I went to see my Japanese doctor last week, because I decided I had AIDS. This happens to me all the time, so it’s really no big deal. The problem is that I recently moved, so now going to talk to the man in the white coat means I have to ride the train for an hour. So inconvenient, really, all that medical stuff.
Aside from its distance from the hospital, I love my new place. The only thing is, it’s small. I mean like Wizard of Oz small. Like living in the Lunar Module kind of small. But on the plus side, it’s got everything necessary to sustain life, including a TV, microwave, and even a bathroom. Now, you might disagree, but I think getting a beer out of the fridge, nuking up a plate of edamame, and using the toilet all without leaving one’s futon is the very definition of convenience. It even has a teeny sink and a toaster the size of an Easy-Bake oven, like in case I need to make a batch of tiny cookies. You can never be too prepared.
The Annual Migration
Anyway, I move about once a year, in a vain attempt to improve my living situation in Japan. It’s all about the trade-offs. My last apartment had a nice big window, but a view of a brick wall. The place before that was a room in a beautiful wooden house, which was great until winter, when the wind came blasting through and the place became an igloo. For three months, I wore a stocking cap and slept in a parka. That really messes up your hair, let me tell you.
But the real reason I like my new place is that it’s not steeped in perpetual darkness like a lot of Japanese apartments. I mean, it’s bright like 24-7. I’m way up on the seventh floor, where the sun comes in in the mornings, and the neon glow comes in at night. I really gotta get some curtains. Anyway, when I look out my window, I can even see a bit of greenery, which is refreshing, since sometimes Japan feels like it’s molded out of pure concrete. You know, there’s not a lot of nature, unless you live in some deluxe tower like Bruce Wayne or something with a rooftop garden, or maybe you’re homeless and live in the bushes down by the river. Anyway, my eyesight is really spectacular, so way off in the distance, just before the horizon drops below the curvature of the earth, I can see a small tree. It’s a pretty sweet view. One of my friends came by and she was like, That’s not a tree. It’s the billboard for a novelty car air freshener. But I said, You’re nuts, and you wear glasses anyway. It’s definitely a tree. Silly bitch.
Symptoms of HIV? Freaking Everything
But where was I? Oh yeah, so I went to the doctor about my AIDS. The dude’s always smiling. I have no idea why. Probably he’s on drugs. But anyway I wasn’t, smiling that is, because I know a couple people who died from the stuff, and even though I try to act all casual, it actually scares me to death. Dying is something I try to avoid, since it’s just too dramatic. But since I’ve had a dry cough for a full month now, I knew I had the HIV, and I just resigned myself to it. I looked it up online, and sure enough, right there on WebMD, was all I needed to know. To be fair, this is about the tenth time I’ve had AIDS. You name a symptom, I’ve had it. Rash? I got AIDS. Night sweats? That’s AIDS for sure. Athlete’s foot? No doubt.
When I finally got to the station for the hospital, it was raining, so I had to go to Lawson and buy a cheap plastic umbrella. And even still my pants were soaked below the knee by the time I walked into the waiting room. But compared to the mass of the people huddled there, I looked like a prince. People were in wheelchairs with IVs hanging out of their arms and an old lady was laying across three chairs moaning and a girl was crumpled on the floor coughing out half a lung. Jeez, there are some sick people in hospitals, for real.
Going to the Doctor in Japan
I love going to the doctor here. You get to speak a ton of Japanese, and because of the national health insurance, it’s almost cheaper than a language class. The first thing they do is give you a form to fill out with all your information, and answer questions about your health. I’ve learned a ton of medical terminology this way. There are boxes to mark for nausea, dizziness, fever, all kinds of good stuff. I check them all. You can never be too careful.
The thing about doctors is, they’re smart. And they know they’re smart, so they don’t have to try to impress you by speaking English. Not like when I go to eat oden at that old wooden cart under the railroad tracks and the homeless guy dishing out fish cakes from month-old broth has to try out his English. The dude sleeps in a cardboard box by the river and only comes out at night to serve up terrifying things floating in a pot from the Meiji era, but he’s gonna make sure I know that he knows how to say “egg” in English. Doctors aren’t like that.
The first thing doctors say is “Japanese daijyoubu?” And as soon as I’m like “daijyoubu,” we’re good to go. I get my free language class. I get to tell him all about my cough, and this time I had a rash, and my athlete’s foot, and he has to listen and ask thoughtful questions. It’s great. Then he looks in my ears and mouth and listens to my heart. But the best part is all the tests.
