“Wake up Nicole! How many times are you going to hit the snooze button this morning?” Mom flipped on the bright light in my room and began shuffling around the room, picking up the cap and gown I left on the floor the night before. Last night I practically collapsed from exhaustion due to all the festivities that my family felt necessary for my graduation celebration. You would think I had just graduated from Harvard Law or something. After all, it was just high school graduation. But all of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents came in for the occasion. Mom made a huge spread and threw an elaborate party. While my friends were at after-graduation parties celebrating around bonfires and drinking from kegs, I was here with my family, drinking punch and listening to Gran talk about how fast time has flown by.
I may have been disinterested in this party, but I always loved when Gran visited. Ever since I was a little girl, I was always mesmerized by her. It seemed as though she could do anything, and she always did things well. She could plant the best flower beds and vegetable gardens, and had the most well-manicured lawn on the block. She had been divorced three times, and always told me, “a strong woman doesn’t need a man for anything, but if a good one comes along hold on tight Nicole Ray.”
She always called me Nicole Ray or Honey Bunch. She loved the outdoors and she lived on a gorgeous piece of Texas lakefront property. She taught me how to water ski, fish and swim. She drove a sports car and always dressed to the nines. I was fully convinced that my Gran was invincible, and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Listening to her talk last night about my love of Texas horny toads, frogs, and lizards made me smile, because I remembered how much my Dad hated me touching all of those things. But my Gran would always just wink and smile .
All of that had changed now. I was all grown up, so searching for critters under rocks was in the distant past. I spent the last four years playing the good girl; always walking the straight and narrow, spending my time studying or at the local dance studio. I’ve been dancing since I was two years old. My Dad got me started. He called me his “princess ballerina”. I loved it and used to scream when it was time to take off my tutu. I wore it so often my Mom used to hide it from me.
I grew to love dance and music. It became part of me. I branched out and took many styles of dance through the years, even though my teachers and father insisted I focus on ballet. To tell the truth, ballet was not my favorite, but I never told anyone. I loved contemporary dance and jazz was such a thrill. I could get lost in contemporary dance, feeling the lyrics and pouring my emotions into my movements, with the music as my guide. Jazz was electrifying, and I loved just letting go. Ballet was so reserved by comparison, so controlled. It was just like my life; I wanted to be free, I wanted to let go, but that was not acceptable for me or my family. I spent my nights and weekends in the studio, and fit in my homework whenever possible. My friends came into class on Monday mornings talking about shopping at the mall, and the hot guys they saw at weekend parties. I always felt like an outsider. I wasn’t unpopular and I had friends, but my life revolved around school and dance.I loved my teachers especially in home economics class and school was somewhere I loved to be unlike most other students. My friend, Annie, was the only person that really knew me outside of school or the studio, and we had been friends since preschool. Growing up in our tiny east Texas town ,you were certain to end up graduating with the same people you used to play puzzles with in Miss Janine’s preschool class. Everyone knew everyone, which made for some good gossip, that’s for sure. Annie was upset, but not surprised that I would be skipping all of the after-graduation parties.
It was 7 am on Saturday morning the day after graduation, and I had to go into the studio for five hours. Unlike my peers, who were probably hungover and asleep, I was eating a banana and drinking a protein shake, listening to my Mom go on about how old she felt having a high school graduate for a daughter.
“I can’t believe it, Nic. You’re a high school graduate. It’s hard to believe that just eighteen years ago you were a tiny baby in my arms.”
I didn’t see what the big deal was.
“Mom, you’re not old. You still look great and you did a good job raising me. Isn’t that the upside?”
“Nic, you’re too sweet, even though I don’t agree with the still looking great part..”
Ever since my parents divorced last year she was totally self-depreciating. Dad came to my graduation ceremony and gave me a gift, but that was it. I was headed to his house tonight to stay for the remainder of the weekend. But I rarely saw him since the divorce. I was dumbfounded when I heard they were divorcing. Twenty years of marriage thrown away for no reason. They moved on so effortlessly that I was confused. This wasn’t how my friends described their parents’ divorces. It seemed normal for Mom and Dad, so painless. Other than Mom making a few comments here and there, she went on like everything was fine. All the while, I was feeling like I lost my whole family.
