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/
This weekend, one of the most thoughtful explorations yet of The Good Shufu appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Expat Blog by writer Debra Bruno. What I love most about Bruno’s interview is how it captured so many of the nuances and complications of both expat life and multicultural, multilingual love + marriage.
The book is a warts-and-all account of how Ms. Slater, 48, who had barely traveled outside the U.S. when she first visited Japan to teach business English, fell in love with an Osaka salaryman, adjusted to a new culture, made the tough decision to give up her life in Boston, and spent years helping to care for an ailing father-in-law and trying to have a child in her 40s.
Ms. Slater chatted with WSJ Expat about the complications of being a western woman married to an Asian man, why she never really became fluent in Japanese, and how she struggled to keep her sense of self in Japan. An edited conversation follows.
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.
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…