Places | On Campus

While Teaching in Japan, it Took an Enemy to Make Me Feel at Home

Yuka took my feelings of alienation and monstrousness and turned them into a hilarious joke we shared.


And then I went right back to middle school, only this time I found myself on the other side of the teacher’s desk, and the other side of the earth.

photo courtesy of the author


The calligraphy teacher was a grandmotherly woman called Oyama-sensei, who taught the class in a small studio next to her house. We sat on tatami floors at low tables and practiced writing the sample characters in black ink, then took them to Oyama-sensei, who corrected them with red. My efforts usually came back bloodied.

Yuka flashed me a toothy grin.

My tongue and teeth were stained black for a few days, and Yuka went from the quietest student in class to the most mischievous. She’d hide my calligraphy supplies regularly. She stole my shoes from the entryway.

And then the drawings started.

Austin is my enemy.

Yuka is my friend)

Though I’d enjoyed all the other drawings, this one touched me. The next time I saw Yuka, I thanked her.

“What?” she said, sounding offended. “I didn’t draw that.”

“That’s what we are,” she said. “Friends.”

Sometimes I wonder if she would remember me—but I also know that’s beside the point. We all grow up and change, and if part of me is still that lonely little middle-school nerd in sweatpants, it’s only a part. Whoever and wherever Yuka is now, she’s no longer that little girl in French braids. I hope she is happy, and remembers some of the English I taught her.

the elementary school in Toyotama / photo courtesy of the author