Watching Home from Far Away – Guest Post @ Writer Abroad

Thanks so much to Writer Abroad and fellow expat Chantal Panozzo for asking me to do a guest post on her blog. Here’s the link, which goes with a big shout-out to my city and fellow Bostonians for all you’ve been through in the past 10 days: Watching Home from Far Away: On Watching the Boston Marathon Bombings from Japan

From Osaka to Boston, With Love

When I left my first love, Boston, for my second love, my Japanese husband in Osaka, I gained a new life, but I never lost my primal connection to the city I will always call home.

For all my friends, family, Four Stories peeps, and fellow Bostonians who spent what I’m sure was a restless night last night, the only thing I can think to offer, from all the way across a continent and an ocean on a beautiful spring day in Osaka, is a memory of my first trip back to Boston after moving to Japan. It reminded me of why, no matter where I go and what new things I see and learn, I’ve always loved Boston first, and always will.

Can’t wait to come home to Boston again soon….

It was 11:30pm when we finally landed at Logan, almost 24 hours after leaving Japan. I stepped into a terminal that seemed improbably tiny and modest compared to Osaka’s. The hallway and food court were dark, and as I passed the broad windows where the city’s lights twinkled as they always had over my thirty-odd years of traveling through Boston’s airport, everything looked both the same and strangely new. The Pru, the Hancock tower blinking in the distance: each familiar site now held a fresh dimension, an edge of foreignness sharpening its contours.

A few nights later, still flattened by jetlag, I drove home from an early dinner with some girlfriends, lumbering slowly in my aging VW. Crossing the Mass Ave bridge at dusk, I glimpsed the State Capital’s dome glowing on its hill, the Charles river stretched out below, a shifting spread of blue.

 Past Copley, I crept down my neighborhood’s narrow streets, peering through my windshield, searching for the ever-elusive South End parking space. Turning a corner off Dartmouth Street, I saw a car double-parked under a headlight, blocking the road. Still in Japanese public-decorum mode, I beeped softly, but the vehicle didn’t budge.  I beeped again. Nothing.

Maybe they’ve gone inside an apartment? It was getting too dark to see the driver. Annoyed, weary, I hauled myself out of my VW, preparing a polite request. But before I reached the car, its engine suddenly ignited, and it began to move.  Then I heard the furious honking at my back.

A man in a beat-up, dark blue sedan had pulled up behind me, bumper dented, worn-out air-freshener dangling lackadaisically from the rearview mirror, spinning slowly. He must beeping at that double-parked car, too, I thought, honking in support of my patient protest, I noted, feeling virtuous in our shared vehicular predicament.

But then the driver behind me leaned out the window, jutted his head towards me in one angry thrust. “Jesus Christ!” He screamed. “Get back in the goddamn caaa, you moron! Waddya doin’? You’re blocking the whole fuckin’ street!” I begin feebly to protest, to explain that I was only attempting to clear the road. In response, he slammed his palm back onto the horn, emitting another series of long, irate, and humiliatingly loud admonishments.

In a rush, my exhaustion overwhelmed me.  I didn’t have the energy to absorb the full-throttled aggression of a Boston driver, or the thick skin to deflect it—especially not after having floated in a bubble of extreme, collective self-restraint for a month in Japan. I felt my cheeks flame in the darkening air, then burst helplessly into tears.

Suddenly, I longed for the more respectful, civilized manners of Toru’s home.  What’s wrong with the people in this country? I thought as I hurried back to my car, slammed the door shut, turned the ignition as fast as I could.  What purpose on Earth does it serve to be so rude? Why are people here so…so ill-behaved? Self-righteous indignation pricked through my shock and embarrassment.

But as I drove away, the tears receded.  An image of myself, startled and mortified under the pale wash of streetlights, flashed through my mind, and with it surged a laugh, then a wave of release. This is my crazy neighborhood. I was finally back in a place providing me, and everyone around me, permission to unloose the thoughts that lurked inside, to announce ourselves and our minute-by-minute reactions to the world.  To thrust, in a glorious rush of self-expression, our internal states into public, without a hint of shame.

I realized then that Japan’s enforced harmony, although soothing at times, was also suffocating, a dense fog of decorum settling over everyone and sealing shut, with hermetic insistence, any signs of discord. Sitting in my aging car’s front seat, rumbling down my neighborhood’s liberally pot-holed side-streets, I breathed out a long sigh, unloosening my lungs in relief and even, in a strange way, gratitude for the driver who had been cursing me moments before.

I’m home, in Boston, in America, I thought, almost giddy. I and everyone around me can finally express our feelings as we have them. 

Perhaps we could sometimes be rude or noisy. But I suddenly saw my and my fellow citizens’ carefree expressiveness as our own curious form of mutual respect, and even love: an agreement to relinquish the façade of permanent politeness and bare our souls together. Perhaps it’s skewed species of love, I allowed, but when it works, we forge a generous, communal, trust: You be you, and I’ll be me, and somehow, despite the annoyance and noise and clumsiness, we’ll have faith that we’ll all get by, ourselves, together.

Excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West (forthcoming, Putnam)

Expat Wives, Lean In, and the One Question Feminism is Afraid Of

The recent “Lean in” debate that has roiled its way through the media seems to rest not just on arguments about, as the description of Facebook’s Cheryl Sandberg  puts it in her book, the challenges and “bias[es] surrounding the lives and choices of working women,” but a predetermined belief about the two biggest choices women today face: between career and children, motherhood and professional motivation.

When, in the New York Times, Princeton prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter jumped into the debate, Slaughter summed up Sandberg’s argument as,

[B]elieve in yourself, give it your all, “lean in” and “don’t leave before you leave” — which is to say, don’t doubt your ability to combine work and family and thus edge yourself out of plum assignments before you even have a baby…. Still, after the start [of every woman’s career aspirations] comes a very long road, with lots of bumps and what the law professor Joan Williams calls “the maternal wall” smack in the middle of it. Sandberg’s approach, as important as it is, is at best half a loaf.

So there you have it, the one point on which both Sandberg and Slaughter (and most of the media covering the fracas) seem to agree: the debate about women’s choices and fulfillment rests on the glass ceiling being, in its essence, the ‘maternal wall.’

Are We Afraid to Admit What We Give up for Men, and If So, Why?

But what about those of us working women, or even just women who want to be passionately engaged in our lives and work and communities, for whom the choice, or the first choice anyway, has been between our husbands or partners and our careers? Those of us who have followed our counterparts to new countries or cultures and had our careers challenged because of it? Or who have never had children, either because—like me—they failed when they tried, or because they never pursued parenthood, but have still had to face major choices for their marriages that have impacted their work?

Is this whole debate about Leaning In covering up another debate that seems almost too antifeminist to bring up? And if so, why? Why are we somehow more embarrassed to say we made life choices based on our husbands (or partners) than on our kids?

The org InterNations reports of the 2010 Brookfield Global Relocations Trends Survey, “only 9% of previously employed women held a job during their time as a trailing spouse,” a statistic echoed by UN Special about the vast number of women who relocate for their partners.

Much energy has been expended by the feminist movement, by individual men and women trying to carve out answers in their lives about meaning, family, and sacrifice, and even by some corners of corporate America to de-stigmatize women who choose children over career, or face maternal responsibilities that challenge their professional ones. But it seems no one really wants to talk about women who make family-related choices when they don’t involve offspring—and especially when they involve just husbands.

So I’m asking now:

  • Is it legitimate, for smart, passionate, ambitious women, to give up or compromise our careers for their husbands?
  • Does it make us anti-feminist or failures when we do?

My answer:

I struggled for many years—and still do, sometimes—with all I’ve given up for my marriage, especially since it’s an international one. But I know that facing, surviving, and then capitalizing on the challenges my marriage has presented, has in many ways made me stronger, smarter, and even more fulfilled, in some surprising ways.

I’ve developed skills—and grit—that I bet are harder than even some of the ones Facebook’s boardroom requires. Among them:

  • The flexibility to toggle between to diametrically opposed cultures and lives—the world of Boston’s leftist academics and writers; and the world of a foreign housewife in Japan. And to do this, if not always gracefully, at least with spirit.
  • The courage to look at my life denuded of any of the professional or academic accomplishments I’d gathered in my almost 40 years in Boston, bereft of even of the identity of one who belongs (for, as a foreigner in Japan, I’m told in dozens of tiny ways throughout every day that I don’t belong), and ask, what do I really want for myself, for my life, for my family, and how to I build that in a world where I don’t even speak the language, where I can’t even read the street signs?
  • The determination to say, I am a woman who, in some ways, gave up her world for her husband. And I am still a feminist: a passionately engaged and motivated woman with enough persistence to keep trying, day by day, to build a new world and life for myself on top of, and even because of, the one I sacrificed for a marriage.

So how would you answer these questions?

How We End Up Where We Are

This week, I passed the 50,000-word mark on The Good Shufu, meaning (phew!) I’m still on track to get it to my editor at Putnam by my deadline in Jan. One of my main themes in the book, and I think a central theme in so many people’s lives, is how the world can lead us to two opposite places at once: the place we never thought we’d be, and the place that was somehow our destination anyway, even though that destination looks completely different from how we thought it would. (More about this here.)

So recently, I was really excited to learn about a new memoir coming out from Sourcebooks, Good Chinese Wife, by the incomparable Susan Blumberg-Kason, who writes about her own unexpected journey. Here’s what Susan says about the ways her story describes ending up where we least expect to be and where we were always heading, and finding these to be, in some senses, one and the same:

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

I’ve heard it as a statement and asked as a question, out of earshot or spoken to me directly. It’s been happening for so long that I can’t recall when it started. And it doesn’t matter where it comes from—relatives or people I’ve just met—but the bottom line is the same. People can’t understand how someone who studied Mandarin and earned an advanced degree in Chinese politics isn’t working in either or both.

I was a serious student, albeit never at the top of my class. Yet I toiled in college, copying Chinese characters over and over seven nights a week, including a year abroad in Hong Kong. I continued studying Mandarin after graduation for a couple of years in Washington, DC.

