Tracy Slater’s The Good Shufu review: irritating misinformation, but nails the expat conundrum

I’ve been wanting to read Tracy Slater’s debut book and memoir The Good Shufu for a long time, but it’s my policy not to purchase a book I’ve never read by an author I don’t know, so I wasn’t able to for a while. Then I had my sister get me the ebook for Christmas and quickly devoured it. I’d been following the author’s blog for a while (after finding it through other AMWF blogs), and had grown very curious to know how she and her husband met and the details about their relationship (which the author shrewdly–but irritatingly–doesn’t share online, so as to promote interest in the book). I honestly thought I would love this book, as another American feminist expat in Japan who has dated Japanese men. Unfortunately… I found more that was irritating in it than things I loved. It’s probably the worst memoir I’ve ever read, and I like memoirs. Generally reading about other people’s lives is fascinating to me. And while the writing is very, very good and is basically the saving grace of this book, I have to agree with this A.V. Club review: “The Good Shufu promises an examination of how marriages fare in a culture clash, but it only delivers a faint echo of the marriage, little of the culture, and none of the clash.”

While her husband Toru emerged as charming and I could see why she fell in love with him, unfortunately the author came off as annoyingly obsessive. So many of the things she detailed just made me think “I would not like this person, and she is kinda crazy.” It was strange how much she pushed for Toru to be a part of her social life despite the fact that he didn’t really want that and wasn’t suited for it, although I can’t say I haven’t been guilty of the exact same thing myself. One of the first signs that things were going downhill with Shiki [my Japanese returnee ex I dated for 6 months] was back in February when I told him that I wanted him to join me and a few friends, most native Japanese speakers, for dinner the next weekend. He hummed noncommittally and I tried to get across that it was important to me that he come–I’d been telling my friends about this guy and wanted them to meet him, and it was only going to be three other people. I assumed he understood that it was a plan. But on the day of, he was unreachable until after the dinner was over. I found out that he’d been at work (the dinner was a Saturday night) and hadn’t thought to contact me to say he couldn’t make it. I wasn’t happy at all about it (I was too distracted hoping for an answer from him to even be able to enjoy the dinner with my friends) but it was yet another thing that never got worked out because he was too busy with work to really talk to me and when we did manage to meet up in person, nagging him about why he hadn’t contacted me two weeks ago didn’t seem important anymore. (This pattern continued for another few months. It was maddening.)

And I also did this many, many times during my relationship with Kirk [my American ex of 5.5 years]–insisted he come along to meet people he wasn’t enthused about meeting, mainly just to show him off as my boyfriend. But we also met each other’s circle of friends and could attend parties and get along with the people there, and I think that was important to both of us. It’s true that it can be frustrating dating a Japanese guy who doesn’t see that as a priority and who, if he does attend, is too shy to interact with people and can never get on their level anyway. But you have to realize that and give up on the dream of your man being your social companion the same way a western guy would. I eventually realized that but it’s bizarre that Slater, in her 40s, just doesn’t, and keeps throwing poor Toru into what sounds like absolutely miserable situations. I mean, these dinners she describes sound truly awful and forced. I don’t blame him for not wanting to go.

Another thing that struck me is she spends a large chunk of pages detailing their first fight, how she had been upset that he agreed to her suggestion of a weekend trip with “Maybe”–she would have preferred he clarified first that he really wanted to go, but needed to see how the schedule played out first. Then, later, he invites her to come to Osaka to see what it’s like, and it’s: “Well, maybe I could,” I had tentatively agreed. I let the idea take form in my head, solidifying slowly like liquid hardening into shape.

This is exactly what he responded earlier that you got so mad at him about!

But the thing that angered me the most about this book was a scene that hit a little too close to home–when the author and her new American expat friend are laughing at the expats they feel have naturalized a bit too much.

Bent over our soup, we gossiped about the expat scene, marveling at how different we felt from many of the foreigners we’d met. “Those gaijin who dress up in yukata robes, or who insist on only speaking Japanese? Like if someone speaks to them in English and they still respond in Japanese?” I rolled my eyes.

“I know!” Jessica shrilled. “As if it’s not totally, one hundred percent clear that they are not Japanese, as if everyone can’t see that they’re foreign. Um, hello, you’re white!”

Welllllllllll, first of all, fuck you. You talk later in the book about going to an onsen ryokan with Toru and wearing yukata with him there, so this is all coming off a little hypocritical here. But if you’re criticizing non-Japanese (non-Asian) people who wear yukata in the summer, you can fuck right off.

