Monday, February 15, 2016

Interview With Tracy Slater on her book "The Good Shufu"

Tracy and I connected on the twitterverse last year and became friends, so I eagerly picked up a copy of her book, "The Good Shufu" when it came out. I love reading memoirs of women who have lived abroad, and who are also in intercultural relationships. I have never been to Japan but I have always been interested in Japanese culture, as I studied Japanese for 4 years in grade school. [Fun fact: technically I have been to Japan in utero - my mum spent time there when she was pregnant with me!] I also wanted to learn more about how Japanese culture compares to Indian culture - are there any similarities? I was surprised that there were actually so many, despite being vastly different countries.

This book was one of the best memoirs I have read about marrying into an Asian family and moving abroad. As a narrator, Tracy is funny, irreverent, likeable, and very Carrie Bradshaw. After meeting her Japanese husband, she lived between two countries, but then decided to relocate to Japan to live with him and his father. The book spanned many years, starting before she met her spouse, and then it documents nearly a decade into their relationship. It was wonderful to read her journey as it went through the highs, lows, and unexpected twists of fate.

Today I'm thrilled to feature an intimate Q & A with Tracy Slater on her book "The Good Shufu"!

Prior to accepting the job in Japan and meeting Toru, what did you know about Japanese culture?

Tracy: Almost nothing! As I write about in the book, I'd never been to East Asia, knew very little about Japanese culture other than what you see about it in America at sushi restaurants and in Hollywood movies, and never thought I'd ever move away from my hometown, Boston, not even to another U.S. city!

In the book, you talk about your family's apprehension about you moving to Japan and marrying a Japanese man. What did you think they were most scared of? And how did you address their concerns so that they felt confident in your life decisions?

Tracy: I think their fears were twofold. On one hand, they were afraid for me, because marrying a traditional Japanese salesman and moving with him Japan was so very far from everything I'd ever wanted or planned for in my life. And they were understandably concerned about what it would mean to me and how hard it might be to give up all of that for love in another world. On the other hand, they were also I think a bit afraid for all of us as a family, because of how far from Boston would be if I lived in Japan. In some ways, our family is quite close, and in others we are quite fragmented, and I think the idea of one more fragmentation, especially a cross-continental and cross-cultural one, was a little overwhelming - both for them and for me.

Has your family embraced Japanese culture since then - or learned more about it?

Tracy: They haven't really learned more about it or necessarily embraced it, but they've embraced my building a life so centered on Japan, because they know I love Toru, and they know that for some very real practical reasons (such as Toru's career and our standard of life, as well as for Toru's family obligations), our leaving Japan at this point would present a lot of challenges. And although they haven't really learned much about the culture itself, I think they are pretty interested in the ways it's stretched and grown me and all the things I've learned since living here and marrying into a Japanese family, and all the surprising joys I've found in both, despite how much I still miss Boston and my family in the U.S.

In the book, you talk about finding purpose and meaning in your daily life in Boston. How did that translate when you moved to Japan?

Tracy: That's a huge and scary and great question, and it's actually one of the core stories of the book. How do you go from settled and highly independent and in the place and existence you've always planned to spend your life in, and then one day give it all up for a vastly different world and a love and life least expected? How do you pick up and build from there? And how do you move beyond the fears and little moments of regret about all you might have done or all you've given up? How do you create the best life you've ever lived in a world so different from the one you've always known?

Well, I guess I haven't answered your question here, just added different variations of it! But I hope you won't feel like it's a cop out for me to point to the book as the best way to answer your question and the related ones I just posed. Because it really would take chapters and chapters for me to answer this sufficiently. For now though, let me just say that finding the answer/s was a long, hard, exciting, painful, wonderful, and hugely meaningful process! And at base, what got me through it was knowing no matter what, I'd regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't try my hardest to build a purposeful and meaningful life in Japan, with Toru.

In what ways did you get reverse culture shock when returning back to Boston, after living in Japan?

Tracy: I write about this a bit in the book too. I was surprised by the reverse culture shock. Everything in the US seemed so big, so wide, and both so familiar and so different at once. It was like Japan made my life in Boston 4- instead of 3-dimensional, because it gave me a whole new perspective on what had always just seemed like life as usual. And while this was a bit disorienting, it was also a much richer way to view the world.

