Finding Oneself Abroad

American Fuji, by Sara Backer

An American's son, a foreign exchange student, dies in an accident in Japan and his father goes there seeking answers. He gets way more than he bargained for. His counterpart and eventual love interest, Sara, has been in Japan going on five years and so is able to clue him in – and he really needs it. The set-up gives first-time novelist Backer, who taught English at a university in the conservative Japanese city of Shizuoka, an excuse to introduce all sorts of Japanese idiosyncrasies to Western readers, most of which are, from our point of view, hilarious. 

Sometimes the plot borders on unbelievable, as the characters become involved with yakuza, a “bad” Buddhist priest makes trouble, etc., but it is all in such good fun that it hardly matters. The novel will especially delight those who have lived in Japan, and it may become required reading for those thinking of going there to stay awhile, but anyone will find it an entertaining and informative read. It's very hard on the Japanese, though, and some readers have panned it for that. 

Audrey Hepburn's Neck, by Alan Brown

It is one thing for a Westerner to write about how it is to be a foreigner in Japan. Such accounts, usually fictionalized, are often funny and revealing. But it is even more of an accomplishment for a Westerner to write about foreigners in Japan from the Japanese point of view. This is what Alan Brown so admirably does.

Not being Japanese, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the Japanese viewpoint in this novel, but it certainly has the ring of authenticity. The story involves Toshi, a young man raised in Hokkaido who, now in his 20s, lives in Tokyo. It switches back and forth between Toshi's lonely childhood and his life as a young working man. Toshi has been fascinated by Western women all of his life, ever since, as a child, he saw Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday with his mother. He has never, in fact, had a Japanese girlfriend. But he finds himself in over his head with the American English teacher, Jane, who soon reveals herself to be less than sane.

Brown is clearly a gifted novelist. His control of his material is evident from the first page. I highly recommend this unusual look a Japanese struggling to come to grips with the secrets of his childhood at the same time as he confronts his obsession with foreignness – and finds common ground in the two obsessions.

Country of Origin by Don Lee

This well-crafted and thoughtful detective novel uses Japan as the background for a story of belonging and not belonging. The main characters, mostly foreigners but including one Japanese as well, are outsiders – whether because of cultural or personal differences from those surrounding them – and how they come to terms with their differentness makes this novel one to think about long after finishing it. The characters act out their efforts to find themselves, with the Japanese sex industry and the diplomatic community as the settings. This book is a good read, serious without taking itself too seriously, and will especially be of interest for those who have lived in Japan or think they might want to do so. 

First Light: Flight from Fear, by Alicia Adams

Alicia is an old friend and I read this book because I wanted to know about her journey to India with her now deceased husband, who sought healing not available in the US for a rare type of cancer.  But what I got was a lot more.  Alicia describes India with abundant detail:  As I read, I also heard and saw and especially smelled India and witnessed the kindness of the people as Alicia tried to wend her way in very foreign territory while caring for her very ill husband.  The story morphs more and more into a spiritual journey as, toward the end, Alicia and her husband Craig end up at the ashram of HWL Poonja ("Papaji" to those who have been his students). 

But the book also interweaves Alicia's current life with her subsequent husband, mostly in New Mexico, drawing parallels between her struggles in India and those aspects of herself that still seeks to understand in her life now.  She calls on the wisdom of "Our Teachers" -- spiritual beings from another world who help her understand the meaning of her life's journey.

But you don't have to believe in beings from another world, or, if you believe in such beings, they don't have to be in the form they are in Alicia's life in order to enjoy and also learn from this book. The author means her story to illuminate the whole of her life story and perhaps also be an example of how to do this for one's own life.  I certainly found it to be so.  As a writer, I especially appreciated the way she constantly revises her story to more accurately reflect how she sees it now.  Memory isn't infallible, she seems implicitly to be saying.  Far from it. Memory is just a starting point.  Experience is ten percent of who we are; the way we interpret that experience the other ninety percent.  

I also enjoyed the quality production of the book.  The editing is excellent, with fewer editing errors than are found in books from major publishers these days, and the pictures add a personal touch.

Readers should be warned that this is the first book of a trilogy and it ends on an indefinite note. Although I couldn't quite fathom why the author chooses to end volume one when she does, reading the beginning of the second book may clarify that.

All told, whether or not you have been to India or intend to go, this book has much to recommend it, especially for those on a spiritual path.

The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka

This is a heartfelt memoir by a woman adopted from Korea to Minnesota. Virtually every adoptee wants to know his or her origin, but Trenka's urge was especially strong. A poignant moment in her childhood comes when she wonders how a mother can give up her child. What had she done to deserve such abandonment? How was she not good enough? She talks about how adoptive parents always stress that their children are “chosen” but says that what adopted children hear in this word is that they are like goods bought in a department store: if they aren't suitable, they can be returned. Trenka always felt she needed to be perfect or she might be abandoned again.

As it turned out, Trenka's birth mother was looking for her, and wrote to her when she found her –  Trenka was still a child at the time. When she becomes an adult, she travels back to Korea to reunite with the mother who had given her up as an infant due to economic necessity and an abusive husband. There she also discovers her Korean siblings and extended family.

Throughout the book, Trenka ponders whether she is really Korean or American. In so many ways she is American, she knows, yet she feels the blood bond with her Korean family. She looks like them and this means a lot to a young Asian who grew up where everyone was white and tall and mostly of blue-eyed German and Norwegian stock -- where she was made fun of at school for being different and never truly felt she belonged. She finally feels at home in this land she was taken from before she had even formed a memory of it.

Trenka's adoptive parents, though, do not take well to this new bond with her birth family that their daughter has formed. In fact, Jane and her adoptive parents don't speak for a couple of years. But Jane does forgive them finally. Her journey has been hard but by the end of the book, she has reached peace.

