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.

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?”

OK, So I May Have Omitted Some Crucial Details

And What Do You Think of Ending a Memoir Mid-Story?

In my last post, about the very generous bloggers who nominated me for the Liebster award, I wrote that I haven’t been a very good blog-poster because I have been so busy working to meet my publisher’s deadline for the memoir. And that’s true. Sort of.

There is also a little detail I left out about the other reason I haven’t been a very good blogger: I unexpectedly got pregnant last May. Totally naturally. At the age of 45 and 1/2. After 4+ years of failed IVF treatments and 2 pregnancy losses. In the middle of my beloved father-in-law’s last months of his life, when we had just learned he had been diagnosed with acute pancreatic cancer. When I was spending 4-6 hours a day in the hospital with him to try to keep him company and as comfortable as possible. (Actually, we didn’t know I was even pregnant until I was 7 weeks, because we assumed I had either caught a stomach bug at the hospital or was sick from the sadness and stress of Otōsan’s* illness. So, on a side note, there goes the theory that women should just relax and avoid stress and then they will get pregnant.)

We had wanted Otōsan to name the baby, but sadly he passed away before he could tell us the names he had chosen. We miss him very much. And we are in awe that his little grandchild-to-be finally showed up (at least in the belly) and we got to tell him before he died.

Because of my past difficulty getting and staying pregnant and all years of medical treatments I went though in Japan (a part of the story covered in the last part of the memoir), because I was already 45, and because I was simultaneously morning the loss of my father-in law, I didn’t want to write or even talk much about my pregnancy at first. I was also so sick with morning sickness that I could barely get out of bed until I passed the 16-week mark; I even stopped working on the memoir for over 2 months.

Now the sickness is waning, I’ll be 20 weeks this Thursday, and my doctor expects me to deliver a healthy little one at the end of January.

So, the Memoir Was Supposed to End with Me, at 45, Coming to Terms with Not Having a Child…

When I sold the memoir to Putnam last winter based on the proposal and first 4 chapters, the story was supposed to end with me childless at 45, since my sweetie and I had decided against adoption (as I wrote about in the New York Times online). Well now, obviously, the pregnancy complicates things. In a great way, of course, but still. So I spoke to my editor last week about how to end the memoir now. Do I end it before I get pregnant? I can’t end it after I deliver, because the manuscript is due almost a month before my due date. It looks like the story will now come to a close with me mid-pregnancy, mourning my father-in-law while celebrating this incredible surprise of  the promise of a new life.

Sometimes I love this idea, because I’m not big on memoirs that tie up every loose end; life just isn’t like that. But sometimes the idea seems weird to me, to end so much in the middle of the action. Then again, if we are lucky enough that the baby is in fact born healthy, as is now expected, I guess that could be the makings of the second book: raising a child in a country where I still don’t speak the language (!), and where I’m a first-time mother at the crazy age of 46…

——-

*Otōsan is the Japanese word for “respected father,” what a daughter or daughter-in-law calls her father or father-in-law.

Free MP3 of a Reading from The Good Shufu

Last month, I read at a literary event from a middle chapter of the manuscript-in-process of The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West.

The reading covered a scene in the book that starts on the morning in Osaka that I’m set to tie the knot, when a small scheduling glitch leaves me suddenly contemplating backing out of the entire marriage.

Feel free to download the MP3 of my reading, or access the readings from the entire literary event, also featuring the highly-talented Japan-based Western writers Marc Kaufman, Amy Chavez, and Peter Mallet. (MP3s may take a little while to download.)

Thanks for listening!

Wildlife Sightings in Downtown Osaka

ImageToday, smack in the middle of one of the best seasons in Osaka–the air is soft, the humidity low, the sun out but not too fierce–I stumbled upon a new cafe along the river on Tosabori Dori. It’s called “Brooklyn Roasting Company,” although in true Japanese fashion, I have no idea why: the owners seem to be comprised of a Japanese hispter and his French-Senegalese buddy.

But the coffee is strong, I can sit with my laptop right out on their wide, Ikea-looking wooden deck along the river, and it’s a lovely place to work on the book. (Chapter 11 is in progress!)