I threw my banana peel away, ran to bathroom, and swept my long, thick brown hair into a tight bun. I threw on a leotard and tights, a pair of sweats, and my dance jacket. There was no need for makeup; I would just sweat it off after five hours of dancing. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I never thought about guys. My parents’ divorce solidified my opinion of love, and I wanted nothing to do with falling in or out of it. Their divorce convinced me that the idea of true love was a bunch of crap. I still didn’t know how two people who were together for twenty years could just move on, like all that time never happened. I didn’t have time for boys anyway. Dance took up all my time, and relationships were time-consuming. I watched many friends be overtaken by a relationship, and it was nauseating.
I put on my shoes and opened the front door.
“Bye, Mom,” I hollered. “I’m headed to the studio and I’m going to stay at Dad’s. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Have a good practice,” she yelled back. “Say hello to your father.” It was too weird! It was like they were buddies or something. She always said to say hello, and I never did.
The studio was alive with people rustling around and getting ready for class. The crazy dance moms stood huddled together, prattling quietly, likely gossiping. They were the one drawback about class – catty moms. Another group of dance moms were reading books or quietly talking. They were the normal moms of the studio. They were genuinely nice to each other and supportive of their kids. My Mom was in neither group, because she never came to the studio since the divorce.
I changed out of my sweats and jacket, put on my jazz shoes, and headed into Studio A where my teacher, Ms. Jenny, stood waiting for me to show up for my private.
“Hey, Nicole,” she asked. “How was graduation?” She was in yoga pants and a studio logo t-shirt wearing her always bright and energetic smile.
“I’m good and it was okay. Nothing spectacular.”
“Only you would be unenthusiastic about high school graduation,” she said, laughing.
I shrugged and started warming up. I didn’t know what she meant.
“Nicole, did you even go to any after graduation parties?” Here we go, I thought. She sounded just like Annie, who was probably hungover.
“No, Ms. Jenny. I didn’t go to any parties. I had to be up early, and I knew it was best to stay in. Plus Mom and the family had a party for me at home.”
“You know, you could have scheduled your private for another day. I was confused when I saw it on the books.”
I knew she meant well, but it really didn’t matter to me what day it was. This was my routine, and I always stuck to it, whether it was graduation or not.
“It’s fine. Really, Ms. Jenny. You know this is where I would rather be anyway. This is my second home.”
She smiled and pressed play on the stereo. Alicia Keys’s velvety voice flowed throughout the room and my heart smiled. I loved everything about the studio: the music and the mirrored walls staring back at me, showing me all I can be. We warmed up and the hard work began. My private sessions were to be sure I could concentrate on my technique and improve on any weaknesses. My Dad always pushed me to be the best, and told me never to settle for less.
“Perfection is not attainable,” he used to say, quoting Vince Lombardi. “But if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” So I have always strived to catch excellence in every competition and every recital.
As I stretched, I suddenly remembered that this was my last week at the studio. It has been my second home for so long and I was going to miss it dearly. I was leaving for Japan in a week, but I forgot how fast that day was approaching. Of course, everyone expected me to go to Julliard or some other prestigious performing arts school, but for once I decided to think outside the box.
I was born in Okinawa, Japan. My Dad was a government contractor, and he worked overseas on the Japanese island, where I was born at a Naval Hospital. I was only six months old when we moved back to the States, but I always wanted to visit the place where I was born. At the beginning of my senior year, I began researching dance academies and host family programs overseas. Annie thought I had fallen off the deep end. She was the first person I told.
“Holy Santa Claus shit, Nic,” she screamed. “Japan? What the hell for?”
I loved Annie. She was funny as hell and could always make me laugh. She had a heart the size of Texas, and I could always count on her.
“I was born there and I want to see the place where I was born. I’ve read a lot about it and you should see this place. It’s magnificent, truly beautiful.”
“Nic, there are plenty of fucking beautiful places right here in America. You don’t have to go traipsing off to Tokyo. You were only a baby when you were there. All you did was eat, cry and shit there for six months. It’s not like you’re going to go back and reminisce about your childhood. Oh wow look over there, that’s where I was born in that hospital and look there it is, the nursery where me and a bunch of other screaming, crying, eating and shitting babies were kept until our parents took us home!”
I looked at her and shook my head. Annie was never afraid to say what was on her mind. We laughed and I continued pleading my case to her.
“First of all, it’s Okinawa, not Tokyo. And yes, you’re right, I was just a baby. But it’s still my birthplace. Plus it’s exotic, and the culture there is amazing. I’ve lived my entire life in a perfectly wrapped little box. I’m ready to rip that shit off and go out in the world to see new things and meet new people. I want to find myself.”
