Check their expressions. Is it interest or curiosity when you spell your last name? “K-o-u-i-d-o-u.” You are not sure. They ask and you explain that yes, you grew up in Greece; no, your parents do not live in America. Yes, your mother speaks Greek and English, but your father speaks Greek and Turkish; yes, you studied English at school. Smile politely when they say you hardly have an accent. You know better.
You are officially a ‘foreign student.’ After graduation from high school, you got a scholarship and admission to a liberal arts school in Oregon, half around the globe. There are 3,000 students on this campus; 5.5 percent are foreign students. Do the math: 165. You write it to your mother. She loves getting your letter. “Sophia” she answers back, “I am so proud of you!”
Don’t bring up your homesickness in your letters, especially to your mother. Don’t share the hours of studying tethered to the Dictionary, scribbling Greek translations on your textbook margins. Don’t remind her you miss your friends. Yet life here is much freer than home. You love your independence. Don’t tell her you don’t intend to stay, but could you?
During your first week of classes, you meet your assigned Big Sister at the foreign student lounge. She knows French and has been to Europe. The advisor counts twelve of you in the room. Look around and read their name tags; they spell the countries they have come from: Botswana, Chile, Mexico, Japan. A Babylon. The get-acquainted activity is sharing names and family background. You say “Parents, brother and sister.” You miss them.
You learn that there is folk dancing every Saturday evening at the large hall on campus and you are all invited. They play music and teach steps. All present feign excitement and agree to attend. Except, you know no international folk dances. You try to explain. In the middle of speaking English, a Greek expression pops out, interfering with your effort to communicate. “At home, you know, we d-d-d. And I try, you know, d-d-d. I don’t know d-d-dances...They patiently wait for you to finish.
You glance at a nametag and don’t know how to pronounce his name. Hideyuki/Japan. He looks in your direction and smiles. Your Big Sister says he is a senior.
“Will you come on Saturday?” the foreign student advisor asks. All heads bob “Yes.” It is time to escape. You look at your watch and tell them you have to go. Your Big Sister follows you and you forget to say thank you and goodbye.
Lunchtime in the cafeteria. You are in line when you hear a voice from behind. “What is good?”
“Hi” you say, turning. This question you associate with restaurants at home, in the company of friends. The boy that follows you is the Japanese senior, tall and thin, with buck teeth. You wonder if he is flirting with you. You don’t answer. He gets the same salad, bread and coffee that you have chosen and follows you to a table.
You ask him about himself as you pour the dressing over your salad. He tells you his name is Hideyuki; he is from Tokyo, here to study medicine. He lives off campus and asks how you like the school and classes, and how it is that he has not seen you before.
“I just arrived.” You listen to Hideyuki’s voice and trace an accent. You hear him say “elevator,” but it sounds like “Erebeetaa.” It’s different, the way the sound and his lips don’t match; like artfully clashing percussion. It takes time, but you soon know that Ls become rs and the v sound becomes a B.
“Say something in Greek,” he says.
You think for a moment and then say: “Yia sou. Teekanees?”
“What does that mean?”
“Hello. How are you,” you say.
He leans across the table and holds your hand. He squeezes gently and you smile. His warm touch is welcome. You return the squeeze.
He invites you for a walk to the state park. You ride borrowed bicycles and reach the vista point. It is near sunset. He has brought a blanket and spreads it on the grass strategically placed to face the hills where the sun is sinking. You have packed a snack, ginger snaps from the cafeteria, and a coke to share. You bring the treats from the bicycle basket, place them between you, and sit next to him. Some couples stroll by in the park.
The blanket feels soft, woolen with green and blue stripes, and he says it’s his bedcover. You ask him about the long title of the book he carries. He says he would need a dictionary to give you a good answer. You both giggle. You offer him cookies and ask him what his plans are in America. He tastes one and says that next year he hopes to go to John Hopkins in Baltimore. You don’t know where Baltimore is, but you have a whole year ahead of you. Your first friend!
You ask if he knows Greek restaurants in town, and he does. “Next time I will take you there,” he says. The sky is bright red and orange, and you both watch the disappearing sun. It is chilly. He offers his coat, and you accept. You tell him about your mother and how she expects you to write often. You need stamps. He tells you about aerograms and where the post office is. He offers to walk you there on Monday.
On the way back to campus, he follows you to your dorm and gives you a quick goodnight peck. You grin and wonder what the local Greeks will think when they see you with a Japanese man. Will they invite him to parties? You will. Then you wonder, What will mother think? But he is nice, and you are free to choose. Good to be in America.
First Published in the Spring 2021 Issue 18 of Door is a Jar.