When you marry a man from the other side of the planet and give up your world for his—especially one who isn’t fluent in your language and whose own language you barely speak—you get questions. When you start off as a fiercely independent Boston academic and give up that life to become, essentially, an illiterate housewife in Japan, you get a few more. Then, when you go ahead and write a memoir about it all, and to your incredible good luck that memoir gets some media nice attention, well, you get even more questions.
Here are the ones I get most often, along with my answers.
Q: How do you marry someone who isn’t fluent in your language when you barely speak his?
A: This is actually the thing people seem to be both most interested in and surprised about in hearing about my relationship with my husband, Toru. And to tell the truth, it's one thing that caught me totally off guard, too. I never thought I'd marry a man with whom I don't share a fluent language, nor that I would come to appreciate this part of my relationship so much.
As my mother rather pointedly asked when I first met Toru, “You have a PhD in English Literature, for god’s sake. How are you going to marry a man who speaks Japanese?” What she meant, of course, was, how could I, a writer and college teacher of English & American literature, find contentment with someone who struggles to communicate in the language I’d built my life and career around? Which I had to admit was a fair question.
But being with Toru has taught me that there are surprising benefits to lacking a shared fluency in a romantic relationship. For one, when you are forced to keep communication to a simpler level, sometimes the bond becomes more pure, less complicated. Especially for someone like me, for whom, analyzing everything sometimes gets me into trouble. With my past boyfriends - all native speakers - when they didn't "get" me, I took it as some kind of profound sign of incompatibility, some kind of harbinger of doom.
But really, two people fail to "get" each other a lot, regardless of their language. And because Toru didn't speak much English when I met him (and still isn't perfectly fluent), and I spoke no Japanese (and still don't speak much now), I found those gaps in understanding much less threatening, and I continue to do so most of the time.
Q: How do you deal with living in country where the gender norms are so different from the West’s, a country where you are commonly referred to as a “shufu” or housewife?
A: This is another paradox I never expected and that some people find surprising (as even I still do sometimes when I stop to think about it!). But its made me realize one of the most interesting things about being an expat, about the sort of split or duality in identities we can sometimes inhabit all at once. What I mean is, because my life as a “shufu” or housewife, or at least my life doing housewifely things, takes place in Japan, in a world so different from my own native one, there exists a kind of psychological barrier for me, a barrier from what might otherwise be threatening, because it feels so contained by geographical and cultural distances from my native “home.”
Especially with Toru’s father, whom I write about a lot in the book and with whom I was very close, cooking dinner and serving him tea and bowing to him and cleaning up afterwards, as I used to do at least 3 nights a week when he was still alive, all felt like a role I was playing out of respect for someone very dear to me, but someone who nevertheless came from a very different place than the one that “made” me. I even feel this sometimes still with Toru (minus the bowing, of course, which is definitely where I draw the line in a marriage!). It’s a kind of compartmentalization that perhaps some might question. But it works.
And I think all marriages, all close relationships really, work in part because of a certain level of compartmentalization. We all, to some extent, try to bring the most harmonious parts of ourselves into our relationships in different ways and figure out how to express the other parts elsewhere or in other contexts.
I don't really think the compartmentalization is the problem; it's when you're not honest or open about it that I think it becomes problematic usually. But even if this isn’t the case, and it’s just me who has welcomed a certain level of compartmentalization into my own home and marriage, I’m ok with that. Because as I said, it works, and I'm grateful for that.
Q: What inspired you to write a memoir about your relationship?
A: It wasn’t really my specific relationship itself that inspired me to write the book, but what I learned from it that I think relates to many people's lives and that I hope, in my telling of the story of my multicultural marriage, might help others or at least give them something to think about as they navigate the murky or new or confusing parts of their own lives or relationships.
I’d love it if the book ends up providing some level of comfort or reassurance to people who are facing paths very different from the ones they ever planned, some hint that sometimes we can give up or swerve off of our strict plan and end up right where we are supposed to be.
Marrying a Japanese salaryman, moving to his country, giving up much of my life as a fiercely independent Boston academic, and becoming essentially an illiterate housewife in Japan—these were all pretty much diametrically opposed to what I’d always planned and even hoped for myself. But this is the path where I found the greatest love, security, and even sense of rootedness I’ve ever known.
As I write in the book, I learned that you can’t properly find yourself until you let yourself get lost in the first place. I spent much of my adult life, before Toru, doing everything I could not to get lost. And in the end, getting lost was what I needed most in order to find the life that fit me the best, or a life that fits me really well, at least.
Q: In your book, you write pretty openly about your mixed feelings about Japan, despite your love for your husband. Have those feeling changed now that you’ve been an expat for over a decade?
A: I still have mixed emotions about living in Japan and so far away from home. I wanted to be really honest in the book about these mixed feelings, because I believe it’s important to be as honest as possible if you write something and call it a memoir or a true story. And the truth is, sometimes people have a sort of romanticized image of expatriatism, and that it’s only a positive and exciting thing. Overall, Japan has been really positive for me, and it’s an interesting and fascinating and nuanced life. And yet it’s not home, and will never be home, and it’s not easy.
Q: Would you say you have advice for other expats?
A: You don’t have to love the country you’re in to have a worthwhile life. To me, that was a big “aha” moment in my experience. I kept waiting and asking, when am I going to fall in love with Japan? That was a mistake. That’s when I realized that you don’t have to love Japan as long as you are fascinated and always learning from it. That’s a life to be thankful for, even if it’s not necessarily an easy life.
Q: What about advice specifically for other foreign women out there contemplating life with a Japanese partner in this country?
A: I get this question so often, and I hesitate to include it here, because I certainly don’t feel like a relationship expert and would never want to pass myself off as one. But I do know that worked for me was realizing that, even though this marriage and life were both so very different from the existence I’d once planned for myself, I knew if I didn’t give it a try, I would regret it forever. A more than decade later, I’m really grateful I did.
On a more concrete level, one way I was able to make it work for me was to make that country part of my own work and goals, not just part of my husbands'. I did that by writing this book, and it really has made a big difference in how I feel about Japan, because now I can say I'm not just here for him, or at least that being here doesn't just benefit him and his work. I needed to make it part of my life goals, too--even if those goals involve writing about it as a foreigner in a foreign world.
Q: What do your family members think of the book?
A: There were part of the book that I know they wished I hadn't written about, certain scenes they felt were private and didn't really want someone else making public.
I cleared everything with them before I published it, and they were enormously generous in ultimately giving me their blessings to publish the book as it is now, but I know that in a perfect world, they would have preferred for me to be able to tell my story as I felt l needed to without needing to narrate certain things that happened when my family was a bit in crisis mode. I am very, very grateful to them for their support and their generosity in this.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Well, as readers who finish the book will know, our family has expanded a little bit since I started writing the memoir, and now I'm the mother of a little girl who is both Japanese, like my husband; and Jewish-American, like me.
As I wrote about, I had a lot of fears about motherhood, a lot of fears about whether and how it would overwhelm me, despite my searing desire to have Toru's child and to meet the baby I felt sure we were supposed to meet.
So, like we all find I guess, another life stage is another mix of contradictions! I'm finding motherhood wonderful and also terrifying at times. And I'm working on making sense of, and hopefully writing about, this new experience of being both lost and found.
My daughter is essentially an integral part of me, of my flesh and blood, and yet also part of a culture that will always see me as a foreigner.
And I'm fascinated by this mix of contradictions and also by how I think it reflects the contradictions inherent in any child/parent relationship: the intimacy and the distance, the belonging and the exile, the being one in some ways and yet being totally separate in others.