“Okay, I can see that you’re set on this crazy adventure. You want to go Eat Love Pray, I can follow that. But for the love of baby Jesus, please get laid while you’re there. Then as soon as you do, I want a full report. Those military guys over there are everywhere. It’s probably like a hot guy convention on a daily basis, and you know those Marines are just dripping with sex appeal. Actually, the more I think about it the more jealous I am that you and your fine ass will be over there for a year soaking up the sand and sun with The Few and The Proud.”
Here we go again, I thought. Annie was always trying to push me into having sex. Not that she had much experience in that area. She had sex with one guy, and she acted like Dr. Ruth.
“Really, I’m not going there to have sex with a bunch of jarheads. I’m going there to learn about a new culture and to dance. That’s it.”
“Nic, you don’t have to get married to have sex with someone. I mean, it’s not the end of the world to like a guy. If you tried it, you might actually enjoy the company of the opposite sex.”
“Maybe one day,” I said, but that was the last thing on my mind. Once I started reading about Japan, I knew it was what I wanted. My parents were stunned when I told them.
“If you think that I’m allowing my 18-year-old daughter to live overseas,” my Dad said, “you’re out of your ever-loving mind.”
For her part, my Mom shook her head silently.
“Dad, Mom. I love you both, but this is my decision. I’ve never given you any reason to not trust me. I’ve earned this and I want this.”
“Nicole, I know you’re responsible and I know you’re trustworthy,” my Dad said. “What you don’t understand is that this world is unsafe, and you’re a beautiful young woman who’s vulnerable to the crazy people out there.”
I knew right away this was going to be a tough sell, but the look on my Dad’s face told me it was going to be harder than I originally thought.
“Dad, I’m not going to be alone. I’ll live with a host family. People do it all of the time. Just like exchange students.”
His brow creased and he rubbed his temples. “Nic, I just–”
“Bradley, I think we should let her do this,” my Mom interjected. “She’s apparently thought a lot about this and she has her mind made up. She is a good girl and we shouldn’t stand in her way. As long as we ensure that she’s placed with a stable host family, I think we should let her go.”
My jaw dropped in disbelief.
“Lara, I don’t believe you’re gonna undermine me in front of Nicole,” he said, shaking his head. “You never cease to amaze me lately, you know that?” I had seen this look before. He stormed out the front door and we heard his truck’s tires squeal out of the driveway.
“Mom, what’s going on with you and Dad?” I asked. “You’ve been weird lately and I’ve never heard him yell at you like that before.” Tears started running down my face. She got up and put her arms around me.
“Honey, your father and I are going through some stuff right now. It’s not your fault in the least.” I looked up at her eyes and could see that she was distraught.
“What do you mean, Mom?”
“Nicole, your father and I are getting a divorce. We were trying to wait until after your big dance competition to tell you, because we didn’t want you to be distracted.”
I stared into my lap. I couldn’t look at her anymore. It wasn’t her fault, but that was the day my idea of true love changed. It was the day my family cracked in half. In the end, my Dad relented. But I think he felt like he had no choice, because my Mom had already agreed to it. All the wheels were already set in motion, and he was powerless to stop it.
“Nicole, I can’t believe you’re flying off to fucking China,” Annie said. “Just like that, to live with strangers, meditate, drink gallons of shitty green tea, and eat rice, noodles and raw fish every day.”
I laughed. “Annie, I’m going to Japan, not China. And they don’t just eat sushi and ramen noodles there, you know. How stereotypical can you be?”
I rolled my eyes and continued packing. Annie sat in my wicker chair with her legs crossed, watching me pack.
“Well, it’s just weird. I mean, what if you don’t like these people? Then you’re stuck living with them for a freaking year. I mean, you’ve got to have some reservations about this. Not to sound like a shitty friend, but you’re not the most experienced person. You’ve lived a pretty damn sheltered existence. Now you’re getting on a plane and flying off to China or Japan or whatever. I mean, how are you going to manage yourself over there?”
I looked at her and smiled. Annie was the best friend I ever had, but she could really get on my nerves. Still, I appreciated her concern.
“I’ve researched my host family well and video chatted with them several times. I found a great website called Okinawa Hai that provided tons of useful information about the island. I also started studying Japanese and I feel good about my decision. I feel comfortable with the host family, and their 17-year-old daughter is so excited to have an American coming to live with them. She wants to learn more about American culture and she said she always wanted a sister. To tell you the truth, I always wished I had siblings too. I’m stoked to know that I will have a sister for a year. Her parents are both fluent in English as the mother is an English teacher at a local high school so I know communication won’t be a problem.”
