Some of the people who knew me growing up still can’t believe that I ended up in China as a writer and blogger who is also fluent in Chinese. I spent most of my adolescence and college preparing for a career in field biology. Nothing about my life pointed straight to China. But here I am.
When I look back on how much I’ve evolved and grown here – how I’ve carved out a totally different life that, in the end, fits me perfectly – I’m grateful for having been lost after graduation and making that last-minute decision to come to China. I’m grateful that I’ve created a home for myself in this country, right down to finding a wonderful Chinese husband.
An independent feminist, Tracy was living her dream in Boston. She was an academic with a PhD in English teaching writing to graduate students, just as she always wanted. She had a nice apartment of her own in the city. She belonged to a supportive circle of friends who shared her values. And most of all, she resided in the one city she adored most.
Everything was just as it should be.
But then she met Toru, a Japanese salaryman who was one of her students in an EFL program in Asia, and unexpectedly fell deeply in love with him. For the first time, she was willing to step away from her life in Boston to try building a life with him in Japan, where her world is turned completely upside down.
The Good Shufu is a heartfelt story that captures all of the wonder and frustrations of creating a new life abroad with someone you love, and proves how those unexpected detours sometimes lead to more joy than we could ever imagine. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve picked up in 2015 and I strongly recommend it to everyone reading this blog.
Tracy Slater is the founder of Four Stories, a global literary series in Boston, Osaka, and Tokyo, for which she was awarded the PEN New England’s Friend to Writers Award in 2008. An essay on her bi-continental life was published in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2008, and her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, The Chronicle Review, and the New York Times Motherlode blog.
For those of you who are in Japan or will be heading there soon, why not catch Tracy Slater in person – along with Grace of Texan in Tokyo and Leza Lowitz (author of Here Comes The Sun) – on September 27 for a special Four Stories evening in Tokyo called “Married to the Mob: Love, Travel & Life as a Gaijin Wife”. See this post for more details.
I asked Tracy about everything from the New York Times article that kickstarted the memoir and what drew her to Toru to the close relationship she ended up forming with her father-in-law in Japan.
Your book came about because of a New York Times article you wrote titled “Why I Won’t Adopt.” Could you tell us a little more about how you came to write that article and then how it ended up inspiring an entire memoir?
I was almost 45 and almost at the tail end of 4+ years of fertility treatments and 2 pretty heart-rending pregnancy losses, all undergone in Japan, where I speak very little of the language. I hadn’t written anything—I mean anything—in a few years because of all of this, but 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 it originally had a less explosive title), 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.
Working on the book turnout out to be a kind of godsend, because it helped me cope with coming to terms with turning 45 and abandoning our medical quest to try to have a child, since virtually any doctor will tell you that after 44, your chances of conceiving with your own egg are basically zero. This experience and my immersion into grief because of it is an issue I write about a little bit towards the end of the memoir. My husband and I were still trying to naturally, but I was pretty convinced it wouldn’t work and that we were never going to meet our baby–although he remained hopeful.
In any case, the book was supposed to end with me turning 45 and my husband and I being in a childless but still very meaningful marriage. Then, six months before I was supposed to turn in the whole manuscript, when I was 45 and a half, I became pregnant–naturally, if you can believe it. (I sometimes still cannot!) Needless to say, the ending of the book had to change. I handed in the final manuscript, and two weeks later, at four months past my 46th birthday, I gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl. As I write in the acknowledgements of the book, our daughter gave me a happier ending than I could have ever dared to dream.
Your memoir centers around your relationship with Toru, a Japanese salaryman who you met while teaching English in Japan. Even though you write about only dating white men in your hometown of Boston before meeting Toru, had you ever been attracted to Asian men before?
Well, Ken Watanabe, of course! Otherwise, I’m not totally sure—which may sound like a clop-out but is true. I didn’t marry Toru until I was 39, so I’d be dating for a lot of years and must have, at some point, come across Asian men I was attracted to. I’d never officially dated someone Asian before, though.
Regarding your attraction to Toru, you wrote that “I’d finally fallen in love with a man I actually liked.” Could you talk a little more about what drew you to Toru?
Toru was so different from anyone I’d ever met, in some ways. He’s so calm, mainly, and besides how he looked, it was his calmness that drew me to him immediately. I’m not a calm person at all, and I found his quietness, his repose, really soothing to me. As I write in the book, it felt a little like having had a motor running at too high a speed somewhere inside me all my life, and then with Toru, that motor recalibrated to turn at the right pace. Some of that, I’m sure, was just from the security of being in a lasting relationship, but some of it I believe also comes from the equanimity with which he seems to approach the world.
What was your biggest misconception about Japan and/or Japanese men?
I’m still working out some of my biggest misconceptions about Japan, actually! It’s such a foreign cultural in many ways to my native one, and it’s such a closed society too, even if you’re married into a Japanese family, so there is a lot Im still working out—which provides both frustration and a lot of fascination, for me. (This is a dichotomy I also write about a bit in the book.) I think the biggest thing I’m wondering about and working out now concerns women and power. Japan seems like such an unequal place in terms of gender. Women are vastly underrepresented in positions of power in business and government, for instance. But women do seem to wield a fair amount of power in the home. One thing I was shocked to learn is that women control the “family purse.” Most men hand their earnings over to their wives and their wives parcel out money for the family budget.
