Thinking about Tomoko

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My mind is on Japan today. How could it not be? And I’ve been thinking about Tomoko. Tomoko was my roommate in my sophomore year of college. At the time, roommates were assigned by the college in what I assume was a somewhat random fashion.

Sophomore year, I was hoping for somebody that I had more in common with than my morose freshman year roommate, somebody I could hang out with, somebody who was more like me. Instead, I was given a Japanese exchange student. Which pissed me off.

Tomoko was very shy, and a few years older than the typical sophomore. I was shy and under-confident as well, which made sharing the extraordinarily small room awkward. And because I was annoyed that she wasn’t what I thought I wanted in my romantic idea of a college roommate, I made absolutely no effort to befriend her. Here she was in a foreign country, in a tiny Oregon town, with only a small group of other foreign exchange students from Japan that had traveled with her, none of whom seemed to be overtly friendly with her. To make matters worse, there was another Tomoko in the group: a beautiful, young, outgoing girl—and of course to compare and contrast them was natural. My roommate was always, the other Tomoko.

I made virtually no attempt to get to know my roommate that year. As a result, I don’t remember her last name and I don’t remember what part of Japan she was from. I didn’t include her in my plans, or take her to the coast, or out to eat, or to hang out with friends. I pretty much ignored her. And I made no attempt to stay in touch with her after the school year ended. And for all of that, I am deeply ashamed. Most of that year I spent hanging out with a new boyfriend, who later betrayed me in many ways, including cheating on me with the outgoing Tomoko (not my roommate). If I have any defense at all for my actions, I also found out that fall that my mom had Ovarian Cancer and my world was suddenly upended. Immaturity + life upheaval = bitch, I guess.

Karma bit me back a few years later when I went to Spain as an au pair (nanny). The family in Madrid that I lived with had used an agency to cheaply hire many “girls” over the years. They didn’t include me in their plans, take me many places (I can’t say none), or treat me as part of the family. It became clear that I was there to do one thing: speak English with the kids. And yet, there were other au pairs, young Spaniards affiliated with the au pair program, and students in my community Spanish classes, who did befriend me that year, and for whom I’ll always be grateful. I made little attempt to keep in touch with them after we all left Spain though. See any kind of pattern here?

Regret is a funny thing, and although I’ve thought of Tomoko over the years, and I’ve thought of Japan over the years, I’ve never really felt as badly about the way I treated Tomoko as I do right now, when her country is in shambles. I hope she has had a great life full of true friends. And that wherever she is in the world right now, that she is safe.

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