I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to move to America on July 17, 1956. My life was perfect in Japan. I had good friends. I had finally made the baseball team. Everything was perfect, but then I had to move to the U.S. The same country that fought a war against Japan. The same country where everybody who looks Japanese is an enemy.
Learn a new language. Make new friends. So, basically I had to start over when everything had been perfect. “Perfect” was the only word going through my mind as I sat in bed, looking blankly at the darkness, waiting for the alarm clock to ring.
* * *
Children were practically everywhere, rushing around like ants trying to find their hole. Room 117. I was getting good at reading English, but speaking—not so much. Room 117 would be on the second floor. (I had a tour of the school a few weeks ago.) I headed for the stairs.
Once in the classroom, I noticed one thing. I was the only somewhat dark-skinned child in the classroom. I got some stares, a few whispers, and sweat trickled down my neck.
The teacher broke the silence. “Class, I would like you to meet Kenta,” she announced, motioning to me. I noticed a group of three in the back, whispering. I didn’t know how, but I knew they were talking about me. I just knew.
As I walked past them, I learned that my prediction was right. I heard words like, “What’s a Japanese kid doing here?”
“I don’t know about you, but I want to pound him.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t belong here.”
I gulped and rushed off to my seat, but whoever those kids were, they were right. I didn’t belong here, I belonged in Japan. Japan was where my friends were. Japan is where my language is. Japan is where my father’s grave is, along with the graves of other soldiers who were probably fathers too.
The teacher had the students give their names. I tried to pay attention but couldn’t. I couldn’t get my mind out of Japan. When the whisperers got their turn, I shoved my thoughtsout and listened carefully. Tony, Ezra, and Derek. Those were their names.
Lunch was the worst and best part of the day. I sat down at a table and everybody else at the table moved. After the commotion, one kid was left sitting right across from me.
“Hey, I’m Conrad.” He put out a hand, willing to shake.
“Kenta,” I croaked.
“Kennta.” I exaggerated the n.
“Kenta,” Conrad responded.
Lunch ended, recess started. According to Conrad, the big sport was football.
“What’s football?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, you don’t play football in Japan,” Conrad responded. “OK, here’s how you play. So there’s a quarterback. When he says “Hike!” he throws the ball to… you know what? It’s complicated to explain. You’ll catch on as you play.”
“OK,” I said.
I regretted saying that as soon as we started playing. First of all, I was picked last. The captains were Tony (the leader of the whisperers) and a kid named Joe, who I didn’t recognize. They had a big argument over who should get me.
I was on Joe’s team.
The game started with a player from Tony’s team punting the odd-shaped ball. Maybe this game is like soccer, I thought, as the ball soared over our heads and landed right in front of me. I started to kick it.
“Penalty!” somebody yelled. “Five yards!”
Derek (another one of the whisperers) walked the ball five steps and placed it on the ground. “You’re supposed to pick it up, yellow boy,” said Derek in a mocking tone. All the kids laughed.
The next thing I knew, Joe (the captain) said, “Hike!” I didn’t know what to do, so I copied all the other kids running like maniacs. Joe threw the oval-shaped ball. It was going right towards me.
What was I supposed to do? I thought. Was I supposed to catch it? I had no more time for thinking about it, so I caught it. Now what?
I suddenly thought of what Joe did, just a minute ago. “Hike!” I said and I threw the ball to a kid down the field.
“Illegal forward pass!” cried out Tony. “Do you have a brain? Or is your head full of empty space? Well, I guess that’s what happens when you live off raw fish. ’Cause you would run with the ball, instead of throwing it.”
My ears burned. The whole world was laughing at me. What did Conrad get me into? I wondered.
After recess, Conrad walked up to me. “Sorry,” he immediately said, “I thought they would ignore you and you could learn the game by watching, but I was wrong. Sorry, I’m really sorry.”
I nodded. It didn’t even occur to me that Conrad could have stood up for me during the game.
Recess was bad. But then class started and it was easily the best part of the day, because then all the bullies out to get me couldn’t touch me without the teacher noticing. The rest of the day rushed by: math, science, music, art, and finally, reading.
Before I walked home, Conrad passed on to me that there were baseball tryouts next week. Finally, I had something to look forward to besides getting beat up by Tony and his gang.
* * *
This one week felt a lot more alike a year rather than a week. Everything was going in slow motion, but finally, the week was over. I waited for the bell to ring during reading. To tell the truth, I wasn’t really reading at all. I had my book in front of me, flipped open to a random page. I was—ring!! I flew out of my seat, out of the classroom, and raced down the hallway to grab my glove from my backpack. Once outside, I caught sight of Conrad.
“I forgot to tell you,” said Conrad, once I had caught up. “The team is run by the students, so don’t get your hopes high.”
All my excitement completely disappeared. Why did I bother to try out in the first place? I thought, but I went over to the field anyway.
Before I even touched the diamond, Tony told me to scram. Immediately, Conrad stood up for me.
“Fine,” Conrad said, “if you won’t let Kenta try out, I’m not trying out either.”
Next thing I knew, everybody rushed over to Conrad and me, saying stuff like “Oh, sorry. Of course Kenta can try out” and “We didn’t mean it. It was just a joke.” After the crowd cleared, I got a good look at who was still not in favor of me trying out. Obviously, Tony was one of them. Five other kids stood by him. One of them was Joe, which surprised me. I didn’t think of Joe as someone who was part of Tony’s group. Even more surprising, Ezra and Derek were not there.
“I’m out of here,” said Tony. “I don’t play with Japs.”1 The five other kids followed, throwing insults at those who stayed for wanting to play with a Japanese person.
