Exchange Students

Exchange Students

The Exchange Students – Vam

“Mom was there any mail for me today?” Jessica yelled as she ran down the stairs to the kitchen.

“No, nothing yet, the mail comes late on Saturday.”

“Thanks, I’m going to meet the kids at the mall. I’ll be back this afternoon.”

“Drive safely, dear.”

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As Jessica pulled out of the driveway she wondered to herself, what was taking so long, why hadn’t she heard anything yet? She was one of five students who applied to spend a year going to school in Japan as exchange students. Jessica was an excellent student, member of the National Honor Society and class vice president, surely she would be chosen to go to Japan for a year. This was the opportunity of a lifetime for her: college scholarships, grants, everything all wrapped up in one letter, the letter from the A.F.S.S. (American Foreign Studies Society).

Jessica was bored with everything at home and Japan would be such an adventure, such a challenge. Jessica’s friends, Jocelyn and Julie, had both applied to AFSS to go to Japan and when they met at the mall, they asked each other if they had gotten letters from Japan yet. Jessica was both sad that she hadn’t got her letter yet and happy that none of her friends had either. Julie said, “Well if nobody heard from Japan yet that’s good news because that means they are still making up their minds. We know that the boys will be going to a boys’ school and unless there are kids from other schools competing against us we’ll all get to go.” Jessica was not cheered up by Julie’s logic. Jessica and her friends decided to go to the movies for the rest of the afternoon.

After dropping her friends off at their houses Jessica drove home. “Jessica, Jessica, it’s here. Your letter it’s here,” her mother said as she came in the driveway. “You’re going to Japan, honey, your dad and I are so proud.” Then she handed her a big manila envelope, with 20 pages of forms to be completed, signed and returned immediately. Jessica dashed through all the papers, signing them all except the medical forms for the doctor’s signature. Jessica couldn’t wait to get on the telephone.

“Hi Julie, I made it, I got accepted,” Julie said.

“We all did, I just talked to Jocelyn. We’re all going to Japan.”

The next two weeks were frantic for the girls and their parents: passports, shots, visas, books and reservations. And there were endless questions: what would it be like to in an all-girls boarding school? Jessica thought it would be difficult being around only females, what about dating, what about Japanese boys at the “brother” school? How much Japanese would they need to know?

As the time for the girls’ departure neared, many questions were still unanswered, but they were ready for the adventure of a lifetime. Julie, Jocelyn and Jessica had occupied themselves by non-stop shopping. Today they were going to the salon to have their hair cut for the trip. The girls arrived at the salon early the Saturday before leaving for Japan. They had each decided to have only the split ends trimmed off and to have the styles shaped up, figuring that they could get their hair done in Japan after they arrived. Like all adolescent American girls, the girls were very sensitive about their hair, they all wore it teased and sprayed in the typical 1992 fashion, i.e. “big hair”. They made sure that they had a large supply of hairspray in case it was in short supply overseas.

The day before departure, Jessica got a phone call from Japan.

“Jessica, it’s for you, from Japan,” said her mother.

Jessica grabbed the phone. “Yes?”

“This is Yamaguchi-chan, the principal of Sohi Bhikku School. I want to welcome you and the other girls to our school,” she said in perfect English. “We are very happy to have you come to study here. We will be sure that you are met at Narita and we get you settled in here. Here all our students are studying English and they can’t wait to try it out on our American students. Be sure that you give your parents this number: 121-5544-66972. I am available at any time to help them or answer questions.”

“Thank you, Yamaguchi-chan.”

The flight from Chicago to Narita was endless, but the girls occupied themselves with practicing conversational Japanese and reading fashion magazines. When they had arrived at the airport, cleared customs and were in the baggage claim area, they saw two women holding up a sign in English that said Sohi Bhikku School. “There they are,” shouted Jocelyn. The girls quickly gathered their bags and waved to the women with the sign, who came across the baggage area to greet the weary travelers.

“Good afternoon, girls, Yamaguchi-chan sent us to meet you. My name is Oteru-chan.” She was an attractive Japanese woman about 25 years old, wearing an ankle-length Navy blue dress and a very cute Dutch boy haircut. “And I teach English.”

“I am Watanabe-chan and I teach physics.” Watanabe-chan looked like she was about 20 and was dressed like Oteru-chan, but had shoulder length stick-straight black hair. “We are both so glad you are here.” Jessica, Julie and Jocelyn introduced themselves, found a luggage cart and followed their teachers out to the shuttle stop. The teachers looked like teachers back in Chicago with the exception of being Japanese. “Tonight you will stay with the girls in the dorm. They will help you get settled, we’ll get your uniforms and everything you need for your rooms.”

