Do you remember how bad I felt for MoMo that she ended up in a training class being the only grown dog in the class? I’ve been thinking about why I felt that way. After all, she is a dog and I’m sure that she didn’t feel as bad as I thought she did. After thinking about it, I realized that I was reflecting on my own painful memories of being brought over to the US by my mother at the age of 11 years old without any preparation for entering a new school in a new country where only English was spoken. I had no idea how humiliating it would for me trying to fit in as an immigrant. It dawned on me that MoMo and I are both immigrants, and watching her trying hard to adapt to her new life in a new country has brought back the pain I felt many years ago.
I want to share with you a story from Chapter 17 of my book, Keiko’s Journey. I think you will see why I felt so sensitive about MoMo entering her first class in her new country. After you read my story, will you let me know the close bond I have with MoMo is because we are both immigrants and I understand the pain she is feeling … because I’ve walked in her shoes many years ago?
Chapter 17: Survivor
I don’t belong here. Dirty school grounds, books marked with scribbles, rude students with brown and blond hair. What am I doing here?
It had been three months since I was thrust into the fifth grade class at Highland Elementary School. I sat in class, in total silence, not understanding very much that was being spoken. I didn’t have even a friend to play with during recess. Even though I was totally isolated, I did my best to at least follow Mrs. Baldwin’s orders. I saw that she was frustrated and didn’t know what to do with a student who only understood and spoke the Japanese language.
After a few weeks of attending school, Mrs. Baldwin approached me before class started and said, “I need to talk to you about something. Can you step into my office?”
I followed her obediently. “Your Japanese name, Keiko, has been difficult to pronounce by the students in your class. What do you think about changing it to “Kay”? It will be much easier for students to call you with the correct pronunciation if you have an American name. Is that okay with you?” I nodded my head and answered, “Yes, Mrs. Baldwin.”
Finally, the day came when Mrs. Baldwin pointed me out in the class. She asked, “Kay, can you answer a simple question for me?” Every eye in the room turned to look at me. I’m sure if someone had dropped a pin, everyone would have heard it.
My face felt hot and flushed. I felt like hundreds of eyes were piercing through my body. I took a deep breath and nodded my head, “Yes, Mrs. Baldwin.”
“Kay, we are studying about the state of Texas. Agriculture is very rich there. Can you tell me what they grow in Texas?”
I stared intently at her and was sure that my eyes were blank, as if they were saying, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
She paused for few moments, waiting for me to reply. When I didn’t respond, she went on to say, “Okay, let me give you a hint. The color is white.” Again, I didn’t understand what she meant. I had a sudden urge to run out of the room, but I forced myself to stay seated. “Let me give you another hint. It’s fluffy. When you blow on it, it floats away.” At that point, I raised my hand and shouted, “Snow!”
The whole room broke out in laughter. The teacher hushed the students and said, “The answer I was looking for is cotton.” The students resumed laughing again.
I sat there with tears streaming down my face. I was not used to being laughed at. Why was I being subjected to this humiliating situation when I had been a shining student at the top of my class in Japan?
The closing school bell rang. As I stood up from my desk to leave the room, Mrs. Baldwin came over. She said, “Kay, I’m sorry you had to go through a hard time in class today. I know how difficult it must be for you to start all over in another country.” I nodded, trying to hold back the tears that seemed so close to running down my face.
”I want to make sure that you won’t be embarrassed again. Let me explain your assignment for tomorrow’s art class. We will be drawing and coloring pictures for our upcoming Christmas holiday. It’s a contest. The chosen artwork will be posted on the bulletin board in our school lunchroom. If you have crayons or colored pencils, please bring them with you to class. Do you understand what I just said?”
I nodded my head and replied, “Yes, Teacher.”
The minute I arrived home, I ran into the bedroom and flopped myself on the bed and cried. Mother came in and asked, “Keiko, what’s wrong, why are you crying?”
“I’m not going back to school and you can’t make me!” I screamed, tears running down my burning cheeks.
“Tell me what happened that made you so upset,” Mother asked as she gently stroked my head.
“All the kids are mean and they laugh at me because I don’t understand or speak their language. They treat me like I’m dumb. But, I am not, Mother!” I blurted out, as my body shook with anger. “I hate America. I want to go home to Japan. I miss my teachers and friends. They are waiting for me to come back.”