Here’s why I wear yukata when going to fireworks and other summer festivals. First of all, it’s fun, especially if your friends are doing it too. Second, it’s one of the few things about traditional Japanese culture that I like, and I want to cultivate that rare interest. Third… yukata are pretty and I like owning a few. Japanese people have absolutely zero problem with foreigners wearing yukata, and in the summer when everyone’s doing it, why shouldn’t I join in just because I’m white? I’m not doing it to pretend I’m not white. Japan never lets me forget I’m white, and I don’t wish I were Japanese or anything (no thank you). Yes, there are some people–you can mainly find them at anime conventions outside Japan–who dress up in yukata or those horrid cheap silk “kimono” and parade around for attention, and we call those people weeaboos, but that’s not what the majority of foreigners wearing yukata in the summer in Japan are doing. It’s fun and it’s a way to enjoy summer here with everyone else. Period.

Next, insisting on speaking Japanese. Yeah, I do that in most cases, and here’s why. In the majority of cases, my Japanese is better than the Japanese person’s English. (If they are essentially at native or high level fluency in English, then I’m only too happy to speak to them in English as a fellow native speaker. But those people are rare.) Once they realize that, most gratefully abandon all attempts at English. The ones that persist doggedly with their English attempts, though? I don’t like those people, and I see absolutely no reason to gratify their desires. Why? Because they are trying to use me, and they have typecast me, and I despise that behavior and will not indulge it. They have equated my white face with “opportunity to speak English because this person doesn’t speak Japanese” and they refuse to take in any other information, such as “Japanese fluency,” which would contradict their initial assumption. They are selfishly trying to gain something (free English practice) without taking into account me as a person, a human being, not simply a white face. There is a guy in my running group who will respond to my Japanese friendly comments with English every time, and it is infuriating because his English is not even that good. I’ve already established to him that I speak Japanese just fine, so I can only assume that he’s insisting in English in a stubborn sense of “white person = English! I must use my English and get practice!” (I could be charitable and interpret it as him wanting to accommodate me with my native tongue. But I really don’t think that’s the case.)

In those situations, the conversation doesn’t last long anyway, as I generally try to escape as quickly as I can once I realize they’re that type. I have zero regrets about this policy and it has served me well. There is no need, NONE at all, for me to speak English to anyone who tries to speak English to me, just because I’m a native English speaker. I’m not trying to pretentiously show off my Japanese ability or anything (though I know there are people like that, who act more fluent than they really are, and make the Japanese person feel awkward trying to accommodate them. This is, yes, another form of being a weeaboo, and I don’t like that behavior, but I don’t think that’s what I do). I’m just trying to do what’s easiest for both of us, while not letting myself get taken advantage of by a shameless free English conversation hunter/gaijin collector.

This whole attitude of “if you do anything Japanese people do, you’re just trying to run from your own identity, and we as other members of your race see right through you and are here to police your behavior” is ridiculous. Let’s all just get along as expats here as long as no one’s harming anybody, and stop playing the “I’m the more legitimate expat” superiority game. It’s just childish.

There was also some instances of Japanese language misinformation in the book, which makes me suspect that no one at the publisher did any cultural fact-checking. Dear editor, just because Japan seems exotic doesn’t mean you should let just anyone present themselves as a cultural authority on it and eagerly publish their book. Case in point…

  • “Saiaku-te!” was my fallback, which technically means “worst” in Japanese
    • Um… what?? 最悪 (saiaku) and 最低 (saitei) both mean “worst,” but as far as I know 最悪低 (saiaku-tei) is not a word. I spent a good minute puzzling over this one. ???
  • young mothers rode by on their mama-chari, ubiquitous one-speed bikes whose names were a riff on “mama chariots.”
    • Nope, chari is short for charinko, which means bike (said to be partially derived from “charin charin,” the sound of a bike’s bell). They are also not one-speed.
  • “Chu-gakkou?” I asked. “What’s Chu-ga-ko?” … “China,” she said softly in English.
    • No. 中学校 (chuu-gakkou) is middle school. 中国 (chuugoku) is China. It is insane that this was never fact-checked during proofreading.

But I also have to give credit where it’s due. The one thing she really nails is what it’s like to be back in the US after being in Japan–noticing the casual, non-deferential attitude of service staff, the loud people chatting on cell phones, the confrontational nature of car drivers. She concludes that if you live in the US, the rudeness around you is just part of life and you don’t notice it, and actually it’s better because everyone is more real this way: “you be you and I’ll be me, and somehow despite the annoyance and noise and clumsiness, we’ll have faith that we’ll all get by, ourselves, together.” And that Japan’s bubble of politeness can also be like a hermetic seal, closing off everything, good and bad. Hmm. I’m not sure I agree, but that observation was presented at the point in the narrative where Slater had been in Japan for under a year total, and I’ve been soaking in Japan’s politeness a lot longer. As much as I hate how often the politeness manifests as FAKEness (especially in the workplace among women), and how it can prevent real relationships, I do love the impeccable service and the deferential treatment. I never have a bad interaction with a service staff member, whereas in the US it’s like EVERY interaction is borderline crappy and I walk away feeling worse than before. That may be more “real” but I’m not sure it’s actually better in terms of everyone’s happiness. (Then again, the hermetic seal isn’t the healthiest either. Ultimately, you can’t say “Japan/The U.S. is better on this subject.” All you can say is which one suits you better for the long haul–but it’s not easy to decide.) I’m blending discussions of service interactions and actual interpersonal relations, but that’s because the same politeness philosophy pervades them both.