The girls were excited about everything. Even driving through the Japanese countryside was an adventure for these three Chicago girls, seeing the temples, factories and farms as they moved from the city and its sprawling suburbs to the hinterland. The girls were chattering away to their teachers, being surprised to find that so far their limited Japanese had not had to be used.

After about an hour they pulled into a driveway and up a steep hill. Watanabe-chan pointed to the pagoda at the top of the hill and said, “That is our temple – we are very proud of it – and that is our school.” The campus was not unlike a small Midwestern college, with a few buildings around a shrine.

“Bhikku School is a Buddhist school,” said Oteru-chan, “and soon you will all be Maiko, like the other girls.” Maiko, that was a word none of the girls remembered from their Japanese books.

Oteru-chan said to Watanabe-chan, “Won’t they be beautiful!”

“Let’s take you to the dormitory, girls.” They followed their teachers, excited about meeting Japanese girls and finally getting some rest. The girls were assigned to room together for the first term. Their room was comfortable but Spartan compared to their bedrooms at home. The big surprise was that there were no showers in the bathrooms. Oteru-chan explained, “Here we have our own bathhouse, you will see it later after we get you your uniforms.”

Watanabe-chan returned to the room with three sets of uniforms. “These are the largest size, I hope they fit.”

Jocelyn held up the sky blue jumper and blouse and said, “Its’ fine.” Really they were all thinking, “My God this is worse than Catholic school.”

“We’ll leave and let you get settled. Sayonara.”

Jessica said, “There are a lot of things we’re just going to have to get used to here. We can do it. Besides, we’re 6,000 miles from Chicago, we’d better make the best of it,” and she pulled her hair dryer and hairspray out of her toiletry bag and started back-combing her blond hair. The other girls followed suit and in 10 minutes they had filled the room with the scent of hairspray.

“Let’s try these on.” The girls put on their rather dour uniforms (tan jumpers and brown blouses, brown knee socks and black and white saddle shoes). They could not bring themselves to crush their lacquered coiffures and try on the tan sailor caps that came with the uniforms. After they got dressed Jessica said, “Well, don’t send any pictures of me back to Chicago in this.”

Oteru-chan knocked on the room door. “Girls, they are ready for you at the bathhouse.”

“We’ll be right there, we were just trying on our uniforms,” replied Jessica.

The girls left with Oteru-chan and crossed the quadrangle to a large old stone building. “This is the oldest building at the school. It was part of the original convent 500 years ago,” said Oteru-chan. “This way.” She led the girls down a hallway to a large room with four heavy wooden chairs and a mirror the length of the facing wall. Behind the chairs there was a counter with tools.

Watananbe-chan entered the room and said, “Girls you look very good in your uniforms. Yamaguchi-chan is coming to meet you.”

The girls were very curious. What was this room and why were they meeting the principal here?

Then a stern-looking Japanese woman wearing a long black robe and, most striking, a shaven head. “You are our American girls, welcome. I am Yamaguchi-chan.” Jessica’s jaw dropped when she saw Yamaguchi, because she now understood where they were – it was a barbershop and guess who the customers were!


Yamaguchi-chan said, “Girls, this is a Buddhist school and here all our students are Maiko. In English, they are called novices, it is our religious tradition. You do not have to remain in the convent, most of our Maiko do not, but we all make the same sacrifice while we are here.”

Oteru-chan said, “We are lay teachers, but have chosen to enter the convent for a year to decide before we marry, that is why we have not been shaven yet.”

Yamaguchi-chan said something in Japanese to the two teachers, who each took a seat on the bench as two other nuns entered the room and stood behind the two teachers. The other nuns were much younger than Yamaguchi-chan, they wore bright yellow robes, like the Buddhist monks and nuns that Jessica had seen in the tourist books about the famous temples. The teachers both closed their eyes and solemnly bowed their heads obediently to Yamaguchi-chan, who returned the gesture. Then she nodded to the other nuns, who simultaneously turned on the clippers and attacked the women’s hair. Each pass dropped thick black locks in the women’s laps. Their faces were almost expressionless as the nuns clipped away their black hair without any ceremony. When they had clipped all their hair down to a fuzz, Yamaguchi-chan motioned to the nuns to move and she began to rub soapy water on Oteru-chan’s scalp and make it lather, then with deliberate strokes she shaved away all the stubble with a heavy antique razor. Oteru-chan’s scalp was slowly and methodically denuded with each raspy stroke of the razor. When the last remaining hair had been shaved off, Yamaguchi-chan handed Oteru-chan a small mirror. For the first time since the shaving she showed some emotion as a tear ran down her cheek. Yamaguchi-chan proceeded to shave Watanabe-chan, who displayed no emotion when she was shaved bald. Yamaguchi-chan said, “Girls, you cannot have Buddha in your heart while you still have hair on your heads,” as the two nuns and Yamaguchi-chan lined up behind the chairs, each armed with shears, electric clippers and Yamaguchi with the big razor.