My only quibble is that Trenka doesn't seem to realize that people who are not adopted often have the same feelings – for example, feeling not good enough when they have parents who are too demanding. And many people, despite growing up with their birth families, feel like they don't belong. Jane did, after all, have a sister who was adopted by the same couple at the same time Jane was but seems not to have identified much with her Korean heritage. So much of what we are comes from our individual personality as it responds to circumstances, not just from the circumstances themselves. This is not to deny what Trenka went through, only to give it a bit of perspective.

I do highly recommend this book to those who are adopted or just want to understand how it feels, and especially, to anyone who has adopted internationally. It will open your mind.

Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let me Be in My Skin
by Susana Herrera

I cannot praise this book too highly. It is one of the best books of any kind I have read, and the best memoir. What is good about it? First of all, it's incredibly poetic. The very first page captured me, first with a poem and then prose that was just as poetic. The entire memoir is beautifully written.

A young woman goes to Africa in the Peace Corps and has unbelievable adventures as her soul heals from abuse in her childhood. And yet, while the inner journey is important, the outer journey is no less so. I never dreamed that the Peace Corps just sent people out and let them flounder, but that is apparently the case. The types of things Herrera had to deal with – on her own – are unbelievable. Yet she heroically perseveres. Only a person with an extremely flexible personality could make it through. Meanwhile, she learns lessons about the universality of human beings and about survival on the most basic level.

Even if you don't read memoirs, read this one!

I wish I knew what happened to this author. According to the book jacket, she taught at a school in Watsonville, California at the time the book was published (1999). A few years ago she wrote a book in Spanish. I can't find anything else about her. I'd love to know what she is doing now and what she has made of her considerable gifts as a writer since the publication of Mango Elephants.
Surviving Paradise:  One Year on a Disappearing Island
by Peter Rudiak-Gould

When Rudiak-Gould decided to go to the Marshall Islands to teach English for a year, he asked to be sent to a remote island, away from the capital city. He was hoping for a pristine wilderness, untouched by civilization. What he found was quite different.

The Marshalls have the dubious virtue of being strategically important, and, having been a battleground in World War II and subsequently the site of American nuclear testing, they are anything but pristine. Of course, Rudiak-Gould lived quite a distance from Bikini, but all of the Marshall Islanders are beneficiaries of the American aid that comes from a unilateral decision to use the islands for American military advantage. Thus, the planeloads of food that now regularly arrive on the islands mean that no one starves. They also means that, on the island where the author lived, the average number of births per woman is seven and a half – a number sustainable only because most of the children eventually emigrate to the capital on another island. The men do still fish and much of the protein in the diet comes from fishing, but the food supplements mean a very different kind of life than the ancestors lived.

But while this book tells of the evolution of the Marshalls and how the people have forged a life based on a curious mixture of ancestral and Western ways, it also tells of the author's evolution from idealistic young man to, a year later, one who can see a bit more clearly and realistically but who nevertheless has learned to love the people and the place he called home for a year. Despite aspects of Marshallese life that he never reconciled himself to – a lack of interest in education and parenting that violates every premise of the modern Western model, to name but two – he also came to value the many virtues of living in a close community where people take care of each other. And, as he learned to deal with unexpected difficulties, he found he had the psychological resources to meet the challenges.

The subtitle is a bit misleading. Rudiak-Gould returned to his island three years later and found the ecology changed – the sea encroaching while the islanders were in denial. This half-square-mile is going to sink into the sea, without any doubt. But while he was living there, this wasn't at all the focus of his life. Rather, it is the story of how a young man has his dream shattered and gains something perhaps more valuable – an appreciation of things as they are.

Vatican Waltz
by Roland Merullo 

After Breakfast with Buddha, Lunch with Buddha, and numerous other novels, now Roland Merullo has returned to his birth religion as source material.  Vatican Waltz is narrated by a 22-year-old woman still living with her widowed father.  She has always felt different from her peers, having no interest in the normal activities of young adults, and especially no interest in romance. She's had spells or visions since she was young and when she finds a sympathetic priest, she finally is bold enough to talk to him about them.  She construes the visions to mean that she is to become a Catholic priest.  But first, of course, she must find a way to bring about change in the Church policy of all-male clergy.

She travels to Rome for this purpose and finds that all is not well within the Vatican.  Not well at all.  There is a lot of intrigue and back-stabbing and fear of change.  And it is more than hinted that those opposed to any kind of change will not stop even at murder.

I have to admit that, had another author written this book, I wouldn't have picked it up.  But Merullo is a master at his craft. He writes beautifully, and from the first page I believed in this young narrator, and I wanted her to succeed.  And there was just enough intrigue to keep the reader wondering if she would come to harm along the way.  I did find it hard to believe that the Catholic hierarchy is as corrupt as portrayed here, but I'm not Catholic and have never been anywhere near the Vatican, so I have no idea if these plot elements are a stretch.

My only real objection to this book was the ending.  And it is a big objection. I don't feel that it's playing fair to insert what some would call magical realism and others would call a miracle at the end of an otherwise realistic novel.  And such an ending calls up numerous issues in terms of Christian doctrine.  One, of course, would be whether Jesus was really the long-awaited Redeemer after all.  I won't say more here for fear of spoiling the experience for those who haven't read it yet, but I'd be curious whether those who have read it have thoughts about this.

Publishers Weekly called this book the best religious novel of the year 2013.  Catholics will enjoy it especially but it will be worthwhile as well for those more generally interested in spirituality and in what it means to feel one has a calling in life.

Read my interview with Mr. Merullo here:

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