“Keiko, I know how much you miss Japan, but we aren’t going back. I promise, if you accept humility and try hard in school, your life will improve. I know you can do it. You are bright and you have good study habits.” I stood up and let Mother wipe my tears away.
I walked over to the closet and took out the gray suitcase I brought from Japan. When I opened its cover, I found the art supplies that I used in Japan. Old memories returned. I had previously been selected to represent our school in the citywide art contest. My artwork was often displayed in the largest department store in the city of Kokura. I carefully took out the oil paint and the watercolor set and touched them. Memories overwhelmed me with sadness. It had been over six months since I painted a landscape, flowers, or a bowl of neatly arranged fruit, sitting side-by-side with art contestants from other schools in the region.
The next day, Mrs. Baldwin stood in front of the class and announced, “Students, do you remember what I said we are going to do in class today? We will be drawing and coloring Christmas objects. You may pick your choice of what you would like to draw – Santa Claus, Christmas trees, snow-covered villages, or anything else related to winter or the holidays.” The students showed their excitement by yelling in unison, “Yeah!”
“If your artwork is chosen by Mr. Hall, our principal, you will have a chance for the whole school to see your talent. The winning artwork will be posted on the lunchroom’s bulletin board. Good luck!”
Everyone in the class took out their boxes of crayons and began drawing and coloring their art work.
I quietly took my watercolor set and drew a snowy forest scene where deer roamed. I closed my eyes and imagined I was in a Japanese forest in the winter time. I could smell the scent of the pine trees in the calm and pristine wooded area. I drew, colored, and shaded the trees. I added slender silhouettes of the roaming deer. The scene was unfolding and coming alive on the paper that lay in front of me. I had not had a feeling like this since I left Japan.
“Students, it’s time to stop working. Please hold up your artwork so everyone can see.”
I looked at the scribbled red Santa Claus figures and reindeers other students drew, and I saw how different my work was. Everyone drew figures with stick limbs. They were all brightly-colored with red and green crayons. I was the only one who painted a snowy forest scene that required creating many muted shades with watercolors.
When I held up my art work, Mrs. Baldwin came walking to my desk and exclaimed, “Where did you learn to draw and color like this?”
All the students looked at my artwork and, in unison, exclaimed, “Wow!”
I knew I had made up for the humiliation of replying “snow” in yesterday’s geography class.
My forest scene was chosen as the first place winner by Mr. Hall. He had it framed and hung on the wall of the lunchroom. The sign next to the painting read, “Painting by Kay Esaki, First Place Winner.”
I ran home after school. I flung the door open to Baachan’s house.
“Keiko, you’re home,” Mother greeted me.
“Mother, I’m sorry that I’ve given you so much trouble. I’m ready to put all of my effort into becoming a good student in America. You will see.”
“Keiko, why this sudden change of attitude?”
“Mother, I found out today that I can be good at something, even if I can’t speak or write English. The snow scene I drew in class today won first place in the student art contest!”
“I’m not surprised. I knew all along that this would eventually happen.” Mother looked pleased and beamed with pride.
“That’s not all, Mother. Mr. Hall, our principal, called me to his office today and told me how much he loved my artwork. He then asked me if I would like to draw a large mural on the lunchroom wall!”
Mother’s eyes were wet with tears. She came over and held me tight. Her voice trembled as she said, “Your father would be so proud of you, Keiko. You went through hard times in Japan, but you learned some valuable lessons as well. No one will be able to take your good study habits and your kind heart away from you.”
“Mother, I will try very hard to become a good student in America.”
From that day forward, I often recalled Mother’s wise words that gave me the courage and focus as I continued to grow in America:
Keiko, you are a special girl. Your life was spared. Take your passion for Japan and focus it on America. Study hard and learn English. Do something good for the world. You owe it to your Father who gave his life in the war. You owe it to everyone who died from those horrible bombings.
To this day, as I live my life in America, her teachings have been the guiding force within me. Remembering her constant sacrifices, selfless suffering, and positive influences have been the impetus for establishing the firm foundation I built for my life and career.
For that, I will be forever grateful.