The year I turned 18, I went to live in Japan for half a year. It was not a “proper” student exchange – something that my parents had actively discouraged – but somehow I’d managed to win a trip to Japan in a national Japanese Speech Contest, and this convinced my parents that I had earned the right to my coveted exchange. Teachers at my high school were kind enough to liaise with teachers at our Japanese sister school. I would be allowed to attend classes there and live with students’ families.
My first host family was one of 5 host families in 6 months—planned this way by the school, so that no one would be unfairly burdened with a foreign student visitor. The K family was kind and welcoming, but they spoke almost no English.
I was immediately in over my head.
Every single aspect of life was suddenly a struggle. I had studied Japanese throughout high school—I had won a national Japanese speech contest, for God’s sake—and suddenly I found I knew almost nothing of any practical use, especially in a rural part of the Kansai region where the local dialect was nothing like “textbook” Japanese. I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, and they could barely understand me. Sometimes we spend a long time with dictionaries and pen and paper and sign language trying to establish what time breakfast would be, or what I should do with my dirty laundry; sometimes we just mutually called it quits and I allowed myself to be led (almost by the hand) through the day.
The middle sister of the family, who was my classmate, was always in an impatient hurry, and I soon started to feel as though I was an unwanted piece of baggage that she’d been instructed to carry. I remember the first school day of my stay there. It was 7am, and apparently we were running late.
Yuki: “Now [incomprehensible]. Have [nope, didn’t catch this either]?”Me: [blank look]
Yuki: [impatiently] “Now go. You have keiki?”
Me: [do I have cake? what cake? is she asking me if I want to eat cake? we just had breakfast! or is she asking me if I have cake with me? where would I have gotten cake, and why would I need to take it to school with me?] “Cake?”
Yuki: [pulls open my bag and looks around; finds my purse and opens it; sighs theatrically when she sees my train pass there]
[Aha. “teiki”. Not “keiki”.]
Yuki urged me out of the house, and we sprinted down the road together to the train station.
The lack of comprehension, and uncertainty of what life would bring from one moment to the next, became a source of huge anxiety. Every time communication was difficult, I felt that I was inconveniencing people and making their lives harder than necessary, and all this when they’d been kind enough to take me on as an exchange student. As well as that, because I couldn’t understand what people were saying, I frequently imagined that they were talking about me, and not in a positive way. If two girls looked at me and said something, giggling, I guessed they were laughing at my acne. When people repeatedly commented on how “big” I was, I assumed they meant “fat” (turns out that Japanese say “big” when they mean “tall”, though to be fair, at 173 cm and 68 kg I was probably also “fat” by Japanese standards). Most of all, I felt so inadequate academically. I had been an A-student in Australia. Now, by failing to communicate effectively, I looked like a dumbass, and felt like I was letting down my teachers in Australia, who had advocated and supported my coming here.
I became miserable, though I never allowed my smile to slip in public, and saved my tears for my bedroom at night. I had brought different kinds of Australian candy to share with my classmates at some point; now I broke into the packages and comfort-ate at night in bed. I gained a few kilos, which of course made me all the more miserable. I didn’t know how I could keep going when it all felt so hard. The worst part was knowing that this was what I had asked and begged for. Pride (and stubbornness) stopped me throwing in the towel and leaving.
And then one day it dawned on me. Maybe I couldn’t control my language ability (at least, not in the short-term) but I could certainly control other parts of my life. In particular, I didn’t need to be “big”. This would be the perfect time to start a diet and lose some weight. I could understand enough about lunchtime conversations among my classmates to realize that diets and weight loss were a big deal here. A diet could help me fit in, in more ways than one.
And so it began.
At first I just cut out high calorie foods, and started exercising (I got myself a skipping rope and jumped around in my host family’s tiny garden). By the time I moved to my next scheduled host family a month later, I had lost a little bit of weight — not much, but enough to encourage me. I started cutting out more foods — meat, eggs, anything relatively dense in fat or calories. I told people I was on a diet, and no one seemed to mind.
After another month, when I moved to my fourth host family, I was making great progress, and had already lost some 8 kg. This host family already had three children and both parents worked, so everyone essentially made their own breakfast and lunch from ingredients that Mum provided every morning. Perfect! I took tiny amounts of food for both meals, and even at dinner I ate the smallest amount I could get away with [not] eating. I drank hot water spiked with pepper in the hope that it would boost my digestion somehow, or at the very least suppress my hunger in a zero-calorie manner. I claimed that I was vegetarian so that I could cut out an entire (high-calorie) food group. We all rode bicycles to school every day, and as it was quite a long way, this helped my weight loss efforts no end.