I folded a shirt and shoved it into my suitcase. I grabbed another shirt and folded it hastily. Annie was always telling me to loosen up and be more outgoing. Now that I was trying something new she was hyper-critical. She got up from the chair and grabbed my arm.
“Nicole, I love you. You know that. You’re my best friend. I guess I was just hoping you’d change your mind. I want to support you in this. I really do. I’m just going to miss the shit out of you, that’s all. How am I going survive without seeing your face every day?”
She sniffled and wiped her eyes and I stared at her.
“Okay, none of this,” I said. “You cannot cry. Because if you cry, then I’m required to cry too. So dry it up and help me pack because I’m trying to fit an entire wardrobe into three mid-sized suitcases.” We laughed and she picked up a shirt and started folding it. I was grateful for the help. The only thing I loved as much as dance and music was clothes. Even though I did most of my shopping online, I had tons of clothes and shoes. I had no idea how to fit everything in my suitcases, but I was sure going to try.
“Nicole Harrison.” Annie gasped and held up a pair of my panties. “Why in the name of God do you wear these ugly ass granny panties? I swear, it looks like you could parachute from the Dallas Lincoln Plaza with these. Why don’t you get online and purchase some panties that don’t look like they came from your Gran’s drawer?”
I shook my head again. She could be so stubborn. “Annie, I’m sorry if the idea of walking around with a tiny strip of dental floss up my ass is not appealing to me. They’re comfortable. Why does it matter? No one but me sees them anyway. Seems like a waste of money.”
She didn’t say anything and I was thankful. We finished packing and I checked my phone. Dad knew I was leaving today but he wasn’t riding with us. I realized I had to text him.
Me: Dad I am all packed up and we are heading out soon to the airport. Make sure you get there in time for me to say bye to u. K luv u!
He texted me back a minute later.
Dad: Yes, honey I will be there. Make sure you packed that mace and keychain alarm that I got you!
Me: Dad I did not forget to pack them. Please stop worrying so much. I am going to be fine.
We pulled into the DFW airport parking garage after the hour and a half drive. Mom and Annie were silent as they got out.
“Listen, you two,” I said. “You’re not going to get all emotional on me. You know my cry rule. I don’t want to show up to my host family’s house looking like some washed-up raccoon.” I laughed, trying to keep the mood light but I was really nervous. I took a deep breath and put on my brave face. I looked at Mom and Annie cheerfully. “Let’s get going. You know they say you have to be really early for these international flights.”
We headed inside and I immediately scanned the terminal for my Dad. He promised he would be here to see me off, even though I knew it would be weird for him and Mom to be together.
“Nic!” I turned my head, hearing his voice. He was sitting on a bench in from of the ticket counter. He rose, shoved his hands into his pockets, and rocked back and forth on his feet, looking anxious.
“Daddy! You made it.” He hugged me tight. “Are you all set for your big adventure around the world?” he asked.
“Dad, I’m not sailing the seven seas. I’m just going to Japan.” He laughed and I heard my Mom clear her throat.
“Lara,” My Dad said.
“Bradley,” She replied. The situation was awkward. They were married forever and now they couldn’t muster more than each other’s name.
“Okay, Mom, Dad. Let’s not make this awkward. Right now, I would like for us to just be family.” Annie gave me an uncertain look and I smiled, putting my brave face on.
“Mr. Harrison, how are you?” Annie asked. “I haven’t seen you for awhile.”
“I’m good, Annie Banannie. How are you, kiddo?” Dad pulled her in for a hug.
“Oh my gosh, Mr. Harrison. You cannot still be calling me that.”
“Annie, I’ve called you that since you were two years old, when Lara used to babysit you on the weekends. Why stop now?”
We all laughed, and it felt nice to just….be normal again with them.
The small talk faded and it was time to go through the security checkpoint. I hugged Mom and told her I’d text her when I got on the plane and call from my first layover in Taiwan. Dad gave me a tight squeeze and started in with his lecture about safety, human trafficking, and all the dangers of traveling abroad.
“God, Dad. Are you trying to scare the crap out of me at the last minute?”
He frowned. “Nicole, I just want you to be careful and know what to look out for.” He hugged me again and I assured him I would be careful.
“Okay, I guess this is it,” I said confidently. I grabbed my carry-on and smiled. Annie ran over and practically tackled me.
“Geez, Annie I know we’re in Dallas, but you’re not a Cowboy linebacker and I’m not Tony Romo.” Mom and Dad burst into laughter and she smacked me on the shoulder.
