! Wedding!”
I just laughed.