Do you still live between the two countries, or have you settled more in one?
Tracy: We just had a baby 2 years ago, so for now, I'm pretty settled here in Japan, since travelling back and forth more than once or twice a year with a toddler is, to say the least, quite a challenge.

What advice can you give to young women who move to an entirely different country for love?

Tracy: Well, I'm a little leery of giving relationship advice to anyone, because I don't want to pass myself off as any kind of love expert! But I guess what 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 as I said earlier that if I didn't give it a try, I would regret it forever. And a decade later, I'm really grateful I did.

But I do think that 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.

Do you still feel like a foreigner in Japan?

Tracy: Yes. Japan is a very insular country. Even if you're married into a Japanese family and have a child who is part Japanese, you're still very much considered an outsider here. I'm OK with that, though. I like being American, and I don't want to be any other nationality.

In the West, being a housewife is usually looked down upon, while in many other cultures it is a job that is respected. Many also say that you can't be a housewife and a feminist at the same time. What are your thoughts about that?

Tracy: I understand this, and I admit I felt this way too when I moved to Japan, which is why becoming a wife in a world where most wives identify as "shufu," or "housewives," was pretty daunting and complicated for me. But I've learned to have a more subtle view of the roles we play in relationships and family, I suppose, than I did when I was younger.

In one way, since my life doing housewifely things takes place in Japan, in a world so different from my own native one, there exists this really interesting barrier from what might otherwise feel threatening: somehow, it feels contained by geographical and cultural distances from my native “home.” It’s a kind of compartmentalization. But it works. And I think all lives or marriages work in part because of a certain level of compartmentalization, if we’re going to be fiercely honest. We all, to some extent, try to bring the most harmonious parts of ourselves into our relationships or specific situation at the moment and then figure out how to express the other parts in other contexts.

But even apart from this compartmentalization and whether or not it's common or OK or acceptable, etc., in relationships, I've learned that what really determines the nature of a role is the context in which that role exists. What I mean is, I may be a housewife in some ways, but it's a role I've chosen and - perhaps most importantly - a role I have control over, to the extent we have control over anything in our lives. It's a role I can change if I decide it's not meeting my needs or my family's needs. I have that flexibility in my marriage and my life, and for that I am intensely grateful. And I think that's really they key to what makes the role empowering, or at least not un-empowering, and so in its own way a feminist role, or at least a role to feel lucky to have.

In the book, you also bravely document your journey of trying to conceive a child. What advice do you have for couples who are currently struggling to conceive?

Tracy: This is something I've written a fair bit about since publishing the book, actually, since the book ends when I'm still pregnant. So I hope you won't mind if I just point your readers towards a place I've answered this question before. I start off, 

"I remember sharply the sadness and disorientation of not being able to get (or stay) pregnant, the incredible endless-seeming limbo of it. So although of course I don’t know most of you personally, I'm keeping you all in my thoughts, and I hope you know how brave you must be to be wading through the pain of being not-pregnant.

I've written before about some of the myths that my own pregnancy seemed to contradict. I’d be lying if I told you now that I know how I got pregnant naturally and delivered a healthy baby girl after I turned 46. And, no offence to anyone, but I’d guess that most people are lying – or at least are wrong – when they say they know the key to getting pregnant at an advanced age. But I do know what helped me get through my years of infertility and losses, and get through it with my marriage enough intact that my husband and I were still happy to keep trying naturally after my 45th birthday. In the hopes that some of these things may help or at least give solace to some of you, here they are..." (Read the rest of this post HERE.)

The book ends with news of your surprise pregnancy. Since becoming a mother, what have you learned about child-rearing in Japan? In what ways it is different than the U.S.?

Tracy: Oooh, love this question. And I can't answer it yet because 1) I'm still learning the answers, and 2) I'm hoping that the answers add up to a story I can tell in book #2.

Are you still doing "Four Stories"?

Tracy: Yes, thanks for asking! We have an event coming up in March as the only all-English event at the Tokyo International Literary Festival! It's free and open to the public, and more info about the event is HERE.

Why did you decide to write a memoir about your love story?

Tracy: Mostly, I wrote it in the hope people that readers might 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.

I also wrote it in the hopes that readers 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.

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 I met 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 in my late 40s in Japan! But more on that in the next book, I hope...


A huge thank you to Tracy Slater for sharing this amazing book with our readers. For more information on Tracy and her book, click HERE. And don't forget to follow her on Facebook & Twitter too!

To purchase her book on Amazon, click HERE.


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