“Don’t make fun of Romo. You know it’s all Jessica Simpson’s fault that he started sucking in the first place.”
My Dad laughed some more and I knew I had to get through security before the football talk started.
“You call me as soon as you can, Nic,” Annie said. “I hear there are a lot of hot military guys over there on Okinawa. I can’t wait to see your Facebook blow up with pics.” I shook my head and looked at Dad. I wasn’t into hot guys or Facebook. Going to Okinawa was not going to change that either.
No one warned me about how tiring and uncomfortable a flight that spanned 7,422 miles was going to be. My butt hurt from sitting for so long, and my iPod had played through my lengthy music library multiple times. I read a book from front to back and I now was growing antsy. I was also fairly certain that small children should never be allowed to fly internationally. The kids sitting behind me had cried, screamed, thrown food, and kicked my seat relentlessly across the Pacific Ocean. I decided I was never having kids. The movie on the video screens stopped and an exercise program resumed. The videos gave me a good excuse to get up and stretch.
I fell back asleep and awoke to the sound of Japanese coming through the speakers. I waited for the English translation and learned that we were about to land in Naha City on Okinawa. My layover was a blip. The descent felt like it took forever, but I had a window seat and the view was breathtaking. The water surrounding the island was an amazing sea-green. I saw pictures online but this was completely different. My heart raced and I got goose bumps. This was it! I was really here, really doing it. I wasn’t nervous at all; just extremely excited. Jeff Buckley was singing Calling You into my ears and I was transfixed by the incredible view below me. No turning back, no regrets, and no second guessing. I knew at that moment, gazing into the sea-green ocean that my life was about to begin.
We approached the runway and I lost sight of the beautiful sea-green blanket. The city emerged in front of the airport. It was the city that I would call home for the next twelve months. I saw cement, huge buildings, and throngs of people. It was like Dallas, but without the greenery. There were so many people walking, and taxis everywhere. I blinked and saw clusters of mopeds and scooters on the roads. Our landing was smooth and I was thrilled to be off of this plane. My butt hurt and my joints were stiff. My feet felt like they congealed to my Adidas, and I was dying to eat some real food.
I slowly made my way to baggage claim and was relieved to see that my luggage arrived safely. My host family had to work today but they arranged for a driver to pick me up. I saw a tiny Japanese man wearing an old fedora and holding a sign with my name. I approached him and smiled.
“Hi, I’m Nicole.” He smiled and bowed slightly.
“Hello, Ms. Harrison. My name is Yuki, and I will be driving you to the Nakamura home.”
I dropped my hand and bowed back. ”Thank you, Mr. Yuki. It’s so great to meet you. I’m looking forward to meeting my host family. Please call me Nicole. How far is the drive from here? I’m starved and cannot wait to get a shower. That flight was something else.”
Yuki smiled at my ramble. “It’s only about thirty to forty minutes away, depending on traffic. We can go through the McDonald’s drive-thru to get you a bite to eat on the way if you’d like.”
I couldn’t believe it. I just flew over seven thousand miles to an exotic tropical island and here he was offering McDonald’s. I hated fast food at home, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like it here either.
“Mr. Yuki, that’s thoughtful, but I really don’t like McDonald’s.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You’re American and you don’t like McDonald’s?”
“No, Mr. Yuki. I don’t really like fast food. I’m a dancer and I try to watch what I eat.” He smiled and said he knew just the thing for me. He loaded the suitcases into the trunk and opened the passenger door. We buckled up and were on our way. I ravenously scanned through the window, taking it all in. Riding on the left side of the road felt strange and left me feeling disoriented. After driving for about fifeen minutes, we pulled into a store parking lot. I looked up and the blue-and-white sign read LAWSON in all caps. I wanted to text Annie to tell her everything wasn’t in Japanese symbols.
Mr. Yuki walked around and opened my door for me. I grabbed my backpack and we went inside. I looked around and nothing was familiar, except for Coca-Cola and a few other American drinks. Some of the candy was familiar, but for the most part everything was in Japanese script. Mr. Yuki walked over to one of the refrigerated aisles and grabbed two triangular rice-looking snacks. He offered them to me, and said they were healthy. It didn’t look appetizing, but I was here to try new things. I started to pull out my wallet, but Mr. Yuki stopped me.
“Welcome to Okinawa, Nicole san. This is onigiri and it is oishi.”
