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Summer. I was 23 years old and just started working as an English conversation instructor at a private high school in Japan. Yonago, the city that I worked in, was no larger than any other small town you would find in any country: only one train line to the nearest big city (which was three hours away) and only one major department store catering to the needs of an unimpressive-sized population of rice farmers and laborers at a nearby fish-packing facility. Strangely, there were three overpopulated high schools. Of the three, I worked at the largest school in the area.
Since the school was rather large by Japanese standards, the teacher's room itself was quite expansive, brimmed wall to wall with grey, metallic desks, uncountable amounts of paper holders and plastic cup holders for pencils, pens, the occasional ruler and paper clips. Opening the front drawer of my desk exposed a fairly used plastic container with five new, out-of-the-box sticks of chalk. Two white, two yellow and one red. Next to my desk sat Ms. Saeka.
Ms. Saeka, who wore wire-rimmed glasses and always wore a skirt to work, taught Japanese to the first year students and did not understand much English. She would occasionally attempt to greet me with a simple "good morning" or "hello" but most of the time, she kept to herself and answered student's questions and graded her papers in earnest. She must have been twenty-eight or nine. As time passed, I got to know her more and more as my Japanese speaking skills improved. By the end of summer, we were having decent conversations about school, the students, teaching and most importantly, our lunches.
"I never woke up early enough to make myself lunch"
Lunch was a big production for the teachers at school, with everyone looking at everyone else's lunch to see who brought what. Ms. Saeka, who endeavored to create a fanciful but delicious lunch box, would always bring something that would catch my attention and draw out the same question from me:
"What did you bring today?" I would simply ask, always curious to see what was in Ms. Saeka's lunchbox.
And everyday, I would see a bed of steamed rice with a picked plum in the center, a grilled slice of smoked salmon, several slices of tangy daikon root and fish cake with accompanying seaweed and cucumber salad, mixed in with a dash of rice vinegar. If not salmon, then mackerel. If not mackerel then fried chicken. For dessert, she would peel open an orange or bake herself small sweet biscuits wrapped in a paper napkin.
Since I never woke up early enough to make myself lunch, I would always venture outside of school on my bike and stop by the nearby McDonalds (and try out their delicious Japan-only Teriyaki Burger) or buy a prepared lunch-box at the nearby 7-11. I would take it back to the teacher's room, unwrap my lunch, pop open a can of wheat tea and eat my lunch.
At the end of lunch, I would sift those some of the papers I had to grade and look over the lesson plans for the next English class. For some reason, on one particular day in September, Ms. Saeka scooted her chair next to mine and asked me if I wanted a sweet biscuit-cake. Since I was thinking about English conversation and with my blood circulating around my stomach, without much thought, I blurted out "I wonder how you would say that in English...." in Japanese, as if asking my students for the correct answer. With that, Ms. Saeka responded to my question with a puzzled look, then smiled and grabbed a Japanese-English dictionary from my desk. She vowed to learn how to offer an item to someone in English by the end of autumn.
By the end of October, after spending a good five weeks of studying and practicing her English skills without my help, she returned my dictionary and with a triumphant smile on her face and with her biscuit-cake in hand, she scooted her chair next to mine and simply asked:
"Would you like cake?"
To which with a smile, I gently responded, "No thank you". There was a flash of anger, bemusement, exhaustion and laughter running through her eyes as she ran her gaze over my face. But before she could say anything or have the chance to throw the biscuit at me, I quickly held her hands and said, "Yes I would. Thank you". With an almost childish giggle, she handed me a sweet biscuit-cake which, as expected, was quite delicious.
. . .
Several months after leaving Japan, I received a package from Ms. Saeka. Enclosed in the package was a letter, telling me how exciting it was for her to gain that joy of learning and involving herself in English study, something she never did when she was in high school. Also in the package, wrapped in a paper napkin were two of her baked sweet biscuit-cakes. Tucked in the paper napkin was a small note that read "Would you like cake?" Before I could whisper "Yes I would, Thank You" to myself, I saw written on the back of the note, "I insist!"