The brave, wry, irresistible journey of a fiercely independent American woman who finds everything she ever wanted in the most unexpected place.
Shufu: in Japanese it means “housewife,” and it’s the last thing Tracy Slater ever thought she’d call herself. A writer and academic, Tracy carefully constructed a life she loved in her hometown of Boston. But everything is upended when she falls head over heels for the most unlikely mate: a Japanese salary-man based in Osaka, who barely speaks her language.
Deciding to give fate a chance, Tracy builds a life and marriage in Japan, a country both fascinating and profoundly alienating, where she can read neither the language nor the simplest social cues. There, she finds herself dependent on her husband to order her food, answer the phone, and give her money. When she begins to learn Japanese, she discovers the language is inextricably connected with nuanced cultural dynamics that would take a lifetime to absorb. Finally, when Tracy longs for a child, she ends up trying to grow her family with a Petri dish and an army of doctors with whom she can barely communicate.
And yet, despite the challenges, Tracy is sustained by her husband’s quiet love, and being with him feels more like “home” than anything ever has. Steadily and surely, she fills her life in Japan with meaningful connections, a loving marriage, and wonder at her adopted country, a place that will never feel natural or easy, but which provides endless opportunities for growth, insight, and sometimes humor. A memoir of travel and romance, The Good Shufu is a celebration of the life least expected: messy, overwhelming, and deeply enriching in its complications.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
I met him in Kobe, Japan, in May 2004. Three weeks later, he told me he loved me. At least I thought that’s what he said.
We were hidden away far past midnight in my dorm room at a corporate training center. He was balanced above me on his arms while I stared up from below. I was a new faculty member in an East Asia executive MBA program. All twenty of my students were men. He was one of them. I’d already fallen in love with him, too.
I was supposed to be teaching these men business communication: how to lead teams and run meetings in a language and culture not their own. I knew almost nothing about English as a second language—or ESL—and had been hired under the flawed assumption that since I taught writing to American graduate students in Boston I could coach this group of Asian businessmen to talk like native English speakers.
I began to realize what I was up against on my first day of class, when I learned that most of my students had never worked with a woman who didn’t serve them tea. Anyway, by now, a few weeks into the job, I was already failing miserably in the classroom, never mind my extracurricular late-night transgressions with a student who could barely speak English but had already begun to make my heart spin.
Back in Boston a month and a half earlier, on the day I’d been recruited for the job, I’d been warned I might confront challenges as a young American woman teaching senior Asian businessmen. It was early April, before I’d ever set foot in the Far East, and the Korean faculty director of the program had tried, indirectly, to prepare me. I had yet to learn that in East Asia the most important communication is almost always indirect, where meaning is often a destination arrived at through multiple circuitous way-stops.
The director was sitting behind the broad desk in his office, books piled high against the wall, when he introduced his pitch to me. The window behind him boasted a panoramic view of the Charles River, Cambridge stretched out beyond. One of MIT’s domes stood proud and gray in the distance, as if nodding sagely at its lesser colleagues across the water.
“The executive students all work for global Japanese and Korean corporations,” he said. “You’ll be traveling with them to Kobe, Beijing, and Seoul for each of the program’s monthlong summer modules, where they’ll see firsthand the manufacturing sectors across a range of markets. Then they all come here for nine months.” He drew his hands wide in an expansive sweep, as if displaying the whole group in miniature right there. “They’ll finish their degrees in Boston before returning next spring to their homes and companies in Asia.” He smiled broadly, then sat back and folded his hands.
“You won’t be giving them grades. Just sit with them at meals, get them talking, go to their marketing and strategy classes with them. Help them on their case studies and assignments. Some may be demanding, but you can handle this, yes?” He leaned forward toward me, both hands on his desk. “You have a Ph.D., so you’re a professional, no?” Sitting back, he laughed then, at what I wasn’t sure, but I laughed along with him. I wanted to suggest that—for the business-class tickets and a summer semester of highly compensated travel as a kind of “conversation coach”—this was work I could easily manage.
In truth, not only had I never been to East Asia or taught ESL, my Ph.D. was in English and American literature, not linguistics or organizational behavior. Moreover, I barely had an interest in cultures other than my own, although within my liberal academic circle, my provincialism wasn’t something I’d easily admit.
That April morning, just hours before the director offered me the job, I’d woken in my street-level studio apartment in Boston’s South End, the city where I’d always lived and planned to settle for good. As the sun streamed through my old floor-to-ceiling windows, I lay in my high-thread-count sheets and savored both the stillness and predictability of my life as a left-leaning, thirty-six-year-old confirmed Bostonian: overeducated, fiercely protective of my independence, and deeply committed to the cultural values of the liberal northeastern U.S.
Around me in the silence, the light swept across my bookshelves, full of volumes leaning left and right. Somewhere in the middle of all the Shakespeare and Milton, the Hemingway, Mailer, and Morrison, and the barely skimmed pages of literary theory, stood my own thinly bound doctoral dissertation on gender and violence in the modern American novel. On the floor lay a half-read copy of Vogue. My laptop was perched on a makeshift desk in front of kitchenette shelves stuffed not with dishes or pans but with papers and syllabi from ten years of teaching at local universities, which were crammed next to shopping bags and old tax returns. In the storage loft above the mini kitchen were all the shoes I couldn’t fit in the studio’s small closet, rows of heels and boots and little ballet-slipper flats stacked on wooden racks.
As I did most days, I lingered awhile before leaving for my meeting on campus, luxuriating in the quiet, grateful for both the life I’d built around me and what it lacked: no complicated marriage or crying child to colonize my time. Then I climbed out of bed, showered, dressed, added a swipe of makeup, and stopped at my usual café for a soy chai before heading to the Boston-area university where I now taught. On my way out for the day, I ignored the mezuzah my mother had insisted I hang on the door frame, its tiny Old Testament scroll hidden in silver casing.
