Are You Fucking Crazy?

There was a girl I sat with in university class. Her name was Rikka. Our last names both started with K so in the order of things, we were seatmates. She was Japanese, and I wasn’t. She had the requisite pencil cases and cute notebooks. She did everything “right.” She had no friends.

She was also queen of the passive aggressive. When she didn’t want to answer a question or she felt she had participated enough, she just shut down, like someone pulled out the plug from the wall. She turned into one of those paintings where the eyes follow you.

I think part of her problem was her expectation that people wanted to know her. And she was out to make people work for it, like finding buried treasure. She would walk up to our group in the cafeteria, and then plop down and say nothing. Just sitting there and waiting seemed like a ploy, and the rest of us were made very uncomfortable by it. I remember I once was so frightened by the consequences of her passive aggressiveness in refusing to answer questions directed from the professor that I moved my seat during class to avoid the professor’s glaring eyes at me, as if I were part of her problem—I didn’t need her brand of crazy rubbing off on me or affecting my grades.

She would just come in, sit down and stare at the cafeteria table. It was probably a repeated cry for help, but when you are 18 and in a new country with a whole new set of circumstances, are you going to actually register that? After a few tries at making convo with her, some cruel person (me) gestured out of her line of vision to all that we move to another table. We left her there. I would have felt bad if I hadn't seen her pull this little stunt each and every time she sat down or the drama she generated in class.

Her antics had the Swiss-German girl we hung out with twisted up. The Singaporean student dryly asked if lobotomy scars were visible in Japanese procedures. The French girl gave a typical shrug and said she would snap out of it eventually. It was upsetting, and it did affect us. Rikka would pull out a chair and sit. The following moments were like watching the air escape a puncture point on an inflatable pool toy, yup, the giraffe’s head was definitely deflating. She sat there, just staring at the table. Rikka was toxic to our group dynamic. We ran away from her.

In some cultures her attitude would have been the epitome of female subservience. No opinions, no noise, barely a pulse to register life. In other cultures warning bells would be ringing like air raid sirens—get the woman some help!

I met her a few years later at a reunion with her husband in tow. She just sort of stared at people and I thought, "non blinker; medicated."

Japan does not fare well with mental health issues. Don't get me wrong, the companies here sell all sorts of great pills, but there is no tolerance for anyone struggling in that way.

There was one kid in my freshman year who had “snapped” after asking eight girls to the St. Mary’s Tokyo high school prom the year before and being turned down nine times; at least that was the joke that went around the university campus. After that, he was so medicated he could barely blink (hence my later thoughts when reuniting with Rikka). But he was ok to come to class according to his doctors who dosed him up. He admitted to me they had difficulty deciding what to do with him because his mom was Japanese and his dad was a westerner. He didn’t make it through the second trimester of our first year.

I felt bad for him because I could see he was constantly struggling to stay engaged. He had great stories, like broadsiding a car on his bicycle, flying the width of the car and landing on the other side of the road! His face would be animated, but then I would see the light fade like a candle extinguishing for want of oxygen. Bowling and commuting between campuses were his good times to talk. Teachers in class learned not to ask him questions because his response times were so slow.

If you have ever heard the phrase "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," then you might understand how Japan views mental health. Japanese hide and shut away what they do not like to see. Consensus and uniformity are highly prized: fix it or hide it. Being different is being abnormal. There is no tolerance for people who pop out of their social pigeon holes.

20 years ago being a foreigner in Japan was rough. It was the crest of the boom and Japan was wonderful and everything else (non-Japanese) was often held in disdain.

The term I heard most often was "hen’na gaijin" (weird foreigner). You could be "weird" for anything: the color of your tie, the way you held your chopsticks, these and more got you singled out and ridiculed. Even attempting to communicate in Japanese and being a micro fraction off meaning or nuance was met with derision. Yes, if you came to Japan back in the 90s with a fragile self worth, you left Japan with your ego in shreds and tatters at the bottom of a shoebox.

What I learned was "Crazy" (the insensitive term for showing some mental health issues, and not the whacky gizmos and gadgets some know Japan for) was not really considered a Japanese quality in Japan; it slid off my host nation's populous. But it was stuck on my foreign friends and me. And how long can you handle being emotionally beaten up?

Then came that one day when I just got so fed up, I stopped caring. It is so long ago now, I can’t even remember. I stopped worrying about how others thought of me and what they said. I could be who I wanted, and if they didn't like it, they could fix it after I left. I would just sit there and ignore them.

And that is when I realized, I had become just a little bit like Rikka.

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