When my roommate and I walk into Fran’s at one in the morning, our favourite waitress greets us and asks me about that one teaching assistant who I’m terrified of. This ritual feels like home to me.
But this familiarity is relatively new. This is not how things were a few months ago. Like a lot of students, I had high expectations for my university experience and living the adult life that I had always envisioned for myself. Inevitably, however, after the ‘glamour’ of orientation wore off, and midterms and assignments began piling up, the loneliness set in.
When you are in a new city, with no support system in place and no idea how to handle things you don’t even know about, it is very easy to burn out. As I had thrown my University of Toronto Students’ Union health insurance brochures away in September, I had no idea that I could access affordable mental health care until this January. The health plan covers $125 per session for 20 sessions a year with a licensed psychologist. Knowing this would have made my first semester a lot less of an isolated nightmare.
If the infamous Instagram confession page @uoftears__ is to be consulted, an alarming number of first-year students find themselves in situations similar to or even worse than my own. It is comforting, however, to know that what you are experiencing is not anomalous.
Hannah Green, a first-year student, finds it hard to see Toronto as her home. Despite the comfort of living with a close high school friend, she describes her first semester as “okay” and she still doesn’t think the university is “communal” or “friendly.”
She is not the only one who feels that way. Dania Asahi Ogie, a first-year commuter student, found herself becoming closer with her friend group from high school, as they all struggled to make new friends and ended up talking to each other more. She found it harder to make friends at first, because of how big UTSG and its classes are. “You start getting used to sitting alone in a big lecture,” she remarked, “I mean, I wasn’t expecting U of T to be this warm, friendly, school-spirited community, but when I visit schools like Ryerson, I feel like it’s much more warm.”
However, this has not been the case for Joshua Varughese, an international student from Australia. As an engineering student, he met most of his friends in the first few weeks of the fall semester, and because they were all in the same program, most of them were in all his classes. Furthermore, as most engineering students end up living at Chestnut Residence, Joshua included, it helped him build a community that may have made his experience easier than that of other first years. Despite his positive experiences, Joshua agrees that Toronto is not a very communal city. “Living in a city just doesn’t give me the same homely feeling.”
Community building seems to be the hardest obstacle for incoming students. Megan Pham-Quan, a second-year student who is part of the Innis College Student Society, faced the same challenge. “It was extremely difficult to find a community for myself in first year. While U of T is brimming with opportunities, this environment can be overwhelming for an incoming student thrown into a new academic and social context.”
Ravinder Hans, another first-year student, lived off-campus for the first month of the fall semester and experienced this same difficulty. She ended up moving into a residence because it was much easier for her to meet people and build a community there. Megan, like Ravinder, also found a lot of support through her residence as a lot of emotional guidance and resources are offered through residences.
Sophie Shah, a second-year international student from Texas, dealt with her loneliness by connecting with family whom she hadn’t realized were in the area. As she had a huge family base in her hometown, building a relationship with her aunt and cousins in Toronto helped to comfort her through the homesickness and isolation that she was experiencing. “The fact that they were related made me feel secure.”
For Dania, comfort and support came from joining Han Voice UofT, a non-profit that spreads awareness about the plight of human rights in North Korea and advocates for the rights of North Korean refugees. Joining the organization allowed her to meet upper-year students who have helped her settle in and feel less lost in the vastness of the crowd.
On the other hand, Austin Smith, another first-year student, found it easier to build a community by putting himself out there. He said, “Toronto, in general, isn’t super friendly. U of T can be — but it is kind of difficult. Try finding someone you share a big common interest [with] and you can start to connect with them over that. Also, it never hurts to try and make them laugh.”
Eventually, all of them did manage to build their own communities, both in the city and at U of T. Sophie likes to visit Shoppers Drug Mart at the Eaton Centre at random times. Joshua and his friends bonded over a shopping trip to Iqbal Halal Foods before going camping. Ravinder loves Black Market Vintage on Queen Street West, as everything in the store fits her aesthetic well. Dania and her friends have a local Chatime they always find themselves at.
By having their own spaces outside of the university, they feel more attached to the idea of Toronto as home — even if it’s only a temporary one.
