“She may not look it, but actually she’s really sad that you’re leaving,” said the girl’s mother.
I knelt down to look into the face of one of my favorite kindergarten students. A shy, sensitive girl of six, she spoke perfect English and had a penchant for embellishing her handwriting with cute little curlicues. I had noticed this and taught her to write in cursive, something none of the other kids learned. We enjoyed goofing off together and had developed a special bond.
“I’m sad too,” I said, “but I know you’ll do a great job. And if I come back, I’ll make sure to visit you.”
I hugged her and almost wanted to cry. Was I breaking this poor little girl’s heart? But no, she was good and smart and talented and had a wonderful mother– she would be fine and go on with her life and probably soon forget about me, her kindergarten teacher. And I had to do the right thing for myself, right?
But was this really the right thing? Either way, it was too late to change my mind now.
“All teachers, please come to the office. All teachers, please come to the office.”
I was pretty sure I knew what was happening. It was my last day, and everyone was gathering to say goodbye to me. I saw a bright red gift bag sitting on a desk and tried not to eye it too conspicuously as the teachers shuffled into the room.
There was the usual ceremonious speech from the principal, which was expected. But I didn’t expect the teachers to have prepared a little booklet for me with personalized messages from each of them. I knew this wasn’t something they did for everyone, and I was touched. I honestly hadn’t thought they liked me that much.
I was asked to say a few words, and I didn’t know what to say. I don’t remember what I said.
I had been waiting in the city office for over an hour, and now I was being called up to the counter for what would probably only take a minute. Darned bureaucracy.
The woman behind the counter bobbed her head at me and chirped a formal Japanese greeting. She smiled and said, “So you are registering a change of address to outside the country.”
“And you’ll be staying in the United States long-term?”
“Well no, not exactly… I’ll be staying there for about a month and traveling around a bit.”
“Oh, so you’re coming back to Japan?”
“No, I have no plans to come back.”
Clearly my life doesn’t make sense to people. I’m not sure if it makes sense even to me.
“Is it done already? That was fast!” I marveled.
“The cavity wasn’t very deep, so it was easy to fix,” said the dentist with a smile. “I want to see you back about six months from now. Make sure you get a checkup and cleaning twice a year, all right?”
I didn’t say anything, but gave a non-committal nod. There was no point in explaining that I would no longer be in Japan six months from now, and had simply decided to get a last-minute checkup while I still had health insurance in a country with affordable dental care. This friendly dentist would probably never see me again.
Regret may be an odd thing to feel about not being able to go to the dentist, but oddly enough I found myself feeling it. Once again, as I have done several times in my life, I was leaving stability and plunging into the unknown. It still felt like the right thing, but there was a sort of sadness in the finality of it.
I got on the bus and sat by the window, on the side where she was still standing watching me. It was somehow awkward to make eye contact, so I did my best to look towards her and away at appropriate intervals. Every time I looked she waved or made a funny face, and I laughed. I struck a pensive pose, and she took a photo. I was giggling like a teenager and the other passengers on the bus probably found it annoying, but I didn’t care.
I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I’d had a friend who cared enough to see me off like this, and it meant more to me than I could say. When the bus finally pulled away, I cried. I let the tears stream down my face and didn’t care if anyone saw.
When the day finally came to leave Japan after so much thinking and agonizing and preparing, I’d thought I would feel ecstatic– not like this. Not this confusing mix of pain and joy all at once. I couldn’t remember when I had last felt like this, or if I had ever felt like this at all. But maybe this was the way it was supposed to be. My friends, coworkers, and students in Japan had given me the gift of knowing that the time I’d spent with them really had meant something. And if I ever went back, it would be like going home.
“Hi, how are you today?” beamed the waitress.
I started. “Oh, um, I’m good thanks.” I had been back in the states for a couple days now, but I still wasn’t used to being greeted so casually by waitresses.
A while later, I’m sure my eyes were saucers as I stared at the gigantic bowl of coffee that was set in front of me. And then at the gigantic oval-shaped platter of breakfast that looked like at least two meals’ worth.
“This is America, huh?” I thought to myself. And for some reason the thought was in Japanese.