I have some exciting news! My mother-daughter travel memoir Squeaky Wheels, a celebration of accessibility, art, girl power, and Paris (among other things) has been named a finalist for the Half the World Global Literati Award. I’m thrilled to find my book in the company of so many great projects from all over the world! While the judges deliberate, popular voting will decide the People’s Choice Award. So click here and please vote!
I’ve long been fascinated by the many subcultures that exist among expatriates. There are, for example, those, like me, who married natives and settled in for the long haul. Itinerant teachers who travel the world through one international school gig after another form another group. And let’s not forget the aid workers, who might start out in the Peace Corps and later make their careers in NPOs in Third World countries. However, the label “expatriate” most often conjures up images of multinational families living in isolated communities with locals doing their cooking and laundry.
The prologue of Janice Y. K. Lee’s new novel The Expatriates catalogues various types of expats who regularly arrive in Hong Kong:
They are fresh-faced; they are mid-career, hoping for that crucial boost up the ladder; they are here for their last job, the final rung before they’re put out to pasture. They work at banks; they work at law firms. They make buttons, clothing, hard drives, toys. They run restaurants; they are bartenders; they are yoga teachers; they are designers; they are architects. They don’t work. They are hoping to work. They are done, done, done with work. They arrive in January, after Christmas; they arrive in June, after the kids get out from school; they arrive in August, when school is about to start; they arrive whenever the company books their ticket. They come with their families or with their wives or their boyfriends, or resolutely single, or hoping to meet someone. They are Chinese, Irish, French, Korean, American – a veritable UN of fortune-seekers, willing sheep, life-changers, come to find their future selves.
Two of the three women whose narratives comprise this novel are wives. Margaret is the one-quarter Korean wife of Clarke, whose corporate salary insures that she doesn’t have to work. Her role is to plan menus and dinner parties and find help to look after their three beautiful children. Another wife, the independently wealthy Hilary, is married to David, a lawyer, and trying desperately to get pregnant. The third main character, Mercy, is a socially-awkward twenty-something Korean-American who graduated from Columbia University yet can’t quite seem to find her footing in real life. She goes from under-demanding job to job until Margaret hires her as a nanny. On a family trip to Korea, however, something horrible happens to one of the children under her watch and all three lives are irrevocably altered.
Born and raised in Hong Kong herself, and educated at international schools and Harvard, she is highly familiar with moneyed expats and the minutiae of Hong Kong culture, such as the enduring mania for disinfection post-SARS (ultra-violet toothbrush sterilizers!) and the disdain for the mainland Chinese who flood into the city and “buy up baby formula and Ferrero Rocher in enormous quantities.”
In addition to her eye for detail, Lee does a terrific job of bringing the lives of the three women together and increasing the tension; the last half of the book flies by to its satisfying, if not happily-ever-after conclusion.
In a much lighter vein, the memoir Peanut Butter and Naan by Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson introduces an expatriate family in India.
Hillmann-Magnuson grew up on Bend, Oregon, and later became a social worker. She had a “liberal outlook bordering on what some people call ‘woo-woo.’” However, after her husband Bob’s “career flourished in ways we never expected,” and she found herself living a life of leisure with her five kids in Nashville, across the street from Dolly Parton’s sprawling estate, she quit working. She and her husband ate at the country club while a nanny watched their brood. She shopped for clothes and had her wrinkles Botoxed. They took all of their kids to Disney World where hot dogs cost ten dollars. But gradually, she noticed a “growing sadness blooming inside that no cute outfit or wrinkle-free face or charitable donation was going to fix.”
She goes to church and prays to God: “I need you to set me and my family on a path that will shake things up for us. I want us to do something really good and meaningful with our lives, and not just end up lazy and bored and pampered like so many people I’ve seen in my neighborhood…How about you send a pink car my way to show me you’ve heard me and are processing my request?”
Lo and behold, the following Tuesday Bob asks her how she would feel about him accepting a temporary posting in India, and then later that afternoon, she spots a pink Mustang convertible.
Hillmann-Magnuson writes amusingly of going to yoga and managing her servants and volunteering at a nearby orphanage. Some of the most entertaining passages entail her escapades with her landlord, the haughty and beautiful Shemain.
Early on, Shemain tells her, “You Americans never touch the earth. You travel from your car to your homes to your malls with their linoleum floors. You fly against the ayurvedic principle that we all come from our planet’s soil, and it shows in your sickness and disconnect.” Hillmann-Magnuson sees her guide, at first, as a necessary evil, but gradually she becomes a mentor and friend.
At times while reading this, I thought, I should be so unlucky! And talk about First World problems! But maybe resenting wealth is another kind of prejudice. In any case, I mostly enjoyed the author’s lively writing and her journey through India.
(A bit of trivia: cover designer Anne Weinstock also designed the cover of my first novel, Losing Kei!)
