Thanks so much to Writer Abroad and fellow expat Chantal Panozzo for asking me to do a guest post on her blog. Here’s the link, which goes with a big shout-out to my city and fellow Bostonians for all you’ve been through in the past 10 days: Watching Home from Far Away: On Watching the Boston Marathon Bombings from Japan
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.
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.
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.
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:
Know what happens when you get your first book deal before you’ve written your first book? You need to write the thing and build up your following at the same time. I was at the AWP 2013 conference in Boston a few weeks ago, and everyone was talking about the importance of having a social media following, even before the book comes out. In fact, ideally a year or so before it comes out! (Actually, everyone was talking about the importance of having a “platform,” but that word bugs me: the only platforms I like are tastefully-designed platform shoes.)
So in addition to freaking out over whether I’ll get the book written in time, and written well, now I’m freaking out about my sadly non-satorial “platform.”
But I’ve turned to the wonderful, kind, lovely, and very smart Jocelyn Eikenburg, whose blog Speaking of China has this really big following. Jocelyn has been so generous with her support and enthusiasm since we met over social media a few months ago. And, as usual, she was really generous in response to my question about how she manages to be such a social media diva.
Here’s all her advice!
Let me tell you a secret — for a long time, I sucked at blogging and building a following. Back in 2007 and 2008, years when I labored at writing about business and China, and engaging with people on these issues, I couldn’t seem to get more than a handful of people to notice me. I felt lucky if I got even one comment or pingback in a month and didn’t know Twitter from Facebook.
After all that, sometimes I can’t believe how I’ve built up a following with Speaking of China.
Of course, it didn’t happen right away and it took persistence and time. But with dedication — and some direction — you just might generate a following of your own. To jumpstart your efforts, here are the ideas that have helped guide me along the way.
Whenever people ask me about building a following, one of the first things I tell them is, “Be unique.”
It’s a lot harder to get noticed when what you’re offering is not that special. For example, in the China expat community, it seems like every single day a new “English teacher writes about China” blog pops up. Since this has been done seemingly thousands (if not millions) of times, these bloggers will have a tough time convincing more than just their friends and family to follow them. In marketing terms, their blogs lack a “Unique Selling Point” (or “USP”).
On the other hand, if you choose a unique focus for your blog — and thus give it a USP — you’ll stand out. And a blog that stands out gets noticed and creates buzz.
I did this primarily through my focus (love, family and relationships in China) and my perspective (a Western woman married to a Chinese guy).
You could also give your blog a USP if you have an extraordinary voice or perspective — like a David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell.
Before you start out, read through the blogs in your potential subject area — or related areas. Know the competition, so you can figure out what you can do that’s different or even better. How do you find the blogs? Try these suggestions for old-school directories, new applications and search tools.
Blog With Focus
I’ll bet you know at least one person that turned her blog into a sort of random “personal diary”. One day, she’s sharing a photo of her cat in some compromising position. The next she’s ranting about annoying neighbors or giving you a blow-by-blow of her entire vacation to Disney World.
The whole “I’ll post whatever floats my boat” approach won’t cut it if you want to build a following. When you move randomly from topic to topic, people don’t know what to expect from you. That means it’s a lot harder for them to decide whether you’re offering something of value to them. And if they’re not sure, they’ll move on to a better blog.
This is the reason why I gave my blog an unequivocal tagline — One Western woman with a Chinese husband writes about love, family and relationships in China — which I’ve carried over to my social media presence as well.
The best part about focusing? You can build yourself up as an expert and become the go-to person on that subject, which can even land you in the media (which happened to me).
Remember that business/China blog I mentioned in the introduction? One of the biggest reasons I failed was something so simple, but so important — I didn’t really enjoy writing about business in China! And because I disliked it, I didn’t blog very often and even struggled to promote my work, knowing deep down it didn’t reflect my best efforts.
With Speaking of China, though, I had the passion to do it from the beginning. And it grew as I focused my blog and refined my approach. It’s that passion that still keeps me posting after nearly four years.
So whatever you choose to focus on, make sure your passion is there. Passion will help you create irresistible content. And with passion, you’ll continue blogging for the long haul.
Readers love knowing what to expect. If you’ve defined your subject area and you’ve made it unique, you’re more than halfway there. But there’s another part of that equation — showing up on a regular basis. Yes, I’m talking about posting on a schedule that your readers will come to know and expect.
Think of it from another perspective. A lot of us subscribe to magazines and we count on that content arriving at our doorstep or in our e-reader on schedule. Just imagine if the magazines just decided to only deliver their content when they felt inspired. Or worse, what if the magazines just forgot to deliver it once or twice?
That’s why I think of my blog like a magazine — that my readers deserve to know when new content will come and that I should deliver on that promise.
