Radio Interview with NPR’s KCRW: On Xmas, KFC, Being Jewish, & Eating Chinese in Japan

Last week, I got to talk to the lovely radio host Evan Kleiman, of the show Good Food on Southern California’s NPR station KCRW, about the strange trend of eating Kentucky Friend Chicken in Japan on Christmas. I originally wrote about this topic a few years ago for CNN, which is how the KCRW people found me, I assume.

Evan and I did talk Chicken, although somehow we ended up veering off into also discussing being the Jewish wife of a Japanese man in Osaka and following my family’s cultural tradition of going out for Chinese food on Christmas. And also the one thing that’s even better about doing this in Osaka, rather than Boston…

You can listen to the radio clip of just my interview or go to the whole KCRW Good Food Christmas episode here, “This Week On Good Food: Christmas Means KFC in Japan, Cooking Goose, Pig Ear Cheetos.” Enjoy!

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On Shogun Sr.’s First Birthday Since His Death

Today would be Shogun Sr.’s birthday, and it’s the first one to pass since his death. I miss him a little bit every day, but today the missing comes on a little harder. I wish he were here with us to celebrate.

I think about cooking him his favorite foods for most of the nine birthdays I knew him, and how, after he had eaten, he’d always push back his chair, nod his head earnestly, and say Gochisosamadeshita, “thank you for the meal,” and then in English, he’d sometimes add “Thank you To-ray-shee!”

I think about the little baby inside me now, at almost 27 weeks old, who showed up unexpectedly in the last two months of Shogun Sr.’s life. How, when I told him I was pregnant as he lay weak in his hospital bed, saying “Otōsan, I have a secret; I have a baby inside,” and then I patted my stomach, his eyes went wide with surprise. He thought about it for a moment and then asked, “Does Toru know?”

I laughed and said “Of course!” and then switched into broken Japanese, explaining Watachitachi wa hontoni bikuri shimashita! Onaka ga warui deshita, dakara byoin ni ikimashita, to Isha wa, “Anata wa ninshin desu!” to itaiimashita, “We were both shocked! My stomach was bad so I went to the Dr, and the Dr said ‘You are pregnant!'”

And then Shogun Sr grabbed my hand and kissed it, and then he burst into tears.

I think about how we asked him to name the baby, and he said he would, but then he stopped speaking, and he died before he could tell us what name he had picked.

I think about how once, before he went into the hospital, he fell early in the morning in his kitchen. When the helper-san arrived, she couldn’t lift him, so they called. Toru was on his way to work, and when I answered the phone, Shogun Sr said quietly, To-ray-shee, es-oh-esu “Tracy, S.O.S”

After I got there, two other female helper-sans arrived, and the four of us women fussed around in a frantic rush of lifting, cleaning, tending, changing. Then, when one helper-san wheeled him out of his shower twenty minutes later, he took one look around his living room at the four us of women standing there, and he said Yare, yare, “Oh boy…”

When I feel the little baby kick inside me, I think about how happy we are that our baby finally seems to be making an appearance, and how sad we are that Shogun Sr won’t get to be here for it. I think about how the baby waited quietly through five years of medical treatments and miscarriages and general fertility-specialist fracas before showing up, as if waiting for all the fuss, all the frantic rushing, to quiet down before making a move.

And I think gratefully about how, in this assertion of that quiet, wondrous presence, she is so much like her grandfather.

“Japanese husbands. No good!”

I think I’m developing a love-hate relationship with the prenatal nurse. The last two times I saw her, she failed to yell at me about gaining weight, even though I looked on the Japanese chart and I’m still a few kilos (now two!) above where I’m supposed to be at this point. I sort of missed her chastising me and her funny comments about Americans and their eating habits.

Still, today, just to disabuse me of any inkling she’s becoming a softie, she dismissed my assurance that we’d be OK after the baby comes, even though we no longer have any family in Osaka to help us. I assured her that the shogun was always really helpful, pitching in with laundry and cleaning, and that he’d do a lot of childcare, too. She shook her head, completely unconvinced. “Japanese husbands. No good!” she said.

But then she smiled hugely, her eyes going all crinkly at their corners, like she used to when she was telling me how fat I was getting and how I shouldn’t enjoy the holidays coming up. I think it’s that combination of harshness and sweetness that gets me, like a lover who’s all push-and-pull, until you fall under their sway even though you know you shouldn’t. I also have an inkling she might make a great interrogator, or hostage-taker.

Is it possible I have some sort of weird Stockholm-Syndrome attachment to her? Does this happen with women and their prenatal nurses?

And on the Topic of Japanese People Reacting to a Pregnant Westerner…

A week or so ago, I wrote about my hospital midwife’s reaction to my being 1.5 kilos over the Japanese target weight for a pregnant woman at my stage. The encounter with the midwife happened a little more than a month ago, so now, my belly is even rounder.

