In Japan, most of us in the dorm honestly preferred to meet and talk in the communal shower rather than have people over to our rooms because the shower was more spacious and less intimate than our rooms. The dorms were narrow, and they took on the smell of our trash, our dirty laundry, our angst, and most of us were of the opinion that it was best not to bring too many people into that.
I let my neighbor Miyuki into my room one late fall night, though, because I was tired of holding the door open and talking to her in the hallway, which was cold and had florescent light. Miyuki was blinky, scratchy, frizzy-haired, and a little bit darker than most girls. Once she was in my room sitting on my futon —looking wide-eyed at my trash, my English books, the very few possessions I had — I realized I was now going to have to be more to her than I really wanted to be.
Miyuki confessed that she was deeply unhappy at our university and felt incredibly lonely and out of place. She was from Hiroshima and she didn’t get along with anyone in her program. She said I was her closest friend at Naruto, and she asked me for advice on how to make life at school better.
Until then we had been hallway friends. Our exchanges had been mostly limited to my questions about mail. Granted I had a lot of questions, but until then we had never talked about emotions. I couldn’t help but feel like I was being forced into an intimate relationship. I looked at her arms. “What’s the problem with your arms?” I asked. She used my electronic dictionary to find “contact dermatitis” and passed it to me. I had a counter offer. Maybe it’s “excema” I passed back to her. Miyuki went to her room and got a tube. I couldn’t read the medication, but I suspected it wasn’t very strong. “Maybe you should go to a new doctor,” I said. I kept my advice to the literally prescriptive.
But after Miyuki’s confession that she was lonely and unhappy at Naruto, she put together her own regimen for self-improvement. After class she drove to a karaoke bar, rented a room, sang alone, and came back to the university to go to another class. That way she figured that when she went out socially she would impress people with her confident singing. She upped her calories to put on some weight. She had me pierce her ears in the hallway. She got a job at a convenience store so she would have enough money to get a straight perm. She joined the kendo club.
I went with her to kendo practice once. Everyone in the club who had been practicing for years fought with sticks over their heads in elaborate kendo gear with elaborate kendo yells. Then there were Miyuki and me. At the beginner level, we practiced moving toward and away from our reflections in front of full-length mirrors with sticks over our heads for the hour, our grip on the stick only weakening as time went on, our pace toward the mirror slowing.
In the winter I hardly saw Miyuki. I was busy, she was busy. Sometimes, though, I could hear her banging around in the identical room next door. I wondered what the hell she was doing. Then one night I ran into her in the shower, and she asked if she could come to my room and talk. I was tired when I got back from the shower and I had to air out my room from the dirty-sock-and-curry smell, move my books off the bed, and make a place for Miyuki in my room.
She sat down on my futon. “I’m being bullied at 7-Eleven,” she said, 7-Eleven being where she worked. “The other girls are jealous of how loud and bright I say “Welcome” when customers come in.” She said they imitated her. They tried to say “Welcome” louder than she did at the same time she was saying “Welcome.” She fidgeted with her starter earrings. She scratched the top of her foot with the other foot. She told me everything.
“You’re not being bullied,” I said because I wasn’t raised in Japan, and the term sounded so juvenile to Western ears. And also because I didn’t want her to think of herself as someone who was a victim of bullies. She was a smart and sincere person, and if she could just stop scratching, I thought she could be OK-looking. Plus I had been to kendo with her. She was pursuing a regimen for self-improvement. “You’re 23,” I said, “You can’t be bullied.”
She looked like she had been slapped. She had finally confessed to someone what she saw was happening to her in her life, and that person had told her she was wrong. She was going through the proper channels at work to file complaints because for once she was going to stand up for herself. She just wanted my support. I thought I knew one of the girls she worked with, though, and I told Miyuki that I thought telling on them might make things worse.
I went up to Tokyo, and when I got back Miyuki came to my room. Things had gotten bad. She hadn’t slept through the night for almost a month because of the bullying. “I went to a sleep clinic,” she said. There was silence. I am not sure she had told anyone this. I think that because I was foreign and would be gone soon, she felt like she could tell me anything. “They diagnosed me with,” she used my little electronic dictionary to select, “sleep disturbance due to bullying,” and also she came up with, “excema exacerbated due to sleep disturbance.” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t entirely understand the culture and vocabulary of Japanese medicine, or 7-Eleven, or bullying, or close friendship, really, so my impulse was to concentrate on things I might understand and give helpful advice about it. I thought that’s what a friend was supposed to do. I thought stronger medicine might help her. “So will they give you,” I found “topical steroid” in my dictionary “for the bullying?” • 22 May 2008