Jessica and the girls looked at each other and started to sob. Jocelyn said, “We don’t have any choice unless somebody has 3 plane tickets back to Chicago.” The other girls nodded in reluctant agreement.

Julie, who was nervously combing her hair and shivering at the thought of what awaited her, said, “You’re right, we don’t have any other choice, I never expected anything like this. Yamaguchi-chan, do you have to cut off all our hair?” she said pleadingly with tears rolling down her white cheek.

“Yes my dear, that is our rule here, but you will soon see, as do all our Maiko, that it grows back and, some girls say that once it grows back it is far more beautiful than before. It will grow back by the time you graduate and return to the United States, thicker than before.”

Slowly the girls stood and got into the three chairs. Jocelyn was seated in front of Oteru-chan, Julie in front of Watananbe-chan and Jessica in front of Yamaguchi-chan. Each girl nervously tried to be comfortable in the chairs, but from their faces you could see how uncomfortable they were. Yamaguchi-chan said, trying to comfort the girls, “We will do this quickly and I will shave you all before you meet the other girls.” Then she said to the other “barbers”, “Let us commence.”

In unison each of the nuns reached for the clippers behind them on the counter and flicked the switches bringing them to life, BUZZZZZ. Then simultaneously they held the girls’ necks forward and started clipping away their heavy sprayed hair. Locks began to hit the floor, the girls first reaction was to cry out. Jessica’s head was trembling as Yamaguchi-chan whispered softly in her right ear, “This will only take a minute, please hold still.” Julie was staring at Jessica as Watanabe-chan held her head back and clipped off her bangs then plunged the clippers into the crown of her head, dropping a long heavy lock to the floor.

Oteru-chan was moving the fastest, she had clipped half of Jocelyn’s thick black hair off her head. Jocelyn reached up and touched her brow, feeling the stubble where she had just had 4″ bangs. She cried out, “No, no, no more.”

Yamaguchi-chan said, “You are very brave, girls, it is almost over.” As she was speaking piles of shorn hair were piling up under the chairs. Each “barber” made pass after pass, each dropping ever-increasing piles of shorn hair. Yamaguchi had finished the last clipper strokes on Jessica’s scalp and was rubbing her head with a sponge full of soapy water. In her hand she held a shovel-shaped razor, that she had just stropped on a leather strop on the counter. She said, “Be very still, this razor is very sharp.” Then she grasped Jessica’s head at the crown in her strong hand and started to shave away the stubble left in the wake of the clippers, stroke after stroke, each leaving gleaming white skin in its wake. Around her crown, up her neck, behind her ears and across her brow, within five minutes Jessica’s head was completely bald just like the nuns’. Watanabe-chan and Oteru-chan were finished with the clippers and were brushing the shorn hair out of Jocelyn and Julie’s laps.

Yamaguchi-chan then moved behind Julie’s chair and rubbed the soapy sponge on her scalp. Julie, who resisted the clippers the most, now seemed to almost welcome the razor. Yamaguchi-chan proceeded to shave off the remaining stubble, stopping after each stroke to wipe the soapy lather off the razor. Julie’s scalp was completely shaven in a few minutes. She raised her hand curiously to touch her bald scalp and tears started rolling from her eyes as soon as she felt her scalp. Yamaguchi-chan then moved to Jocelyn, lathered up her scalp and without any hesitation began to shave her scalp. Jocelyn was the most cooperative. As she looked at the other girls she said, trying show her courage, “It will all grow back right?”

Yamaguchi replied, “Oh yes, more beautiful than before.” Tears ran down the girls’ cheeks as Yamaguchi-chan wiped tears and sweat from their faces, showing real tenderness. She said, “I remember when I was a girl your age. I mourned the loss of my hair for months and then I accepted it. I have never grown it back. Then we were shaved by monks who had no understanding of what hair means to women” When all their heads were shaved, Yamaguchi said, “Girls, follow me,” and she led them into a large room. Soon they could hear voices. “Girls, these are your fellow Maiko.”

The room was full of girls all wearing the same uniforms as Jessica, Julie and Jocelyn and all with freshly shaven heads. One girl stepped forward and said, “Welcome to Bhikku School.” Then the other girls all gathered around the girls and hugs were passed around. All the girls had just had the same experience as the three girls from Chicago, most were carrying locks of their black Asian hair that they had picked up after their time under the razor.

One girl approached Jocelyn and said as she rubbed her scalp, “What color was your hair?”

Jocelyn reached up to her bald scalp and said, “Blonde.”

Yamaguchi-chan handed each of the girls a lock of their own shorn hair tied in a blue ribbon. “This is to remember how you came to us.”


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