“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.

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.

The Fourth String: A Memoir of Sensei and Me, Janet Pocorobba (Stone Bridge Press, March 2019)
The Fourth String: A Memoir of Sensei and Me, Janet Pocorobba (Stone Bridge Press, March 2019)

The word sensei in Japanese literally means “one who came before,” but that’s not what Janet Pocorobba’s teacher wanted to be called. She used her first name, Western-style. She wore a velour Beatles cap and leather jacket, and she taught foreigners, in English, the three-stringed shamisen, an instrument that fell out of tune as soon as you started to play it. Vexed by the music and Sensei’s mission to upend an elite musical system, Pocorobba, on the cusp of thirty, gives up her return ticket home to become a lifelong student of her teacher. She is eventually featured in Japan Cosmo as one of the most accomplished gaijin, “outside people”, to play the instrument.

The first time I set foot in the war zone, a Ukrainian soldier chastely kissed my cheek before confiding he was excited to tell his mother that he had kissed a Frenchwoman. A few minutes later, just beside me, his fellow soldiers were perched on a tank, firing shots in the air to disperse residents who were opposed to their presence. The ringing from the shots caused me to lose hearing in one ear for a full 24 hours.