(Cross-posted at my blog) (…Tx for teaching me protocol, V.)
Travel literatureÂ (or film), when boiled down to its essence, is almost always about some combination of the 3E’s: Escape, Expunge, Expand. The protagonist travels because s/he is running from something (or someone), perhaps indefinitely; is looking to exorcise a personal demon; or is seeking to change and grow. â€¦Or, even if not seeking the latter, will ultimately do so as a result of the dislocated, time-stopping sensation of being out of one’s comfort zone. Once you are so far away, so profoundly lonely, there is no where else to go but in.
Note, by the way, that I did not include Experience or Explore, obvious contenders for the fourth (and possibly fifth) E. Don’t people travel just to see the world? To swim where there are no lifeguards, to climb where there is no oxygen, to buy trinkets in foreign bazaars where they don’t take American Express? I skipped these because I feel fairly certain that while these are the What of travel memoirs, they don’t quite reach the Why, or the So What. Show me a travel book that doesn’t involve some type of revelation, metamorphosis, or eternal need to run, and I will show you Fodor’s guide to Wherever.
Lisa Fineberg Cook is a nice Jewish girl who has traveled. (And how!, as my grandma would say.) Though originally from Montreal, Los Angeles has been home for most of her life, which means that, like most urban / coastal, middle class, liberal Jews, Cook grew up with her needs met fairly quickly, and rarely feeling like an outsider. Hence she refers to herself as a J.A.P. in her very enjoyable ride of a memoir,Â Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me.
I suppose the term requires some redefinition for me, since I always associated the stereotype with a kind of vapid, selfish, material-centric existence which I can’t, somehow, connect to the very personable and earthy author, who I spoke to on the phone last week. I knew I was talking to the real deal â€“ a natural high-end-Gen-X-chic-lit writer, talented and clever and insightful and empathic. Someone I definitely would want to hang out with, and think I could learn a lot from in the ‘follow your dreams’ category. But I couldn’t quite get myself to feel the J.A.P.
Maybe my definition is wrong. Or maybe because I didn’t know Cook “Before,” a decade ago, when her new husband, Peter, an educator’s educator, took a two-year job teaching English in Japan. Not in Gotham-esque, international Tokyo, mind you, but in a place â€“ and no, she didn’t make this up â€“ called Nagoya. (It’s where you’d probably live if your employer was the currently beleaguered Toyota.) It would be, in tribal terms, like making Aliyah to developing Dimona or Afula instead of to bustling, global Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, where you can easily manage almost everything in English.
Cook was literally thrown into cold foreign waters, where she, a tallish, manicured blonde with no knowledge of Japanese, was about as inconspicuous as George Clooney would be at a nail salon in Teaneck. And yes, the locals noticed, but there was no Bree Van de Kamp basket ofÂ muffins forthcoming.
It turns out, however, that Cook, a pro swimmer who owns and operates aÂ swim school in LAÂ (in addition to her steadily rising writing career), managed not only to stay afloat on the other side of the Pacific, but to do so with great style. Her approach to laundering, cooking, and bus-riding her way through Japan is much more Bryson than it isÂ Gilbert. Rather than a pensive, searching tone, Cook opts for light and witty, like providing readers with her translation of the Japanese “Aaahhhmaaaaybeee,” which can mean “yes, no, not on your life, fuck off, or just plain maybe.”
The author notes that she was hesitant to write from a place of real depth in commenting on another society, since she’d never assume that what she had to say about another culture was that important. And so, instead of exploring Japanese mores or her own enlightenment, Lisa plays it direct and writes about the day to day of getting by. True humor, of course, especially the kind where you laugh at yourself in various contexts, is not only universal, but also doesn’t have a great shot at being politically correct.
“It was a risk to play it that way as writer,” she says, “either people love it, can relate, think it was funny, had a similar experience OR they are offended â€“ Americans abroad can’t be at all judgmental, they’re supposed to write how they fell in love with the place. I chose to write about my first year [Cook was there for two years], as a real outsider.” How refreshing.
I, for one, am in the first category. Moving to Israel a week after my wedding in the days before the North AmericanÂ Aliyah Renaissance, I was the loneliest newlywed that there ever was, and there were days that I, like Lisa, could do nothing while my new husband was out all day in law school but seek out American food. And eat it. (And how!) Let’s just say that I knew I was adjusted to life here when I lost those 40 imported pounds.
The other challenges of early marriage â€“ including, notably, what to do with your close female friendships once there’s a man in the mix â€“ are dealt with in Cook’s memoir very astutely. I am not fooled by Lisa’s funny streak. The lady is profound.
Because despite her casual, comical attitude, there was expansion. Most of this enlightenment takes shape as a new appreciation and empathy for immigrants in the US, but also of the larger issue put forth in the book’s title: losing that sense of cultural entitlement that the world loves so much about Americans. (Cue the irony font.) It is indeed possible that there is another way to do things â€“ or several â€“ and that the Western world might need to look at its protocols and cultural quirks as a path, but not theÂ path, to living one’s best life.
I’ve said before that I find it fascinating how journey books tend to take people from a narrower to a wider place â€“ Cook went from slightly spoiled Cosmo-sipping American single to thoughtful married woman of the world. But rarely (actually, never, in my experience) do they go the other way. Have we ever read about someone worldly and experienced who decides to settle down into a religious life? Isn’t that, potentially, also enlightenment? This, too, is very American. To celebrate the broadest possible outlook while maintaining the narrow definition of broadening.
Now, I love America as much as the next ex-pat, but as one who has lived overseas for nearly 17 years (yikes!!!), I can say that every American should have to live somewhere else for at least a year, if for no other reason than to learn another language besides English. Incidentally, Cook says that she is thrilled that her 8-year-old (the Cooks also have a new baby) is learning Hebrew in school.
What’s next for Lisa? A sequel, chronicling her and Peter’s stint teaching at a skiers’ boarding school in Maine. Working Title? Lumber J.A.P. (lol.) Also, hopefully, more teaching travels, this time with two kids. (â€¦and I wish her much luck with that.)
Lisa, I hope you get over this way on one of your world tours. I’ll take you out in Tel Aviv for a beer. Or, its JAPpy cousin, the Breezer.