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Chapter Three: How to Be a Girl

January 24, 2011

Walking back home to my tiny apartment in Mejiro, I turned on the harsh fluorescent light and sat down on the floor, scanning fearfully for cockroaches and picking up my black Moleskine notebook.

My goal is to get a boyfriend in Japan, asap, to help ease the loneliness and isolation of being in this big city alone.

The trouble is, I’ve never hit on nor openly desired by men. Not ever.

I tallied up the number of “romantic” encounters I ever had with boys, and it looked something like this:

– “She’s pretty”: comment by two bullies in Grade 1.

–  “What do you think of me?”: question in Grade 5 (a boy I kind of liked).

–  “Marry me” request by a 40-year-old drunken native man while on the job in Port Edward.

– “You’re very cute” comment by 82-year-old passenger on the bus.

– Awkward love-confession by lesbian roommate.


I met up with Natsuki, a Japanese writer who I’d helped out  during her homesaty period in Vancouver. Short-haired, world-weary, and dressed with exquisitely bohemian taste — long skirts and stylish T-shirts, topped with a long, ethnic scarf and hairband. A world traveler who had seen all the earth’s continents save Antarctica, Natsuki was always someone who I could turn to in times of need.

We met at a cheap Chinese restaurant in Shibuya; I nibbled on some stir-fried vegetables, while Natsuki worked through a huge plate of pork gyoza, her favorite.

“Alana, if I can offer some words of advice for you,” mumbled Natsuki, avidly chewing through the skin of a juicy gyoza.

“You’ve got to look at yourself as a business.”

“…a business…?” I repeated, eyebrows furrowed.

“Yes. Look at that lingerie shop over there,” she said, wiping her mouth with a napkin as she pointed to the “Tutuanna” shop across the street.

“See how they how they have those mannequins wearing bras and panties? Look at how they put pink glitter on the sign, look at those disgustingly sweet pink hearts. You can tell, even if you were a foreigner, that this is a lingerie shop, right?”


“Now picture the same store, with all the exact same bras and panties and stockings inside, but the sign is a dark-blue font in blocky font, and it’s written TUTUANNA in all caps.

Imagine there are no skinny mannequins in the store window, imagine there’s no girly pink colours or glitter, and imagine it’s just a blank white sheet of paper with a scribbled pencil (HD) sentence in the corner that says ‘girls’ underwear inside.’

Do you reckon a lot of women are going to want to enter the store to buy their lingerie?”

“Well, no,” I puckered my lips and shook my head.

“Same could apply for you,” Natsuko said, pointing her brown-painted fingernail at my head.


“Of course, you. Look at you. You say you want a boyfriend, and nag and moan about being single all your life, but how is anyone supposed to tell you’re a woman, let alone a woman wanting love? You wear no makeup, your hair is short like a man’s, your clothes are all hideous combinations of black and blue, your boobs are flat, your smell is neutral, and you never advertise your single status to anyone with the proper connections to hook you up. Are you—sure you’re not a lesbian?”

Natsuki narrowed her black eyes at me.

“No! God no. It’s just–I-I just –” I stammered. “…I just thought it would be better to be myself, you know.” Staring into my tea, I said in a low voice, “I’m not a girly girl. Wouldn’t it be better to present my real self early on, so that my potential boyfriend won’t be disappointed to learn about it later?”

“Fuck your real self,” Natsuki snorted. “You wanna be single at 35?”

I looked away, not least because Natsuki was herself 35 and, despite her many charms including intelligence, a generous personality and a beautifully chiseled face with eyes like Bambi, no man had laid hands on her in nearly 10 years.

“You can pursue your identity all you want then, because no men will be looking at you. Come on, 悪いこと言わないから.( I wouldn’t give you bad advice.) Dress up your show window, your storefront, please. Let the men know you’re open for business — not in the wrong way, of course,” Natsuki looked up with serious eyes. ” — but at least dress like a woman. Visually project the message that you’re a pretty young woman looking for a partner. And seriously, wear a proper bra when you go out, I can see you’re wearing a sportsbra and it makes your chest look small.”

“Oh,” I muttered, self-consciously draping my scarf around my shoulders.

“There’s colour on it. Did you wash that thing?”

I shrink further in my seat with embarrassment.

Natsuki and I parted ways at the train station, her pointing her finger as she walked backwards toward the purple Hanzomon line.

“Remember! Dress the show window!”

I sigh, feeling a heavy drain in my chest. Much as I hate the very idea…I look at my reflection in the mirror, and remember the comment by my mother. You’re such a pretty girl. How could it be that men aren’t flocking to you?

It’s not just my shyness, it’s these sagging jeans, this self-made black T-shirt, my colourless lips, the sun-faded sneakers on my dainty feet. I have to change.

If I don’t want to die a virgin, I have to make that change. Myself.

Clutching my wallet, I stride with forceful steps to the Resona Bank. It’s time to get myself a real bra.


The thing was pale, blue and lacy, and it lay like a dead fish on my wooden floor the day I got it. Silly looking bra, and the scaly blue panties to match. But it was a wireless bra, from Une Nana Cool, the cutesy indie-feel store with pricetags down at my affordable level.

Still, a set of underwear wiped out half of my 10,000 yen bill, leaving me shuddering at the thought of all future underwear to come.

What kind of woman did I want to be, exactly? I guess I have to shed this student-like austerity and gender neutrality that has dragged on through my barren twenties: so what exactly am I aiming for?

Looking online, I googled pictures of Marilyn Monroe (too sexy, too blonde, impossible), Audrey Hepburn (too elegant, too skinny), Gwen Stefani (too weird and provocative), Aya Ueto (too boring).

I looked down at my copy of Steel Ball Run comic, and eyed the young girl drawn in the pages. Lucy Steel — she was a favorite character of mine, clumsy and girlish, but strong-willed and surprisingly capable of pulling off the impossible. I picked up the book and scrutinized the lines that etched out her pouty lips, her shoulder-length hair, her cute but functional and stylish dress-and-boots. There it was — my role model in the quest to become an irresistible, cute and strong woman.

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