When I was in Japan, I was astonished by the kindness of the people around me, who expected nothing in return. My first taste of this was when I was struggling to drag my suitcase up the subway steps. A pair of junior high school girls ran up next to me, grabbed my suitcase, and pulled it to the top of the steps, then turned and ran back down. I yelled thanks after them, but they didn’t respond; this was an everyday act of kindness that didn’t require reciprocation.
I saw this everywhere. In Japan, society is expected to take care of everyone, especially children and the elderly. I once saw a child fall off of her bike, and fifteen people dropped everything to rush over, scoop her up, brush her off and check her bike. In the train station, I saw a toddler wander down the track alone; a businessman picked up up and held him until his frantic mother ran in looking for him, and quietly handed him over. It’s a far cry from America, where people can fear helping others for fear of retribution.
The most amazing, however, occurred one frigid night in January. I was living in Komaki at the time, but had gone into Nagoya on a dinner date. About halfway through the date, I came down with rotavirus. For those of you who are unfamiliar, rotavirus causes intense vomiting and diarrhea, to the point of dehydration. I excused myself to the bathroom, realizing I needed to get home immediately, much to the dismay of my date. (Terribly sorry, Mitsuaki! I seriously did have fun until then!) I paid for my dinner and bolted from the restaurant, fleeing toward the train, hoping I’d make it home.
It was the most miserable hour of my life. The train ran on two lines, meaning I had a twenty minute walk between stations halfway through. The first leg of the trip was easier, though I disembarked twice and vomited in two stations. By the time I reached the walk, I was so dizzy I had to sit repeatedly on the side of the road, my mouth feeling like it was full of cotton. By the second train, I was getting off at every station, unable to control my body at all anymore, which made me terribly unpleasant to be around. I was crying by then.
When I finally reached Komaki, I was in an underground station with a long, steep stone staircase. Unable to walk, I crawled miserably up the steps, leaving a trail behind me, wondering how I’d ever make the final thirty-minute walk home. About halfway up, I dropped down on the stone steps, sobbing.
Suddenly, I felt a hand on my head. I looked up and saw a woman standing on the step above, dressed in a sparkly dress, a white fur coat, and jewelry. “Are you okay?” She asked. “Do you need to go to the hospital?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I think I just need to go home.”
“Were you drinking?”
“No. I’m just very sick.”
She walked at a safe distance as I hauled myself to my feet and staggered after her. At one point, she paused, held up a finger, and went into the convenience store. She returned with a bottle of water, which I used to clean up a bit. She walked with me in silence, her very high heels surely very uncomfortable on the pavement. She walked with me all the way to my apartment. “You’ll be okay?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s my house. Thank you, thank you so much…”
She bowed silently, turned and walked the way she had come. She had easily walked twenty minutes out of her way for me. I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine walking up to someone covered in vomit in America and escorting them home, alone, at night. Yet this kind, amazing stranger made sure I was safe.
I managed to get inside and survive the night, though by morning I was much thinner. I put on my pajamas and dress shoes (the only shoes I didn’t need to fasten) and went to the convenience store. The lady who worked there stopped me at the door. “Oh, Gaijin-chan! *” she cried. “Stay there!” She ran around and gathered up a basket of bread, medicine, electrolyte replacement drinks and bottled water, bagged them up, and handed them to me. “Take these, go home and get better!” she said.
I took my bags, went home, and slept. Once I felt better, I offered to pay for the food she’d given me, but she waved me off. “So long as you’re better,” she said. “Stay healthy!”
To this day, I’m still in awe of the kindness of those women. I wish I could find them again to tell them what a difference they made in my life in such a short time.