During a grammar lesson on my second day at Keimei Academy, my class’s English teacher called on me to answer a question. I looked up from my doodling to see her, staring sternly at me. Not knowing what to say – I hadn’t expected to participate in class during my visit to a Japanese school – I blurted, “Yes, of course.” Clearly, this was not the expected answer. Ms. Hill’s eyebrows crept up her forehead in amusement. “Really? You want to do that, Elizabeth?” I looked down at my textbook; most of the day’s vocabulary words had to do with hobbies. “Oh, yes,” I affirmed confidently. “I would love to.”
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 – everyone except one boy hunched over his desk, beet red to the tips of his hair. “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.”
It was too late for apologies, though; some of the more rambunctious boys had already begun to chant, “Wedding! Wedding!” 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?
I quickly forgot this incident amidst the more pressing events of my last days Youth for Understanding student exchange: packing, photo opportunities, and trying to stuff my suitcase with as many souvenirs as its seams would allow. However, looking back, I realized that my incident with Hayashi was the point at which I began to allow myself to truly speak Japanese, albeit incorrectly. Before, I had been so scared of making mistakes that I’d essentially limited myself to “My name is Elizabeth.”
The afternoon of my last day at Keimei, I was called to the front of the classroom to say good-bye. Surprised, I walked up to the podium unsure of what I was going to say. I stood in front of 40 pairs of eyes waiting expectantly. My heart began to beat faster and my hands started to sweat. I was about to nervously sputter out a simple “Thank you,” when I realized that I would be leaving Japan in less than 24 hours. My classmates probably wouldn’t even remember me next month. I pushed my nerves aside and began to speak. “I visited Keimei one week only. It was fun. I saw Japanese school. I am happy. Please visit America. Thank you.” I had returned to my seat, still excited that I had managed to speak 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.
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