Last month in this blog, I revisited Korea and got a good dose of nostalgic thrill. Further back in this blog I wrote about another trip to Korea. It's ironic, however, that much more of my time in Asia was spent in Japan. Five years total, in fact, which is a tenth of my life--or a sixth of my adult years!
As a foreign teacher, my everyday mundane activities were not very exciting--unless you happened to be family members who were curious about everything I was doing there or you were interested in semi-rural and small town Japan life in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As it was, Japan was beginning its "internationalization" program, which included bringing thousands of English-speaking young people from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia to Japan to help teach English in the public schools.
I was one of them. It was an experience that was equal parts fascinating and frustrating. The fascination came from discovery of a completely new and different culture from what I had known in my own country, not the tourist sort but right down to the everyday getting through life kind of things. The frustrating part was trying to adapt to a set of customs that did not come naturally to me as well as trying to see things from a different perspective and understanding how in the world it could possibly work just fine that way.
I went first to Saga City, capital of Saga prefecture (state), on the southwest major island of Kyushu, and lived there for two years. I rotated with another American teacher among the city's nine middle schools--when the kids first start to learn English. The city was surrounded by rice fields as far as you could see. It had the remains of a castle. I rode a bicycle everywhere, sometimes the local bus. I ate mostly the Japanese food available to me although there were also plenty of fast food restaurants in town.
Enjoying the English teacher life, I decided it might be a good career move fpr me to become an official English teacher in the U.S., so I returned and entered an Education program back home. I completed everything but the student-teaching semester when I got an offer to return to Japan that I could not pass up.
With more credentials, I arrived in Okayama prefecture, mid-way between Hiroshima and Kobe on the main island of Honshu. I served as the one and only English teacher for three middle schools up in the mountains, living in the village where my main school was and commuting once each week to the other two. It was a picturesque landscape and I settled in rather comfortably. It felt odd when visiting relatives in America for Christmas holiday to "go home" to Japan; my apartment in Nariwa, Okayama felt more like my home than the Kansas City where I'd grown up.
I'm not sure where all this love for Japanese culture began. I can pick out a few starting points, but the main idea of telling all of this is to contrast my actual life in Japan with all the reports about Korea I've posted. They are two very different places--yet to the casual Western tourist somewhat similar. In blogging, I've tried to offer mostly the humorous side of my travels: the stranger in a strange land scenario, where I struggle to understand, often insisting my way is the best way, even the only way, then being soundly corrected. In such a way the stranger comes to appreciate, even prefer, the new culture.
It's kind of like James Clavell's Shogun, where the shipwrecked Englishman gradually becomes Japanese and takes his place in that feudal society. A similar transformation is depicted in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai. Those may have been full of cliches and stereotypes, of course (although I trust Clavell to get the facts straight). For some of us, there is something attractive about that culture. I gradually slipped into that culture, too, and I became a stranger when returning to the country of my birth. (Plenty of other examples of this kind of scenario exist that involve other cultures than Japanese.)
This "stranger in a strange land" theme seems to have become my writing focus, my stock in trade. All of my novels deal with characters being in a new and different place than they grew up in. I even took it so far as to have them visit another planet in THE DREAM LAND Trilogy; the Earthling travelers were both amazed and frustrated by what they found. That "stranger" theme usually involves someone also speaking a foreign language and speaking English imperfectly. I'm an English teacher by trade, after all, and a linguist by training, so the language aspects of characters have always fascinated me. (You can see a chart here of what places and languages are in each of my novels.)
So it should come as no surprise that my forthcoming novel AIKO follows that same theme: the stranger coming to the strange land and having to make his way and reach his goal, thwarted at every turn by the rules and customs he does not know, does not understand, or refuses to adapt to. The novel is also set in Japan, a place I feel thoroughly confident in describing--at least from the Western stranger's perspective. I lived in two places there and visited many other locations--all of the big tourist spots as well as places tourists do not visit. I also visited the locations in the novel.
The story of AIKO is a quest to make things right, to restore a balance in the protagonist's and everyone else's lives. As with any good story, it begins with a conflict, a problem needing to be solved. Our hero tries to solve the problem but finds obstacles. He tries to overcome the obstacles but things get worse. He starts to believe he won't succeed yet fights harder, refusing to give up. Will he succeed or not is the story, of course. In that sense, it's quite simple. The beauty is in the details.
I've chosen to set this plot in the Japan on the cusp of its internationalization program, a time in the early 1990s when old thinking clashed with modern thinking. The fate of a child is left to the effort of this stranger struggling through this strange land, who is trying to do the right thing--even at the risk of destroying his marriage and losing his career. The situation gets quite desperate for him as he is soon fighting the calendar as well as the bureaucracy Japan is famous for. And then there is the waitress who wants him to take her back to America and the gangster wannabes who just like having fun with this foreign guy.
It was only after writing the initial draft that I recognized some similarities between my story and the story at the heart of the opera Madame Butterfly--similarities which I sought to emphasize, even exploit, in subsequent drafts. I'll tell you about that next time.
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