Then I see a curious visitor: a stork, I think, (or what looks like a stork to this urban girl), enjoying the view out over the river from the ledge of the building next to the cafe, then turning around on his spindly legs and pointing his majestic beak this way and that. I grab my cell phone and snap this picture, delighted. “Who knew!?” I think, that I’d be sitting side-by-side with a stork enjoying my coffee, pecking out words to my book on my laptop while he surveys the view we share?

It’s not until the bird has flown away and I start eagerly uploading the picture to Facebook that I realize I’ve been joined by another photo-enthusiast enjoying the sights: a boat of Japanese tourists passing by, one of whom takes out her cell-phone camera, points it towards me, and snaps a picture of the gaijin with the laptop sitting at the cafe.

What Does Home Mean When You Live Abroad?

ImageI’ve been thinking about the concept of home a lot lately. Partly from watching home so much on TV a few weeks ago as the Boston Marathon bombing unfolded, partly from missing home like I always do, no matter how happy I am at any given moment in my expat life in Japan, partly from seeing this wonderful poster advertising the arrival of the Boston MFA’s Japanese art collection in Osaka (I most love the “I’m home” part, written in Japanese on the left and English on the right), partly from having just finished Emily Raboteau’s very lovely, very smart new memoir Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, and partly from reading a New York Times review of the next book I want to read, André Aciman’s Harvard Square, containing the line that hooked me: “I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past.”

And of course, partly from working on my own forthcoming book and teasing out what it means to be at home in the world when you live as an expat.

How Do We Put Words onto the Feeling of Being at Home? How Do We Define It?

Raboteau’s concept of home in particular envelops the political, the spiritual, and the historical, and deals with a sense of displacement that I, as a middle-class, educated, free, white American woman will never suffer from, even while I live as a minority in a country a hemisphere away from the place that feels most like mine. (And my privilege at having a place that feels most like mine doesn’t escape me.)

But I’m intrigued by how to define home as an expat. And by Raboteau’s alignment of “home” with Zion, or the “Promised Land.” I know how easy it is, when we live overseas, to lose our gimlet eye about home: to romanticize it, to see it as a kind of lost Eden, a place where we wouldn’t suffer the same disappointments or lonelinesses or defeats that we suffer in our expat lives. (Sometimes it’s like we think the grass would always be greener if we were only back on our “real” sides.)

And if we do tend to romanticize home, especially as expats, then how do we really define it truly?

Here’s what I wrote about the struggle to define the strangely abstract concept of home, when I returned to Boston for the first time after moving to Japan:

Just walking down the sidewalk in Boston or Cambridge felt different than it had in Osaka.  My movements were the same.  My gait, my breath, my heartbeat.  But I felt different.

Was I spontaneously, unconsciously, responding to the familiarity of the New England air around me, the specific calibration of its weight or humidity, that I’d always been accustomed to without ever knowing it?  Did hearing the flat sounds of American English all around me, combined with the consistent hum and flow of some never-before noticed Northeastern traffic pattern, send untraceable signals from my ear-drums to my brain, that I was where I belonged, where I was most used to being?  Was the force of gravity slightly different here in New England, rooting my feet just so to the native concrete—and could my heart sense that, even though my brain couldn’t fully define it?  Or was it some combination of all these things, or of my mind not constantly accounting for all the new, unexpected, yet minute details of everyday life on another side of the planet?

My sense of being at home felt distinctly different, more powerful, from my age-old certainty that Boston was where I wanted to settle because of the safety its familiarity afforded. My attachment to the place and its pulse felt deeper now, like a phantom limb sprouting inside me.  My home in Boston had become a part of me in a way I had never felt: not only was the city where I wanted to live, it was where I belonged, because I so clearly hadn’t belonged in Japan.

Ultimately, I realized, Japan had made home coalesce into a new, almost magical force, a vortex of comfort and belonging whose pull now called to me with remarkable might: a siren song reverberating off some land’s foreign cliffs, vertiginous rock-face that only sharpened each echo.

So how about it? What exactly is it to feel at home? I’m struggling with this question as I write my book, with how to put words onto how exactly to define the feeling of being at home. And wondering about the question, does living in a foreign land–even by choice–somehow make our own seem more sacred, or magical?