Warm-ups started and I immediately knew I would be on the team. The other kids were amazed that I knew so much about the game.
Once I joined the team, kids started to get to know me better. Ezra and Derek insulting me became rare, and I actually started to feel liked. Very soon, Conrad, Ezra, Derek, and I got very tight. But unfortunately, that didn’t stop Tony from getting in my face.
Our team won every game that season. Conrad was easily the best player on the team, but I was surprised to find myself in the number-two slot.
I remember one game. I was at bat. Bases were loaded; the bench was cheering me on. The ball felt like it was going in slow motion, when I look back on it, but it really was going crazy fast. I got more and more excited as the ball came closer, even though I tried to stay concentrated.
Boom! It went out of the park. I tried to run around the bases as slowly as I could to make the joy last as long as possible. Once I got around, my teammates treated me as if I made some miracle. “A grand slam!” Everyone on my team was cheering and patting me on the back.
* * *
Sometime after that, Ezra, Derek, Conrad, and I met after school. Ezra had called the meeting. It seemed the three of them were as tired as I was of Tony bullying me. Ezra announced he had a plan to “get Tony in real trouble.”
We met at Ezra’s house. His mom and dad were both at work when Ezra got home, which made it a perfect meeting place. Ezra unlocked the door and told us to go upstairs to his room. His house was really nice. I gazed at all the fancy woodwork as we made our way to Ezra’s room.
I looked over to Derek and Conrad. They didn’t seem to notice the house. All of a sudden, I felt poor. Then I recalled why I came to America, for money. I remembered what my family lost after Dad died in the war—income, money. Finally, I remembered how much Mom had to save to get us to America, even with my aunt and uncle’s help. Money.
Once we settled, Ezra took a piece of paper from his desk and placed it on the floor in the middle of the four of us. It was a diagram. “So, this is my plan,” said Ezra. Using his pen, Ezra pointed at all the squiggles on his diagram, so that we could begin to make sense of them. “Derek and I will lure Tony to where the main hall meets the fifth-grade wing. We’ll tell Tony that Kenta is right around the corner. Kenta, you’re the bait. But while Tony is beating you up and we’re egging him on, Conrad will be taking photos with my dad’s camera. And we’ll have evidence! Clear?”
Ezra looked pleased with himself.
“Clear,” Conrad confirmed. “But you and Derek will get in trouble if you take part in the fight.”
“Yeah, that is what I was thinking,” added Derek.
Conrad spoke up again, “What if we have Ezra and Derek make an excuse to stay out of the fight, like going to the bathroom?”
“That would work,” Ezra said. “I’ll add that to my diagram.”
“Uh, guys, I don’t want to get beaten up,” I said. Everybody turned to look at me, as if they just realized that I was there. They were so caught up in getting Tony in trouble that they forgot that I was a real person and not a dummy. There was a momentary silence, as the three searched for a logical explanation for doing this.
Ezra spoke up first. “Well, think of it this way. If you face Tony this one time, you won’t have to face him again.”
“True,” I agreed. It was going to be a long tomorrow.
“Let’s go outside and play baseball,” Conrad suggested, wisely changing the subject. For the rest of the afternoon, we played in Ezra’s backyard. At the same time, all of us were trying to ignore the butterflies in our stomachs from Ezra’s plan.
* * *
Our plan went into action the next day. Before I knew it, I was standing in the main hall, waiting for Tony to appear. Just around the corner, I heard the muffled voices of Tony, Ezra, and Derek. Next came a single pair of footsteps, making their way down the hall. They were Tony’s footsteps, trying to make them as loud as he could without stomping, so I could hear him. Conrad wasn’t ready. I started to panic.
“Hey, airhead!” Tony yelled at me.
Hurry up with the camera, Conrad, I thought, as if mentally thinking it would make him hurry up.
I almost said it out loud. I almost yelled it. I wanted to do anything but stand in front of Tony, but I did nothing. I wanted to run, hide, close my eyes to make him go away, but I was frozen in place. I didn’t want to ruin the plan. I didn’t want Ezra, Conrad, or Derek to think of me as a scaredy-cat. I stayed put, for them, for the plan.
I saw Tony’s arm winding up for the first punch. Slam! I was on the ground. A sharp pain shot up my nose. Little red trickles of blood slowly started dropping onto the floor. My eyes were closed, keeping back tears. I curled up in a ball, waiting for more to come.
It didn’t come.
It sounded like the principal’s voice.
I slowly uncurled and looked up.
Tony was on the ground.
Conrad had a bloody fist.
But I didn’t see any camera.
In the principal’s office, I tried to clarify everything. All I had to say was, “Tony punched me. Then, Conrad punched Tony to stop him.” There was no argument with that, I had proof: the still unwashed marks on Tony and Conrad’s hands and my bloody nose. I also tried to explain about the camera, but the principal either didn’t understand me due to my accent or he didn’t care.
* * *
Expelled. Both Conrad and Tony were expelled for fighting. The weird thing was, once Tony was gone, all the other kids started acting nice to me.
Conrad and I stayed in touch, but it became harder when he moved to Nebraska after his dad’s job changed. Eventually, I heard that Tony had moved to California, though I didn’t really know why.
Today, people always ask me how I got used to America. I always respond, “Baseball.” But the truth is, it was Conrad.
1 The term Jap (shorthand for “Japanese person”) is a derogatory term used in the United States during World War II, when Japan and the United States were at war. It is realistic that a bully in 1956 would call a Japanese child “Jap.” There were also derogatory terms for African Americans, Jews, Italians, Irish, and other ethnic minorities. Fortunately, racist terms are much less common today than in the 1950s.