We don’t work this way in my family b/c 1) Toru is much better at budgeting than me (I’d probably spend our whole budget on shoes in one week…) and 2) my Japanese isn’t nearly good enough to handle tasks like household bills.
I don’t mind this because I feel that we are quite equal in other ways. Also, Toru is pretty unusual and open-minded, despite his traditional-seeming surface of being a salaryman. After all, he did marry a rather mouthy foreigner!
You’ve written about making friends with other expat women, many of whom have married Japanese men. Have you made close friendships with Japanese women?
I haven’t become close friends with any Japanese women. Friendships here seem very different than in the US, and a few of the Japanese women I’ve become friends with have made me realize that friends usually have much different boundaries here. (I do have expat friends who have made close Japanese friends, so I know this can’t be taken as a blanket statement, but it’s true in my case.) In the U.S., and especially in the Northeast, it’s pretty normal to talk about relatively personal stuff without knowing someone very well (or to write a memoir for strangers to read!). Here, there are usually much stricter divisions between public and private.
Now that I have a toddler, though, I meet a lot more Japanese women through our daughter’s daycare or our neighborhood play-spaces, so I’m starting to spend more time with these new friends. It feels hard sometimes because my Japanese is terrible and most people here speak very limited English, and because the boundaries around friendships seem different, but I’m looking forward to learning more about these Japanese womens’ lives.
One of the most touching things in your story is your relationship with Toru’s father, which deepens over the course of the book. Your closeness to him stands in stark contrast to your strained relationship with your father. Why do you think you were able to form such a close relationship with Toru’s father?
I wouldn’t say my relationship with my own father is strained necessarily, especially now that I’m an adult, but it’s true that he’s much less of a typical “family man” than Toru’s father was, or maybe than the average father is. I don’t think he ever really wanted children, and in his generation, I don’t think not having them was much of an option. He’s not an overly involved father, and wasn’t when we were little, but he is a very nice man, and a very funny man, and in his own way I know he loves me and his other children, so I try to remember the limited choices he had as a young man that people in my generation didn’t face.
Toru’s father, though, seemed to have a much less complicated relationship to fatherhood, and there was something in that I found very soothing and wonderful. On the other hand, he didn’t speak much English, and I don’t speak much Japanese, so there as a sort of forced simplicity to our relationship that, perhaps paradoxically, I also found very soothing. I write about this in the book, both in relationship to Toru’s father and to my bond with Toru as well. The idea that I don’t speak the same language fluently—or near fluently—with my husband or his family seems to be one of the hardest for others to accept about my book. But I’ve found it very unexpectedly true, in my case at least, that 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.
In truth, maybe Toru’s father had a more complicated relationship to fatherhood than I ever knew, but it wasn’t something we discussed, because we didn’t discuss a lot. We just took care of each other—he took care of me when I first moved to Japan and I took care of him when he began to die—and there was a quiet and loveliness in that. It may seems strange—and it was to me at first—but it’s very true, and it’s a truth I feel grateful to have learned and know I wouldn’t have learned had I married someone from my own culture or whose native language was the same as mine.
You’ve always been a fiercely independent feminist who swore she would never be a housewife. Yet as you spend more time in Japan, your life becomes domestic in ways that never would have happened to you in Boston, such as how you prepare dinners for Toru and his father (and enjoy it). Could you talk a little about why you felt more comfortable doing cooking and other housework in a foreign country and culture?
Here’s 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 the fact that 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, gives me a sort of remove from what might otherwise be threatening to me, because it feels so circumscribed, so contained, especially by geographical and cultural distances from my native “home.”
Especially with Toru’s father, cooking dinner and serving him tea and bowing to him and cleaning up afterwards, it 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—that would be too much for me, to bow to my own husband, although I do call him “the shogun” sometimes…)
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. 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 very grateful and happy to be in a marriage that works–as well as in one that I know has the strength to change if need be.
What do you hope people come away with after reading your story?
Mostly, I hope people just feel like they’ve gotten caught up in a great love and travel story, because that’s the part of reading I love the best, the getting-caught-up-in-the-story part. And I’d be really happy if I knew I could give that to other people from my own writing.
But on a deeper level, I hope people who are facing paths very different from the ones they ever planned on following, find some level of comfort or hope in my story, some level of assurance 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). This is a lesson I’m still relying on, actually, as I navigate new motherhood i my late 40s in a foreign land! But more on that in the next book, I hope!
Thank you so much to Tracy Slater for this interview! The Good Shufu is available at Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this site. You can learn more about Tracy Slater at her website and her blog and also follow her on Twitter and Facebook. And if you’d like to meet her in person in Japan, don’t miss her special Four Stories event in Tokyo on September 27.