The other thing she nails is the realization–aided by Donald Richie’s advice, “No one loves Japan, my dear”–brilliant–that she’s never going to fall in love with Japan, and that’s okay. I get asked all the time by people back home I haven’t seen in a while, or people I’ve just met who have found out where I live, “Japan! Do you love it there?” I don’t know why people always ask “Oh, do you love it?” but it happens a lot. It always leaves me a bit flabbergasted. I don’t know what they expect–for me to gush, “Yes, I love it! It’s amazing!” and tell them tales of exotic wonder? I have never felt a pure, unadulterated love for Japan, and have never said I did. It’s more like a rocky relationship filled with ups and downs. Sometimes (like when soaking in an onsen, or eating a delicious bowl of ramen) I do love it, and sometimes (getting stared at, treated like a stereotype, fighting crowds, dealing with pointless red tape) I hate it. But I guess the assumption is that I wouldn’t be living here if I didn’t love it, and if I don’t love it, shouldn’t I be making plans to move back ASAP? Enough of this expat experiment already, if you’re not in love with the place then you need to come on back home already. It’s pointless being so far away from your family and friends otherwise. That seems to be most people’s thought process. And that cuts right to the heart to a lot of thoughts I’ve been having lately about when to plan to move back. In March I decided I would be moving back in a year or so, with June 2016 the latest move-out date. But then in the fall I got a new job and moved into a new apartment and life started really looking up. Also, the job hunt process had made me feel concerned that my resume was making me look like a job-hopper (after 7 months, 11 months, and now 1 year 9 months as my last three jobs), so I decided that I wouldn’t quit this new job for two years so I could repair some of that damage.

But it’s also not so simple as “I don’t love it here, so I should move back.” I don’t know where I would move to in the US or what I would do, and I no longer feel so miserably unhappy here that I need to get out ASAP (though I have felt that twice now during my time here, and quite severely, and both times only going back on my meds fixed it). My parents don’t live in my hometown where the majority of my close friends are anymore, and that city isn’t where I want to be long-term anyway in terms of transportation options or aesthetics. But I don’t know what city WOULD be good. Probably the Pacific Northwest somewhere, but then I’d have to make a new group of friends again, and I already have a nice group of friends and a nice life built up for myself here in Tokyo. If I’m going to be living away from my family and friends anyway, why can’t it be a city abroad? I’d still fly back to see them just as often (1-2 times a year) as I do now, so what’s the real difference? I think about shootings, and health insurance, and just basic safety (the ability to walk around a city after dark) and Tokyo wins every time. I’m close to a Disney park, tons of museums, zoos, and other cultural amenities here, and I can access them all by public transportation. I’m not throwing away my life or career teaching English; I’m working to further my career and it’s something I can take back with me to the US.

Plus, while I was home, I talked to a few of my hometown friends who ended up living in Tokyo too and then moved back, and both of them said they really miss it. One straight-up said he thinks he may have made a mistake coming back, and the other is actively planning an extended trip back. I can think of two other friends who did extended stays here in Japan and obviously miss it; my sister is probably in the same boat too. All of them cherish items from Japan in a way that I don’t because it’s normal to me now, but I recall doing after studying abroad here and during the 6 years until I came back. I know it would be the same if I left. I don’t want to leave Japan until I feel like it’s out of my system for good. I don’t want to be one of those former expats who wishes they were an expat again, and I don’t want to end up plotting a return after repatriating. I don’t want to dismantle my life here only to wish I hadn’t later.

At the same time, if this is what becoming an expat was going to do to me, I almost wish I had never become one. I almost wish I had stayed happy in my own country and never known what it was like. But I also know that wouldn’t have been possible, because 1) my ridiculous soul longs for drama; and 2) I wouldn’t have been happy until I did this. From 2008 to 2012, I was plotting how to get back to Japan, my plans always getting put off another year until finally in 2012 I really made the move, and now that I’m here–though it was only supposed to be a 1-2 year stay–I’m constantly reevaluating when I’ll move back. I don’t want to move back and just start plotting how to move to Japan again. But I do want to find a place I’m happy in and don’t want to leave. I’m just not so sure that even the US, much as I miss it and its grocery stores filled with things I want to eat, could be that place.

Back to the book review. It was good, but not great, and I was expecting more. I want to read a memoir of an expat in Japan who really gets it…