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Things you shouldn't do in an onsen

Heh, I bet you thought the title referred to things a gaijin did. Let's talk about awkward for a moment.

This starts on Friday. After taking a class on tea ceremony from a very kind, elderly Japanese woman who I could barely understand, I went home to have dinner with my family at a Korean yakiniku restaurant and then caught a ride with them to a karaoke joint where a bunch of HIF students were meeting to celebrate the end of the schoolweek. One of the younger members of the HIF staff came along too. I'll call him Sato-san.

Sato-san wears extremely fashionable clothing and speaks in gentle, somewhat feminine Japanese. He sort of bobs around helping with organizational matters of the school and making sure students get to all of their classes and activities. He's pretty obviously gay.

So during karaoke, I drank something like eight beers. I was wasted. After we'd finished, I was going to ask the karaoke staff to call a taxi for me, since that was the only way to get across town back to my home in the suburbs. Sato-san offered to give me a ride.

While we were walking to his car, he began asking me about two guys in the program from the same university. They're a couple, they're fairly open about it, and they're adorable. I have to admit I'm a little envious. Anyway, Sato-san asked me whether they were 'lovers,' the Japanese imported word from English, and I replied that I didn't know for sure and he'd have to ask them himself, but that probably yes, they were.

And because I was completely trashed, I then decided to tack on that I was gay too. Sato-san didn't reciprocate, but rather sort of nodded knowingly and talked about how difficult it is to be open in Japan. He sounded so sad. He also played Pink the whole way from the karaoke joint to my house and told me she was his favorite singer.

Conficions suspirmed.

I don't regret telling him, since he's a cool guy and, in any case, there's only so far I'm willing to go to disguise my identity for the sake of keeping the Japanese unflustered. I'd had a very uncomfortable conversation with my host mother only a day before where she asked if I had a girlfriend, I replied no, and then she kept pressing the point, asking me why I didn't have one, did I want one, had I ever had one before, did I want to date Lauren, how much do I date at the U of C, etc. I finally had to just end the conversation saying that it was a little embarrassing for me and that I didn't want to talk about it, given that I was running out of ambiguous answers and was just on the edge of telling her, "Look, I'm gay. I'm sorry if that offends you, but there it is."

Here's the problem. This weekend we went to a resort in the mountains for an overnight stay. The natural beauty there was exquisite, the prices for everything were sort of unreasonable, but fortunately I forgot to get money out of the ATM, so I had to be frugal with what I'd brought. There was an onsen, a Japanese bathhouse, and I visited it with some other HIF students with general success. Of course, we were all a little uncomfortable being naked around each other at first. I mean, just because I'm gay doesn't necessarily mean I'm jumping at the chance to see a bunch of guys I go to class with every day in the nude. I was just as nervous as they were. But we developed "hadaka tsukiai" (naked fellowship) after a few minutes and the awkwardness dissolved so we could just enjoy the bath and talk. It was relaxing.

Right up till I went into the outdoors onsen. The only other person there was Sato-san. He engaged me in conversation for a little while, something that slightly irritated me because I basically just wanted to enjoy the stars and the beautiful garden and the water in silence. Eventually, he thanked me for trusting him enough to tell him I was gay. I said it was no problem and left the matter settled. He kept on the subject though, talking about how it was a very good sort of trust, saying some things that I didn't understand and I didn't want to ask him what they meant, and generally starting to get more intimate than I was at all comfortable with.

He was flirting with me. What's more, he was sort of edging very far into my body space. When he splashed water at me playfully, pulling a coy expression, I decided enough was enough and excused myself to go back inside. Even if I had been attracted to him at all, that was inappropriate behavior for a public place like an onsen where a certain degree of heteronormativity is just common courtesy to keep everyone who uses the bath comfortable. Unfortunately, my Japanese just isn't good enough for me to have been able to tell him firmly and politely that I wanted him to stop, and I'm not sure the message would have gotten across in English.

On the one hand, I have to keep in mind his situation. It's extraordinarily difficult to be homosexual in Japan. There's not a strong moral dimension to sex like in the United States, so it's not gay sex that poses so much of a problem, but rather the very rigid societal expectations of proper behavior. While homosexuality is accepted in certain specifically defined contexts, in every day life men are supposed to marry, have children, and commit themselves to a family.

Even pop culture icons like the comedian "Hard Gay" have to stick to an embarrassing, exaggerated stereotype of a 'gay man.' Neither yaoi nor other pop culture images of homosexuality do much to promote the image of gay men as anything other than crazy outliers of society. And let's not even get into the invisibility of lesbians or bisexuals.

So all this openness among the American students, with one couple entirely comfortable cuddling in tha karaoke room and another student willing to say outright that he's gay, without relying on any behavior cues or code language, is probably fascinating for him.

On the other hand, I made absolutely no indications I was interested in him, to the best of my knowledge, and he should have known that an onsen, a new and somewhat challenging cultural experience for me, was not the proper place to make a move.

Really, he shouldn't be making moves on students in any case. He's a member of the staff and at an equivalent level to a teacher. There are power dynamics involved here that unsettle me.

I'm hoping that something of my emotional state and my quick departure got through to him, much as the Japanese are famed for tuning in to things left unsaid. The rest of the trip went extremely well, with all the students getting right sloshed and drunkenly hugging and gushing about how much fun they were having and how awesome everyone is. No drama yet, though it's obvious who's trying to get in whose pants. No one's trying to get in mine, except for Sato-san.

Erf, awkward awkward awkward. The more I think about it, the more irritated I get. He could have considered my feelings for a moment. I'm barely functioning in the language, this country is still completely new to me, I've never been in an onsen before and he wants me to deal with a come-on?

Thanks for the compliment, but I'd prefer some consideration.