Journalism is a public practice: it requires serving the public interest and in turn earning public trust. But what happens when a story that is of public interest requires a level of privacy that seems to undermine credibility and public trust? That is the ethical dilemma of anonymity that journalists face.
As student journalists, it is no less important for us to reflect on the decision-making procedures that go into the use of anonymity. Despite all the costs and risks, anonymity is sometimes worth it.
The straight story
Aversion to anonymity in a public practice like journalism is understandable, but arguably ahistorical. The most famously cited example of such reporting is that of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. In 1972, the Washington Post reporters covered the Watergate scandal, which led to the downfall of the Nixon presidency. The catch is that they relied on anonymous sources to break the story.
It is important to clarify that anonymous sources mean confidential, unnamed, or background sources. Their identities are known by the reporter, but the information they provide is not ultimately attributed to them.
Revealing a given source’s identity can lead to retribution for both source and reporter, whether in their physical safety or employment prospects. Without source anonymity, some stories may otherwise never be told.
But public trust is always at stake. Readers have reason to be skeptical: if a claim is not attributed to any named person, it is difficult to know if they are telling the truth and how to hold them accountable. The public may especially scrutinize organizations that do not have a long-established reputation or record that justifies trust in anonymous sources, which may be particularly true for campus newspapers. It is therefore incumbent on journalists to use anonymous sources cautiously and sparingly, and to follow strict guidelines when doing so.
Organizations like the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) or the Society of Professional Journalists elaborate on when journalists should decide to use anonymous sources. According to the CAJ’s Ethics Guidelines, if there is a high public interest in what the source has to say and there is no alternative access to that information, then the journalist has reason to use such sources.
But journalists can nonetheless take steps to increase credibility and ensure that what they are gathering is indeed true. For example, they might gain the permission of a senior editor and ensure that they are aware of the identity and material of the source.
The source should be carefully vetted for their reliability and reasons for coming forward. There should be no malicious motive underlying the information they provide. For instance, as the CAJ notes, they should not “take cheap shots at individuals or organizations.” Given the lack of accountability, anonymity could perhaps give the source licence to make exaggerated, opinionated, or speculative assessments.
When describing the source in their reporting, the journalist should ensure that they contextualize the person in question as transparently as possible without exposing their identity altogether. If the journalist fails to protect their source, they risk damaging the reputation of the entire publication and any future prospects of anonymous sources coming forward. As The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics clearly states, “Journalists must protect the anonymity of sources to whom they have given such assurances.” Ultimately, journalists are obligated to the trust of both the readership and their source.
The Varsity’s News Editor Josie Kao explained the customary process that the News team undergoes in such scenarios.
According to Kao, anonymous sources are used as little as possible and anonymity is granted “on a case-by-case basis.” Editor-in-Chief Jack Denton elaborated that fear for safety, security, and reputation are good reasons for granting it. Other student-run campus papers also cite justifications like the prospect of mental, physical, sexual, or financial harm.
Kao gives the example of her September story on Test and Exam Services invigilators who spoke out against training sessions that included discriminatory content about students with disabilities.
Although an initial invigilator had already been public about the issue on social media and spoke on the record for Kao’s story, she connected Kao to co-workers who were willing to corroborate. However, they only agreed to proceed if guaranteed anonymity, given their fear of losing their jobs.
“For any anonymous source, the section editor and the editor-in-chief have to know about their entire background,” Kao stressed. “We don’t publish without doing our due diligence.”
This introduces particular challenges to the writing process. “For anonymous sources, we usually confirm with them about how they want to be described. For the invigilators’ story, this was already very difficult because they are a small group of people and any information can be easily identifiable,” she explained. “We definitely spent a lot of time working with them, getting their consent about their description… it took much longer than the regular one-week cycle.”
Kao admitted that “maybe there’s a better way to be transparent about the editing process” to ensure readers are aware of the intense process behind the decision. At the University of Ottawa, Features Editor of student paper The Fulcrum Matt Gergyek is currently using anonymous sources to cover a story on student involvement in sugar dating for income. Gergyek suggested attaching the paper’s policy on anonymity alongside an explanation about how sources were vetted and why identities are being concealed to the article in question to preemptively address issues of public trust.