It takes some planning to visit the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan. For one thing, the museum is located in a village Mure near Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku – not exactly a well-trodden spot. For another, the museum is only open three days a week — Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday — and tours are held three times a day by appointment only. In order to make an appointment, potential visitors must write their preferred dates and times on a postcard and mail it – no email allowed, at least for those living in Japan. And finally, the admission fee for adults is 2,160 yen, which is a bit pricey, as museums go.
These barriers are intentional – a winnowing process to limit the number of people who trample through the spaces. They pretty much worked against me, though I’d wanted to visit the museum from the time I first heard about it years ago. I had developed an interest in his art, which includes sculptures in bronze and stone, paper lanterns, furniture, gardens and even a playground. As an American living in Japan, I was also interested in his life story. He was born in California to an American mother and Japanese father and spent part of his childhood in Japan. He would later travel all over the world creating installations, designing sculptures and monuments, and gathering stones. Late in life, he discovered Mure and lived and sculpted there.
I finally made arrangements to visit with my friend Wendy, who had coincidentally grown up in the small town of Rolling Prairie, Indiana (pop. 500) where the young Isamu had attended an experimental school. We were joined by Wendy’s friend Cathy, who sometimes does translation work for the museum. As we approached the museum, a light rain misted down. Somehow the gray sky and the wet stones made the scene all the more poignantly beautiful.
First, we entered the Stone Circle sculpture space where many stone sculptures – some finished at the time of Noguchi’s death and signed with his initials, some not. Although the sculptures have been named, they are not labeled. We asked the guide about some of the sculptures’ names. She told us that one tall sculpture of sleek stacked blocks was made partly of imported stones. Although the area has a history as a quarry and Noguchi sometimes used stones from Shodoshima, he also sourced his materials in Italy and other far off places. Imagine the shipping costs!
We also peeked into his workspace, which has been preserved as it was when he used it, the tools meticulously lined up. Following our meditative stroll among the arranged rocks, we climbed stone slab steps to a sculpted garden featuring hillocks green with grass, a moon-viewing platform, and a stone sculpture encasing some of Noguchi’s ashes. Finally, we had a look at the house where he lived in the last years of his life with its tatami floors and stone tables.
“A couple of years later, I got an email from the foreign rights department of a publisher in Russia. In grammatically creative English, the sender asked me to send copies of Call Me Okaasan, a collection of essays I’d edited on mothering children across two or more cultures, and my novel, Losing Kei. The message came through my website, not through my agent or publisher, so I immediately thought it was some sort of scam. Maybe they’d ask me to front a few thousand rubles for the translation of my books. Maybe they’d just ask for my bank details or credit card number, without having any intention of translating or publishing the work whatsoever.” Read more.
By Hillel Wright
Hillel Wright’s highly entertaining novel details the life and loves of Fumie Akahoshi, a masseuse turned superstar manga artist. Akahoshi, who starts out married to a much older Western writer, known only as the Old Man, achieves fame as the creator of Chibi Hanako, a character with “the curious blending of an innocent elementary school girl – perhaps nine years old – with the grace and power of a ninja crossed with an Amazon.” Akahoshi’s stories become increasingly political, thereby incurring the wrath of Japanese right-wingers. She ultimately becomes the target of a hit man after criticizing the Emperor in her manga. Although it is a bit difficult to imagine a manga artist stirring up political sentiments in modern Japan, realism is not the point here. Readers willing to suspend disbelief are in for a rollicking ride. Fans of Wright’s previously published fiction will recognize some familiar motifs, such as fishing and Jorge Luis Borges. Also, Wiley Moon, Wright’s alter ego and the protagonist of his novel All Worldly Pursuits, makes a cameo as a literary agent. The book includes illustrations by Taeko Onitsuka which do not exactly illustrate the story, but serve to complement its themes. Pay attention, and you’ll get a crash course in underground comics.
When Dina Bennett’s French-born husband Bernard first proposes that they sign up for the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, she is less than enthusiastic. The road rally, which was to take place in 2007, would be a duplication of a similar car race organized a hundred years before along the Silk Route by Italy’s Prince Borghese. In that first race, five cars set out from Peking, as it was then called, to “prove that man and machine could … go anywhere, that borders between countries were irrelevant.” And here’s the kicker: in the spirit of the first race, the rally organizers only permit those driving vintage cars to take part. Dina and Bernard, who live on a ranch in Colorado, do not own such a car, and even if they did, she tends to suffer from motion sickness. Also, she is introverted, and doesn’t want to deal with the hundreds of other participants. But she also has an adventurous side which pleads, “It’ll be wild, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Consider it this way: two years from now, would you rather be driving through amazing Mongolia, or fixing a barbed wire fence?” Plus, Bernard is keen to go. So she says “yes.”