The only time my regular morning ritual differed, before my trip to East Asia changed everything, was the one day a week I’d go to Norfolk Corrections Center, a men’s medium-security prison. Then I’d wake at dawn, skip the makeup, wear an old pair of flats, and drive the barren highway west. I’d reach the barbed-wired complex early, then pass through a series of electric gates before arriving at the classroom where I’d spend three hours teaching literature and gender studies in a college-behind-bars program to male convicts. This was the work I truly valued, one in a string of progressive education jobs I’d had: running writing classes for homeless adults, preparing inner-city teens for college, teaching first-generation undergraduates at a public university. The writing seminars for American MBAs funded my work in these other programs.
Either way, whether I was headed to prison or the ivory tower, I always began my morning firmly rooted on the exact path I had scripted for myself, what one ex-boyfriend termed “your life as a nonpracticing communist.” I had a large circle of like-minded friends; a combination of academic jobs that satisfied me politically, socially, and intellectually; plus cash to buy great shoes. I’d planned each aspect of my world meticulously until together they created a kind of bulwark against the handful of mistakes I swore I’d never make: to take blind leaps of faith, give up my home in Boston, become dependent on a man, build a traditional nuclear family like my parents had, or, most important cook dinner on a regular basis.
When he sought me out, the Korean director knew me only from my reputation around the business school. The year before, the deans had hired me to create a new writing curriculum for their on-campus graduate management program, and though I told him I’d never even been to East Asia, let alone taught there, the director had convinced himself that I was the woman to turn his foreign execs-in-training into English conversationalists—and to start in just a few weeks’ time. Once he floated the idea by me, I assured him (remembering my Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking students in lockup), “Well, I have had nonnative speakers in my literature classes before, lots of times.”
“Excellent.” He nodded, confirming my perfection for the job.
I played along. After all, I reasoned, the money they were offering for three months of work was more than five times what I’d make in a whole year teaching in prison, and I liked to travel. Besides, what could these East Asian executives possibly throw at me that I hadn’t already seen either behind bars or in an MBA classroom?
What People are Saying About This
Advance praise for The Good Shufu
“Tracy Slater’s charming The Good Shufu reminded me of Eat, Pray, Love — rewritten by Woody Allen! With equal parts humor and heart, Slater narrates her tale of falling in love with a Japanese man and, then, Japan itself. Slater’s real triumph is her ability to probe both inward and outward, to chronicle both the ways in which Japan transformed her—emotionally, politically, even physically—and her evolving take on Japan itself. Brave, unabashed, and also just plain old fun.”—Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year
“A thoughtful, involving examination of what happens when a thoroughly American woman says “I do” not just to a man, but to a new culture, country, and way of life. Filled with fascinating tidbits about Japan's quirks and customs, this debut is as informative as it is entertaining.” —Sarah Pekkanen, internationally bestselling author of Catching Air
“From Boston to Osaka, Tracy Slater writes about the intersection of romance and culture shock with great sensitivity. The Good Shufu is a story about how people communicate and love each other in unexpected ways and places, a fish-out-of-water tale that illustrates the ever-expanding definition of family.”—Ann Mah, author of Mastering the Art of French Eating
“Tracy Slater is one of those great women who refused to give up when so many people said she should. (She’s my kind of woman.) Honest, brave, and moving, this is the perfect book for someone who needs to believe big dreams can come true.” —Amy Cohen, New York Times–bestselling author of The Late Bloomer’s Revolution
Reading Group Guide
1. The narrative is framed around the five stages of culture shock: honeymoon, disintegration, reintegration, autonomy, and acceptance. How did you see these phases brought to life in the book? Have you ever experienced a similar progression while visiting or living in a different country?
2. Reflecting on her occasional miscommunication with Toru, Tracy says, “I suddenly thought how many relationships would benefit from a lack of shared linguistics, from the absence of expectation that our partners would, or even could, understand us most of the time.” Why do you think she feels this way? Do you agree with her?
3. Consider the differences in gender roles that Tracy observed between America and Japan. What are the key distinctions? Which were the hardest for Tracy to confront, and how was she able to accustom herself to them?
4. Tracy describes experiencing a “reentry phase” when she visits America, a period when her culture shock is reversed and the common practices and behaviors in her home country feel foreign. How did living in Japan change Tracy’s perception of America? Which aspects does she appreciate more and which less?
5. Though Tracy faces many difficulties in her life in Japan, she also has abundant moments of discovery, insight, and joy. Which parts of the story seemed the most poignant, romantic, or funny to you?
6. Think about the relationships Tracy forms in the book—not only with Toru, but also with other people, such as her father-in-law and her friend Jodi. How does each relationship provide Tracy with the support she needs in her life?
7. While Tracy is struggling to conceive, she also wrestles with the idea of motherhood, wondering if she can be a good parent. Why did Tracy feel so unsure about this? What allowed her to come to peace with the idea of being a parent?
8. How does Tracy’s idea of what constitutes “home” change over the course of memoir? Do we all, in some way, have to revise our sense of what “home” means when we enter adulthood, begin our lives separate from our nuclear family, or form long-term relationships?
9. In many ways this is a story of the life least expected, as Tracy winds up choosing a man, a country, and a life that she never would have anticipated she would want but wound up unable to resist. How has your own life diverged from the path you thought was set? Could you live long-term in a country with a culture that was vastly dissimilar from your own, as Tracy has done?
10. Tracy observes a wealth of intriguing details about life and culture in Japan. Which aspect surprised you the most? If you’ve never been to Japan, did The Good Shufu leave you wanting to visit? If you have visited or lived there, which details resonated with you?