Procedures at other campus newspapers vary. At the University of Calgary, student paper The Gauntlet follows a similar process to The Varsity in that the editor-in-chief, news editor, and reporter in question must be fully aware of the background of the source.
At The McGill Daily, one of McGill University’s student papers, Coordinating Editor Lydia Bhattacharya indicated that an editor using anonymous sources has to consult with management to verify credibility — contact is made with the source — and ensure anonymity is maintained. The Fulcrum’s Editor-in-Chief, Anchal Sharma, doesn’t believe that using anonymous sources undermines the credibility of an article, especially when multiple sources corroborate the claims.
At The Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s main student paper, the process is somewhat more rigorous. Coordinating Editor Sam McCabe explained that if a reporter wishes to use an anonymous source, it must be approved by the section editor, followed by the coordinating editor, and ultimately two-thirds of the entire editorial team.
Given that anonymity undermines credibility, McCabe explained, this lengthy process “forces writers and editors to really consider why they may or may not grant certain requests.” Furthermore, The Ubyssey always seeks on-the-record and background sources to verify claims made by anonymous sources for due diligence.
For some smaller papershere at U of T, anonymous sources are not allowed. The Mike’s Editor-in-Chief Aaron Pancieraexplained that this is due to a lack of experience with anonymous sourcing, resources required to vet anonymous sources, and reputation to legitimize their use.
Telling a story that doesn’t point fingers
While the credibility of anonymous sources is particularly important for hard news, there is a distinction to be drawn for other forms of writing. The respective Editors-in-Chief for Ryerson University’s Eyeopener and Western University’s Western Gazette,Jacob Dubé and Michael Conley both agree that a source’s personal experience or feelings about an issue do not pose as much of a liability as, for instance, allegations against an individual or organization.
In this regard, narrative-style feature reporting is usually more flexible than hard news: it tells a story that does not point fingers, but provides voice to vulnerability.
For instance, with the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, former Varsity Comment Editor Teodora Pasca has written a series of pieces on ordinary people’s experiences of online sexual harassment.
The guarantee of anonymity — in the form of a pseudonym — was crucial to bringing forward respondents when she sent out requests, especially in big U of T Facebook groups. “When you’re dealing with moments of vulnerability and uncomfortable sexual experiences, a lot of people won’t want to share them, especially if you’re printing them. A Google search can be uncomfortable since the narrative gets associated with their name,” said Pasca.
Pasca’s interviews asked open-ended questions that enabled respondents to speak openly and “tell their story from start to finish.”
“They rarely get an opportunity to explain everything that has happened,” said Pasca, “and then have that narrative be incorporated with other [people’s].” Pasca also made sure to share transcripts with respondents to ensure that they were pleased with the product, even though anonymity was already guaranteed. Transcriptswere also made available for readers to “hear” the full story.
As a journalist, Pasca had to approach with care, because “people were sharing things with me that they didn’t share with a lot of people in their lives — there’s an element of trust.” Given that the material was “heavy, disappointing, and infuriating… you don’t want to have people share something with you and then not relay it properly or do anything at all.”
Clearly, the responsibility of the journalist goes beyond just sharing something of public interest — like harassment — while also respecting the privacy of the source. In some cases, public interest is secondary, and the goal is instead to have the story and the person who lived the story be recognized. When asked if her intent was to spark a conversation about sexual violence, Pasca explained that, instead, “it’s about listening. I want people to listen to other people’s experiences, and acknowledge that it happened.”
While a news reporting perspectiveon sexual harassment often involves an accusation, which requiresgetting comment from the accused, corroboration, and using words like “alleged,” the feature format allowed Pasca to focus on one side of the story that was “cathartic and meaningful for people to read.” In this sense, anonymity didn’t undermine credibility, since it’s not primarily about whether or not you believe a source experienced an incident. It’s simply about ensuring that their story is heard.
