I Almost Vomited on the Subway in Japan, What Awkward, Public Places Have You Gotten Sick In?

We've all been there, we all feel you, and to my knowledge, nobody's eyeballs have fallen out from humiliation.
Publish date:
January 12, 2015
etiquette, fear, japan, vomit, emetophobia, Puking

I've always lived in fear of vomiting.

The very first time I remember the details of throwing up was in the backseat of my parents' Toyota Corolla station wagon. I was probably around five.

We were on our way home from dinner, probably at some seafood buffet place ("seafood" and "buffet" — that's dangerous territory there), when I started to feel BAD. Like my stomach was doing jumping jacks, and my throat was getting that tight, phlegmy feeling. I knew something unpleasant was going to happen, I just wasn't exactly sure what.

"Mom," I called out between gritted teeth. "I don't feel well."

"Do you have a tummy ache?" she asked.

"It's really...bad," I whimpered.

My mom turned around, looked at me, and told me dad to slow down. "Louise is sick," she said, then mentioned something about throwing up in Chinese.

For some reason this terrified me. "I DON'T WANT TO THROW UP!" I sobbed. Which me want to throw up even more.

My dad, who was at the wheel, immediately perked up, sensing imminent danger of barf on his beloved Corolla's pristine velour seats. "Are you sure she's going to vomit? Are her lips white? If her lips are pink she's not going to vomit."

"It's dark, I can't tell if her lips are white. They don't look white. Louise, do your lips feel funny?" My mom peered at me in the dark.

Even at my young age, I was screaming, "WHAT THE F$%&K KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT?!" in my head. (Though after some firsthand pre-vomit viewing experience, and a quick Google search, this is actually a thing. Go, Dad.)

However, instead of speaking my mind, five-year-old Louise just started blathering, "I don't want to throw up, I don't want to throw up, I don't want to throw up." Until I threw up. All over myself and the car. A lot. I felt like a Garbage Pale Kid.

I'm sure we all have childhood barf stories like this (right?), but for some reason this one marked me for life. I don't know if it's the anxiety nausea causes me or the fear that I'll ruin someone's Corolla, but even the littlest hint of stomach upset can send me into a panic, thus exacerbating the situation.

Over the years, I've taught myself to somewhat control my fear of throwing up (I might have mild emetophobia). For a while when I was figuring out my Celiac (gluten-free) life, I even became somewhat "used to" throwing up, as it happened more than occasionally when I ate the wrong thing.

But nothing will bring the old fear-sweat roaring back better than feeling sick and barfy in a crowded, enclosed, non-English speaking, public place — like the train from Tokyo to Yokohama at rush hour.

Let's talk.

I was headed back to Yokohama after hanging out with a friend in the Shibuya district of Tokyo one evening.

Just to provide a little context, Shibuya is probably what you imagine when you think of crazy busy Tokyo, with throngs of people rushing every which way. I actually really love it, but the crush can be a little overwhelming. Especially when you're feeling the chunks rise in your throat.

Anyway, I'd had a lovely afternoon in Tokyo and was ready to go back to my apartment and wear elastic-waistband pants. As I pushed my way through the crowd in Shibuya Station, I felt the first gurgles of unrest nibble at my stomach.

Gurgle, gurgle, burp.

Not fun, but I figured it was only a 35-minute ride home, I could handle it.

I got on the express train to Yokohama, standing sardined in between businessmen and women, students, and clubgoers whose pre-party was just starting, and prayed there would be no delays. It was stuffy in the packed train, and of course, there was the faint aroma of farts. (Isn't this just a train thing?)

After the second stop, the gurgle in my stomach sloshed around and grew until it felt like my stomach was pressing against my throat. Swallowing hard, and feeling the sweat pop up in my mustache zone, I couldn't help but think, I wonder if my lips are white?

But the worst part was even if I wanted to tap someone on the shoulder and ask them this question, the best I could say off the top of my head in Japanese would go something like, "Sorry, excuse me...[points to lips]...white?"

That's not freaky.

Anyway, as my waking nausea fever-dream progressed, I began thinking of "worst-case scenario" plans for my vomit strategy. None being that appealing, the strategies only made my panic worse.

"Okay...if I don't make it to the next stop, I can barf into my purse. I'll just take my phone and my iPad out first. It'll be gross but contained. BUT THEN THE BAG WILL SOAK THROUGH AND DRIP ON THE JAPANESE! Oh no, oh no, oh no."

I looked around the car. Everyone was silent, looking at their phones, dozing off, minding their own business. In general, everyone is polite and keeps to themselves. If I were to barf, one of two HORRIBLE scenarios played out in my head.

Scenario 1: Everyone would know I threw up but be too polite to say or do anything, so they'd try to back away and pretend it didn't happen while "covertly" covering their noses. People would smile politely at me, and my humiliation would make my eyeballs fall out.

Scenario 2: People would try to assist me, but I wouldn't be able to communicate. Instead I'd just apologize over and over again, and none of us would know what to do. Not only would I be sick, but I'd feel obliged to be helpful, AND I'd feel guilty for not knowing more Japanese. I'd probably cry, my eyeballs would definitely fall out, and I'd never be able to ride this train again. This scenario filled me with dread.

When we reached the next stop, a little more than halfway to Yokohama, I hopped off the train gulped in some fresh train station air. I sat on one of the yellow, plastic seats on the platform and put my head down, willing my digestive system into submission.

It was a relief to be on solid ground for a moment, but I knew full well that both of my scenarios could just as easily happen on a crowded train platform. My stomach lurched a bit, and as I feared I'd lost my gastrointestinal battle, I scanned the station for a garbage can.

Then I remembered. JAPAN HATES TRASH CANS.

Okay, that's not true. Japan loves trash cans, and the proper disposal of trash and all that. It's just that they only have them in select locations (typically by vending machines) and they usually only have various small holes or slots for cans or paper or plastic. I wasn't about to try aiming my barf into a narrow, slotted target.

I knew I had to get home. I could do this.

So when the next train pulled up a few minutes later, I threw my green, sweaty, badger-eyed (determined) self back into the sardine can and clenched everything, all the way back to my stop.

When I got back to my neighborhood I heaved in the public bathroom beyond the turnstiles. As awful and still mildly embarrassing as it was (vomit sounds, dude), I couldn't help but feel giddy. Not only had I spared a large portion of the Japanese commuting public the fury of my spew, but I had somehow spared myself the terrible triumvirate of public vomiting, probably public crying, and not being able to communicate with people.

I felt like shit, but I was also euphoric. Barf bullet dodged!

The best part is, now that I've been through this ordeal, I feel like I can "X" this off my Japan Bingo score card. "Got sick/almost sick on the train" — CHECK. And now future train nausea seems less scary.

So that's my latest Japan adventure. A situation not entirely foreign to public transportation-taking folks, but with a Japan twist, and a dash of my own neuroses.

But tell us! Where have you gotten sick or almost sick in public? What awkward situations has your digestive system gotten you into?

We've all been there, we all feel you, and to my knowledge, nobody's eyeballs have fallen out from humiliation.