Part 1: The School Physical

Listen to the story!


“Ethereal” – Once Were Ghosts

“Moon Child” – Quint Baker

“Bolted Doors” – Mr. Bitterness and the Guilty Pleasures

“Dream World” – Quint Baker

“The 60 Minute Zoo” – Electric Mirrors

“Glitch” – Kirk Pearson

“Moontime” – The IMG

“Tetris” – Stealing Orchestra

“Space” – Andy G. Cohen

“Reliable Source” – Nicolas Falcon


Read the story:

I’ve been thinking over which “medical world of Tokyo” story to start with here. There’s about six different episodes that stand out in my memory, each with the feeling of like a very difficult test that I just barely skimmed a pass on. And I was starting on the first of these episodes when my meandering introduction made me realize that actually the first time I saw a doctor in Tokyo was only 3 months into my stay in Japan.

At the time, and for 2 years thereafter, I was teaching at a Japanese high school. And there’s a custom that seemed very strange to me then where once a year a team of doctors and nurses descend on the school and every staff member is required to take a physical right there at work.

One day in October I walked onto the school entrance grounds to find two giant trailers planted in front of the staff entrance, a handful of people in scrubs milling around them, while the other teachers walked passed totally unfazed.

When I asked my supervisor what was going on at first she looked at me in mild alarm, very surprised to learn that I didn’t know today was “physical day” before it dawned on her that it had probably been her responsibility to tell me this.

A lot of my gaijin teacher friends had more tension with their supervisor than any other teacher who appeared in our endless series of complaints and anecdotes, so I think it was for this reason that whenever my supervisor came up in a story they would try to place her by saying something like “That’s the one who’s really mean right?” and every time I had to interrupt the story to set them straight: “No, no that’s the motherly one, remember?”

My favorite way of describing her is this: “100% self-less with zero social intelligence.”

Considering that her vast intellectual powers were always employed in thinking of others and assisting others, her students and myself in particular, it was ironic that she had no real sense of tact, and, while thinking nothing of herself, was constantly causing offense to others. In Japanese there’s this great expression “kuki yomenai” which means “can’t read the air” — kuki is air, yomenai, can’t read — like a person who can’t read a room— no social awareness.

When it burst on her that I knew nothing of this physical and, being done entirely in Japanese, would definitely need a guide, her great preoccupation with my well-being combined with zero idea of how to actually promote it, led her to suggest that the youngest teacher at our school — who was just a year older than me and so, to my supervisor’s mind, a natural ally — be my guide that day.

I’m not sure if the young teacher would’ve seen things the same way my supervisor did if I had gone up to her and asked for her help. But that turned out to be beside the point because, before I could approach the young teacher, my well-meaning supervisor left her a post-it note on her desk where she not so much as asked for her help but demanded it.

It was obvious that the young teacher comprehended me in the insult because she later brandished the post-it in front of me like a detective cornering her suspect with the call-records of a murderer — Isn’t that your phone number he dialed here?

I tried to laugh it off, like we were both in on the joke of my supervisor’s antics, but I don’t think it worked.

So a few minutes before the appointed time I lingered outside of the big teacher’s room where the young teacher had her desk, and when she came out I followed her down.

In retrospect, the first red flag was that she made a point of walking a good yard or two ahead of me.

When we entered the meeting room I was handed a medical form in Japanese that I couldn’t read, but the kind nurse distributing them offered to read aloud any of the kanji I couldn’t understand. I got through some of the basics — name, age, etc. — but then got to a kanji character that, even after she pronounced the word for me,  turned out to be a word I had never heard before. The young teacher — who spoke very good English– was still an arm’s length away at that point so I quickly turned to her for a translation and she looked at me scathingly as she pronounced the word “gender,” as though realizing in that moment just what a burden I was going to be in this.

From that point forward, the whole day was just a series of ever-increasing humiliations. I finally got the form filled out but then sat in the wrong place while awaiting the blood test. When that was done and I was pricked and bandaged, I made the mistake of putting my bandaged arm in the blood pressure machine instead of my good arm. After the blood work, I nearly failed the vision test because I couldn’t understand the rules of the test.  It’s actually a much more ingenious version that the American test which requires the testee to understand the roman alphabet. The Japanese version is just a series of rings with one piece missing so it’s like a C being rotated. You have to identify which part is missing — up, down, left, or right. But this totally eluded me the first time I saw it and the nurse came very close to putting it down as severe blindness.