The great thing is, most blogs today allow you to schedule your content ahead of time — handy for when you’re on vacation!
I post Mondays and Fridays every single week, same time and place. And when I’m on trips or just unable to post (which occasionally happens when an emergency comes up), I even run simple posts with archived content — because I always get new readers and chances are it’s new to someone out there.
Know Your Audience
Every blog and social media butterfly an audience. The better you know them, the better you can tailor your content to your readers.
But how to know them?
Site analytics are a great place to start — which give you some information about where your visitors found your blog, how they entered your site (referral from another website? search engines?) and even popular search queries that bring traffic to you. For a wordpress.com blog like Tracy, you can study your Site Stats — built into your site. If you have a self-hosted site like mine, you can use Google Analytics.
Still, if your site doesn’t generate a lot of traffic yet, you might not gain much from analytics alone.
Try keyword tools like the free Google Keywords. While it’s not comprehensive, it does help you learn what people are searching on for a specific topic — which could then generate some potential ideas for future posts and keywords you could add to your content (see my paragraph below on incorporating keywords into posts for more details).
Figure out where your audience hangs out — such as other blogs, forums or even groups on social media sites — and see what they’re talking about and what fires them up.
Check the social media as well. For example, you can search through Twitter and Google Plus with keywords to see what people are saying on your topic.
And remember, the more you blog and share over time, the more you’ll come to know your audience through comments, e-mails, and even people you interact with on social media.
Write Great Content With Readers in Mind
Okay, so your blog is something unique. You have a theme. You have passion. You’ve set a schedule. You even know your audience.
But when it comes to attracting readers, you have to write for them.
Let’s return to that “personal diary” blogger I mentioned above. She’s definitely not thinking about her readers when she publishes a blow-by-blow account of her vacation or complaining about neighbors. Sure, she’s random and that’s a problem. But there’s a bigger problem — no one really cares about her life when it’s presented as some navel-gazing journal.
Now that doesn’t mean your own experiences can’t become great content — I blog about my experiences all the time. But the difference is, I mine my experiences for questions or truths or insights or something entertaining that might resonate with my readers.
There are many ways to write for your readers. Here are some examples of how I do it:
1. Short memoir-like essays that, as I said above, end with something more universal that readers can connect with
2. Advice columns where I answer questions from readers
3. Lists of movies or books or blogs my readers might want to know about
4. Commentary on news that’s relevant to my readership
5. Highlighting celebrities in our community
6. Interviews of bloggers my readers might want to know more about
7. Sharing stories of love found — and love lost — submitted by readers
8. Introducing love-related Chinese idioms, since many of my readers are interested in the language
9. Reviewing books of interest to readers
10. Creating lists of “reasons why” on a certain topic that might enlighten readers or spur conversations
11. Confronting issues — such as stereotypes — that my readers care about
Incorporate Keywords and Keyphrases into Titles, Posts and Tags
A lot of my traffic comes from the search engines — which means any blogger should never forget the power of search engine optimization (aka SEO).
One of the most important things you can do is incorporate popular keywords and keyphrases (from your audience research) into your post titles, body content and tags. Even better, if a keyword or keyphrase lends itself to a great post, then use that as the title and pepper it into the post itself. See here for more ideas on using keywords in your posts.
If you have a self-hosted blog and you use WordPress like I do, you can tap into even more SEO possibilities with plugins like my favorite, Yoast’s WordPress SEO.
Make It Easy To Subscribe To/Share Your Content
Everyone has a favorite method for receiving content. For me, it’s e-mail. So imagine how I feel when I discover a new blog, only to find that the author offers no option for subscribing to posts by e-mail.
That’s why it’s so important to offer your content in a variety of formats — something that definitely boosts your readership. When you offer only one option — such as RSS or even just e-mail — you’re missing out on readers that prefer a different format entirely.
If you have a self-hosted blog like mine, you need to know Feedburner — it’s free and when someone clicks on my RSS feed, my readers see a wealth of subscription options (including e-mail — something you must activate, but is easy to add).
But you’ll also need to add in links to your social media sites in a prominent place somewhere in your blog’s header or — like me — the top of the sidebar. Additionally, I go one step further and add a subscribe/follow call to action at the end of my posts:
For wordpress.com users, you have built-in options to easily display in your sidebar — there’s e-mail, RSS and even social media widgets you can add there, inviting readers to subscribe in multiple ways.
Encourage people to share your content by adding social media buttons to your posts. Some people start posts with them, others end posts with them — but I like to start and end posts with these social media buttons so readers have the option to share something they see right away or just after they’ve read it.
And think about new and emerging ways for people to view your content. Nowadays, almost everyone and their cousin has a smartphone. That’s why I’m thinking about optimizing my site for those visitors. If you use wordpress.com, check to see if your theme is mobile-ready.
Follow and Support Other Blogs
Your fellow bloggers can actually help boost your readership just by following and interacting with them.
Subscribe to blogs related to your topic — and be sure to read them and comment. Everyone loves to get comments on their site, so it definitely generates goodwill. Plus if you include your website’s link, you’re announcing your virtual presence to the blogger, who might just link back to you.
Share their content on social media like Twitter and Facebook (making sure to @mention the author, where possible, and anyone else who might be interested).
And don’t forget to link back to the blogs you follow, which bloggers always love! You might even go one step further like I did and divide your blogs into topics/subjects. I’ve maintained a list of every single blog written by Western women or Chinese men who are part of our community, which has positioned my site as a the place to go to find the newest blogs in neighborhood.
Do Guest Posts
I’m doing a guest post right now — and it’s one of the best ways to build up your following! Identify large and popular blogs relevant to your audience and approach them about doing a guest post. As Ms. Career Girl writes,
Make a focused effort of reaching out to a few bloggers per week when they were new on the scene. If you’re emailing a more established/high traffic blog, I suggest having your post already written. Make it as easy for the blogger as possible! Put a link to your blog in your bio at the end of each guest post so people can visit your site. A lot of bloggers are happy to publish guest writers because it diversifies their content and perspective. In many cases, they’re just happy not to have to write a post themselves for a day!
Use Social Media
I’ll be honest — I am a reluctant social media user. I was late to Facebook, and late to Twitter. But one thing is certain: they have value, and the proof came in my referrals. Facebook remains my number one source for referrals from another site.
For Twitter, one of the best things you can do is follow Alexis Grant’s advice:
[Create] a Twitter list of people you want to notice you, people who can help you get where you want to be. And this is important: it’s a private list, so only you can see it….
Now what should you do with this list? You should pull it into Hootsuite (or your preferred Twitter app or simply check it via Twitter) and use it to subtly help these people notice you….
To accomplish this, RT a few of their tweets, and add a thoughtful comment so they know you’re a smart cookie. @reply to one or two of their tweets. Or offer a valuable resource that will help them in some way, and CC them on the tweet. You might even introduce them to someone you know who could help them. The key is to interact with them in a valuable and interesting way.
Alexis also adds in another post that it’s important to use the @mention in your Tweets at least 90 percent of the time.
For Facebook, start out by creating a page — such as a page for your blog or book or an author page. But since Likes mean everything on Facebook, how do you get people to notice and Like your site? Authormedia.com offers 10 great tips including provide value to your followers, invite friends, create shareable images, and promote offline.
One thing that I’ve started to find valuable — and am trying to use more of — is tagging other influential people who you know will share the content and also influential/popular Facebook pages related to it. While I wouldn’t overuse or abuse it (such as tagging the same people/pages all the time, regardless of the content), when it makes sense to tag, be bold and go for it. For even more inspiration on Facebook, check out this post.
Pinterest is also a new and emerging platform, but one that’s a lot of fun to use. You can basically post images from any site or blog to “boards” you create on Pinterest, which people can then follow. Instead of using the template boards Pinterest suggests for you, I created my own boards related to my site — including a board dedicated to showcasing photos of couples of Chinese men/Western women. But as I read this post with more tips on using Pinterest, I realize I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with this platform.
Become The News Source For Your Topic/Theme
Sure, I have a unique and focused blog and I use social media. But I take it one step further by sharing content on social media sites with relevance to my own blog.
What kind of content? Relevant blog posts from other websites, news articles, photos of couples, new books my readers might be interested in, and more.
When you focus on sharing a certain type of content, people will see you as the go-to expert for this information and be more likely to follow you on social media (and even subscribe to your content).
Besides subscribing to relevant blogs, I also receive Google Alerts on specific areas of interest on a daily basis. For example, when I find great news stories or blog posts or even photos embedded in blogs/articles, I share them on social media platforms.
Find Your “Promotional Groove”
Almost every day, I stumble across yet another post with tips on building a following or a platform — and more often than not, they read like a one-size-fits-all proposition. That you MUST do what they say or else.
But guess what? Not everyone can become, say, a Twitter Power User. We all have different strengths and personalities. And that means that some methods will work better for you than others.
So as you work on your connections and following, don’t fret if something doesn’t feel right to you. Be honest with yourself and be willing to go in different direction, even if it means ignoring some advice (including my own). But as long as you keep trying and experimenting, believe me — you’ll find your own promotional groove, just like I did.
The Next Big Thing: On my forthcoming memoir, The Good Shufu: A Wife in Search of a Life Between East & West (Putnam Press)
Being 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?
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!
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.
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.