Where the train bends around the rice paddies, I can hear it. The mountains stand at a distance, framed by the cherry trees and the voices of children are urgent.
"Hurry!" "Run!" "Here's a seat!"
There is laughter and chatter.
We were Americans raised in Japan. Like the natives, we rode the train to school. Every morning the Hankyu Line took us from our homes in Osaka to the international school in Kyoto. And each afternoon it rattled down the tracks to take us home.
When I think of the proverbial ancestral tales of walking miles to school in the snow each day, inevitably without the luxury of boots, I smile, because I can add my own tale to the mix.
From first grade on, I rode the train for 47 minutes in late summer, fall, winter, and spring. That was 47 minutes one way to school and another 47 minutes home. I was not alone. There were five us: my younger brother, three neighbor children and me. First, from the missionary compound where we lived behind the Yodogawa Christian Hospital, we walked to the station. This was a 20-minute walk on a good morning. We learned the ropes: Walk briskly. Pass the candy store (later we'd spend our yen on squid chips and bean-paste ice cream after the train ride home). Pass the bathhouse. Do not run into old ladies in gray kimonos as they stroll about. Greet the vendors as they sweep the entrances to their shops.
At last the station is in sight. Quickly cross the narrow street and do not touch the porno theater directly located in front of the train station. If you even as much as step on the curb with your shoe, you are nasty. If you're caught looking at the naked women – Western women with huge breasts and seductive smiles – pictured on the oversized billboards and posters, you are definitely nasty with a capital N.
On some mornings, there was no time for name-calling. We had to rush madly to the platform because we'd gotten a late start. One of us had taken too long to gulp down the last of the milk at breakfast or had had to run home after a few steps to collect forgotten homework. We knew what to do. Hold your train pass tightly, show it to the attendant at the wicket, and then run like crazed elephants up the 30 steps to the platform where the train should be, seconds before the conductor blows the last whistle and presses the button to close the doors.
On a winter morning at 7:30, the inside of the crowded train car was steamy. The odors from hair tonic and perfume fused together and made us faint. But with a bit of laughter and deep breaths, we managed. We created our own space so as not to be pushed too closely to strangers.
We took our book bags and flung them on the luggage racks overhead. On the steamed windows, we bent over passengers to write our names with our index fingers. We watched for commuters ready to disembark at the next station. Certain folks, like us, rode the train every morning, and we knew when to hover over them so their seats could be ours when they rose to get off. Only if there was an elderly lady in a gray kimono did we have to forgo a coveted seat.
As the train ride continued, other American kids from our school joined us. The Norton brothers boarded at Ibarakishi. At Takatsuki, David O. let all know he'd arrived. This was when we learned to be quiet. No one wanted him to find us. We were loud and pushy, but knew when to behave. He was very loud and extremely pushy. He embarrassed even us. In the crowded cars, we hoped to become invisible to this boisterous child. But he somehow always seemed to catch a glimpse of our brown and blond heads. Then there he would be. He was notorious. One afternoon on a rather empty train car, he spilled his chemistry set on one of the green velour seats. The conductor took newspapers to cover the red chemicals, yelled a bit, announced the next stop, and went back to trying to cover the damage. He didn't accept David O.'s weak apology. I suppose that was one of the reasons we tried after that to hide from David O.
In all honesty, David O. wasn't the only one who was a bit bothersome to the other commuters. My neighbor Annie got written up in the local newspaper. Something about a blue-eyed girl with her blonde hair in braids tearing through the train cars. There was no denying it. Over hot cups of ocha (tea) our Japanese maids had read the article to our mothers.
In a land where everyone clearly knows his or her role from the time of birth, where did the gaijin (foreign) child fit in? We weren't made to wear school uniforms as the Japanese children did. We didn't even have to mop classroom floors or clean chalkboards after school. Our school hired a janitor for that. We were taller and looked older than our counterparts, allowed to wear bracelets and paint our nails, don plaid skirts and red tights. The natives thought we were an anomaly, quiet and loud, polite and eager. They hoped we wouldn't feel them fingering our hair, or speaking of it as though it were gold. Some of the men thought they could touch us inappropriately, and did. But we learned to shove their aggressive hands away once we got over the shock of losing our innocence. When we grew older and wore heels, we learned how to press them against the toe of any man's leather shoe.
We were young and just wanted to crochet or play hangman in order to pass time on the long rides home, but there were those who had other hopes. Men and women of all ages wanted us to help them learn, and used us as opportunities to practice "English Conversations."
Once, at ages 10 and 11, my neighbor Jo and I, tired of always having to speak in "tutorial English," told a Japanese businessman who wanted to converse that we could only speak French. We didn't understand how he could not believe that we didn't know English, nor why he continued to insist we answer his questions about how long we'd lived in Japan, where we lived, and what our hobbies were.
Whenever we told them that we were like them, that we'd been born in Japan and had learned how to use chopsticks the same time we mastered using a fork, that we sprinkled furikake (dried egg and seaweed) all over our rice, and that unagi (eel) was one of our favorite foods, they shook their heads and produced nervous laughter. This was not as it should be, they thought. We were not supposed to be able to speak the mother tongue, master the use of chopsticks, or even learn the ropes of riding the train. We were merely American children. And we were thriving in a society where we broke every native's illusions.
And now, 36 years since I found my first seat on the train, and half a world away, if I tilt my head just right, I can smell and feel the journey as the train curves over a bridge shaded by sakura (cherry trees) and the mountains glisten in the early morning April sun.
"Grab the seat!"
~ Alice J. Wisler still dreams of riding the train to school. She designs remembrance cards, writes for online publications, and teaches writing workshops in Durham, NC. Her first novel, Rain Song, will be published in October.
[Story first appeared in The Urban Hiker 2004.]