by Vaughn J Meldrum
I turned 25 on January 23rd, 2014. Like most birthdays past college age, it was a fairly average day. Days off from work and school to celebrate your birthday are no longer a thing. I woke up at my standard 5:45am and shuffled over to my coffee maker in the cold winter morning. After coffee, breakfast, and a shower I gathered the various supplies and activities that I would need for a day of elementary school teaching. I threw on my clothes, took off my prescription glasses, put on my prescription sunglasses, and headed out the door.
All bundled up in a down jacket, scarf, and gloves I began my fifteen minute bike ride to my Board of Education. It was a fairly overcast morning and as I cycled I felt that maybe I hadn’t needed my sunglasses after all.
By the time I pulled up to the BoE, my face and fingers were void of feeling. It was still quite early in the morning, around 7:40. When I walked into the office I was the only ALT, but roughly 16 members of the Onomichi Board of Education staff were busily moving about, even though the official starting time is not until 8:30. I took off my sunglasses for the sake of Japanese professionalism, began to shed my many layers of clothing, and then decided to use the restroom before heading off to school.
As with many older buildings in Japan, my BoE is equipped with traditional Japanese squat toilets. While never something I have looked forward to using, I have grown accustomed to them. Today was my birthday though, and I could not be bothered to mess around with anything like that so early in the morning. In addition to squat toilets our building also has a relatively new handicapped restroom that features a traditional western toilet. Again, it was my birthday and I wanted to treat myself by sitting in peace while I relieved myself.
As I sneakily headed to the restroom I tripped over one of the many cords that cover the floor, reminding me that in my haste, I hadn’t put my glasses back on. I am far from blind, but the lack of sunlight didn’t help matters. Regardless, I continued on towards the handicapped room. I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing something wrong – sometimes things like this are looked down upon in Japanese society. “I am not actually handicapped, what if an actual person with physical limitations needed to use this room?”, I thought. What would the office think of me if they found out about my selfishness? I felt like a kid trying to sneak a cookie from the cabinet even though Mom had explicitly said, “NO MORE!”.
I managed to stumble to the toilet without detection, but decided not to turn on the light so as not to draw any unwanted attention. I felt so victorious and satisfied. What a truly marvelous birthday I was having!
Then came the time to flush. Being unfamiliar with the room and lacking my glasses, I squinted as I tried to locate the flush nozzle. It was not in what I would deem the usual spot, thanks to my western prejudice. Then I spotted it. “How clever!” I mused, “they placed the nozzle right in front of the user for ease!” I reached forward and pulled the red cord.
What followed next was the loudest alarm I had ever heard. I sat in shock, my hand still firmly grasping the cord. I had pulled the emergency alarm installed for elderly or handicapped people needing immediate assistance in the restroom. The alarm rang out across the entire BoE, echoing down the entranceway and all throughout the office. I was frantically trying to tuck in my shirt when they arrived. I heard frantic knocking on the door and cries of “Dare desu ka? Daijoubu desu ka!?”. I tried to call back that I was fine, but the alarm was too loud for them to hear me. Finally, I managed to belt and zip myself up. I opened the door to find a hallway stuffed with people. Every single person in the office had come rushing to the rescue of what they perceived to be a person in desperate need of help, only to find a selfish foreigner fumbling around in a bathroom. “I didn’t understand. I am so very sorry. Please excuse me!”, I pined in my pitiful Japanese. I saw the disappointment in their eyes as they realized the situation, and felt my entire body red hot with embarrassment. They collectively released a sigh of relief and pity, deactivated the alarm via a switch just outside the door, turned around and filed back into the office.
Once I had regained control over my motor functions, I slowly made my way to the office, gathered my things, and headed off to school. As I walked to the car I hummed “Happy Birthday” to myself. Knowing that I wouldn’t be emotionally capable of handling the stress and humiliation associated with the previous series of events, my mind rejected the experience from memory. With every bar I hummed, it faded away. What a truly marvellous birthday I was having!