The Adventures of a Japanese Woman (Part 2): From Culver City, California and back to Tokyo, Japan
Culver City, California 1971~73
In 1971, my father was accepted as visiting scholar to UCLA`s school of management. In the summer of 1971, my father left for L.A. He got a driver`s license and looked for a house for the family to move in. He found a two bedroom house in Culver City, not far from MGM Studios (now Sony Pictures Entertainment). The rest of the family joined him in October 1971.
Attending a Public School in Culver City
The school I attended was a ten minute walk from where we lived. There were many Mexicans at the school but few Asians. I was one of the few Asians in the entire school and the only Japanese who had actually come from Japan. I joined the kindergarten at the school but aside from not being able to speak English, I had no immediate problems adjusting. I don`t think I was ever criticized for behavioral issues, either. My teacher sent my mother a picture book so she could read to me during the evening so I can better adjust to the language. I had a very understanding teacher, Mrs. Gearhart, the following year when I started first grade. She made sure I was comfortable in her class, and I did master the English language during the year I was in her class. The picture at the beginning of Part 1 was taken in the playground of the school. During recess one time, a Mexican girl attacked me and scratched my face. Her name was Natasha. My first grade picture in the school yearbook reveals a scar on my right cheek!
My brother and sister attended a day care that was run by mothers whose husbands were either faculty or staff members of UCLA. My mother volunteered there twice a week or so, but she felt uncomfortable there not just due to the language barrier, but because there were very few Asians. There was only one Asian boy in my brother`s class whose father was of Chinese ancestry and his mother of Japanese ancestry. The father was pursuing a doctorate at the university. There was a general dislike of Asians at the time owing to the fact that this was during the Vietnam War. My mother was insulted by a kid at the daycare. However, the neighborhood we lived in was fairly international. The neighbors across from us were from Quebec, Canada and next doors lived a family from Mexico. I don`t think we were ever insulted by these neighbors during the time we lived in Culver City.
During the summer of 1972, we took a camping trip to Yosemite and on to San Francisco. We spent two days in Oregon and drove all the way back to Culver City. We thought of going to Mexico on a separate trip but it looked a bit difficult with three young children and a friend warned us that the water there was unsanitary and you couldn`t drink it. So instead we went to Disneyland three times and to Santa Barbara and San Diego. My paternal grandparents came over for three weeks and stayed with us. My mother`s younger brother also came over with his then girlfriend.
Unfortunately, we didn`t have the time to go back to Japan for a temporary visit and in August 1973, we returned to our home in Mitaka, Tokyo.
Upon returning to our home, schooling became a major problem especially for myself. Starting school in September meant that I will be a first grader at the local elementary school but starting in the second term, since the school year had already started in April. My parents had doubts about enrolling me in a local elementary school, since I could not read or write in Japanese. I remember my parents teaching me how to write my name in Japanese after I had already learned to do so in English! I learned the alphabet before learning the characters in Japanese. They looked into an international school about an hour`s commute from our home and was shocked at how expensive it was. They quickly decided against putting me in the school and decided to put me in the local elementary school. This, unfortunately, proved to be a disaster.
Being Bullied and Not Fitting In
The first obstacle was that I enrolled in the local elementary school in the middle of the school year in September (the start of the second term) as a first grader and the students had already started learning characters. I could barely write my name in Japanese, as I had mentioned. Not only was I behind academically, but the school supplies that the students had purchased at the beginning of the school year in April were out of stock. I had to settle with left over supplies which were not exactly the same as my classmates`. My classmates would taunt at me and say "you have the wrong school supply!". They also called me a "gaijin" (a derogatory term for foreigner) on a few occasions.
The second problem was that my class teacher had been ill and had taken some time off. He had only recently resumed teaching, and he had no control over his class. He lacked firmness and the students in the front row of the class would say things like "Mr. Miyoshi is dumb. He`s bald" right during class. He had no capacity to give extra attention to a student who had just moved back from a foreign country.
My grades suffered, and after a while, I felt sick in the morning and would not want to go to school. I made few friends and there were a few classmates who took to bullying me. One time, they followed me on the way back from school and ordered me to pull my pants down on the side of the road. I obeyed, but they did nothing and were gone before I knew it.
My parents consulted Mr. Miyoshi. He said that he was going to intervene because he had noticed the bullying. I don`t remember what exactly he did to intervene, but all I know is that my situation at the school did not improve.
ENROLLING IN THE INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL
I managed to complete the first term of second grade the following year and during summer vacation, my parents decided it would be better for me to leave the school and enroll in the international school they had looked into the previous year. The school was about an hour`s commute by train but it was decided that it was manageable for a second grade girl. The high tuition presented a problem. With two younger siblings, my father`s income was not enough to cover the cost and my mother couldn`t work yet as my brother and sister were still in preschool. My father took on a second job teaching at a training school of a phone company. I was still too young to understand the financial burden I was creating. I was, however, not very happy with the decision. I felt intimidated, being sent off to a school which was essentially for foreigners. Apparently, I asked whether or not my eyes will turn blue if I attended the international school! That aside, I enrolled in the second grade at the international school in September 1974.
© 2020 Takako Komori