Lay of the land

Lay of the land

“Watashi no ie ni ringo ga arimasu.” I have apples in my house, said an American girl with wavy red hair. Or was it a single apple? I was still coming to terms with how you might distinguish between singular and plural.

Watashi no ie ni imo ga arimasu.” I have potatoes in my house, said a Chinese guy in a grey jacket. Or maybe just a single potato.

Our teacher, Tanaka-sensei, moved as though it had all been choreographed beforehand. She covered her mouth to laugh, so we seldom got to see the lower half of her face. As per the rules of the language school, Tanaka-sensei would only use Japanese to teach us Japanese. Everything was taught by demonstration or repetition.

We were each fresh off the plane, here to live in Ehime, Japan. I was here to teach English, as were a few of the others. One woman was here to start a family; she wanted to be able to understand her new in-laws.

Tanaka-sensei turned to me.

Richādo, anata no ie ni nani ga arimasu ka?” Richard, what do you have in your house?

Watashi no ie ni nanimo arimasen.” I don’t have anything in my house.

Tanaka-sensei scrunched up her face – I’d gone off script – but then she laughed. Richādo is so funny, and almost clever.

Honto ni, tabemono ga nanimo arimasen.” Really, I don’t have any food in my house, I added, smiling.

She scrunched up her face again, looked me up and down, and then moved on to the next person.

I didn’t have any Japanese classes the next day, but early in the afternoon I got a knock on the door of my new apartment. I recognised the woman at the door as Ito-san, another volunteer teacher like Tanaka-sensei. I wondered whether I was supposed to call her sensei if she wasn’t strictly my sensei?

Konnichiwa, Richādo-san.” She bustled into my apartment. Before I could return the greeting she was looking around and opening my cupboards. She paused at the string of tea bags handing down from a rack, drying for a second use. Her eyes widened and she stared at me for a moment.

I didn’t have a great deal I could say to her in Japanese – in class we were only up to talking about food in your house and what sports you like – and she spoke no English. I was a little embarrassed about the tea bags, but I couldn’t explain that I wasn’t going to get paid for my teaching job for seven weeks, that I hadn’t really brought enough money from New Zealand to tide me over, and that I was living alone for the first time.

She was already making her way to the door. Before she left she looked me up and down. I was starting to get used to this looking up and down, which was at least partly to do with my height, like the people of this country town were appraising a tall building at odds with the local architecture.

Hosoi, ne,” she said. I didn’t know what that meant. Then she walked down the stairwell.

I went out for a walk later that day, and when I came back there were several plastic supermarket bags stacked against my apartment door. Inside were noodles, vegetables, rice, pickles, fruit. Plus stuff I couldn’t identify. Plus tea bags. I packed it all into my bare cupboards, turning things over in my head.

I looked up hosoi in my little dictionary. Skinny. It meant skinny.