I didn’t know what oishi meant but I hoped it was good. I grabbed a bottled water and we got back on the road. I peeled the plastic wrapping off and tried the onigiri. I was immediately surprised. The rice was perfect and the salmon tasted fresh. The seaweed added a pinch of saltiness, and I inhaled it.
“I was hungrier than I thought,” I said to Mr. Yuki.
He chuckled and handed over the onigiri that he got for himself. “Here, Nicole san. You can have mine. I’m not too hungry. Plus my wife puts them into my obento daily.”
I ate the second one quickly. I gulped down some water and turned back to looking through the window. We passed the Marine Corps Air Base, Futenma, and I laughed at what Annie said about all the military guys that would be here.
We pulled into a side street that was so small that I wondered how two cars could pass through at the same time. The buildings were all multi-story concrete boxes. I wondered if these were apartments or houses. Mr. Yuki slowed to a stop and I saw the name Nakamura on the outside of the house by the mailbox. I looked up and saw that the house was a huge, gated three-story. There was a chest-level concrete barrier that wrapped around the house. Mr. Yuki got out of the car and retrieved my luggage from the trunk. I followed him to the front entrance and noticed the Shisa dogs perched on top of each side of the entrance. I knew these dogs from studying Okinawan culture. They resembled a cross between a lion and a dog, from Okinawan mythology. I knew that people placed pairs of Shisa on their rooftops or flanking the gates to their houses. They’re considered to be wards, believed to protect from certain evils. When in pairs, the left shisa traditionally has a closed mouth, and the right one an open mouth. The open mouth wards off evil spirits, and the closed mouth keeps good spirits in.
A sweet, elderly Japanese woman opened the door wearing an apron. I assumed this was the housekeeper.
“Ohayou gozaimasu, Nicole san,” she said. I recognized the words for good morning as she bowed.
“Ohayo gozaimasu,” I said, bowing. She patted her chest. “Nobuko san.”
“It is nice to meet you, Ms. Nobuko.” I said. She turned and swept her hand, motioning for us to come in. I walked in and quickly she started speaking in Japanese, pointing to my feet. Mr. Yuki looked at me and explained that it was improper to wear outdoor shoes indoors. I glanced at Ms. Nobuko, who was opening a cabinet filled with slippers.
“Nicole San, you just grab a pair of the indoor shoes and replace them with your outdoor shoes. This is a tansu. It’s a cabinet for shoes.”
I didn’t know this from my studies, and felt embarrassed. I learned later that before entering their homes, Japanese people remove their shoes to avoid soiling the floor. This tradition stems from the fact that traditional Japanese homes featured tatami mats that were used to sit on while eating. I also learned that the Japanese pay close attention to differences in space. The outside world was clearly delineated from the home or inside space. Taking off shoes was also a sign of leaving the outside world behind, along with its troubles and worries. I was fascinated with this culture and looking forward to immersing myself in it.
Ms. Nobuko escorted me across the most beautiful and pristine dark wood flooring I had ever seen. We climbed the stairs to the second floor and I fell in love. The floor of the guest room was tatami mat, the walls were natural-toned, and a beautiful teak wood armoire and dresser were on the far wall. There was a giant window that gave the room natural light leading out onto a balcony, and my bed was a Japanese-style platform bed. It was low to the ground, and the frame was the same teak wood. A fluffy, solid white cover and pillows lay on top. A perfect orchid sat on the nightstand. A tall glass vase sat in one corner, partially filled with pebbles, and holding tall, green bamboo shoots. Everything was so clean, crisp, and earthy. Mr. Yuki placed my luggage on the floor near the dresser and wished me well. He spoke brieftly with Ms. Nobuko and left, and I suddenly felt uneasy standing alone with Ms. Nobuko. She spoke almost no English and I wasn’t sure how long it would be before my host family got home. I remembered learning via email that Ms. Nobuko was the house Mama san, which was something like a nanny. She was responsible for maintaining the home in whatever way it needs.
I decided to start unpacking and take a shower. I opened the door that I assumed was a bathroom. As I walked in and looked around, I quickly realized this wasn’t a typical bathroom. It looked like a great shower room. The shower head was perched to my right next to a sink that looked like a large, hammered silver bowl, with a beautiful silver oval mirror hanging above it. There was a drain in the middle of the floor, which was strange. But there was no door separating the shower area from the toilet and sink. The walls and floor were coverd with a sea-foam tile, and across from the shower was a tiny half-bathtub. There was no way for me to fit inside it. I knew the Japanese people were small, but this seemed too strange. After a quick Google search, I learned that Japanese bathtubs are generally shorter and deeper. The common position in such tubs is sitting up, with your knees pressed to your chest. The idea was to have water covering your shoulders. Although it seemed foreign, the point was to soak as much of your body as possible. Generally speaking, most Japanese people showered before entering their soaking bathtub, to keep the water clean. The more I thought about this, the more it made sense.