A similarly sensitive issue is youth homelessness in Toronto, which former Photo Editor Steven Lee and and current Deputy News Editor Ilya Bañares wrote about in last year’s winter magazine. They wrote this story to address education systems that don’t adequately support their students. They are “ignored if unsuccessful, revered if successful,” noted Lee.
Lee found that it was imperative to protect the identity of the youth who were interviewed, given the stigma of “uselessness, laziness, [and] desperation” associated with homelessness that could further expose them to bullying and discrimination. According to Lee, many of them “have worked really hard to distance themselves from said stigma in certain company,” including friends and teachers, “to retain a semblance of normalcy in their life.” Hence, they were asked how they wanted to be described in the piece and given untraceable monikers.
Whether in the cases of Pasca or Lee, the style for feature writing did not require a rigorous vetting process for the sources because they were not making accusations that heightened liability. They were just telling their stories. Given the sensitivity of these subjects, the position of the journalist and the personal stake they have in the subject also matters.
For instance, Pasca is a woman, and as such acknowledged that this likely had something to do with sources — mostly also women — being willing to speak to her. She was also invested in the subject given her own experiences of harassment. Likewise, Lee’s own experience of homelessness informed his interest in and ability to access homeless youth sources.
But anonymous sourcing isn’t the only form of anonymity in journalism. An overlooked but equally important discussion is of anonymous bylines.
Last fall, The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed entitled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” A note prefaces the article to explain the byline. “We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”
Among other matters, the op-ed drew controversy and criticism for its anonymity. Readers argued that an author should not just stand by but defend their own words, especially where accusations are concerned.
Other campus papers are also ambivalent toward anonymous bylines, although exceptions are made in the case of personal opinion pieces that could lead to significant retribution for authors. For example, Bhattacharya noted that The McGill Daily is willing to give anonymous bylines to protect an author’s personal safety, referring to instances when authors feared being doxxed by Canary Mission after criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestine in their articles.
In 2017, The Varsity did grant authorial anonymity — for a photo-essay. The series was of Honest Ed’s prior to its complete demolition. To take the photos, the photographer, referred to as Cameron*, had to trespass. They described how it was “an impulsive decision for what I consider historically vital photos.” In recognizing the risks, Cameron “wanted to retain anonymity to avoid any potential legal ramifications.”
Editorials, which are opinion pieces written by the masthead, offer another avenue to examine anonymous bylines. Some campus papers use unsigned editorials, in which the article is accredited to the editorial board of the paper, as is the case with major publications like The New York Times or Toronto Star. In these cases, the individual authors of the editorial remain anonymous.
The Varsity’s operating policy mandates the practice of unsigned editorials to “represent the opinion of the newspaper as a whole.” Every semester, the masthead elects a group of individuals to serve on the editorial board, of which the Comment Editor is always chair. The identities of the other members are not made public, to ensure a confidential process in which members are free from external influence and scrutiny.
The benefit of unsigned editorials is that readers are focused on the argument and analysis at hand rather than the authors and their potential biases. This unity as the collective voice of a journalistic institution projects authority and power in advocacy.
The importance of the editorial board is further accentuated by the fact that, while conflict may exist privately, Varsity masthead members cannot publicly write individual opinion pieces to ensure that they don’t potentially conflict with the editorial position.
The Gazette also uses unsigned editorials, but always finds a way to incorporate the opinions of minority voices. It’s important that the public cannot identify any one individual author because, as Conley noted, “our organization is, like any organization, an organism in of itself.”
Papers with coordinating editors, like The McGill Daily and The Ubyssey, also use unsigned editorials, but claim to be less hierarchical and more democratic in that consensus from the entire editorial team is necessary.
However, some, like The Eyeopener, prefer signed editorials. These are accredited to individual writers because, as Dubé put it, “knowing the previous work, opinions, and interests of an editorial writer allows the reader to place their opinion within the greater context of the issue and consider its impact accordingly.”
Whether a paper uses an unsigned, signed, or hybrid system for editorials, considering the power and limitations of anonymity is essential as the writers grapple with public trust and transparency.
Who said, or what is said?
When it comes to anonymity, we are often focused on credibility. Readers want to know who is behind the stories they read. Without an answer, there is less accountability and trust. Nevertheless, a story or perspective should not be discounted simply because the identity of the source or author is concealed.
