Friday, February 7, 2014
Remembering Japanese Kindergarten
On a white sheet of paper I take from my dad’s office, I draw a picture of a square brown home. The front door is created first—smack-dab in the middle—and on either side of it I draw two windows at the lower level and then two matching windows above those. A tree, resembling a stick of broccoli, is on the right side and a clump of three pink flowers sit in the grass to the left.
This is not at all what my house looks like. The house I live in with my parents and brother is creosol-black, rectangular, and one story. In the back yard, we have a mammoth-sized magnolia tree and a cherry tree which the caterpillars love in the spring, but neither of them look a thing like broccoli.
I also draw a picture of my mother. I don’t have to ask Dad for a sheet of paper this time because I’m at kindergarten and each student is handed a thick piece of paper by the teacher. The kindergarten is just a brisk walk from our house, in the opposite direction of the train station. Ogawa-san, our live-in maid, a short woman with short permed black hair and dark eyes, walks with me there each morning and comes to fetch me before lunch.
Days later, moms come to the school for a celebratory Mother’s Day program. Upon arrival, each mother receives a red carnation to pin to her clothing, and then is ushered into classrooms to view some of the best artwork southwest of Tokyo.
Wearing a floral dress, her carnation, and a hint of perfume, my mother enters my classroom, ready to find the portrait I’ve drawn of her.
Removing her sunglasses, she glances around the walls which are decorated with faces. She steps closer in, scanning the heavy oil-based pastel-colored creations. Then with an emphatic sigh, she looks at me. “Alice, where is your picture?”
Gingerly, I move toward the wall. Standing on tiptoes and raising my hand, I point to the motherly face I created in class when all of my Japanese classmates and I were told to draw pictures of our mothers.
Mom studies my artwork as I hold my breath. I’ve given her a nose, mouth, two eyes, hair and even a neck. She looks stunning. I even added a little curl to one of her locks of hair.
She takes another look at my picture and then turns to me—her daughter, her firstborn, her artist. “But, Alice, I don’t have black eyes or black hair!”
Well. Of course not; I know this. Seeing her every day, I know what she looks like. But did she think that I was going to use a brown crayon or blue one to draw her hair and eyes? Really? A whole room of kids seated right next to me did not reach for their blue or brown crayon. It was the black crayon that was popular, did my mother not know this? I’d given her a pair of eyes and hair to match my classmates’ work. She looked just like all of the other mamas on the wall.
Mothers with students in uniforms enter the classroom, mothers with folded sun parasols that kept the bright May sun off of their skin as they walked to the kindergarten for this celebration. One mother smiles at me and says to her son, a tiny boy with rosy cheeks, “Gaijin no ko segatakai desune?” (“The foreign child is tall, isn’t she?”)
My mother’s face tightens. I know this look; it is all too common to me. This is the expression she gives when she feels she has been wronged. It is usually followed by words which are spoken without restraint.
As I tug at the hem of my uniform, I pray. I pray that my Mama doesn’t respond to this woman. For she has been known to say things. Once when children pointed at us in the street and called us gaijin, she pointed back at them and called them gaijin.
But she simply turns her eyes toward me and says matter-of-factly, “I don’t know why you would make my hair black, Alice.”
Relief expands from my lungs. She might not be happy with the picture I have drawn of her but at least she hasn’t mimicked another mother for her rudeness.
There are always worse things that could happen.
I thank God for sparing us all.
The boy snorts and grimaces at me before he and his mother exit the room.
His reaction causes something vile to overcome me and that’s when I know I am back to being myself. As the two of them leave, quickly, I offer another prayer. God, you have my permission to zap him on his way down the steps.
Ready to leave the room, I take my mother’s hand and we follow the other parents and children to another room where we are served hot tea and seaweed crackers.
~ Alice J. Wisler grew up in Japan as a missionary kid. She now lives in North Carolina and writes southern novels (Rain Song and How Sweet It Is were Christy finalists) and teaches writing through grief workshops at conferences across the country. Visit her website here and her Carved By Heart shop where her husband is the artistic one.