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.
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/
Fun having this piece on trailing spouses, accidental expats, and re-entry blues in the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat Blog today, co-authored with a new friend who is a military spouse based in Tokyo, the blogger Susan Dalzell. In it, we give a series of tips for surviving the dreaded “re-entry” phase back into your expat country after even a short trip home.
For those of us who are trailing spouses or “accidental expats”—drawn abroad not necessarily for our own careers or sense of wanderlust but for a partner’s job, family or nationality—global life presents unique challenges and sacrifices. Western culture in particular glamorizes expatriate existence, suggesting a life of global travel, international panache, and a social circle of like-minded explorers: a slightly more multicultural, perhaps sober, version of Hemingway and his brood.
Reality can hew a little rougher, though…
My favorite tip we include is this one, drawn in part from the struggles I explore and the lessons I learn in The Good Shufu:
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t always (or even ever) love your expat “home.” As a trailing spouse–especially if you’re married to someone from the country where you live–you may have asked yourself when you’re going to fall in love with your overseas home just as you once fell in love with the partner who brought you there. If you’ve recently been back to your native country, you may have heard friends and family comment on how exciting your expat life must be and how lucky you are to live abroad. But don’t let this guilt you into thinking you always–or frankly ever–have to love the land you’re in….As long as you’re fascinated by it, or even continually learning from it, you’ll have an expat life worth its weight in yen or euros or…
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.
So happy & honored to have this piece up on Brain, Child Magazine‘s homepage. It’s about how caring for my beloved father-in-law as he died made me both a sadder and a bigger person, about how he “convinced me I could care for a child, that I’d grown big enough in the shadow of his decline to be a mother.”
My Father-in-Law Made Me the Mother I Am
By the time I married my husband, I’d already fallen in love with my father-in-law too. Not in any weird way, but alongside all the passion and love for my husband was a deep affection for the man he lived with, the man he called Otousan.
My husband, Toru, is Japanese, and in Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to live with their parents until they marry. Toru was chonan, the oldest son, the one who should care for his parents as they age. When Toru’s mother died in a car accident, he left his company-backed MBA program at the university in Boston where I taught writing, and he moved back to Osaka. Soon after, I went too.
We moved into an apartment a few blocks from Otousan’s. Most nights, I’d cook dinner either at our place or Otousan’s, and we’d all eat together. My father-in-law spoke little English, and like many older Japanese men, he wasn’t what you’d call a loquacious fellow. But in between his silent welcoming of me as family in a country where marriage to foreigners can spell shame; his kind laugh at my dismal attempts to learn his language; and his grateful head-dips towards the tea I poured him after every meal, I grew to love him.
I may have loved my father-in-law, but I was terrified of having his grandchildren—or any child, for that matter. Not because of who or how Otousan was, but simply because having children is terrifying if you go into it with eyes-wide-open. At age 40, the year Toru and I wed, my eyes were pretty wide open.
I knew it was a myth that every mother bonds easily with her baby. I knew people who’d never bonded with their child, and one who said that, if she had to do it all again, she might choose not to procreate at all. I could imagine becoming one of these mothers.
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)
“A heartfelt and moving tale coupling insights into two remarkably different cultures” – Kirkus Reviews
So very excited that The Good Shufu‘s bound galleys, or Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) as they are known in lit-world parlance, have arrived at our house on the outskirts of Tokyo!
Even more excited that Putnam has given me permission to do a series of drawings to give some away free, which I’ll sign with whatever personalized messages winners want and send them from Tokyo to anywhere in the world the Japan Postal Service reaches.
Enter by accessing the signup form here anytime between now and May 1, when I’ll do a blind drawing of two winners. Then I’ll contact the winners by email to get a postal mailing address and send along your very own signed, personalized copy.
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.
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.