There is no question that due diligence is essential and papers should be transparent about their editorial decisions. But sometimes, to best serve the public interest, readers should read carefully for a moment before asking questions and making accusations. Otherwise, some stories might never be told.
My name is Sophie*. I mean, it’s not my real name, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
I’m a grad student. I’m also an addict in recovery. These two things can’t comfortably co-exist in a public or professional conversation. But I want to talk about it anyway, so for all intents and purposes you can just call me Sophie.
A lot of this is coming from firsthand experience, speculations, and opinions. Don’t take my word as gospel.
I got clean in 2013, when I was 21 and still an undergrad. When I tell people that story now, they file it under “acts of bravery” or “really knowing and being in control of one’s self.” When I tell people that story, it’s usually by the time we’ve hung out three times — after the first date, after a long and multi-layered discussion that we might be having in the corner at a party. And sure, some of my colleagues in academia know. Just some of them, when it eventually comes up. With almost six years of sobriety under my belt, it is in many ways ‘safer’ to break my anonymity and tell people about the fact that I am in recovery. We inhabit — for better or for worse — a world of neoliberal, meritocratic thought. People like results; they want concrete deliverables.
Even so, I keep that information close to the vest in my professional life. It’s not simply because of the potential repercussions born from misinformed, caricature-ish stereotypes of the delinquent and irresponsible addict. That’s certainly a part of it. There is a culture of using and drinking in North American graduate academia, as a social lubricant, a tool for networking, and a means to blow off steam. “I don’t drink” is what I usually say, and thankfully, since we’re all adults, people just nod and say, “That’s cool,” and we carry on the conversation. I am content to attend department mixers and post-mixer afterparties with a club soda in hand, but there is always this lingering feeling that I am on a different astral plane. I know I’m not networking in the same networks. I may be there and I may be talking about my work, but there is an impenetrability to the borders of those networks. And it is simply because I am not drinking, and they are, and however little or much their mental state is altered, my colleagues and I are having different conversations. My resolve not to drink also sends a subtle message, whether or not it’s intentional: I’m not capable or willing to take this interaction into the social world; I always take myself seriously.
For people who might not know, being social is a huge part of grad school. It’s so huge, and yet for whatever reason — at least in my experience — I never really got the memo beforehand. Don’t get me wrong, I had some understanding that I needed to sharpen my networking skills. Make the odd appearance at a talk or department event. Become a part-time extrovert. But I really didn’t clue into how important it was to be social. Over and above the professional reasons and the network building and all that, being social meant the opposite of being isolated. Isolation is what makes grad students miserable. I did not take classes last semester because I was recovering from a traumatic event, and therefore felt too disconnected and not enough a part of anything to participate in as many social events as I would have liked. The isolation felt like an anvil on my chest. I needed to be social for the sake of my mental and emotional survival. The overwhelming work of grad school is so preoccupying on so many levels that, if you’re not seen, people might — and often do — forget those who are never around.
All of which is to circuitously say that almost all social events that I attend as a grad student — on or off site — involve drinking. Being social is a big and important part of being a grad student.
Are you still with me? Ok, good. Let’s move along.
“But Sophie,” you might ask, “why don’t you just tell your colleagues that you’re in recovery? Surely they would get it.” Well, I could do that. But remember the little excursion I took through the awkward discrepancy in people’s levels of inebriation — which can range from stone-cold sober to being really, very out of it — during conversations that I often find myself in? Paradoxically, breaking my anonymity adds another layer of separation. I’ve grown close enough to some of my colleagues to disclose my recovery, among others. But even though they were always receptive and accepting, they still say weird stuff sometimes. Below, I’ve compiled a list of some conversation snippets to illustrate my point.
“I’m sure one day you’ll be able to drink again.”
In response to a coy suggestion I made to a friend that they don’t need to actually get drunk when they go out: “Oh yeah, I could, but it’s different with you. You’re very controlled.” (something to that effect)
“What were you addicted to?” or variations thereof.
“Your addiction doesn’t define you.”