In addition to having been married for over twenty years, Dina and Bernard ran a software firm together, and later sold it to take up cattle ranching. They clearly get along well. According to Dina, however, the preparation for the road rally and the race itself put their marriage to the test. They buy a 1941 Lasalle, which they name “Roxanne,” and spend the next several months making it rally-ready. The car will have to travel 7,800 miles through the Gobi desert and Russian potholes, and service stations will be few and far between. Bernard assembles a team of mechanics, and Dina tracks down spare parts. However, as the months slip by, they discover that “the mechanics assigned to strip Roxanne to her chassis are more interested in drinking and dreaming than in rebuilding her.” The ensuing tension causes a bit of marital discord, which Dina recounts in less than a paragraph:
Bernard explodes. “You’re not doing anything,” he rages at me. “Why don’t you do something so I don’t have to do it all!” He shoves me aside and storms out of the house. He’s never said anything that could wound me so deeply. At the same time, I know he’s right. What happened to the woman he married twenty years ago, the one who seized every opportunity to learn something new, no matter how foreign that something might be?”
When the car is finally ready, they ship it off to Beijing. Once they arrive in the city themselves, Dina proves to be the more adventurous eater, ordering the mysterious “crispy duck parts” from a restaurant menu while her companions stick to the tried and true Peking duck. And it is Dina who wants to mingle with the locals and learn about other cultures, while Bernard is all about the driving.
As a reader, I, too, wanted to learn more about the people and customs along the way Unfortunately, once the race begins, there are few opportunities for sightseeing. Although we get glimpses of “maroon-robed monks in Crocs” and Bactrian camels, like Dina, we “have to be satisfied with…limited interaction with the Mongolian camp staff and random village mechanics.”
Much of the drama in this book comes from the various automotive breakdowns along the way. Although Dina alludes to fights with her husband, we don’t get to see or hear them. I’m assuming that the author is protecting her husband’s privacy and insuring that she stays married, however, I would have liked a little more tension. The couple seems a bit too companionable. Did they really get along as well as she portrays while being in a car together over almost 8,000 miles? Well, maybe.
The parts I liked best were when Dina has a chance to meet the natives, like when she ends up watching “Pinocchio” with the wife of a Siberian mechanic, or when she and Bernard go off course and attend a performance of the Bolshoi ballet. Dina’s writing style is lively and engaging, and she makes an enjoyable armchair traveling companion. Although I doubt that I will ever embark upon such a journey with my own husband, I was glad to go along on the ride with this intrepid pair.
Before I came to Japan to teach English” for one year,” before I met and married a native son and settled here with my family, I lived in South Carolina, land of Palmettos and peaches, alligators and Gullah women selling handmade baskets at the side of the road, hurricanes and pampas grass and hush puppies. I’ve written about South Carolina, too, especially in my most recent novel, Screaming Divas, which is about an all-girl punk rock band in 1980s underground Columbia. These girls attend art shows in abandoned warehouses and dance in clubs with graffitied walls. Wanna-be punks with Southern accents, they eat plates of grits at 2AM in a café, across the street from the, capitol building pocked with Union bullets. .)
The stories that I tell are odes to the places I love; writing is revisiting. Out of homesickness, I’ve found ways to link Japan and South Carolina in my writing. For instance, when I was working on my first novel, I learned that a young, aspiring artist from Columbia, named Blondelle Malone, had stopped off in Japan to paint on her way to France, where she would meet Claude Monet and impress him with her Japanese landscapes. After poring over her letters and articles on Japan at the South Caroliana Library, I wrote an article about Malone’s sojourn in Japan, and later wove her story into my first novel.
I have lived in various places, but I am, for all intents and purposes, a writer without a home town. There is no shelf for the works of local Anglophone-only writers at the nearest book store. My awards go unacknowledged by the Tokushima press, and it’s unlikely that a press release would get me onto Shikoku TV. While most writers can depend upon the support and enthusiasm of friends and neighbors, and have a list of people to invite to a book launch party, the good people of Aizumi take no notice of what I do because I am writing in a foreign language. My editors, readers, and critics are, for the most part, thousands of miles away, across oceans.
When I leave my desk in the afternoon and go out into the world, children passing by on the way home from school with satchels strapped to their backs, look at me and shout “Hello!” They see me as an English-speaking person, nothing more, nothing less – an opportunity to try out foreign phrases they learned at school. Usually, I smile and return their greetings. The farmers harvesting rice nearby have no knowledge of awards I’ve won, or failed to win, of acceptances, or rejections, of sales, or lack thereof. The fact that I am a writer has never come up in conversation with my neighbors, and maybe it’s better that way. The woman who lives next door would never think to ask how my new novel is selling when she brings a bag of freshly harvested carrots (or spinach or watermelons) to my door. People never volunteer ideas for my next novel, or even ask what my latest book is about. Left in peace, I am free to observe and write as I wish, at my own pace. Obscurity has its own rewards.