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The English Teacher: Tomodachi

Excerpt from Book 1, Japan; Part 2, Tomodachi (Friends)

I Hope We Can Be Friends

As I finish my lesson Makiko is waiting for me outside room 13. She is wearing green horn-rimmed glasses, bright-red lipstick and sporting an Asian afro and waving vigorously. I say goodbye to my students, leave the room and walk over to her. She holds a small colorful bag with a Mickey Mouse pattern and as she says hello she holds the bag up to me and enthusiastically says “For you!”

I am always delighted to receive gifts and remember someone telling me that it is rude to open them in front of their presenters so I smile and offer my best surprised “For ME?” look and thank her. I tell her that I will open it later. She nods and says “I hope we can be friends” and I look at this woman who really knows very little about me and I think I might actually tear up. “Be friends? With me?” I think. I thank her again for the gift, offer her a modest hug and tell her “See you later” before slipping past her and heading downstairs to the teachers lounge. Once I sit down and get my files for my next lesson I open the bag to find a handmade card and a small espresso cup filled with candy. She has obviously worked hard on this card and I haven’t received a hand-made card from someone over the age of 10 since I was…umm, maybe 10. The card repeats Makiko’s earlier sentiment “I hope we can be friends” and she has drawn a picture of both of us – Makiko with big red square-shaped glasses and me with no hair – and under these figures she has written “Makiko + Marlen = Tomodachi.”

The majority of my friendships up til this point in my life were started because my friend and I were taking the same classes, working in the same office, or living in the same building. These friendships started because of routine, daily patterns, or economy, and the fact that someone is now inviting me to be their friend is an odd phenomenon. For example, William was my neighbor when I lived in Baltimore and because we shared a love for good red wine, music and psychobabble, and mainly because we figured if we were going to both disturb each other while making music – he on guitar and me on piano – we might as well make the music together, we became friends. Alice and I went to the same graduate school and got to know each other during a counseling convention that we attended together in Pittsburgh. But here is Makiko with her broken English and limited knowledge of who I am and she has decided that she wants me to be a person in her life, well, more than that perhaps, a friend. My self-esteem, though growing stronger these days is still quite fragile and this small gesture of friendship, this hand-made card by a woman older than myself who does not immediately appear to have alterior motives leaves a deep impression.

“My self-esteem, though growing stronger these days is still quite fragile and this small gesture of friendship, this hand-made card by a woman older than myself who does not immediately appear to have alterior motives leaves a deep impression.

I begin to think that maybe she just wants someone to practice English with, or maybe she is hoping I will give her free lessons. Maybe in Japanese the word “friend” is the same as the English word for “acquaintance” or maybe she doesn’t know I am gay and is interested in having a foreign boyfriend. There could be any number of reasons why this 4’11” person wearing Birkenstock sandals with a Chanel handbag would want to be friends with me but to consider that this reason has anything to do with my personality or character just doesn’t occur to me as a possibility. No, there must be another reason.

I spend the rest of the day thinking about friendships and how I’ve never really questioned WHY someone would want to be friends with me, but mostly I am just really flattered and happy that someone should feel this way about me. I am reminded of a boy named Francisco who I met in Barcelona when I was 20 and our brief romance one cold Spanish Christmas. He was the first person that truly made me feel as if I was someone worthy of being loved. He spoke no English so he couldn’t learn much about me, well not factual knowledge anyhow because my Spanish was so limited. I tried to communicate this to him one night after he told me he loved me and when I said that he didn’t really know much about me he only said “But we spend time together and I can see you and I can sense you,” or at least that’s what I think he said. He might have said I had a bit of food between my teeth, but I am pretty sure I heard him correctly. I took this as the best possible compliment from a kind, gentle man. I took this to mean that he saw my true character as a result of spending time with me.

Later, at one of our first “friendly” outings to an Indian restaurant in Kyoto I ask Makiko why she wanted to be friends with me. I am hoping for a sense of flattery similar to Francisco’s. I am hoping she has no other foreign friends and that there is something so monumentally impressive and remarkable about me that she just couldn’t continue living without my presence in her life. I am hoping that she tells me I am unique. At first she offers “You are funny type guy,” not exactly what I was hoping for. But she continues “You are good teacher and I felt, nan te yu no…how do you say, I felt relaxing time with you in your lesson.” Wow. It’s the first time as a new teacher that a student has ever thanked me in such a way…or maybe it’s the first time I really heard it.

As I sip my shot glass of water at the Indian restaurant I realize that what I want is reassurance. I want to be reassured that I am of value. I want to be reassured that I am good. And then I realize that what I most want is a tomodachi.