Big, big thanks to Tokyo Families Magazine for their profile of the The Good Shufu and for their interview with me about being in a cross-cultural, multilingual, and bi-continental marriage.
Even with a great divide among religions and races across the world, love works in wonderful ways. American freelance writer Tracy Slater, found love in Japan with a Japanese husband.
But their story is statistically rare.
According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, interracial marriages make up about 1 in 30 marriages. Of marriages involving Japanese men, only a paltry 1% is with an American wife.
In an interview with Tracy about The Good Shufu (The Good Wife), a book she penned for release next month, she shares some of her personal experiences and views about being in a kokusaikekkon (international marriage).
How did you and your husband cross paths? What would you say the attraction was?
He did an executive MBA at the university in Boston where I taught writing, so that’s why we met. And the attraction, at least for me, was pretty immediate. On his end, he did try to avoid me a little at first, but he now claims that’s because he was scared I was going to make him speak English. So guess how that turned out. I write much more about all of this in the first few chapters of the book, so in the interest of not making my editor mad, I won’t divulge the whole story here! (laughter)
Imagine my delight when I learned that Dean & Deluca was opening a location at the posh mall in the suburb just outside of Tokyo where we live. I’ve had visions of spending afternoons over cappuccino, feeling like I’m squarely back in the US.
Today, the mini spent a rare afternoon at hoikuen, Japanese daycare, and I finally had a chance to bring my laptop and get some work done over pastry and coffee. If I squinted my eyes so I couldn’t really see the Japanese writing on the menu and the line of straight-haired customers, and let the sound of the espresso machine in the background wash over me, I really did feel like I was back in the American urban cafe culture I love.
That is, until I got up to wash my hands and saw this:
The mini, 11 months old now, has a new favorite activity: clapping. She spends a lot of time each day clapping along to her musical toy cell phone. (Yes, we bought her a toy cell phone. Actually, two, but that’s another story.)
The other day in our living room in Japan, CNN on was on satellite TV, playing in the background while the mini and I went about our morning routine. I like to leave CNN on sometimes during the day so I can hear English–it makes me miss home a little less. I know some experts say children shouldn’t even look at any screens until they are at least two years old. But I think the extra exposure to English for her and my need to stay sane and rooted in my own culture as an expat in Japan, both outweigh any argument against her seeing a screen. As older parents, we tend to sweat the small stuff a little less, I think. (Thus, the two toy cell phones, one could argue…)
In any case, that day CNN was showing live coverage of the State of the Union address in the US. When Obama was introduced, Congress burst into applause. The mini enthusiastically clapped right along.
So proud that she already identifies as a Democrat.
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?
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…
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.
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?”
In the past week, I have received incredibly kind messages from two fellow writers about being Western women in Asia in love with local men. Both Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of the forthcoming I-can’t-wait-for-it-memoir The Good Chinese Wife, and “R,” a savvy Austrian who lives in Shenzen, China, and writes the provocative blog China Elevator Stories, emailed to let me know they had nominated me for The Liebster Award.
I’d never heard of this award, but Susan and R told me it’s meant to celebrate new blogs, preferably those with less than 200 subscribers. (I’m eligible!) As R explains on her blog,
The Liebster Award is kind of a pay-it-forward blogger award. The rules are: If you receive one you must answer the 11 questions asked by the blogger who awarded it to you, list 11 random facts about yourself, and then come up with your own 11 questions for the 11 bloggers you choose to bestow the award upon.
So, my mea culpa: As those of you who are kind enough to follow me know, I’m not the world’s best blogger. I have until early January to hand my book manuscript, upon which this blog is supposed to be based, into my editor, and I’ve been unable to balance both the book and the blog very well. And, since the book came with an advance I have to give back if I fail to hand it in on time…
So while I’m wimping out on fulfilling all the steps to receive the award, I still want to show my gratitude to Susan and R, so I’m hoping this blog post will help in some small way return the favor they’ve given to me by driving any traffic I can back to their sites–especially since they are both much better than posting new content than I have been lately!