How to Fail a Japanese Health Exam
Japanese people love measuring stuff. Anything they can put a number to, they’re on that. Height, weight, blood, urine, x-rays, you name it, they want to poke and prod you for it. Now, you wouldn’t think “pee in this cup” would be something you’d want to hear, but when it’s in Japanese, suddenly it’s something I can’t wait to do. I don’t know why, but probably because I had a ton of coffee. Or maybe it’s just me.
The only thing that stumped me was the x-ray part. They made me stand in front of this screen with my arms over my head and then some Japanese guy in a control room mumbled something through a microphone that I couldn’t quite make out. But I caught the word “right.” So I turned to the right. And he’s like, No, turn right. So I was like okaaay . . . and slowly turned right again. And he’s like, No, the other right. And I said, Where the hell’s that? You want me to turn left? And he’s like, No, right. So I turned right. And he’s like, No, Right!
Now, I know right and left. I’ll admit there’s a lot of stuff I’m not great with–haiiro (gray) and chairo (brown)–I gave up trying to keep those two straight years ago. As colors, they both suck anyway, so whatever. But I’ve got right and left down rock solid. All I can think is that maybe he means his right, or maybe he wants to see my right side so I should turn left. Or something. So I turned left. And he’s like “Good. Now turn right again.” So I turned left once more. With my arms up, it felt like the hokey-pokey. Eventually, he seemed happy and we got a bunch of nice pictures, so I went back to see the doctor.
The doctor had two PC screens, and showed me a bunch of numbers and pictures of my lungs and explained all about cholesterol and triglycerides in Japanese and I was like, Hmm, I see, do tell me more. Then we got into a pretty deep discussion about the role of potassium in the body and I felt like I was really getting my money’s worth from this language lesson. So finally, I asked him about my AIDS.
Diagnosis: Shut up and Eat your Peas
He looked at the screens and said casually, Oh, that’s negative. And I was like, Negative, ah, jeez, that’s bad right? And he’s like, No, negative is good. I just looked at him blankly and tried to process that. I said, So negative is the new positive? You should really go talk to the guy in the x-ray room. Anyway, he continued, You’re fine, but you ought to watch your diet. Do you eat a lot of salty food? And I said, Hell yeah, ever since this latest bout of AIDS I’ve been going every other day to eat oden at this old wooden cart. He gave me that disapproving look that old Japanese people are so good at and said, You really out to cut back on that. Try to eat more fresh vegetables and legumes. I decided then and there I wouldn’t tell him about my weekend regimen consisting entirely of potato chips and malt liquor. Doctors can’t handle that kind of stuff.
Anyway, even though I no longer had the HIV, I still had a pretty bad cough, so I figured I’d have to go with plan B—other good illnesses to have. I started going down the list with him: lung cancer, pneumonia, whooping cough . . . I really have a great medical vocabulary. He stared at his desk for a minute and thought. “When did this begin?” he asked.
“About a month ago,” I said.
“Anything changed in the last month?”
“No . . .” I lied.
“New job,” he continued, “or going somewhere new, or doing something new?”
“Well,” I said reluctantly, “I did move to a new apartment.”
“Ah, that’s probably it. Have you cleaned it yet?”
“Perish the thought,” I said.
Living with the Results
I don’t see what good it does to have all that fancy hospital equipment if all you can come up with is, You’re allergic to your apartment. But that and a handshake was all I got, so I thanked him and went back to the waiting room. A nurse gave me a prescription for some cough syrup and led me to the checkout counter, where a smiling young cashier handed me what looked like a green ATM card, and pointed to a machine behind me. “Put in the card. Put in money,” he said in Japanese. Easy as pie. The staff there really are very nice.
Sure enough, it turned out to be some sort of reverse ATM machine. I put in the green card and the screen told me to stuff in a hundred and thirty bucks.
I did a quick mental calculation. That’s about a month’s worth of potato chips and malt liquor. But I figured it was worth it, since it included two hours of Japanese lessons and cured my AIDS. I inserted a bunch of yen and out came a receipt. When I walked outside it had stopped raining and I realized my pants had dried, so I just left the umbrella at the hospital and rode the train home. In the end, I got a diagnosis of “Clean your effing apartment.” It’s pretty grim news, but I’m coming to terms with it. Thank God I live in a tiny space capsule, and with a rag on a stick can clean the whole place in about 10 minutes. Gotta love Japan.