At sixteen, I received honorable mention of the most memorable experience, which jolted my juvenile American perspective, as a student ambassador to Japan. During my three weeks, I attended an English Camp for Japanese high school students, along with other foreign exchange-students in Tsuroka City.
The first day of English camp, little did I know there was a front row seat just for me, of direct instruction in communality, experienced dressed only in my birthday suit.
It was after dinner, time for us to hit to the showers and put into bed. Quickly, I went to my room, shared with three others, got my things and headed with my peers to the baths. Entering the doorway, there was a large changing room with rows of wooden cubbies with no doors, like the bright primary colored cubbies children are assigned on the first day of kindergarten to keep all their things. However, this scene was nothing like kindergarten; it was more of a girl’s locker room to the umpteenth degree. Everyone was stripping themselves bare and walking around unclothed. The girls were chatting away as if in a school-yard. As a teenaged American girl, this was a foreign custom to me; a girl’s naked body is to be shared with no one, except in rare, necessary occasions. To be seen in your bra and panties is enough to freak any girl out. This was barely new to me!
After my initial communal encounter, I wasn’t quite sure how the baths would be. I wondered if there would be individual showers, like at the bathhouses on the beach, or might there be something worse. As a private American, I was puzzled by the Asian blasé disposition of communalism. I took a deep breath to relieve some of the embarrassment I was feeling, and found an empty cubby. Discreetly, I took my clothes off and tried to wrap my adolescent subconscious; tucking it away, underneath my tightly covered towel. I walked to the baths with my heart beating slightly, not knowing what would be behind door number two, and I stepped into the large bath. There was a huge tiled room with a mirror along the top half of the wall and just below it sat a small shelf that extended the length of the mirror. There were tiny seats, round and steeled as if from an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor, stationed in front of each shower head. On the other side of the room was a colossal heated pool with several bathers. On both sides of me, there were a few others showering at ease.
There were no curtains or dividers to make it anything, to my regret, private.
I froze, feeling blood warming my cheeks like a ripe beef-steak tomato freshly cut. Gratefully, my complexion veiled the intensity of my awkwardness. The misty clouds of steam from the pool swirled around me. Disappointingly, it was not enough to swath my embarrassment. I lowered my warm bottom on the icy cold seat, lost my towel, and looked at the shower head aimed directly at my chest. Placing my fingers, about to turn the dial with hopes of cooling off my heat of discomfiture, I was distracted by a group of two girls talking urgently in Chinese. They were standing over one girl holding her head backwards, trying to stop the blood running heavily out of her nose. Instantly, forgetting about my thwarting dilemma, I rose up to offer help.
In English, I said hurriedly, “No, no, you should lean her head forward.” They looked at me, wide-eyed puzzled and I knew right away, they didn’t understand. Blood was still flowing. I put my hand on my nose, moving my head forward to show them what to do. “Forward, forward like this.” “Oh ok. Like this?” The one girl asked. “Yes, that’s it, hold your nose tight.” Again gesturing as I was talking. I could only imagine what my audience of bathers were thinking, watching the late night bath theater of us four girls.
Once the bleeding was under control, the two Chinese girls, walked together, out of the bath and into the changing room, one at each side, as the girl held her nose. Relieved that crisis was over, I looked in the mirror, smiled wearily at the reflection of me, walked back to my tiny round metal seat, which seemed much warmer than my first meeting and slowly turning the dial of the shower on…