When parents are in the majority, kids in the minority

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.

Read more in the Wall Street Journal online.

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Wall Street Journal Profiles The Good Shufu

BN-LH212_japanb_G_20151116155444This 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.

WSJ writes,

Author Tracy Slater, an American writer and academic who fell in love with a Japanese man, married him, and now lives with him and their daughter in Japan, describes her journey in a new book, “The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Life and Home on the Far Side of the World.” (Shufu means “housewife” in Japanese.)

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.

See the full interview here. And thanks, WSJ!

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.

Which “Multi-” Matters Most in Love?

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?

Japanese Faux-Pas and the New Parent

One nice thing about being a new parent in a country like Japan, where the people are famously reticent and usually even avoid eye contact, is that you have the rare chance to chat with strangers. Walking down the sidewalk with the little shogunette in the baby carrier, I frequently pass parents with their little ones strapped to their chests too, and we’ll smile at each other and do a little head-bow and sometimes we will even stop to talk.

There is a downside to this however if, like me, you are terrible at Japanese. Frequently, instead of asking “And how old is your baby?” (nan sai, desuka?) I end up asking “What floor are you going to?” (nan kai desuka?).

Of course, this is somewhat better than what used to happen before I had a baby and we moved to a house in the suburbs of Yokohama, back when we lived in an apartment in the center of Osaka city. Then, frequently one of my elderly neighbnors would get in the elevator after me and instead of asking “What floor?” I’d ask them “And how old are you?”

“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.

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!