I’ve actually been surprised to find that, once my nausea waned at about 19 weeks, I’ve really enjoyed having a pregnant stomach. There are two things I like about it:

  • One, I love not having to suck my stomach in after eating. I used to favor tight-ish tops before I got pregnant, and when I ate a big meal, I’d want to tuck my little belly roll in. Now I don’t even need to think about that.
  • Two, I kind of like being able to touch my own stomach in public! Is this weird of me? I realized yesterday, as I was coming home from a walk and rubbing my belly to see if I could feel the little one kick, that being pregnant is one of the only times we’re really allowed to touch our bodies in public without it seeming inappropriate. (I think this prohibition against interacting with our own bodies in public goes for both women and men, in both the West and Japan.) I didn’t realize being pregnant would provide a kind of unique bodily permission, and I really like it now, how it feels both secretive and special and public all at once.

My Japanese neighbors have seemed very sweet about my pregnancy, cooing over my belly, urging me to kiwo-tsukete, “be careful!” But they invariably seeming bowled over when I tell them that no, I am not about to give birth, I am due in about four months. (I don’t have enough Japanese skills to explain that, according to my American pregnancy books, size-wise I am right on target, so I just nod and smile and say Oki, ne? “Big, right?”) One neighbor, who has three incredibly polite kids of her own, is especially sweet, but every time she’s seen me for the past month or so, she points to my stomach and asks, in all seeming earnestness, if there are one or two babies in there.

I always smile and hold up one finger, but inside I’m always wondering, “Does she think, at 6 months, they are suddenly going to discover a hidden twin?”

The Draconian Midwife

Before I got pregnant, I’d heard from my Western friends in Osaka that Japanese midwives and doctors are very strict about weight-gain for expectant mothers. Pregnant women in America are told that “normal weight gain” falls between 25 – 35 pounds. In Japan, it tops out at 10kg, or 22 pounds.

At 5’5″ and 118lbs when I conceived, I figured weight-gain in pregnancy wouldn’t be a big concern for me. After-all, I’ll be 46 next month and had gotten pregnant naturally at 45 and 1/2, against all expectations. Weight gain, when I learned I was actually knocked up and not sick with the stomach flu, was the last thing on my mind.

Apparently, the midwife at my maternity hospital here would like to disabuse me of my laissez-faire attitude towards my growing belly.

At my last appointment, I was about 1.5 kg over target. In addition, the baby’s heart was still beating and the chromosomal screenings came back all-clear. I couldn’t have been happier. Until that draconian midwife beckoned my husband and me into her office.

In Japanese with my husband translating, she informed us that I was already entirely too fat. She admonished that Americans like juice, and I needed to stop drinking juice right away. Although I asked my husband to explain that I don’t drink juice, she remained unmoved. She encouraged me to weigh myself every night and every morning, so I could remember how fat I was getting. Then, despite it still being late summer, she brought up the holidays. December was around the corner, she warned, and then she switched into broken English, seemingly for emphasis: “So please don’t enjoy!”

In my own broken Japanese, I tried to explain that I didn’t celebrate the holidays. “Why not?” she wanted to know.

I couldn’t remember the Japanese word for Jewish, so I asked my husband to translate again. A brief conversation between the two of them ensued about what “Jewish” meant, and it seemed to distract her for a moment. Veering off course from my apparently egregiously ample belly, she inquired about what I celebrated in December, if not Christmas.  Next followed a rough explanation of Chanukah, although, I explained, adults don’t usually celebrate it, since it’s mostly a holiday for kids.

She mulled this information over for a few moments, uncharacteristically silent. “Well,” she finally told me in Japanese, “You’ll still probably be too fat in December!”

After my husband translated this last bit for me, we both couldn’t help but giggle. And I still can’t get worked up about her distress. If I end up becoming much more than 1.5 kilos over the Japanese target, if I develop high-blood pressure or gestational diabetes, if I stop being able to eat healthily and start scarfing down sweets, then I’ll start taking her diatribes more seriously. As I said, I’m still in shock over my luck that, if all continues to go well, I’ll turn 46 in about 3 weeks and be 24 weeks pregnant. I don’t have any room in my psyche for distress over 1.5 extra kilos. In fact, as I reach the 21-week mark now, I think I’ll celebrate with a fresh glass of juice.

9 Years Ago Today, I Met the Shogun

Nine years ago today, I met the Shogun. I kept trying to stand near him, and he kept moving away from me, afraid, he’d tell me later, that I was going to try to make him speak English.

Two weeks later, he said, “Lub you,” to which I responded “What?” He had to repeat it a few more times before I realized his “ub” was “ove.”

As I’ve written before, seven months ago, the Shogun and I gave up expecting I’d ever be able to sustain a pregnancy, after almost five years of trying: my body somehow too full of slip for those tiny sparks of life to take hold for long. “But you know,” he told me, as our deadline to stop trying neared, “if we can have baby, that would be like miracle. But it will still only be like dessert, because you will always be main course.”

So today, with nine years of days together and Mother’s Day approaching with the promise of a holiday we’ll both ignore, I won’t forget how lucky I am that, although he kept moving away from me that first day we met, I kept moving towards him, and eventually we both stood still, together.

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?