By the time I had finally finished the vision test, the last test of the large meeting room, the young teacher had left the room and disappeared to the next stage without a backward glance.

I tried to pretend like I hadn’t just been ditched, that my guide and I had planned all along to separate at this point for a quick break, and I walked up to the exit nurse to get my next instructions.

She handed me an oddly shaped plastic bag with some kind of plastic tubing inside and gave me very precise instructions for what to do with this bag, which I nodded through completely uncomprehendingly. Or probably at first I let on that I didn’t understand her, even just with my involuntary look of confusion, at which point she repeated herself or rephrased some parts, and when I understood nothing more in the repetition I figured it was best for both of us if I just played along and nodded.

I did however understand that the next stage of this game would take place in the computer room, and to enter it the plastic bag was crucial, since only by presenting the bag in its completed form would I gain entry to that room.

Deciding not to torture her with more questions about the plastic bag I decided to instead go with a question where I knew both of us could shine, which was “where is the computer room?”

As it happened, she actually didn’t know, but another teacher standing nearby jumped in to help when he heard this and took me outside to point out the direction. I gave him a cheery wave, so relieved as I was to have understood everything he just said, and once he was safely back in the large meeting room, I ran off to hide in the English office.

Sitting down at my desk with the mysterious plastic bag in front of me, I just stared at it in utter confusion and despair. After a few minutes of this, I started pacing the room as though the bag might open up its secrets to me if I set it in motion.

And it was in the middle of this exercise that another English teacher found me when she came into the office. I had actually wandered over to her desk in my pacing so as she came over to her seat she saw the bag in my hand and I immediately confessed my confusion to her.

It turned out that the bag was for a urine test. Or rather the tubes inside, which was actually just a single plastic vial, was for a urine test, to be placed in the plastic bag which then had to be folded and sealed in a really particular way. The result is confusing and intricate, but in its intricacy is so far from resembling a urine sample that it loses all sense of indecency and unsanitariness, which is of course the point.

With this key finally unlocked I went to the computer room to advance to the next and final stage. Actually the last stage should’ve been the trailers out front, but I never learned what they were for so I never visited them.

My guide was already finishing up her test when I walked in, having gotten to the room ages ago, and passed me on her way out without even looking in my direction, which I chose to take as a compliment—proof of her faith that I could handle myself.

The other teachers and I stood around bored and not talking much as we waited for our turn. Just two tables were being used, with one nurse at each one and a teacher sitting across with clunky headphones on. When my turn came I sat down at the table closest to the door. The nurse (an older man) watched me in mild bewilderment as I sat down across from him.

I handed him my medical form and he, slowly and skeptically, started to explain the instructions of the test.

There’s no nuance to the Japanese version of the test — it’s exactly as it is elsewhere— a button for your left hand, a button for your right hand and you press the button that corresponds to the ear you hear the beep in.

I nodded along and verbally assented as he explained, relieved at the simplicity of this final test, and about halfway through his explanation he abruptly cut off, turned to the nurse beside him in exasperation and said “She doesn’t understand a word I’m saying, does she?”

I have to say, after the parade of humiliations I had been marching through all day, I did not respond with perspective or composure when he said this. I had a sudden impulse to chuck the headphones across the table at his stupid wrinkled face and storm out of the test room in protest. Instead I just repeated with teary insistence “wakarimashita, wakarimashita” — “I understand, I understand.”

Just then another teacher standing in the line who knew me a bit stepped forward in my defense and intoned himself “wakarimashita, wakarimashita”— “she understands, she understands.”

The Japanese teacher’s words ascribed a meaning to my identical words that had been lost on the nurse up until that point, and, placated but still skeptical, he continued with the test.

When the ordeal was finally over, I went to the bathroom and collapsed in sobs, more out of mental exhaustion than anything else.

After working over in my head how best to narrate this story to my friends later for the greatest impact, I went home, vowing to never see a doctor in Japan again– if I could help it.



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