At this point, I went to visit the older sister of an Australian friend, who lived in a nearby city. She was shocked at the amount of weight I’d lost— at least two dress sizes. I assured her that I was fine, and just dieting, but I’m sure she realized something was wrong. I barely ate, and even refused cake she had bought for my birthday. I weighed myself constantly—several times a day. I could tell that her flatmate thought my behaviour was odd and rude. I didn’t care. I weighed less than 60 kg – a weight I hadn’t been since primary school.
This should have been enough for me, but my now I was on a roll. It was so easy to keep going. And so I did.
I remember going shopping with my host sister during the summer holidays, and for the first time ever being able to fit into Japanese women’s sizes without having to look for XXXXXL. It was such a rush.
Counter-intuitively, though, losing weight actually made me more anxious — anxious about losing control over food and gaining all that weight back again. I became even more obsessive about calories and exercise. My body started to rebel. I found myself sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to scoff low-fat yoghurt, because I was literally starving.
At the end of 6 months, I had lost something like 17kg and was down to 53 kg – my all-time low. I thought I had conquered the world, but found that unless I ate almost nothing, exercised like a fiend, and indulged my cravings strictly on caffeine-free diet coke, I could not help but gain weight.
My arrival home was a shock to everyone. Family and friends thought I looked skeletal, and the horror showed clearly in their faces. I was devastated – I was so thrilled about being thin, and their disgust was a disappointment beyond words.
With no one supporting my efforts to stay thin, I felt lonely, and as though the world was united in a conspiracy against me. It made me sad, but it also made me tough. I ignored all kindly-meant advice and pleas. I lapped up the admiration of unknown men who whistled at me on the street.
It took a very long time to break out of this mindset. Meanwhile, my body continued to rebel. One morning I woke up with two delicious, high-calorie biscuits beside my bed. In my state of crazed hunger I had craved them so badly that I had apparently sleep-walked to the kitchen, retrieved them, and placed them comfortingly beside my pillow. I remembered nothing of this when I woke up, but I do recall feeling, for the first time, that perhaps I had a problem.
When I was in my second year of university (still determined to stay super-thin) I took a very challenging Japanese language class. I realized almost immediately that it was way beyond my ability, but I refused to give up. I spend more time preparing and studying for that class than for any other class before or since – literally hours and hours looking up and memorizing kanji characters, and committing to memory obscure Japanese phrases. The stress and the time investment were so demanding that I found I had to divert my dieting energy to studying. I no longer had the mental fortitude or the physical energy to resist my cravings, and I started binge-eating. It was fairly horrific. I found myself eating so much at a single sitting that I felt physically ill and as though I might burst. I gained weight at a rate of knots. It was horrible, and my self-esteem hit an all-time low. I could not believe how fat I was getting – the kilos were literally piling themselves on my body before my very eyes.
However, a few of my course-mates and I, united in our struggle to conquer Japanese From Hell no matter what, became lifelong friends. And somehow, I had also managed to find and hang onto a boyfriend who was fiercely and blindly and utterly loyal (almost to a fault). If these people noticed what I looked like or how quickly I gained weight that year, they didn’t say a word, and I love them all the more for that.
That year, two major victories were mine - I scored an A+ in that super-challenging Japanese language course, and I beat my eating disorder.
The first victory was incredibly important to me at the time. I was overjoyed; elated; proud of myself.
The second felt like anything but a win – at the time, I felt like I had lost a long and hard-fought battle – but looking back now, I believe it was one of the great victories of my life.
The path of an anorexic (or would-be anorexic) is lonely and hard, and victory over bodyweight comes at the price of obsessive thoughts and behaviour, socially-odd eating habits, and constant anxiety. Some people can't give it up; don't want to give it up; cannot see that their need to be anorexic ultimately has nothing to do with food or thinness.
I am sad that I spent such a long period of my life wasting energy on an eating disorder. I am sad that I spiralled so far down into self-hatred and negativity that I ended up in that dark place in the first place. I am exhilarated, though, that I found my way out and have never again fallen that far.