Counting Costs: The Story of a Homeschooler who Wanted a School Uniform

Sometimes I didn’t want to be the foreigner. It was fun for a little while—to look different than everyone else. But a year had passed since my family’s move. And now I just wanted to fit in.

My heart raced with excitement as I grabbed my wallet and dumped its contents out onto my futon. Japanese yen fluttered over the pastel green blankets. I grinned. The money I had saved over the summer had been well worth the wait. Sitting cross-legged on my futon, I carefully counted my savings. I knew how I wanted to spend it. Warmth spread through me, coupled with sigh of relief. I wanted a school uniform.

It was silly, I knew, to want something I didn’t need. My mornings were spent at the kitchen table, piled high with school books. Not in a busy classroom. A pang of longing filled me. But part of me did need that pleated navy skirt and white blouse. I closed my eyes, imaging my Japanese friends giggling and whispering in their matching uniforms. A whole year had passed of staring at the other ten-year old girls in my neighborhood before the realization had struck me. My throat tightened. I wanted one.

It hit me three days ago, after my friends rang our doorbell to ask if we could play. Just returning from school, they’d slung their identical, leather backpacks over their shoulders. The mid-July sun shone brightly, and the heat, humid and thick, felt muggy.  I had just finished my math when the doorbell rang, and I slid my schoolbooks back onto the bookshelf next to the kitchen table. A year ago, most of the neighborhood children would crowd around our front gate, trying to sound out the foreign-sounding names on our mailbox. They’d thought communicating by gestures was an adventure, and we drew pictures in the dirt-packed ground with excited determination. We’d play in companionable silence, grinning gleefully as we crouched in a circle under a smooth patch of packed dirt—talking through pictures and over- exaggerated gestures. But I soon discovered that silent friendship only lasts for a little while. We both grew bored and stopped trying, our determination draining with each moment of noiseless confusion and silent mistakes.

Now, a year later, this group of neighborhood children had narrowed down to two Japanese girls. We told each other we were best friends and drew the kanji for ‘friend’ in the dirt each afternoon we spent together. I studied Japanese. They studied English. “Someday,” we gestured, “We’ll be able to talk.” But sometimes I wondered if weather and favorite color questions would keep our friendship until then.

I raced out of the living room door at the ring of the doorbell, shoving my hair in a ponytail and pushing my thoughts aside. My sister followed. We stepped down into the genkan. The floor of our home’s entryway felt cool beneath my bare feet as I tiptoed across the tile and slipped on my shoes. I opened the door and stepped outside. A blast of heat hit me. I squinted and stopped for a moment, shading my eyes with my hand.

Konnichiwa!” I heard my friends calling. My sister and I echoed their ‘hello.’ They asked if we could play and motioned toward the playground across the street. We nodded and followed. A moments silence filled the humid air as we hurried down concrete steps. “Kyou atsui ne…” I began the usual conversation with nervous reluctance. It’s hot today, isn’t it? Sometimes I felt like I lived at a circus—caged within surface questions and cheerful greetings– longing for more. Questions ran through my mind. What is your family like? How many siblings do you have? If you could go anywhere, where would you go? What do you want to be when you grow up? Frustration swelled. But I didn’t have the words. I felt tied down, confined.  I swallowed hard, wistful and impatient. Pictures could only go so deep. I wanted to go further. But my year-worth study of Japanese left me tongue-tied, doubting, and fearful. I settled behind caged bars. They wouldn’t understand me anyway. So why try?

We walked across the playground and stood around the sandbox, sifting damp sand through our fingers and eyeing each other shyly. I stumbled over another question, pride stinging. They giggled and whispered their reply. Silence followed.

“Konnichwa!” Someone called from behind.

I turned. Another Japanese girl walked toward us, waving. A part of me shriveled.

Konnichiwa!” I heard my friends reply. They ran over, admiring her new school uniform. My sister and I stood by, listening.

Dare?”  I glanced up when she asked who we were. Her smile was friendly, her eyes, uncomfortable and laced with irritation. She scrutinized us critically. America… and foreigner… sprang from their conversation. I pretended like I didn’t understand. My eyes met my sister’s questioning gaze. We stayed silent, aching at their chatter. I studied their identical profiles from behind. This new girl fit in perfectly. Longing filled me as my shoulders drooped. She looked just like the others. I felt clumsy, different, and out of place. I wanted to belong. I wanted to look like them.

The afternoon passed slowly. We waved goodbye as the sun set. I ran home and counted my savings, knowing what I wanted to buy with the money I had saved over the summer.

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