Boston Globe features The Good Shufu in their “Story Behind the Book” column

Thanks, Boston Globe, for this piece!

Tracy Slater and the journey least expected

Before she met her husband, Tracy Slater was “fiercely independent,” she says, an academic teaching literature and gender studies at Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. Then a Japanese businessman getting an executive MBA in Boston entered her life, she said, “and I just fell madly in love with him.”

When her future husband had to return to Osaka to care for his father in the wake of his mother’s sudden death, Slater found herself following him there. They married, and she became, suddenly, a shufu. The word means “housewife” in Japanese, but it doesn’t share the connotations most Americans bring to the word here. “It’s much more common in Japan,” Slater said, “that when a woman marries she quits her job, even if she doesn’t have kids.”

In “The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World,” Slater writes of her cultural dislocation in this new country and new role, but also of the joy it brought her.

“I worked really hard to plan this kind of life I thought would be my perfect life, and it got completely upended when I fell in love with this person,” she said. She added, “The most rewarding thing is realizing I feel more grounded, more in the right place, than I ever have in my life. The journey that I least expected took me to exactly the right place.”

One place it took her was to motherhood, as parent to a half-Japanese daughter. “She is part of my body,” Slater said, “and yet she is also an integral part of a culture that will, always and forever, see me as a foreigner.” As for her role as shufu, she said, “The title is ironic. I’m not a good shufu. I’m the worst housekeeper in the world.”

Slater will read Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Newtonville Books.

See full piece online

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Catcalls & the Japanese Construction Worker

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.

So I’ll take it.

“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.

What Passes for Au Naturel in Japan

After four plus years of failed fertility treatments, more than a year taking care of Shogun Sr after he was confined to a wheelchair and then months preparing to move him into a care house, and over six years trying to be a good Japanese wife (without a dishwasher: oh, the horror, the horror), my hands were in disrepair. Nails weak and chipped from where I’d bitten them, waiting and anguishing, throughout countless hours at the fertility clinic, cuticles ragged from all the hand-washing and sanitizing you need to do to care for a beloved failing elder, and no chance of getting a good gel manicure while you’re fretting over how to cut out the inorganic products in your life, lest they compromise your dismal chances at fertility as a 40-something with a poor hormone profile.

So since the Shogun and I have given up trying to make a baby, and his father Shogun Sr is now in the care house full-time, I’ve started treating myself to manicures again. I found a salon right near out apaato (that’s “apartment” as the Japanese pronounce it) where the guy will give me a gel manicure for well less than the around $80 it usually costs in Japan.

For my first manicure there a few weeks ago, I asked for “something that looks natural.” Naturar-u, onegashimas! I asked in my broken Japanese; “Please make it look natural.” So we chose a pale pink–or I chose a pale pink after refusing the shocking pink he first suggested for a natural look.

Today I went back for another manicure, and this time I asked for a French manicure, with white tips and clear polish so your nails look clean: like the real, natural you, only better. Moi kai, naturar-u onegaishimas! I asked; “Again, please make it look natural.”

To-rashee-san wa naturar-u suki desu-ne! The manicurist nodded. “Tracy-san likes natural, isn’t that so!”

I noticed as he was painting the white stripe at the top of my nail that he was making it a little thick, but I decided not to protest. At least it will look clean and hopefully help my nails grow longer, I thought. Plus, I don’t know how to say the word “thick” in Japanese.

Then he whipped out the sparkle.

Spaka-ru! I protested, shaking my head. I couldn’t wave my hand for emphasis because my nails were drying under the UV lamp.

Hai, spaka-ru! “Yes, sparkles!” he confirmed. Kono mani-cua wa spaka-ru irimasu, he decreed: This type of manicure requires sparkles. Brooking no delay, he dipped a tiny brush into the pot of sparkles and began painting. Iie, ne! he’d exclaim periodically: “It’s great, isn’t it!”

Before he was finished, he tried convince me to add some additional beads and sequins to my nails, then offered to add a decal with a lacy stripe to each tip (at no extra cost, he assured me), but I demurred.

In the end, he was so pleased with his work that he asked me to pose my hands on a black bolster with little puffy hearts stitched into it. So here’s my “natural-looking” manicure, Japan-style: Like the real, natural me, only, I suppose, more sparkly:

Image

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!

