Grateful to the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat Blog for publishing this piece focusing on some of the issues I’m trying to work out about race, privilege, and identity as a white parent married to a native Japanese man and raising a mixed-race child in Japan.
From ‘Blind Spots’ and Other Problems in Globally Blended Families:
As a woman in a multicultural, multinational, and multiracial couple, I’ve sensed how some people assume I must be uniquely open to cultural differences, and thus uniquely equipped to raise a mixed child. But this assumption betrays a flawed logic. Globe-trotting parents in mixed marriages who grew up in the majority may be aware of racism and may even have faced it themselves, but most still lack a deeper understanding of racism during a child’s formative years.
Fun at the Four Stories event at the Tokyo International Literary Festival 2016, where I answered questions about about multicultural, multilingual marriage; finding love in another world; and, of course, The Good Shufu!
Here, I’m sitting next to my Four Stories co-reader, Jake Adelstein, author of the knockout book Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.
Two fun pieces of Shufu news this week: As the book turns 8 months, I’m hugely grateful that it’s still making it to the very top of Amazon Japan’s list of women’s bios in foreign books. And I know it’s childish of me, but I have to admit to a little internal fist-bump with myself when I see it edging out Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, on this list at least.
The second piece of news is that the lineup has been announced for the only English-only official event at the Tokyo International Literary Festival 2016, and I’m really excited to be reading alongside Jake Adelstein of Tokyo Vice fame, Roland Kelts, author of the much-known Japanamerica, and Marc Kaufman, also known as the smarty-pants, stellar short-story writer and assistant prof at Sophia University. Here’s the info on TILF’s Japanese site (http://tokyolitfest.com/program_detail.php?id=105), but, you know, it’s in Japanese…. So here’s the info in English on my author site too: http://www.tracyslater.com/events/
Japan’s AERA Magazine says….well, actually, I have no idea what they say. But I’m thankful for their profile of The Good Shufu (I think). Bonus points for anyone who can translate enough to summarize the article and let us know what it says!
The shogun was particularly unhelpful with this one. His insight was that it says “something about love and your book.” Oy.
For those in mixed-marriages/partnerships: Do you think being in a multicultural union makes you more open-minded about race/ethnicity?
It seems from how the media covers mixed partnerships, the assumption is that those of us who are in one are somehow less influenced by racial stereotypes, but I’m interested in the ways this both is and isn’t true. For instance, of course I love the shogun and see him first and foremost as a man and not a Japanese person, but I still hold certain beliefs about him based on his ethnicity and know he does the same about me (don’t get me started on his theories about ear wax, sweat glands, and westerners…), and my guess is that anyone growing up in this world is never fully outside of cultural beliefs about race and/or ethnicity.
In the U.S., women walking past construction sites pretty frequently attract whistles and comments. In Japan, where decorum and manners are paramount, especially among strangers, I’d never once seen that happen in 10 whole years of living here–until recently.
Lately, I’ve been walking past a construction site on my daily trips to the market with the mini in the carriage. Every time I pass, one of the guards calls out, Kawaii bay-bee! Kawaii mama! (“Cute baby! Cute mama!”) The first few times he said it, I thought he was saying something about the weather or rain coming (rain in Japanese is am-e, which sounds a little bit like “mama”). Then I realized what he was really saying, and I was surprised.
Granted, he’s about 4’10” and looks to be pushing 70, with about as many teeth as my 11-month old. But then again, I’m 47, sleep-deprived, not nearly back to my pre-pregnancy body, and perpetually dressed in either old yoga clothes or what could pass for pajamas.
Recently, someone asked the members of a group I belong to, KA International Mothers in Japan, about their favorite aspects of this country. Here’s what these expats said:
“The hand signals train drivers do as they reach the station, and how the dudes on the platform hold lanterns in the evening
Knowing exactly where the train door is going to be on the platform, and which side the doors will open when getting off
Getting whiffs of incense while walking around town
Hats on jizo statues (little statues meant to commemorate children who have died or were miscarried; the hats are meant to keep them warm)
The music from street vendors. I only kind of love the fact that they have fire in the back of their trucks. It just seems so wrong that it’s kind of right.
The baggy pants worn by construction workers
Shoes with split toes
The elevator ladies at department stores
Hazard lights saying thank you to drivers behind
When I must pull over for a service vehicle, such as an ambulance, then receive a thank you over their loudspeaker. So civilized!
The way bus, streetcar and taxi drivers wave at each other when the pass each other on the road/tracks, as if they are sharing a joke
The “smalltalk” on the street with the older people I meet
The obasan tachi (elderly women) and when they stop me on the street just to tell my half-baby is cute!
The ability to say nothing and still be understood as saying “no” without upsetting anyone
How if you leave something behind someone will drape it from a fence, hang it on a pole, or leave it on a ledge and nobody touches it, knowing it’s a lost thing waiting for someone to reclaim it. I once, drunkenly, lost a pair of earnings and found them hung on an evergreen tree by my house. It looked like Christmas, and I felt bad taking them off.
Umbrella condoms (those umbrella-shaped plastic bags available at stores to put over your umbrella when it’s wet, so you don’t get water on other people or the store’s goods)
Warm toilet seats!