Susan Blumberg-Kason
Susan in front of her dorm in China as a student in 1991

Back in the early to mid-1990s China was opening and foreigners were just beginning to flock there to find work. My first love was Hong Kong, so I returned there for graduate school when I was twenty-three. That’s where I studied Chinese politics. I pictured promising job prospects after graduation, and with any hope they would allow me to remain in Hong Kong.

But family got in the way. Or rather I should say I chose family over career. I just didn’t know it at the time. I had always viewed myself as fiercely independent and non-conformist. In 1991 at the age of twenty-one, I traveled alone to forbidden countries like Vietnam and dangerous ones like Cambodia. I was cut off from the world alone in a Moscow apartment, shivering and feverish from an unknown illness, just a month before the Soviet Union fell. And surely the very fact of moving back to Hong Kong as a single woman a few years later proved that I was my own person.

One month into my first graduate school semester I met and fell in love with a dashing PhD student from mainland China. I married him six months later. After receiving my master’s degree, I took any job I could find in Hong Kong just so we could stay together while he finished his post-doctoral fellowship. This was in 1996, a year before the Handover and during a massive localization program where all jobs were to go local Hong Kong Chinese. Expats were hired for their foreign ‘expertise’, and in my case that turned out to be something in which I had no formal training or educational background. I happily accepted my one job offer: an English editing position at another university in Hong Kong.

Susan Blumberg-Kason
And again, in front of the same dorm, in 2012

When my husband’s Hong Kong visa expired a couple years later, he wanted to try living in San Francisco. He had several friends from China who lived there. So I followed him to California and accepted an entry-level editing/administrative assistant position because it would give us immediate health insurance, which we needed badly because I was pregnant. By the time we divorced at the new millennium, I was no closer to working in a field where I could use Mandarin or my background in China and Hong Kong.

Fast forward a decade. I remarried and now live in a small, Chicago suburb. I stay home with my three kids while my husband works a seventy-hour week. He’s in a career that requires a local license, so there’s no chance we’ll ever move from this area. But after all this time, I’m finally using my background in Hong Kong and China.  And it’s in the most intimate way I can think of. For the last five years I’ve been working on a memoir of my first marriage and my years in Asia. GOOD CHINESE WIFE will be published by Sourcebooks next summer. [Note from Tracy: YAY!]

The road to publication—learning to write memoir, finding an agent, going on submission to land a publisher—has been the most challenging and difficult job I’ve ever had. But it’s also by far been the most rewarding. It just goes to show that things often work out better than one could ever expect.

What Passes for Au Naturel in Japan

After four plus years of failed fertility treatments, more than a year taking care of Shogun Sr after he was confined to a wheelchair and then months preparing to move him into a care house, and over six years trying to be a good Japanese wife (without a dishwasher: oh, the horror, the horror), my hands were in disrepair. Nails weak and chipped from where I’d bitten them, waiting and anguishing, throughout countless hours at the fertility clinic, cuticles ragged from all the hand-washing and sanitizing you need to do to care for a beloved failing elder, and no chance of getting a good gel manicure while you’re fretting over how to cut out the inorganic products in your life, lest they compromise your dismal chances at fertility as a 40-something with a poor hormone profile.

So since the Shogun and I have given up trying to make a baby, and his father Shogun Sr is now in the care house full-time, I’ve started treating myself to manicures again. I found a salon right near out apaato (that’s “apartment” as the Japanese pronounce it) where the guy will give me a gel manicure for well less than the around $80 it usually costs in Japan.

For my first manicure there a few weeks ago, I asked for “something that looks natural.” Naturar-u, onegashimas! I asked in my broken Japanese; “Please make it look natural.” So we chose a pale pink–or I chose a pale pink after refusing the shocking pink he first suggested for a natural look.

Today I went back for another manicure, and this time I asked for a French manicure, with white tips and clear polish so your nails look clean: like the real, natural you, only better. Moi kai, naturar-u onegaishimas! I asked; “Again, please make it look natural.”

To-rashee-san wa naturar-u suki desu-ne! The manicurist nodded. “Tracy-san likes natural, isn’t that so!”

I noticed as he was painting the white stripe at the top of my nail that he was making it a little thick, but I decided not to protest. At least it will look clean and hopefully help my nails grow longer, I thought. Plus, I don’t know how to say the word “thick” in Japanese.

Then he whipped out the sparkle.

Spaka-ru! I protested, shaking my head. I couldn’t wave my hand for emphasis because my nails were drying under the UV lamp.

Hai, spaka-ru! “Yes, sparkles!” he confirmed. Kono mani-cua wa spaka-ru irimasu, he decreed: This type of manicure requires sparkles. Brooking no delay, he dipped a tiny brush into the pot of sparkles and began painting. Iie, ne! he’d exclaim periodically: “It’s great, isn’t it!”

Before he was finished, he tried convince me to add some additional beads and sequins to my nails, then offered to add a decal with a lacy stripe to each tip (at no extra cost, he assured me), but I demurred.

In the end, he was so pleased with his work that he asked me to pose my hands on a black bolster with little puffy hearts stitched into it. So here’s my “natural-looking” manicure, Japan-style: Like the real, natural me, only, I suppose, more sparkly: