Expat memoirs set in a plane-ride away in Asia have, well, taken off. Some, like Peter Hessler’s River Town, Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing, and Michael Levy’s Kosher Chinese, are written by former Peace Corps volunteers. Others like Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing and Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven address the sometimes harrowing experiences of American women in China. And Tracy Slater’s The Good Shufu and Lisa Fineberg Cook’s unfortunately-titled Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me relay family struggles when these American writers follow their husbands to Japan.
Unlike most expat memoirists, however, Suzanne Kamata is in Asia to stay. And her story revolves around bi-cultural motherhood in Japan where customs and resources are different from those she could expect “back home” in the US. Kamata is particularly attuned to these differences because she and her husband Yoshi have twin children, one of whom, her daughter Lilia, is deaf and has cerebral palsy.
The story begins with Kamata overwhelmed in Paris, alone with the thirteen year-old Lilia. She wonders why she ever entertained Lilia’s wishes to visit Paris from their home in rural Japan. Paris isn’t the most wheelchair-friendly city, especially when Kamata doesn’t have the help of another adult. To understand how Kamata and Lilia ended up on their mother-daughter trip across the world, Kamata brings the reader into her home when Lilia and son Jio are born fourteen weeks early. The Kamatas first learn that Lilia cannot hear when she’s a baby, but it’s not until the twins are toddlers and visiting Kamata’s parents in the US that they discuss the possibility that Lilia may not just be a delayed walker.
Kamata isn’t shy about pointing out the cultural differences between Japanese and Americans when it comes to disabilities. Her husband Yoshi was born and raised in Japan and grew up with the understanding that if he wanted something done, it was up to him to do it. In Japan, it wasn’t acceptable to ask for help with, say a wheelchair-bound child, something Kamata learns to understand while trying to get her husband to understand her views.
Other cultural differences between Kamata and her husband also differ on the focus on hope and on reality. In response to Lilia’s desire to marry one day, Yoshi wants to tell her that that will never be a possibility, while Kamata, not knowing what’s in store for Lilia, doesn’t want her to give up hope.
At age 12, Lilia tells Kamata that she wants to see Paris. A mother-daughter trip to Paris has also been a dream of Kamata’s, even though she know it won’t be easy for them to navigate an old city with Lilia in a wheelchair. But Kamata wants Lilia to see that she can achieve many of the things people without disabilities can do. So a year later, she sets these plans into motion, just the two of them. Lilia has shown outstanding artistic abilities and a trip to Paris will also further enrich her art education. The Paris trip makes up the bulk of the story and it’s heart-wrenching when Kamata feels like giving up or doesn’t think they can see everything they set out to visit in Paris.
By the end of the book, a fresh addition to expat Asian memoirs, the trip becomes more than just about art, travel, and independence, but also about how Kamata sees her daughter grow and become an independent young woman with friends, interests, and travels of her own.