“Strangely, my new role as ‘traditional Japanese housewife,’ didn’t bother me, despite my history of feminism”

And my 1st official reading from the book-in-progress

I’ll be reading a brief excerpt from The Good Shufu on Thursday, March 7, at The Fairbank Center at Harvard in celebration of the March 2013 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

Here’s a sneak peek from the middle of the piece I’ll be reading:

A few months after our marriage, I sat one night on the floor of my father-in-law’s living room, the worn but tidy rug rough under my limbs. I’d begun to call my father-in-law Otōsan, “respected father,” bowing low when he came for dinner three times a week, serving tea to him and Toru on the nights we ate at his house, just down the road from ours. Strangely, my new role as shufu, or “traditional Japanese housewife,” didn’t bother me, despite my history of feminism. This is not my culture, I thought. This is something I just do out of respect to Otōsan, when we’re with him. I surprised even myself by how easily I could play the part, as long as it was only for a few hours a week, in a country and language I knew I’d never call my own.

That night, while the men sipped the tea I’d served, I flipped through old albums of Toru as a baby. I saw him as a newborn in his mother’s arms, her face shining above his perfectly rounded cheeks, the red bow of his baby mouth. She stared at him with a love and pride so fierce it looked like hunger, a hunger I had never felt or wanted. Until then.

Suddenly, that hunger began to tempt me, my heart melting a bit until I could taste a new yearning on my tongue.

****

I was 41 when I first got pregnant. “Contratulation, Mrs. Tracy!” the doctor at the fertility clinic in Osaka said, dropping the “s” and confusing my first name for my last, as everyone in Japan did. She pronounced my name “To-ray-shee,” and she had doubted my ability to get pregnant at all, given my age.

The clinic nurses were giddy. They spoke no English, but I knew what their delight said: 41! Getting pregnant on your very first try of IVF! With your own eggs! They smiled happily and bowed enthusiastically when I came in for my weekly ultrasounds. “Iee, ne,” they would say—“It’s great, isn’t it!”—and their eyes would sparkle as they clasped their hands against the bright pink of their polyester uniforms.

Red the full piece in the March issue of Cha, or please come see me read on 3/7/13 if you’re in the Boston area! More info about the event is here!

About the Good Shufu

What happens when you meet the love of your life, but being together means you must give up almost any plan you’ve ever had? When you fall head over heels for someone from another world, and then must forfeit your entire way of life for his?

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West is 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. It’s about what we gain, and lose, when we forfeit our plans, goals, and even sometimes homes for that age-old cliche, love.

The book The Good Shufu is forthcoming from Penguin’s Putnam imprint.

In the meantime, here’s how the story begins:

On a typical morning eight years ago, I would wake in my studio apartment in the South End of Boston, with the sun streaming through my large bay windows, and take stock of the life I had planned so carefully over my 36 years. Lying content in my soft white sheets, I’d think gratefully of the PhD in English Literature I had earned at 29, the academic career I had painstakingly built, and the fierce independence I cherished.

On most mornings, I’d linger a while, no complicated marriage or crying child to claim my attention, and luxuriate in the stillness, watching the early light bathe the brownstones of my city. Then I’d climb out of bed, shower, dress, add a swipe of mascara and lipstick, kick on my heels, and dash to my neighborhood café for the chai-soy latté that would fuel my day teaching writing at a Boston-area university.

Before leaving my apartment, I might stop a moment at the bookshelf by my door, run a finger along the spine of my feminist dissertation on gender and sexual violence in early-20th Century literature, and feel thankful once again that I was a woman in contemporary urban America: safe, independent, and yes, over-educated. On my way out, I’d pass the mezuzah my mother had insisted I hang on the doorframe, its tiny Old Testament scroll shrouded in silver, ignored by both me and all my gay neighbors.

