Thursday, August 20, 2015

BOOKS! (The Good Shufu)

Last time I mentioned a certain recent Facebook post of mine: "When you read a book that's so good that you start reading another one concurrently just so you can make the first one last longer... I know, I know. I have a problem. ‪#‎bookworm‬." The first book was One Hundred Years of Solitude. The second book was The Good Shufu. The latter was something light to breeze through and balance out the draaamaaa of the the former.

The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World by Tracy Slater

The gist of the story is as follows. Tracy Slater is a Jewish, upper middle class, born-and-raised proud Bostonian writer and teacher with a PhD in literature. She takes a job teaching English to Asian businessmen enrolled in an MBA program for corporate executives. Her first post is in Kobe, Japan, beginning in May 2004. While there she and one of her students, Toru, take to each other. Three weeks in, he tells her he loves her. In 2005, Tracy visits Toru in his hometown of Osaka for the first time, after which she routinely splits the year living in both Osaka and Boston. In January 2007, she and Toru are married. Due to the language barrier, a lack of full-time employment on this side of the ocean, and a desire to settle well within her family and the rhythm of life in Japan, Tracy endeavors to learn how to become a good shufu (主婦; housewife, homemaker). By 2010 she is living in Osaka nearly full-time, all the while struggling to like Japan as much as she loves her husband. And now, in 2015 we have Tracy Slater's memoir, The Good Shufu (a play on "The Good Wife"). To paint a better picture of the mental highs and lows Tracy experienced while adjusting to her new life, she divides the book into six parts, all of which start with quotes from Paul Pederson's The Five Stages of Culture Shock.

First of all, Tracy Slater deserves all the props in the world for exposing her expat trials and her relationship like this. Going to Asia for a teaching job, getting hot and heavy with one of her students within weeks of  meeting each other, and sneaking around for months before working to keep a long-distance relationship alive? Some of that's pretty scandalous, and that's only the beginning of their love story! But Slater lays it all out there, and I respect that. For the most part, what Slater reveals about Japan is nothing new for people who have been there and/or spent a considerable amount of time studying the language and culture. What's most engaging is how she handles trying to understand and adapt to it all, as well as oscillating between being a full-time professional in her home country and a part-time housewife in her husband's country. I especially enjoyed chapters 14 and 15 in which she touches on her hardships doing IVF for a number of years, as a foreign woman in Japan, approaching her mid-40s. I've read very little about how difficult infertility problems can be, nothing about how IVF is done in Japan, and nothing about trying to become a mother at a high-risk age, so that whole arc of her story was unbelievably fascinating for me to be privy to.

But I have to be honest. From the moment I saw the cover and read the jacket, I really wanted to love this book. And I just didn't. Liked it well enough, but didn't love it. Tracy Slater has a remarkable story and through it has demonstrated the equally remarkable capacity that one can have to adapt to unusual, cross-cultural, and bi-continental circumstances. But as open-minded as she tries to be, for the first half of the book she seems just...  just too naive, too attached to the world she already knows, too attached to that sappy form of American patriotism that only some people can afford to subscribe to anymore. Early on she talks about Boston as if it's the only place in the world, and can't bear the thought of living anywhere else. Later when she first starts visiting Japan for long periods of time, for a while she avoids learning Japanese (so as to maintain her identity and not become too engrossed with Japan) and purposely only befriends fellow expats (who are presumably easier to relate to because of their shared foreignness). Granted, self-preservation and feeling in control are important, but I just wasn't feeling it. 

I guess, because I study Japanese and have spent time in Japan, having the opportunity to start a new life and settle there would be a dream come true to me. Since I was projecting my preferences onto Slater, I ended up being quite judgmental and annoyed with her during the first 2/3 of the book because I felt like she was being ungrateful and too typical in her American stubbornness. But I had to check myself and remember that my acquaintance with Japan was born of genuine interest and my own initiative; Tracy's was born more of circumstance and necessity, and she changed tremendously because of it. Given how the trajectory of her life has veered so far away from the plan she'd had in mind, I think she's handling it extremely well and has been able to use her life to create something that not only entertains but also reminds us to love across boundaries, and not take our plans or who we think we are too seriously.

Favorite quotes: 
"Toru turned from the window to throw me a silent smile, seemingly unconcerned that he couldn't get my meaning. Then he swiveled back to the view. I felt equally unconcerned, and then surprised, as I suddenly though how many relationships would benefit from a lack of shared linguistics, from the absence of expectation that our partners would, or even could, understand us most of the time" (23).
"My dear, no one loves Japan. It's just that the country is so endlessly fascinating. That is why we stay" (210).

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