Summer School Abroad

It was July and, in a clear breach of the unwritten laws of summer, I was on my way to school. I had just turned seventeen, and instead of spending my vacation hanging out with my friends, I was participating in an international student exchange program halfway around the world. Despite a year of planning, I didn’t want to go. I’ll admit it—I was scared. This was by far the most adventurous thing I’d ever done. Years later, though, I still have vivid memories of those events, and speak of them often to whoever will listen. Summer school abroad transformed me from a shy and apprehensive traveler to an adventurer unafraid to try new things.

My Japanese host sister, Rie, led the way through the Ibi District of Gifu. It was a hazy morning. We rode along a red dirt road between rice paddies, the Ibi River to our right, distant mountains to our left. Mist swirled up from the river and flowed in long white tendrils across the road. The air smelled earthy and green. Tiny stone shrines emerged from the mist as we pedaled by. The only sound was the click and squeak of our bikes and the chirping of a thousand frogs.

This was nothing like I imagined it would be when I signed up to participate in an exchange program. I knew I would be going to Japan, of course. My family hosted Rie two summers ago. Now her family was hosting me (the program liked to make and maintain those connections). Still, when I imagined myself in Japan, I pictured a massive metropolis like Tokyo, not a small grouping of cinderblock buildings at the edge of a quilt of rice paddies. I wished I’d asked Rie more questions before embarking on this adventure.

As we got closer to Ibigawa and the school, other students joined us. They cast suspicious side-long glances at me. Everyone was dressed in white shirts, navy slacks or skirts, and straw hats with red ribbons. Everyone that is, except for me. I was conspicuously dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt. The only thing on my head was a mop of frizzy red hair. I was ridiculously pale. I was freckled. I was an alien.

The exchange program counselors warned us about culture shock. The unfamiliar weather, landscapes, fashions, and foods could be very disorienting. I was prepared for that. What I was not prepared for was how much my appearance alone made me stand out. There were other Westerners around, but not many in the small city I was staying in. As a rather shy seventeen-year-old girl, I found the amount of attention I drew to be extremely disconcerting.

We finally hit pavement, and with it, the sounds of city life bloomed around us. We had to contend with traffic and pedestrians then. The cars drove on the left there which confused me every time we reached an intersection. I didn’t know which way to look for on-coming traffic. There was a busy train station full of businessmen who stared at me as I passed. There were lines of younger school children dressed in the same uniform as the older students but with yellow ribbons on their hats instead of red. Marching two by two behind their teachers, they turned to stare at me and giggled behind their hands. There were shops selling nothing I recognize but that I wanted to explore. Shoppers stared unabashedly as I cycled by.

The concrete courtyard of the school appeared around a corner. I was happy to dismount my bike and go inside. It was still early, but the temperature was climbing steadily and the humidity is high. Although I was not happy to be going to school, I was willing to endure classes if the building was air-conditioned. My host family’s home was not. I was always a pink-cheeked, sweaty mess. My host sister led me across the courtyard and into the long, gray building. I was still drawing stares. I ducked my head and hurried.

The school, to my great disappointment, was definitely not air-conditioned, but it was considerably cooler inside, and that was refreshing enough. We slipped into a classroom that looked like every classroom I had ever been in; rows of desks, a blackboard at the front, windows along one side. I was inordinately thrilled to find out it was an English class. I was nearly ecstatic when the teacher turned out to be Australian. I had been communicating in makeshift sign language and English-to-Japanese dictionary entries for nearly three weeks. I was desperate to have a conversation in my own language. The Australian teacher was kind enough to chat with me for a minute, but she had a class to teach. I became a popular practice partner. No time to be shy now. Everyone asked the same questions:

“Do you speak Japanese?”

“Do you like our school?”

“Do you like Japanese food?”

“Do you sing karaoke?”

“Can I touch your hair?”

After English class was math. The teacher tried to give me instruction in English, but he struggled to find the right words. We were reduced to sign language again. Fortunately, the formulas were familiar, and I fumbled through the assignment. A girl sitting next to me checked my work and nodded approvingly. We smiled at each other, bonding over algebra.

The next two classes were a mystery. I think one was social studies or maybe history? The pictures in the textbook were no help, and the teacher, after greeting me, made no effort to include me in the class. That was okay. I was good at daydreaming. I stared out the window at unfamiliar shrubs and vines. Large pink flowers hosted tiny tree frogs and attracted lazy bumblebees. There was no denying this rural area was beautiful. Even the blocky school building in a concrete courtyard had its charms.

At lunchtime, everyone wanted to practice their English with me. I was peppered with questions. There was much laughing and teasing. Some of it, I am sure, was at my expense, but I didn’t care much. The kids seemed genuinely interested in me and my oddness. They taught me Japanese swear words. They offered me tastes of their lunch snacks—dried squid, shrimp flavored crisps, red bean dumplings. By the time class started again I had a few new friends and invitations to visit their houses. They made me promise to be their pen pals when I go home. The afternoon passed quickly. In gym class, we played basketball. In art class we sculpted clay. School, I discovered, has a comforting familiarity even here.

When it was time to go home, we mounted our bikes en masse and pedaled through the town. We stopped for soda and snacks at a tiny grocery. The woman behind the counter chatted with each customer. She handed me a can of ice coffee and refused my money. My host sister explained that the cashier thought my freckles were pretty. I nodded at her and tentatively tried a bit of Japanese, “Arigato.” She giggled behind her hand and bowed. I smiled and bowed back. The students laughed at me. We laughed together.

As our group dispersed, everyone patted my back and said goodbye. “Soredewa mata,” they said, then, “See you tomorrow,” practicing their English. I smiled and waved at all my new friends. The sounds of the town faded and we were greeted again by the chirping frogs. The river gurgled to our left and the mountains loomed on our right. It was a beautiful place. I breathed in the watery air and smile to myself. Perhaps summer school wasn’t so bad after all.

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