As I walked off the plane, a million things raced through my mind. I lowered my head and narrowed my eyes. It could have been a show of how tired I was - the direct flight home had taken 16 hours - but I knew it was something else. My eyes scanned the crowd. Once over, twice over, I felt like I had been looking for days. With a final glance, I concluded that my family was not waiting for me by the gate as we had planned and decided to try my luck at the baggage claim.
Hundreds of suitcases dropped from the chute and made their journey around the short track until their owners claimed them. They were all the same: black. The moment a flash of color appeared, I was ready to claim mine. It was bright pink with Japanese words scrawled across it graffiti-style, and it stuck out like a sore thumb. The suitcase reminded me of myself in Japan. It seemed I had been the only girl with curly blond hair and bright green eyes on the streets of Tokyo. In America my 5' 9" height was no marvelous wonder, but when I first walked down the halls of my exchange school, I towered over almost everyone. Now, I was home, and the only thing differentiating me was my bag.
By then, it was clear that my family wasn’t there. I had been so ready, so braced to hear my name shouted, so prepared to run into their open arms, so ready to wipe away my mom’s tears, and laugh at my dad’s stupid jokes about how much I’d grown. It was apparent that my welcome home fantasy wasn’t going to happen, at least not at the airport. I dialed the number I had called every night from Tokyo.
“Hello, Mom? Is everything alright? My plane landed over a half hour ago.” I was genuinely worried. My mother had never been late to pick me up.
“Yeah, sweetie, we’re all fine. Jamie came down with the flu and your father had to work late, so I figured you could just get a cab home. You have money, don’t you?” she asked, sounding rushed.
My heart sank, “Um, yeah, but it’s all Japanese.”
“Well, you can get that exchanged there, can’t you?”
“Sure, I guess I can,” I responded, surprised and dismayed.
I exchanged my money, hailed a cab, and made my way home. It looked the same. There stood the same large white house with navy shutters, the same brick walkway, even the same crooked basketball hoop my sister had begged my dad to install. I wasn’t quite sure how to enter. Should I knock? Would it be rude to just barge in? It was my home, though, and after a few seconds, I reached for the knob and let myself in.
“Alert! Alert!” a blaring sound seemed to come from every direction. I looked to my left and noticed a security system by the door. When had they installed that? Mom had never mentioned it during our nightly calls. It was becoming clear though, as the flashing red light put it so kindly, that I was an intruder in my own home.
“Oh, s--t! I mean, shoot. Remember to watch your language. This doesn’t give you an excuse to swear. That thing drives me crazy. Now, what’s the code? Ugh! Your father! I swear I’m getting tired of this mid-life crisis s--t. Stuff! I meant stuff. Don’t swear,” my mom raced down the stairs and over to the security box.
“Hi to you too, Mom.” I was a little annoyed. I had been gone for a year, and the first words out of my mother’s mouth were curses. She never cursed.
“Sorry, it’s been a hard night. As I said, Jamie’s sick and threw up all over the rug in the bathroom,” my mother continued.
“We have rugs? You hate rugs. I think I might go to bed. It was a long flight. Oh, if Dad comes home, tell him he’s welcome to say hello, if he’s not too busy.” I had never been one to beg for attention.
“Okay. I’ll be up to tuck you in.”
“No, I can handle it,” I said, dismissing the first attempt she’d made to reclaim her position as mother. There had been so many nights in Japan when I’d wished she was there to tuck me in, when I’d longed to hear the song she always sang to me. Now, I just wanted to lock myself in my room. Part of it was annoyance; if she was too busy to say hello, surely she couldn’t be bothered to say good night. Another part, though, was that I had gotten used to being alone at night. I liked my time to unwind and collect all the strange new thoughts I’d been having since the first day of my journey. In Japan, I had no one to talk to. Sure, I had friends, and my adopted family was amazing, but with the language barrier, I found it hard to express myself. They didn’t understand me the way my family did, or at least the way they had.
My room hadn’t changed. It needed change, though. With the purple walls and pictures of daisies, it looked like a little kid had decorated it and none of it appealed to me now. My interests had changed during the past year. One item that did catch my eye, however, was the phone. I pressed number two on my speed dial. It had been almost a month since I’d talked to my best friend, Dani-elle. She picked up, as always, after two rings.
“Hello?” she answered in the same sweet, girlish voice.
“Hunny!” We never called each other by our names.
