It had been three months since I’d moved into the dorm affectionately known as “McCallister Monastery” at Cumberland College. Since I had grown up almost entirely overseas, to say that I didn’t fit in was a gross understatement. My parents were working hard and pinching their pennies to give me a decent education, so my first priority was to get good grades. The biggest culture shock I experienced was the realization that my dormmates and classmates ‒ nay, almost the entire student body ‒ had a different set of values. Completely.
I made myself unpopular in the library and computer labs by requesting others to be quiet. I was regarded as an oddity because I defended the cafeteria’s culinary catastrophes. My fastidiousness, from pressing my flannel shirts to lining up articles on my desk in precise 90- and 180-degree angles, earned me the nickname “Spock.” I was, in a word, alien.
This was before the age of e-mail, of course, so the only contact I had with my parents were long, hand-written epistles. Phone calls were strictly limited to emergencies, due to finances. The only family I had nearby was my older brother, who was married and had just had a baby, but our relationship had never been more than cordial, owing to his being sixteen years my senior. I was on my own in this country so foreign to me, in an environment that immersed me in the company of people whom I did not understand.
A package arrived for me the day before my birthday ‒ from my folks, of course. Packets of instant soup (just pour in hot water and watch the seaweed grow!), fresh noodles, and thick winter socks were crammed in so tightly that I wondered how it had not burst open. As I carefully squirreled them away into my desk and drawers, Corey, one of my roommates, walked in. “Eww, what is this?” he asked, looking at a picture on the packaging. When I told him, he rolled his eyes. “Yuck, I could never eat seaweed. I can’t even stand tuna-fish sandwiches.” Deeply offended, I hid my face by busily putting the rest of the items away. “As if I would bother to share this with a gaijin [foreigner]!” I thought to myself. “Mottai-nai! [What a waste!]”
My other roommate, Brian, came back an hour later from his job at the Administration Building. He must have heard from Corey (or from someone to whom Corey had already spoken) of my care package. “Hey, I heard you got some stuff from the old country,” he smiled. “I guess they eat a lot of really different stuff over there.”
“Well, yeah, there’s a lot of seafood, since it’s an island country. It’s a lot healthier for you, too,” I told him defensively. “I’ve gained eight pounds already since I’ve come to the U.S. There’s a whole lot more fat in American food.”
“Especially in the cafeteria stuff!” he laughed. “Say, why don’t you come with me to the mall tomorrow? I need to get some new clothes, and we could grab something decent to eat.”
I pondered for a moment, then decided I’d saved enough on book money by going early and getting used textbooks. “Thanks, that sounds great.” I’d only been to the mall a few times before, and I really wasn’t interested in the stores, but I didn’t have a car yet so it would be a rare outing. Besides, it was the first time anyone had invited me to anything.
So, the next morning I found myself trusting my life and limbs to Brian’s old orange jalopy which had two white racing stripes down the middle and an inefficient muffler. Although it was a straight shot down the highway to the mall, I was slightly carsick by the time we rumbled into the parking lot. He then proceeded to cruise back and forth for a spot near an entrance until I persuaded him to park at the end of the row ‒ we’d never had a car in Japan, and I was used to walking everywhere. Of course, I hadn’t realized how much meandering a mall required. It took us nearly two hours to find three shirts and a pair of slacks that satisfied both Brian and the school dress code, a feat which entailed our traversing the entire four wings of the mall with stops at every clothing store.
When we finally arrived at the food court for refreshments, we ran into Sarah, Chloe, and Michelle, who were also shopping. I knew them vaguely from Old Testament Survey class (a required course for freshmen) and I’d seen them talking with Corey and the other guys in the cafeteria. Now they started chattering with Brian as I watched on in mute resignation. It wasn’t that I had anything against them, I simply had nothing in common with any of them. We attended some of the same classes, yes, but they were not there for higher education ‒ their parents had sent them to this school so they could get sheepskins in an environment protected by regulations and sharp-eyed dorm mothers, meet acceptable young men, and ultimately get their M-R-S degrees. Their faces seemed like so many masks, all more or less the same, with uniform make-up techniques. How different they were from the fresh-faced girls in Japan, who weren’t allowed to wear make-up until after high-school! These American girls seemed old, almost antique, in their feigned adulthood, yet their conversation exposed them for the children they were.
They moved on and Brian led me to a pizza place, where I ordered seafood pasta. It was salty and tasted just like the tomato paste of the cafeteria pizzas and spaghetti sauce. I downed it with large gulps of iced tea, asking Brian (as I’d planned the night before) about his family and his hopes for the future. We then wandered back out into the thoroughfare, heading vaguely towards the car, with Brian stopping frequently at curio shops and examining items in great detail although he had no intention of purchasing them. After nearly another hour of this, he looked at his watch and suddenly exclaimed that he had to be back at the college in ten minutes ‒ he had a study group meeting at the dorm. I followed in his wake as he hurried to the car, wondering how someone so disorganized could possibly make it through college.
We got back in time, ducking under two or three “orange” lights. As Brian headed towards the dorm, I told him I was going to the library, since he’d said his group was meeting in our room. “B-But why don’t you join us?” he asked, looking startled. “It’s for, uh, World Civ, and I know you do good in it, but you should get to know some of the guys.” I thought for a moment, but declined. I’d had enough of American culture for a day, I thought. However, I did remember that I should pick up my Lit notebook and writing utensils to do research, so I joined him for the moment.
He went into the room ahead of me, and as I walked through the doorway he spun around to yell, “SURPRISE! Happy Birthday!” as a dozen of our hallmates jumped out blowing party favors and tossing hole-punch confetti. As I stood there dumbfounded, they brought out a row of eighteen Oreo cookies with candles on them and started passing around a two-liter of Coke with glasses obviously filched from the cafeteria. I slowly surveyed the room, which had been hung profusely with streamers and balloons, even a banner of computer paper with “Happy Birthday” scrawled on it. I felt an idiotic grin creeping into my face but couldn’t stop it.
“I came across your paperwork in the office,” Brian explained, “and found out that today was your birthday. Corey decided we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
For the longest time, I couldn’t think of anything to say. But I knew the next four years were going to be some of the best years of my life.