One chilly February afternoon, I moved into my new apartment. My first semester at a new school was already in full swing, and I was nervous but so excited to have my own space after months of sharing rooms, craving one of my own. I walked into my apartment and it was completely silent. I wondered where my three roommates were. I unpacked and moved in, surrounded by my sister, mama, best friend, and boyfriend. We gossiped about what my roommates were like. We placed bets and dreamed about big dinner nights in the kitchen and plenty of pictures in front of the empty living room wall. Nothing could prepare me for the moment one of my roommates walked in, and nothing could prepare me for my roommate being an exchange student from Japan.
At first, I was terrified. I called my mom later that night and cried, the language barrier looming over my head and feelings of confusion never leaving my brain: where were my other roommates? When would they move in? How can I do this?
Over the next week, I never saw my roommate. Ever. I would hear her come home late at night and I was asleep when she left in the morning. Our kitchen was full with shared utensils, and her “CLEAN” and “DIRTY” sticky notes served as a constant reminder that I wasn’t actually alone, despite feeling like I had an apartment to myself.
She loves sticky notes. They’re her thing. I got sticky notes after sticky notes stuck on my door, introducing herself and sending me happy notes for the day. I replied by writing on full sheets of paper and sneaking them under her door. Eventually, it really started to set in that I didn’t have the living situation I wanted. I desperately wanted the three other roommates to be naturals in the city, knowing their way around since I was so new. I wanted roommates who took cool pictures, sang Taylor Swift, loved cute babies. What I didn’t know was that my roommate – the one from Japan – was one of these people (oh, and by the way – no one else has moved in yet, but that’s a whole different story).
M (what I’ll call my roommate on here) has to take an English intensive course before officially registering as a student at my school. She spends 5 days a week listening, reading, writing, and speaking in English. If she doesn’t pass the course, she can either try again or go back to her home in Japan. The vocabulary list for this course is inTENSE. Some of the words I’ve never seen, and some of the words I’ve never even said out loud. I learned about all of this after initiating meeting to eat dinner one night with M and her exchange partner (someone who shows her around the school, helps practice English, and basically serves as a guide to the USA). After learning about her struggles while learning English and mastering that strange plethora of vocab, I made it a point to meet every week with her and her exchange partner for dinner.
The first time we all went out to dinner after I initiated this weekly occurrence, we went to Phat Burrito. I learned so much about M just in those couple of hours: she’s 21, she’s never driven a car, she wants to be a Biology major, she’s never had Nutella, she loves sunflowers, and she has only spoken to her family once since coming to North Carolina in 2014.
This made me sad. My heart broke for M, just because I knew how near and dear to my heart my family was, and for communication to be cut off was a thought I could not think of. I watched M as her exchange partner explained the concept of calling “shotgun” when walking to a car and decided that I would try my very best to be her family while she was here.
I desperately wanted the three other roommates to be naturals in the city, knowing their way around since I was so new. I wanted roommates who took cool pictures, sang Taylor Swift, loved cute babies. Last night, M and I stayed up late, decorating a corner of our apartment and running to Target to get last minute must-haves. We laughed, we sang Taylor Swift, and she constantly had her small camera with her, taking pictures to post on Facebook to her friends back home. She knows of the twins I used to babysit and asks me about them, and she sends me cute animal videos from YouTube before she goes to bed sometimes. She is just now learning what “okey dokey” means, how to use verbs in a sentence, where to put a comma, and what it means to be sarcastic.
It is the coolest thing in the world to see someone learn for the first time, whether it be a baby learning how to walk, my cousin learning how to drive a car, or my roommate learning what it means to live in the United States. I doubted my relationship with her when I first moved in, but now I couldn’t picture anybody else in my apartment with me. She learns something new everyday, and sometimes I’m the one to teach her. My friend and my roommate is someone I can watch grow and thrive in her new place while I do the same.
Now, I just have to figure out how to explain cuss words here in America. She is curious about those.