I got undressed and turned the shower on. It was a rainfall-style shower head, and I couldn’t wait to wash away the grimy feeling from the long flight. The shower felt heavenly and the jetlag overwhelmed me as soon as the water hit my shoulders. My heavy eyes popped open when I realized that I forgot to text my parents or Annie to let them know that I arrived safely. I quickly finish showering, rung out my hair, and grabbed a towel from the towel rack. I wrapped the towel around myself and ran into my room to reach for my phone.
Me: Mom I am so sorry that I have not texted you sooner. I got swept up in the excitement of everything and forgot. I am doing great. The island is beautiful from what part I have seen and the host family has an awesome home. My room is amazing and I love it here already!
I texted the same message to Dad and Annie, and hoped to hear back from them soon. I was nearly a day ahead of them now with the time change, but I knew they were probably glued to their phones waiting to hear from me. Suddenly, my phone chimed and it was Dad saying he was happy to hear from me. Mom and Annie texted a moment later to say they were happy I made it safely.
Now I needed to hurry and get myself together. I opened up my suitcases and started digging for something to wear. Surprisingly, my clothes were not as wrinkled as I expected. But I was going to need an iron, because the navy pencil skirt and white peplum top I wanted to wear had a few creases in them. I put on a pair of sweats and a tank top and wandered down stairs to ask Ms. Nobuko for an iron. I realized only at the bottom of the stairs that I had no idea how to say iron. I ran back up to my room and grabbed my electronic translator. I saw that iron is airon in Japanese, pronounced nearly the same way but with the R sounding more like an L. I found Ms. Nobuko in the kitchen and smelled something wonderful.
“Sumimansen,” I said. She turned and smiled, clearly impressed at my use of the Japanese language. I made a motion with my hand and said “airon?”.
She stopped chopping vegetables guided me upstairs. She slid open a large closet in the hallway and rolled out a clothing steamer. She motioned to it. “Okay, this Nicole san?“
It was more than okay. I had a steamer at home and loved it. I thanked her and walked back to my room to get ready.
I awoke to a sudden knock at the door and realized I had dozed off. I was surprised to see that it was 4:18 pm. I shot up, flattened my skirt, and opened the door. Standing in front of me was the entire Nakamura family, smiling wide-eyed. Mr. Nakamura was slender, with salt-and-pepper colored hair. He wore glasses and a charcoal business suit. Mrs. Nakamura was dressed in a dark blue mid-length skirt, with a matching tailored jacket and a white button-up underneath. Her dark hair was swept back in a twist with not one hair out of place. She wore light makeup over flawless skin, and her high cheek bones gave her an exotic look.
I put my arms out to hug them but they seemed unsure. I read that hugging wasn’t customary upon meeting someone in Japan, but I couldn’t resist. They paused a moment and hugged me back, and Emiko squeezed me the hardest.
“Nicole san, it’s so joyful to see you,” Mrs. Nakamura said. “How are you? Is your room to your satisfaction?”
“Oh yes, Mrs. Nakamura. It’s lovely, very earthy and peaceful.”
“Nicole san, in Japan we say ‘experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn more about yourself.' I’m glad you’re pleased with your room.” He stood the same height as me, and had lively dark eyes. “You’ll enjoy our karesansui garden out back if you enjoy peace and beauty of earthiness.”
I couldn’t believe it. A zen garden! I had only seen those on television.
“Yes, Mr. Nakamura. That sounds wonderful. I love to read, and that sounds like a perfect place for doing so. Thank you so much for your kind hospitality.”
Emiko kept tugging at her mother’s arm and speaking rapidly in Japanese. Finally, Mrs. Nakamura acknowledged her.
“Nicole san, Emiko is very anxious to spend some time with you, but she’s nervous about her English. Though I assure you her English is very acceptable. She’s been taking private English lessons since she was five years old. She’s a perfectionist and worries too much.”
I looked at Emiko and smiled. “Emiko, please don’t worry. Your letters all year were well-written. If you speak as well as you write, I’m positive we’re going to have no language barrier at all. I’ve always wanted a sister and I really look forward to spending a lot of time with you.”