Apart from the first statement, which I think we can all agree is a very messed-up thing to say to a recovering addict, you might be wondering what could be so bothersome about the others. I do want to stress that I don’t actually feel offended, or necessarily that bothered, but those statements highlight the more subtle ways that otherwise open-minded colleagues still misunderstand or caricaturize addiction.
Let’s start with the second statement and move down the list. “You’re very controlled” implies a couple of things. One, that I’m a control freak who is very mindful of what goes in and out of her body (the first part is true, but I am far from a ‘my body is a temple’ kind of person), and more importantly, that addiction is something I have control over. What’s lost here is the fact that the very reason I don’t drink or get high is because I am literally incapable of controlling myself. My choice not to partake is not born out of health consciousness, a desire to project an image of wellbeing, or to make people feel bad about their choice to indulge. My choice is a non-choice; it’s either stone cold sobriety or active addiction. My sobriety is a result of not being able to participate in something that others get to do. It’s survival, literally.
Let’s look at the next statement: “What were you addicted to?” Admittedly, depending on the person asking, it can be really tempting to tell the asker to fuck off. The question sometimes makes me feel like I’m being treated like a curiosity at the zoo. Once again, it misses the point, although this time it’s something I really can’t blame people for. There are still a lot of misconceptions about addiction, namely that it is almost always substance-specific. It can be that, but in my case and as is the case for my friends in recovery, it’s not like that at all. For us, being an addict preludes substance abuse. Addiction can be born of many circumstances. In my case, it evolved out of unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with depression, trauma, and poor self-worth. It’s also a very intimate question; really not the sort of thing that I feel comfortable talking about while I’m sitting on the floor of a friend’s apartment at a house party.
Onto the last one: “your addiction doesn’t define you.” Now, I completely understand that this one is coming from a good place and a desire to make me feel like I am not being judged. But it’s patently wrong. It’s a big part of my life that, for better or worse, I often need to keep hidden. It defines the friendships I make, the relationships I form, the activities I do (or don’t do). All of my close relationships formed outside of recovery circles start with establishing boundaries around drugs and alcohol (more the former). Don’t bring drugs to my house. Don’t show up to my house or to a one-on-one hangout high or drunk. Don’t ask me if I want any. Check in with me first before recounting a drug-related escapade from your undergraduate days. Saying that my addiction doesn’t define me is also unwittingly dismissive. Besides the fact that it elides something that, if otherwise not there, would make me a totally different person, it also signals an unwillingness or disinterest in trying to understand me.
“Your addiction doesn’t define you” reads as “I don’t care about the fact that you’re an addict; I like the other stuff about you. Your addiction doesn’t define you, because how could it? You’re so great otherwise.” It means you’re choosing not to acknowledge that part of me. The part of me that has caused me and the people I love grief. The part of me that would have derailed my academic career. The part of me that could not deal with the world of pain that I endured and that I also created. The part of me that brought me so much shame and desperation. That was really me. That still is me, because that is also the part of my life that made me stop in my tracks and want to change.
But if we’re not close friends, probable lovers, or fellow recovering addicts, I won’t be telling you any of this. Despite being a grad student in a progressive department with progressive peers, the term ‘addict in recovery’ is still an identity marker. It’s something that might perplex you. It might inspire admiration for my ability to be in control of myself. It might make you feel uneasy as you smoke a joint in front of me, wondering if you’re causing me harm or if I am judging you. It might be a part of myself that you don’t want me to feel defined by, because people don’t want to define themselves by bad stuff. Being an addict is still ‘bad.’ ‘Bad’ just holds different meanings now. ‘Bad’ is still contradictory; it doesn’t reflect the otherwise ‘successful’ person who is standing in front of you. ‘Bad’ is dysfunctional, lacking in tenacity, hopeless. It’s honestly just too much to explain. There is already enough separation between myself and the social world of grad school. In a sea of colleagues, faculty, and people I should probably know but for the life of me cannot remember, and many of whom are holding a drink, I often stand alone with my glass of club soda.
