Content Warning: Discussion of predatory behavior/sexual harassment.
Growing up, I learned from shoujo manga that there’s nothing more precious than female friendship. The josei manga I’ve read as an adult have continued to celebrate those relationships, even as the fully-grown heroines’ lives take different directions from their friends’.
Satoko and Nada, a story of cross-cultural friendship, embodies those values. Satoko and Nada’s friendship is a great example of why friendships between women with disparate lives are necessary, as the two embrace their differences despite their vastly different backgrounds, protect each other, and offer one another a semblance of family when they’re far from home.
Made up of four-panel gag strips, Satoko and Nada is a slice-of-life manga about a pair of foreign exchange student roommates in America: Satoko from Japan and Nada from Saudi Arabia. As they share their lives, they learn about each other’s culture, food, religious beliefs, and more. The gentle humor focuses on positivity and education, and never punches down. Most importantly, it places a great significance on the friendship they share.
Learning from Differences and Celebrating Diversity
One of the most memorable things about the story is how they embrace not only their similarities, but their differences. The two come from very different cultures and have very different experiences, but that’s rarely a source of conflict. In so many stories throughout manga, the characters focus too much on their differences and this drives conflict. With this approach in Satoko and Nada, it can also help us see just why stereotypes of certain groups of people, especially marginalized folks are harmful.
Satoko and Nada expand their worldviews through their friendship. They learn about each other and their respective cultures as they live together, go to classes, work part time jobs, and socialize. Their differences encourage them to build skills like active listening and allyship.
Early in the series, Satoko asks Nada why she wears a hijab or niqab. Satoko doesn’t judge or mock her; she listens, and is left in awe at Nada’s explanation. And later, when Satoko explains to Nada and another friend that she doesn’t have a particular religion or belief system, they embrace her secularism with the affirmation that they love her regardless.
I think back on several of my college friendships with other young women, what we learned about each other and how much insight we learned about each other’s families and cultures. From Jessica, I learned that Dia De Los Muertos is a celebratory day about family and honoring your ancestors and is mostly misunderstood in American culture. Sai and I had the common experience of being fetishized as women of color, but I saw the distinct way it affected her as a Japanese woman.
I saw how Melissa struggled with her biracial identity as someone with Salvadoran and Irish heritage, attempting to figure out which world she belonged to and why. Because I was never deterred by our differences, I developed some incredible, life-changing friendships.
Looking Out for Each Other
There’s a strong solidarity between marginalized people who protect one another from daily bigotries. For women, that often includes predatory men, and I love seeing that protectiveness reflected in fiction. Women protecting other women, no matter how small the gesture, is my favorite genre. These stories, both real and fictional, show how that solidarity is the glue that keeps the friendships of women together the world over. My friends and I have protected one another from pushy men more times than I can count.
Two stories in Satoko and Nada reflect that protectiveness. In the first, Satoko accepts a ride from a male stranger and realizes he’s taking her in the opposite direction of where she asked. When Nada realizes what’s going on, she cruises the streets at a speed that begs for a cop to ticket her until she finds and rescues her friend.
Satoko realizes that she needs to be more careful around strange men, and Nada realizes she and Satoko should spend more time together outside of home. Satoko later uses this experience when she notices a young woman waiting for a bus and looking uncomfortable as a male stranger pressures her to take a ride with him. Satoko offers her a ride instead and ends up making a new friend.
In volume two, when Satoko and Nada are leaving a coed party, two of their male peers invite them back to their apartment for an afterparty. Nada is clearly uncomfortable, as she doesn’t want to go home with men she doesn’t know very well, but she doesn’t want to be rude and say so publicly.
It’s a cultural problem, rather than a personal one: she’s on friendly terms with the boys, who are clearly good-hearted and mean no harm. It’s just that her going to such a party wouldn’t be acceptable in Saudi Arabia.
Satoko notices Nada’s dilemma and politely declines on both their behalf. Previously, Nada had only been to parties with only women, and the men’s invitation pushed too far past her comfort zone. Through this experience, she learned that it’s okay to turn down invitations and set boundaries, and that she can trust Satoko to help uphold those boundaries.
Mutual Interests and Shared Experiences
The back of the second volume has the blurb: “Home is where your friend is.” Satoko and Nada find that while they have differences, they share common ground as well—universal human experiences that reach across cultures.
Food especially unites them, which also holds true to my experience. They cook and break bread together, teaching one another their favorite recipes. Nada enjoys Satoko’s onigiri, and Satoko enjoys Nada’s Saudi lamb-based dishes. Satoko learns to avoid alcohol in the dishes she makes to share with Nada, and to seek out Halal ingredients. Though the food itself is different, their love of cooking and sharing what they made is the same.
Out in public, even though the two are from separate cultures, they share their foreignness and the attention that attracts. For example, in the first volume the two enter a restaurant where a friend works as a waitress. As soon as they walk in, they are the center of attention. Their friend quickly apologizes for the all the stares, as the place doesn’t get many foreign customers.
Satoko and Nada take it in stride with cheer as they are used to it. They even liken it to being celebrities! Their dining experiences away from home aren’t the norm for all people who are seen as foreigners, but this is a shared experience they both come to understand.
Finding common ground strengthens relationships of all kinds, especially friendships. Going to concerts, sharing shoujo manga at clubs in high school—experiences like these were essential in building my most important experiences. Even when we live apart, I have friendships that thrive through meeting up at conventions and cosplaying together, and I always feel at home when I’m with them. After all, home is where your friends are.
Collaboration and Growth
As Satoko and Nada’s relationship grows, they begin to notice the way the other has grown and how they’ve affected each other. Nada sees how Satoko takes better care of her appearance now and is much more confident. Satoko observes that while Nada, who others used to see as too serious, starts to be more open and friendly and gain more local friends and acquaintances.
Even just two volumes in, it is a delight to see how their friendship has been a catalyst for each other’s character development. For these women, this friendship is the family far from home. They are each other’s ”found family” and it shows.
Even the development of Satoko and Nada speaks of cross-cultural collaboration between women. Mangaka Yupechika did a lot of careful research for her debut work about the lives and culture of Saudi women. For this process, she was aided by Marie Nishimori, a Dutch-Japanese Muslim journalist who worked as a script advisor. It is so very refreshing to see such a lovely story that is also culturally sensitive and researched.
Additionally, the English-language editor, Lianne Sentar, is a Muslim-American woman! To know that so many women collaborated from top to bottom to create a gentle, culturally sensitive work, including translator Jenny McKeon, adds weight to this emphasis of women in tune with other women.
As I anticipate the next volume, the world is full of reminders that there is nothing more precious to me than my friendships with other women. My chats with my girls, as we gab about everything from terrible anime to joking about makeshift feminine items, lift my spirits more than anything else during difficult times.
With humor and great care, Satoko and Nada proves not just why friendships between women are necessary, but also reminds us to embrace our differences with others, despite vastly different backgrounds. Our friends are the family we choose when our own isn’t available, and one that we should always cherish.