Recently wed—and quickly divorced—twenty-four-year-old Sarah Coomber escapes the disappointments of her Minnesota life for a job teaching English in Japan. Her plan is to use the year to reflect, heal and figure out what to do with her wrecked life while enjoying the culture of the country where she had previously spent a life-changing summer that included a romance with a young baseball player.
“Sensei”, a diminutive older woman, teaches Janet Pocorobba how to play the shamisen, a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument. It is hard to tune and exactly how much “ma” or dead space to leave between the notes is constantly vexing. Sensei is of the view that the shamisen, and traditional music in general, is much neglected by the younger generation little interested their own culture. Disgusted by this attitude, Sensei turns to teaching foreigners to keep the music alive.
Pioneering Chinese American actress Anna May Wong made more than sixty films, headlined theater and vaudeville productions, and even starred in her own television show. Her work helped shape racial modernity as she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and, more generally, “Oriental” women between 1925 and 1940.
“I certainly was not born to history,” Paul Cohen tells us at the very beginning of his book; indeed he wasn’t. He didn’t want to follow his father’s men’s clothing trade, and gave up engineering after one year in university to study the humanities, and even then he did not concentrate on any one part of it. He thought about architecture, then psychiatry and finally the army. None of these, on consideration, were very satisfying, and involved long hours of what seemed to Cohen very boring work.
The daughter of a Jewish Azerbaijani father and a Russian mother, Sophia Shalmiyev grew up in 1980s Leningrad hearing her grandmother recite anti-Semitic jingles, ruffling Sophia’s hair as if this act of act of affection could erase the sting of her words.
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.
Wisdom has it that forgetting the past risks repeating it. The old must remind both themselves and the young where they came from, what happened to them and why, and who was responsible.