“In a way,” I thought to myself as I gazed at the plastic Totoro,“my whole life has been building up to this moment.” Plastic Totoro was unmoved. It was late June in Tokyo, mercifully overcast, but suffocatingly humid nonetheless. I was queuing to enter the Ghibli Museum, a monument to Japan’s foremost animation studio. Next to the entryway, behind a pane of glass, a large likeness of Ghibli’s de facto mascot was seated, as if to charge you admission.
Even if the names “Ghibli” and “Totoro” don’t ring any bells, you would likely recognize the studio’s most famous film, Spirited Away. It’s a coming-of-age movie, but at its core, it explores the idea of liminality and in-betweenness. The protagonist, Chihiro, is not quite a young child, but not yet an adolescent. Her life has been uprooted by her father’s work; she’s left her old home behind but has yet to see her new one. The mysterious world of the bathhouse, where Chihiro becomes trapped for most of the film, simultaneously embodies a traditional, ‘authentic’ Japan, and one corrupted by excess and consumption.
Betwixt and between. Neither here nor there. It was how I was feeling as well.
When I started out as an undergrad, I was operating under the assumption that if I just went through the motions, things would fall into place. That in the course of diligently hitting the books, I would also just happen to stumble upon a new and improved version of myself. I would be more headstrong, more purposeful, and somebody with a better purchase on the rules of human conversation. But life, annoyingly, hadn’t delivered. I was nearing graduation and all I had to show for it was an expensive latte habit. I was as awkward, anxious, and listless as I’d ever been.
I had to figure myself out — remake myself, new and improved. The trouble is, I am terribly averse to new things. Day after day, for literal years, I have eaten the same foods, listened to largely the same music, and repeatedly rewatched Friends in its entirety. I take refuge in the familiar and I fear the unknown — even if the unknown is as benign as a Netflix Original.
The only solution, then, was to leave the familiar behind.
It’s a cliché that travel presents an opportunity to reinvent oneself, but I think there’s something to it. When you’re abroad, there’s nothing tying you to the self that you routinely inhabit. At home, you have a role to play, but when you travel, ‘you’ becomes a blank slate. It was according to this logic that I ultimately elected to spend my summer studying in Tokyo.
At the same time, I was cheating a little; Japan did not constitute a wholly unfamiliar place. I am, you see, a wee bit of an anime nerd. Through elementary and middle school, I was obsessed with all things Japanese. I spent my lunch hours with my nose buried in manga and my free time watching anime. During a period of my life when I was lonely more often than not, those stories, populated by misfits like me, were my constant companions. The weird world of anime — the place I imagined Japan to be — felt more like home than anywhere, and I pinned my dreams for the future on living there.
Long before I finally touched down in Tokyo, though, I recognized that my imaginary Japan was just that — fiction. Nonetheless, I still felt like a part of me was waiting there. I wanted to go someplace new to find a new me — but I wanted to go to Japan to get in touch with an older one.
As it turns out, Tokyo is the perfect place to work out such contradictory desires, because Tokyo itself is many different things at once. Moreover, it has a habit of juxtaposing the completely different sides of itself. In Ginza, towering office buildings stand across the street from the Imperial Palace. Inside Meiji Jingu, a shrine to the Meiji Emperor, you’ll find a wall of traditional sake containers — as well as one of Burgundy wine casks. Not a minute from this tranquil, forested memorial, you’ll find the kawaii chaos that is Harajuku. One is constantly moving between opposing poles — ideal conditions for an identity crisis.
I followed through on forcing myself outside of my comfort zone. I studied new subjects. I performed the awful task of talking to people. I ventured out in the sweltering heat to explore without a roadmap. But in the moments when this identity building began to feel like too much, I sought out familiar spaces that brought me back to a bygone era and a distant version of myself.
As I waited to enter the Ghibli Museum, I was standing in Chihiro’s shoes; I was not quite a new me, but not the old one, either. By the end of Spirited Away, Chihiro has moved from point A to point B; she’s grown up a bit, she’s fended for herself, and she’s made it out of the bathhouse.
Leaving the starting point behind is never easy. The thing that I learned, meandering along Tokyo’s hidden side streets and neon-tinged main roads, is that it’s okay to find yourself stuck in the middle.