Once a week, my ritual differed somewhat. I’d wake at dawn, forgo the makeup and the moment communing with my dissertation, slip into plain scuffed flats, and drive the barren highway to Norfolk Corrections Center, a men’s medium-security prison. I’d have to reach the barbed-wire enclosed complex early, then pass through a series of electric gates before arriving at the classroom, where I’d spend three hours teaching college-level seminars in gender studies to male convicts considerably less feminist than I. Either way, though, whether I was headed to lockup or the Ivory Tower, I’d always begin my morning grounded in the knowledge that I was living, for the most part, the exact life I had planned, in the city I always had—and believed always would—call home. Each aspect of this existence felt like a kind of bulwark, a sturdy negation of the things I swore I’d never do: take blind leaps of faith, move permanently from Boston, become financially dependent on a man, build a traditional nuclear family like my parents, or, perhaps most importantly, cook dinner on a regular basis.

But all this changed the day I fell desperately in love with the least likely partner in the world: a traditional Japanese salary-man—who could barely speak English.

My husband and I met when his company sent him to earn an Executive MBA at the university where I taught. Within three days of meeting, I fell in love, T’s calm movements and thoughtful eyes somehow snaring my heart more completely than any man’s eloquence ever had. Within three weeks, T said, “Lub you” (which I made him repeat three times before realizing this was “love” with a Japanese accent), and we were contemplating a life together across two hemispheres. Within a year—when the sudden death of his mother sent him home permanently to Osaka—I found myself in an entirely new existence, deeply entwined with T, yet utterly lost in his world.

Japan proved both fascinating and profoundly alienating, a place where I could neither speak the language nor read the simplest cultural clues: where I was completely dependent on T to give me money, answer the phone, and order my food; where “yes” only meant yes depending on the tone of its utterance; where, when T’s aunt welcomed me to the family with a full-on kneeling bow, I crouched to the floor alongside her, thinking she had dropped a contact lens; and where, when a doctor first diagnosed my infertility, it was with the words, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tracy, but your own hormones are out of range.”

The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West traverses this unexpected journey I took from proudly independent, Jewish-American, skeptical academic living a perfectly planned existence in Boston, to illiterate housewife (or shufu) in Osaka, trying desperately to build the very nuclear family I had always disdained—only now with a Petri dish and an army of doctors who barely spoke my language. In the U.S., my mother (whose own meticulously mapped plan involved me under the chuppah with a nice Jewish doctor) fretted over my marriage to someone from, she helpfully pointed out, a former Axis Power.

Meanwhile, in Japan, when I made my first foray into cooking for my future father-in-law, I learned two shocking lessons: 1) most Japanese houses lack ovens, so I had to try stuffing chicken Parmesan into a 3”-high fish grill, and 2) even with breaded Italian cutlets, my new family expected white rice. In my Japanese-language class, I was the only non-Asian and the only woman who did not introduce herself as a “shufu,” or housewife, although this is what I had essentially become, except now I was also completely unable to drive a car (since they drive on the other side of the road), dependent on my husband to handle all my finances (because I could neither communicate with the bank tellers nor read the Japanese ATM screen), and considered an eternal outsider in an utterly insular country.

But through it all, T’s calm, quiet love sustained me. “I feel proud you,” he’d say, beaming, every time I tried to take a new challenge, or embarrassment, in stride. “I love you first in world and always will,” he’d assure me, and somehow that felt more like home than anything ever had. Perhaps more surprising, it made me, at age 41, optimistic enough to want to start a family with him, even though I had no idea how to manage that in a bi-hemispheric marriage, or how I, once a confirmed critic of modern motherhood’s demands on women, could have come to want such a thing—and then undergo four years of rigorous hormone treatments in its pursuit.

Eventually, I find myself still half a planet away from home, and still childless after two miscarriages, hundreds of injections, and countless heartbreaks. But I’m also still deeply in love with my husband, grateful for our life, and more grounded, even hopeful, than I have ever been—not despite all the challenges, but somehow because of them.

Japan will never be easy, but it proves endlessly fascinating; Perhaps, I come to realize, a life worth living doesn’t always have to be easy, comfortable, or a happy reflection of one’s intended plan, as long as it’s filled with wonder and love.

Stay tuned for more posts about the book and its story of clashing cultures and identities within our increasingly global world, but also, ultimately, of unexpected joys found amidst these very collisions, and of traveling to far-flung places only to discover essential truths about self and home.