She sounded a bit confused, “Uh, hi. Who is this?”
“Me! Hello? I’m home!”
“Oh. Oh! Oh my God! Hi! Oh my God, how are you?”
“Good, I suppose. I feel a little weird though ...”
“Hey, sorry, but could we talk about this later? I have a date. You can tell me all about being wired later. Okay, love ya,” she interrupted.
“No, I said weird, not wired. A date? Who with?” But by the time I finished these last words, I heard the dial tone.
Frustrated, I decided to go to bed. I pulled the sheets over my head and within minutes had fallen asleep. My dreams came in two languages, but none was pleasant. Waking up didn’t help. I was still in a Japanese/American nightmare.
The next few days continued pretty much the same. My mother spent most of her time helping Jamie. My dad was a little better, stopping to ask me questions, but even with him, things were awkward. Danielle never called back; I tried calling a few times, but she was always getting ready to go out with her new boyfriend. I did find out his name was Kyle, but that meant nothing to me. Apparently, he had moved here while I was away.
There were only three days until school, and I spent my time preparing. Having signed up for my senior year classes before I left, now none were what I wanted to take. The counselor was the first person to ask me more than a few questions about my trip. She had lived there after college, and we spent hours discussing Tokyo.
When the first day of school arrived, I woke up excited. It would be my first time seeing all these people in over a year. Since Danielle had been too busy to stop by, we decided to meet early at Starbucks, our favorite hangout.
“Oh, my god! Look at you! You look so ... Chinese! I
love your hair. You didn’t tell me you cut it! It’s straight, and bobbed!” She had always been the intellectual type.
“I went to Japan, there’s a difference. But yeah, my best friend over there convinced me. I was complaining about how much I stuck out, and she thought it would help. It didn’t, obviously, but I like the cut,” I replied.
“Well, it’s really cute! God! I missed you so much. So, so, so, so, so much! We’re going to have so much fun this year! Just like old times! Except funner because now we’re seniors. Woo hoo!”
Danielle continued to jump around, not seeming to mind all the people staring. But I did. It had been strange having people look at me when I was in Japan and now, I expected to blend in again. Danielle wasn’t making that easy.
“Um, Danielle, I know I’ve been out of the country, but I still don’t think that ‘funner’ is a word.” I knew I sounded uptight.
Danielle’s craziness had never gotten to me before, but now she looked a little ridiculous. I had gotten used to my subdued, polite friends, and the loud shrieks pouring from Danielle’s mouth were too much. It wasn’t just that either, I could handle her psychotic episodes, but the grammar thing struck a chord. I knew it shouldn’t bother me, and it surprised me when it did. I realized it must have something to do with the trouble I’d had communicating in Japan. I’d always taken for granted how easily I spoke English, and now it seemed wrong just to butcher simple phrases.
“Okay, whatever. Ooo, did I tell you about Kyle yet? He’s gorgeous, and so sweet, and he plays football. Last year he practically made us state champions.” It was obvious that Danielle was oblivious to what I was feeling.
Our morning carried on like this, her squealing, me listening. There were times when she made me laugh, and even a few seconds when I felt like we connected, but by the time we headed to school, I was relieved.
My day passed slowly. The kids were the same. Apparently, there hadn’t been any massive falling out in any of the little cliques, so I knew where to sit at lunchtime. All my friends had similar shrieking reactions when they saw me, and I had the similar annoyed response. Everyone was still nice, but I felt awkward. I didn’t get their inside jokes. I didn’t know who they were talking about when they complained about teachers. I was home, but I felt lost.
People asked me questions, and I did my best to respond, even though most were so stupid that they really couldn’t be answered. My classes were surprisingly easy, even the ones that were supposedly advanced. After struggling to learn so much in Japan, learning in America was a breeze.
As I drove home, I got lost. I knew exactly where I was, and exactly what wrong turn I had taken, but I still pulled into a gas station and sat there, just thinking. Nothing was the same. My family was too busy, my friends were too loud, and my classes were too easy. Before I knew it, tears started streaming down my face. I cried like I had every night during my first week in Japan. I felt as lost now as I had then.
After a while, I had gotten used to living in Japan, and when I pulled into my driveway that day, I knew it would take time to get used to being back. I’d have to work at getting used to the changes in my family, my friends, and even me. Things would never be quite the same, but I knew that eventually, I’d find my way home.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.