“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?

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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!

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?

From Osaka to Boston, With Love

When I left my first love, Boston, for my second love, my Japanese husband in Osaka, I gained a new life, but I never lost my primal connection to the city I will always call home.

For all my friends, family, Four Stories peeps, and fellow Bostonians who spent what I’m sure was a restless night last night, the only thing I can think to offer, from all the way across a continent and an ocean on a beautiful spring day in Osaka, is a memory of my first trip back to Boston after moving to Japan. It reminded me of why, no matter where I go and what new things I see and learn, I’ve always loved Boston first, and always will.

Can’t wait to come home to Boston again soon….

It was 11:30pm when we finally landed at Logan, almost 24 hours after leaving Japan. I stepped into a terminal that seemed improbably tiny and modest compared to Osaka’s. The hallway and food court were dark, and as I passed the broad windows where the city’s lights twinkled as they always had over my thirty-odd years of traveling through Boston’s airport, everything looked both the same and strangely new. The Pru, the Hancock tower blinking in the distance: each familiar site now held a fresh dimension, an edge of foreignness sharpening its contours.

A few nights later, still flattened by jetlag, I drove home from an early dinner with some girlfriends, lumbering slowly in my aging VW. Crossing the Mass Ave bridge at dusk, I glimpsed the State Capital’s dome glowing on its hill, the Charles river stretched out below, a shifting spread of blue.

 Past Copley, I crept down my neighborhood’s narrow streets, peering through my windshield, searching for the ever-elusive South End parking space. Turning a corner off Dartmouth Street, I saw a car double-parked under a headlight, blocking the road. Still in Japanese public-decorum mode, I beeped softly, but the vehicle didn’t budge.  I beeped again. Nothing.

Maybe they’ve gone inside an apartment? It was getting too dark to see the driver. Annoyed, weary, I hauled myself out of my VW, preparing a polite request. But before I reached the car, its engine suddenly ignited, and it began to move.  Then I heard the furious honking at my back.

A man in a beat-up, dark blue sedan had pulled up behind me, bumper dented, worn-out air-freshener dangling lackadaisically from the rearview mirror, spinning slowly. He must beeping at that double-parked car, too, I thought, honking in support of my patient protest, I noted, feeling virtuous in our shared vehicular predicament.

But then the driver behind me leaned out the window, jutted his head towards me in one angry thrust. “Jesus Christ!” He screamed. “Get back in the goddamn caaa, you moron! Waddya doin’? You’re blocking the whole fuckin’ street!” I begin feebly to protest, to explain that I was only attempting to clear the road. In response, he slammed his palm back onto the horn, emitting another series of long, irate, and humiliatingly loud admonishments.

In a rush, my exhaustion overwhelmed me.  I didn’t have the energy to absorb the full-throttled aggression of a Boston driver, or the thick skin to deflect it—especially not after having floated in a bubble of extreme, collective self-restraint for a month in Japan. I felt my cheeks flame in the darkening air, then burst helplessly into tears.

Suddenly, I longed for the more respectful, civilized manners of Toru’s home.  What’s wrong with the people in this country? I thought as I hurried back to my car, slammed the door shut, turned the ignition as fast as I could.  What purpose on Earth does it serve to be so rude? Why are people here so…so ill-behaved? Self-righteous indignation pricked through my shock and embarrassment.

But as I drove away, the tears receded.  An image of myself, startled and mortified under the pale wash of streetlights, flashed through my mind, and with it surged a laugh, then a wave of release. This is my crazy neighborhood. I was finally back in a place providing me, and everyone around me, permission to unloose the thoughts that lurked inside, to announce ourselves and our minute-by-minute reactions to the world.  To thrust, in a glorious rush of self-expression, our internal states into public, without a hint of shame.

I realized then that Japan’s enforced harmony, although soothing at times, was also suffocating, a dense fog of decorum settling over everyone and sealing shut, with hermetic insistence, any signs of discord. Sitting in my aging car’s front seat, rumbling down my neighborhood’s liberally pot-holed side-streets, I breathed out a long sigh, unloosening my lungs in relief and even, in a strange way, gratitude for the driver who had been cursing me moments before.

I’m home, in Boston, in America, I thought, almost giddy. I and everyone around me can finally express our feelings as we have them. 

Perhaps we could sometimes be rude or noisy. But I suddenly saw my and my fellow citizens’ carefree expressiveness as our own curious form of mutual respect, and even love: an agreement to relinquish the façade of permanent politeness and bare our souls together. Perhaps it’s skewed species of love, I allowed, but when it works, we forge a generous, communal, trust: You be you, and I’ll be me, and somehow, despite the annoyance and noise and clumsiness, we’ll have faith that we’ll all get by, ourselves, together.

Excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East and West (forthcoming, Putnam)

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!

Shopping in Osaka: Celebrity Ass Wipes, Relaxing Toilet Seat Covers & Painful Ramen

Today we spent the day shopping for Shogun Sr’s new room at the care house.

We went looking for bathroom wipes, which, I am not lying, were labeled “Ushiri Celeb-u”; a product name that translates to “celebrity ass.”

On our way, we passed some toilet seat covers, which we didn’t buy, but here’s a picture of one of them:

Osaka Toilet Seat Cover
Osaka Toilet Seat Cover

Then we went out for ramen. The waiter gave me a very kind bow and handed me an English version of their menu. Some choice items:

Osaka sesame ramen
Osaka sesame ramen
Osaka spicy rame
Osaka spicy ramen