When you shop and the staff put the item in a bag and tape the bag and fold over the edge of the tape so it will be easier to open
Clean bathrooms at most stores, especially department stores and the big shopping plazas
The nursing rooms/baby rooms in stores and malls
Onsen (natural hotsprings)
Napping on tatami (straw mats)
Vending machines with warm drinks
The cans and containers used to hold snacks and sweets. They are great to use for a nice storage place afterwards, too!
The elaborate gift wrapping at many stores. Sometimes I tell them it’s a present when it’s really for me.
The sound of wind-chimes in summer
Japanese lunch sets and all the freebie add-ons like salads, coffee, desert, etc.
The total attention to detail. Everything is just-so and beautifully presented.
Trains and buses that are always on time
The hundreds of soda flavors and seasonal foods
Amazon delivering next day and sometimes the same day
Beautifully designed cakes, even from cheap shops
The little strings inside the bed covers to hold the futon in place
Baths that fill up automatically at the perfect temperature just by pressing a button
Affordable child care
Affordable health care
The general safety and cleanliness
Karaoke! And plastic food samples
The takkyubin package service. So easy to mail a package anytime, from almost anywhere, and reasonable cost. Logistics heaven!
The actual convenience of convenience stores (paying bills, picking up food for dinner, and buying tickets for a show all in one stop)
Construction road barriers shaped like cartoon characters
Thanks, KA International Mothers in Japan, for reminding us why, even on our hardest days, Japan will never fail to intrigue and even delight us.
I’ve been trying to figure out which community I’ve joined since marrying the shogun, which “label” matters most. Which way would I categorize our relationship if I had to pick the most relevant descriptor? Multilingual, multinational, multicultural, multi-ethnic?
I asked the shogun about our mixed marriage, about what he thought was the most significant difference between us. “Man and woman,” he said–which illustrates where the multilingual part comes in. Since I made no headway at the source, I’ll ask here what people in similar relationships think.
I rarely think of myself in a multicultural marriage in the American sense, because when I research what others are writing and thinking about it in the U.S., it seems like the focus is on people from different ethnic groups. But if the shogun were Japanese American, not Japanese Japanese, I think our marriage would be vastly different.
So that makes the think the multinational aspect is the most significant. It’s certainly the one I focus on the most, on a daily basis, but that’s because I live in his country, half a globe away from my home, where I barely speak the language and can only read the nonverbal signs correctly about a quarter of the time. Maybe it’s the mix of expat and non-expat, then? That he’s the one who navigates fluidly through our life and community, while I need to rely on him for almost everything practical and social? (Never thought I’d be in a marriage when I needed to ask my husband for money, but then again I never thought I’d be in a marriage where the ATM machines play cartoon pictures of uniformed bank tellers bowing at me).
So I wonder, if you’re in a similar partnership, or imagining being in one, what multi matters most?
One nice thing about being a new parent in a country like Japan, where the people are famously reticent and usually even avoid eye contact, is that you have the rare chance to chat with strangers. Walking down the sidewalk with the little shogunette in the baby carrier, I frequently pass parents with their little ones strapped to their chests too, and we’ll smile at each other and do a little head-bow and sometimes we will even stop to talk.
There is a downside to this however if, like me, you are terrible at Japanese. Frequently, instead of asking “And how old is your baby?” (nan sai, desuka?) I end up asking “What floor are you going to?” (nan kai desuka?).
Of course, this is somewhat better than what used to happen before I had a baby and we moved to a house in the suburbs of Yokohama, back when we lived in an apartment in the center of Osaka city. Then, frequently one of my elderly neighbnors would get in the elevator after me and instead of asking “What floor?” I’d ask them “And how old are you?”
The galley pages arrived today at our new house in Yokohama, where we moved a month ago.
It’s so exciting to see them! But it now brings up a twist on an issue I’ve been struggling with: the title. I was thinking that we should change the title to the book before it actually comes out and hits bookstores. The Good Shufu seems a little too obscure to me sometimes, like, who the hell knows what a shufu is unless they’ve lived in Japan? My editor at Putnam likes the existing title but isn’t opposed to changing it, either. My agent and I are thinking of The Japanese Housewife, because then, with my name (which is obviously not Japanese, since I didn’t take the shogun’s name when I married him) on the cover, there will still be some sense of mystery, like how does someone named Tracy Slater become a Japanese Housewife? (which in a sense is the subtext of the whole book, anyway). Then the shogun–with his Japanese sensibility of prizing literalness and exactness above all else–weighed in, pointing out that calling me a Japanese housewife is technically not correct, since I’m not Japanese. I countered with the fact that our house is Japanese, and that part of the significance of the term housewife is that it’s sort of like being married to the actual house. But then I had the idea of using The Japan Housewife, sort of like a twist on the book title The Paris Wife.
But now that I see the actual galley pages as Putnam has designed them, I’m back to kind of liking The Good Shufu again. Maybe because the galley pages actually make the book seem real after all this time, so I’m feeling attached to them exactly as they are.
Anyone have any thoughts, ideas, or title preferences?