Emiko smiled warmly. “Nicole san, me too. I’m very happy. We’ll be like sisters.” She wore a dark blue plaid skirt and a short-sleeve collared white button-up, above knee-high white socks and black loafers. Her shiny, bone-straight black hair was long and luxuriant. Her skin was like porcelain and looked as if it had never been touched by the sun. I realized I was staring at her, but she was beautiful. “Come, Nicole san,” Mrs. Nakamura said. “We will have dinner soon.”
We went downstairs into the dining room area, where a long coffee table sat. It looked like a long coffee table, but it was actually the dinner table. It sat low to the floor upon the tatami mat. Flowered square pads were situated on the floor around it. The tatami mat dining area was slightly raised from the wood flooring. The Nakamuras knelt onto the square pads and I followed suit, kneeling beside Emiko. The table was already set with more food than I could fathom the four us being able to eat.
“Ms. Nobuko has prepared some of our favorite traditional Okinawan foods for welcoming you to our home.” Mr. Nakamura said.
All of the serving plates and platters were beautiful, and the ceramic dishes looked like pieces of art. I ran my finger along the intricate designs of my dish.
“For this special occasion,” Mr. Nakamura said, “we are using our Joyaki dinnerware. Ceramic pottery is an ancient pastime here in Okinawa.”
“These are breathtaking, Mr. Nakamura,” I said. “The artistry of the intricate detail is very beautiful.”
Ms. Nobuko approached the table and served us tea.
“Like they say in America, let’s dig in.” Mrs. Nakamura said. I chuckled and everyone laughed. “Itatakimasu!” they said in unison, and began passing around the serving dishes of food. The food was amazing, even though I didn’t know what most of it was. The tempura was perfect and I loved the miso soup.
There were no noodles or sushi, and I wanted to text Annie to rub it in.
There were no noodles or sushi, and I wanted to text Annie to rub it in.
After dinner, we resigned to the living room where the family asked me about Texas and my plans for the year. Emiko said that she and her friends wanted to show me around the island this weekend. I smiled and nodded.
“Emiko, I know you’re excited to have Nicole here but you have school all day and Juku at night,” Mrs. Nakamura said. “You will have to wait until the weekend to take her sightseeing.”
The Japanese people were serious about education, and if I thought I had always been a busy teenager with a lot of pressure on my shoulders, I learned quickly that I never really knew pressure. Emiko had to go to night school four nights a week after being in high school classes all day. Then she had piano and English lessons on Saturday mornings. At least with my dance practice every night back home, I was doing something I loved and it was my choice. I feel a little bit sorry for Emiko.
I thanked everyone and walked upstairs to my room. I changed into a pair of yoga pants and a white tank top. I grabbed my e-reader and walked out on my balcony to read. I sat down and started my new book, which was about a teenaged girl who had a crush on her neighbor that she realized was actually her teacher. I got lost in the story but was interrupted by the sound of an exercise class. I wondered where it was coming from, but couldn’t see anything when I stood up to investigate. I heard loud men’s voices and realized it sounded like martial arts.
“Hai Sensei! Hai Sensei!” I heard. I saw someone in a white Karate gi jogging in flip flops in the direction of the ruckus. He glanced up in my direction and slowed down. I stepped back, feeling embarrassed. He stopped just under the street light and smiled up to me. He waved and my stomach clenched. He was beautiful, and his smile was insane.His lips were the most gorgeous lips I had ever seen on a guy. The v-neck of the gi revealed tan skin and masculinity was radiating off of him. My heart stopped momentarily as I looked back at him with a blank expression on my face. I didn't wave or smile. I stood there like an idiot, doing nothing. Something unexplainable transpired between us in this short lived moment. I felt breathless staring down at him.
He shook his head and winked before continuing down the street, jogging in his flip flops to class. I fell back in my chair, with my heart racing and wondered what just happened.
Boys never affected me. They didn’t make my heart stop or my insides feel like I was on a rollercoaster. There were plenty of good-looking guys in Texas, and they had never fazed me. Why was I fazed now?
I continued listening to the class echoing through the quiet streets of this quaint Okinawan neighborhood. I wondered who was that guy and why did he look American? But all I heard from the class was Japanese. I wondered if he signed up for an academy like I did, and had travelled from the States.
I obsessed for moments before realizing that the jetlag must have really done a number on me. That was the only explanation for the thoughts plowing through my psyche at the moment. I went inside shaking my head, thinking I needed to sleep this off and start fresh in the morning. I lied down and closed my eyes, but the last image in my mind before drifting off to sleep was the thought of his smile.