I kissed my student. Then I married him.

Here’s a short video clip from my reading at the Tokyo launch party for The Good Shufu at Four Stories Tokyo.

It narrates what happened just before my first kiss with the shogun.

PS. Apologies for the background noise. We like the Four Stories events to be festive so we encourage eating and drinking even during the readings. The upside is the funny, tipsy questions we get at the end. The downside is the occasional background noise!

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Among mixed marriages in Japan, US husbands outnumber US wives 6 to 1

Nippon.com and the Japan Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare report, in 2013 there were 21,488 international marriages in Japan (1 in 30 of all marriages). Of those, 6,046 were between Japanese women and foreign men, and of these, 19.2%, or about 1,161, involved American men marrying Japanese women.

On the other side, 15,442 marriages involved Japanese men, out of which 1.2%, or about 185, involved an American wife.

So in Japan, marriages between American men and Japanese women outweigh those between Japanese men and American women by a rate of 600%.

2015-03-23 02:11:05 +00001
(Graphic from “Vital Statistics in JAPAN -The latest trends,” by the Japan Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare.)

No wonder the shogun and I sometimes attract stares when I try to give him a kiss in public!

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 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?”

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!

How We End Up Where We Are

This week, I passed the 50,000-word mark on The Good Shufu, meaning (phew!) I’m still on track to get it to my editor at Putnam by my deadline in Jan. One of my main themes in the book, and I think a central theme in so many people’s lives, is how the world can lead us to two opposite places at once: the place we never thought we’d be, and the place that was somehow our destination anyway, even though that destination looks completely different from how we thought it would. (More about this here.)

So recently, I was really excited to learn about a new memoir coming out from Sourcebooks, Good Chinese Wife, by the incomparable Susan Blumberg-Kason, who writes about her own unexpected journey. Here’s what Susan says about the ways her story describes ending up where we least expect to be and where we were always heading, and finding these to be, in some senses, one and the same:

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

I’ve heard it as a statement and asked as a question, out of earshot or spoken to me directly. It’s been happening for so long that I can’t recall when it started. And it doesn’t matter where it comes from—relatives or people I’ve just met—but the bottom line is the same. People can’t understand how someone who studied Mandarin and earned an advanced degree in Chinese politics isn’t working in either or both.

I was a serious student, albeit never at the top of my class. Yet I toiled in college, copying Chinese characters over and over seven nights a week, including a year abroad in Hong Kong. I continued studying Mandarin after graduation for a couple of years in Washington, DC.

Susan Blumberg-Kason
Susan in front of her dorm in China as a student in 1991

Back in the early to mid-1990s China was opening and foreigners were just beginning to flock there to find work. My first love was Hong Kong, so I returned there for graduate school when I was twenty-three. That’s where I studied Chinese politics. I pictured promising job prospects after graduation, and with any hope they would allow me to remain in Hong Kong.

But family got in the way. Or rather I should say I chose family over career. I just didn’t know it at the time. I had always viewed myself as fiercely independent and non-conformist. In 1991 at the age of twenty-one, I traveled alone to forbidden countries like Vietnam and dangerous ones like Cambodia. I was cut off from the world alone in a Moscow apartment, shivering and feverish from an unknown illness, just a month before the Soviet Union fell. And surely the very fact of moving back to Hong Kong as a single woman a few years later proved that I was my own person.

One month into my first graduate school semester I met and fell in love with a dashing PhD student from mainland China. I married him six months later. After receiving my master’s degree, I took any job I could find in Hong Kong just so we could stay together while he finished his post-doctoral fellowship. This was in 1996, a year before the Handover and during a massive localization program where all jobs were to go local Hong Kong Chinese. Expats were hired for their foreign ‘expertise’, and in my case that turned out to be something in which I had no formal training or educational background. I happily accepted my one job offer: an English editing position at another university in Hong Kong.

Susan Blumberg-Kason
And again, in front of the same dorm, in 2012

When my husband’s Hong Kong visa expired a couple years later, he wanted to try living in San Francisco. He had several friends from China who lived there. So I followed him to California and accepted an entry-level editing/administrative assistant position because it would give us immediate health insurance, which we needed badly because I was pregnant. By the time we divorced at the new millennium, I was no closer to working in a field where I could use Mandarin or my background in China and Hong Kong.

Fast forward a decade. I remarried and now live in a small, Chicago suburb. I stay home with my three kids while my husband works a seventy-hour week. He’s in a career that requires a local license, so there’s no chance we’ll ever move from this area. But after all this time, I’m finally using my background in Hong Kong and China.  And it’s in the most intimate way I can think of. For the last five years I’ve been working on a memoir of my first marriage and my years in Asia. GOOD CHINESE WIFE will be published by Sourcebooks next summer. [Note from Tracy: YAY!]

The road to publication—learning to write memoir, finding an agent, going on submission to land a publisher—has been the most challenging and difficult job I’ve ever had. But it’s also by far been the most rewarding. It just goes to show that things often work out better than one could ever expect.