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing: On my forthcoming memoir, The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West (Putnam Press)

Tracy in MiajimaBeing a gaijin wife in Osaka, I can be pretty out of it. I’d never heard of “The Next Big Thing,” or even knew what a “blog meme” was, until the lovely Jocelyn Eikenburg set me straight.  She’s the author of the forthcoming book Red All Over, a memoir of finding love and home in China; about, as she has written, “what happens when you let go of every expectation you had about life, love and even your own wedding, and just learn to listen to your heart and say ‘I do’ to the people, places and possibilities that really matter.” Jocelyn has been one of the most enthusiastic and supportive friends and fellow writers I’ve met online since my unexpected book deal landed in my lap!

She’s also a smart and funny and a beautiful writer, and if you don’t know about her and her blog Speaking of China, then you are missing out.

As for this “Next Big Thing,” it involves answering a few questions and then sharing the love by tagging another writer you admire, which I do below:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Well, the basic idea came from my falling madly in love with the least likely person in the world: a Japanese salaryman who could barely speak English (and I spoke no Japanese).

The book is about what happens when you are a Boston-based, skeptical, plan-obsessed, feminist literary academic who meets the love of your life, but being together means you must give up every plan or goal you’ve ever had and essentially forfeit your own world for his.

Ultimately, though, it’s the story of finding love and meaning in a foreign language, as well as hope and happiness amidst the boatload of loss and confusion that we call real life. (Here’s the full overview.)

What genre does your book fall under?

Memoir

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Really??? I need to finish writing the book first before I can even start to think about this one. Now, if you’re asking what I’d want to wear on the red carpet, that’s another story. But don’t get me started, or I may just stop writing and click over to some online shopping sites, just to see what they….

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Good Shufu a true story about finding love, meaning, hope, and self in the least likely places in the world: the places we always swore we’d never go.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The Good Shufu is forthcoming from Penguin’s Putnam imprint in 2015. It’s represented by the very, very wonderful Rachel Sussman of Chalberg & Sussuman.

And I’m still in shock and awe over all of this!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Oooh, check back in, let’s say, 7 months? The full draft is due to my editor at Putnam, the incredible Sara Minnich, in January 2014.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I started writing the book at the tail end of 4+ brutal years of fertility treatments and 2 pretty heart-rending pregnancy losses, all undergone in Japan (and I still speak virtually no Japanese). I hadn’t written anything—I mean anything—in a few years because of the stress of this medical issue. And then one day, just off the cuff, I sent a pitch to the editor of the New York Times Motherlode blog about the difference between the desire to have a biological child and the desire to be a parent.

She published the piece (although with a much different title than the one I had chosen), and a few days later, an editor at Putnam emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in submitting a memoir proposal. I was shocked! And delighted! And still totally infertile! So while all I wanted to do was crawl under the covers and hide from the world and my twice-daily-in-the-stomach-blood-thinner shots that my clinic in Osaka thought I needed to have any chance of sustaining a pregnancy, I signed up for a course on nonfiction proposal writing through MediaBistro, wrote a proposal and four sample chapters, submitted it to Putnam, and they offered me a deal!

I was shocked! And delighted! And still totally infertile!

But working on this book has been one kind of godsend, because it has helped me cope with coming to terms with turning 45 and abandoning our medical quest to try to have a child—an issue I write about towards the end of the memoir.

As my husband says, “If we can have baby, that will be like miracle. But it will still only be like dessert, because you’ll always be the main course.”

So, despite some of the sadness of the past few years, how can I not feel like the luckiest girl in the world?

Now, I’m excited to introduce Kaitlin Solimine, another recent friend and fellow writer whom I’m honored to follow and know! She’s an award-winning writer about China, a former U.S. Department of State Fulbright Creative Arts Fellow, and the 2010 Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Most recently, she was the March 2012 guest editor for the magazine Cha: An Asian Literary Journal , and I got to hear her give an incredible reading from her forthcoming novel at the Four Stories Boston 2013 opening night, an MP3 of which is posted here. Rumor has it, she attracted some publishing interest at this event, which doesn’t surprise me one bit!