I smell like a middle school girl. Do you know the smell I’m talking about? Sticky sweet with after notes of rubbing alcohol? It’s the aroma of the cheap cologne your Avon-lady grandmother gave you for Christmas when you were eleven. It balances perfectly between fragrant and foul, and you wore it because Chanel and Lancome were luxuries unattainable to someone on an allowance.
Obviously this is not a scent I chose for myself. It was applied to me by Yumi-chan, one of the girls I’m coaching for next month’s speech contest. After practice Wednesday, we sat around chatting (in English!) for about an hour. During that time I was doused with both cucumber-scented Sea Breeze and an unidentified perfume, neither consensually. Gaining consent probably didn’t even cross Yumi-chan’s mind. To a middle school girl, smearing someone with perfume is a completely sensible thing to do; why would she need to ask?
Beautification without permission also applies to my hair. The pockets of my students’ uniforms are small treasure troves, filled with pens and pencils, pictures of anime characters and boy bands, notes to pass during class and (for the girls) small mirrors and combs. Every so often, while I’m in the middle of a conversation with a student or even with another teacher, one of the girls will come up behind me and start brushing or braiding my hair. They say Western hair is really different from Asian hair, so my students always want to touch mine.
Apparently teaching English in Japan is tantamount to issuing an open invitation for your body to be used for all types of intercultural experimentation and questioning. There’s one first-grader who regularly tries to karate chop me in the vagina, but mostly it’s my hair and boobs that interest everyone. I learned the Japanese words for “huge” and “jealous” when some of my ninth-grade girls decided they wanted to discuss my bra size with me. Elementary schoolers have a more tactile way of learning about my lady bits. Curious, over-energetic first-graders through should-know-better sixth-graders will walk right up to me, give my chest a pat or squeeze, then invite their friends to do the same. I’m not sure this cultural experience can be considered an “exchange” as I don’t reciprocate the groping.