Japan took the J.A.P. out of me-Lisa Fineberg Cook
I bought this book for two simple reasons. One, it was only three dollars at my local Borders store and two, it was a travel memoir. Although I was a bit wary of the title, having been acquainted with my share of J.A.P.s (Jewish American Princesses), I reckoned that any American women’s perspective of what was like in Japan would be a fun read. For the most part it was, especially when you learn that she moves there shortly after getting married. As a recent newly-wed myself, I can’t imagine moving abroad right after getting married, especially considering how my spouse and I are like oil and vinegar when it comes to destinations (I’m the more exotic one, he’s the more mainstream, play it safe one).
Shopping on Rodeo Drive aside, along with weekly manicure and hair coloring appointments, I found that I had much in common with Cook. Although I spent only a summer in South Korea compared to the two years she spent in Japan, culture shock in an East Asian country when coming from a Western one is the same, especially during your first few weeks in that country. When people do nothing but stare at you, making you feel as if there is something horribly wrong with you. When you can’t speak a word of the language, so all you can do is point at the pictures in the menu. When sometimes all you want are your familiar comforts and they simply aren’t there. Although Cook complains endlessly throughout most of the book over the immense cultural differences, I don’t know many people who wouldn’t (just perhaps not as vocally as she does to her husband and family).
Cook’s observations of the Japanese people are dead on. Having lived with a Japanese exchange student during my first semester of college, everything that Cook writes on how the Japanese people act and behave was spot on for many of the traits exhibited by Misako and her gaggle of friends. When Cook describes how her students used their dictionaries as their lifeline when speaking, needing to type in the little electronic device every other word, I just laughed. It was much the same way with Misako. We would be having a conversation but then there would be an interval in which she would type in the word she was unclear of and wait for it to be translated. I’m not condemning the use of dictionaries, but when learning Spanish, I learned not to rely on them, for fluidity will never come to your language learning if you do. I think Cook felt the same way in regards to her students-that they never felt completely at ease just talking, or attempting to talk naturally.
But just as the book progresses, so does Cook’s comfort level with her new life in Japan. You start to dislike her less by this point, as she is truly someone you can relate to, even admire for the terrifying journey she has taken living in Japan. You like the fact that she truly has stopped being a J.A.P. and someone who at one time was only concerned with the latest fashion statements and what color to have painted on her toenails. When Cook and her husband have their “place” to go for noodles, it was much the same way for me with a little bakery near the subway stop by the university. Although pastries and sweets are extremely rare in East Asian cuisine, even a little bit of Paris managed to sneak through. I enjoyed going there not only to indulge in something that reminded me of home, but also because the people there started to know me (no doubt my red hair made it easy for them to remember my face).
I enjoyed the parts in the book when Cook plays the role of tourist, and is no longer just an outsider in a strange and foreign land. There’s great poignancy when she visits Hiroshima. She’s able to make a spiritual connection with the Japanese people regarding two horrific events they and her relatives went through-the bombing of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Until that point she had always felt alienated from the Japanese people, yet after she began to see the Japanese people and their culture in a new light.
Japan took the J.A.P. out of me is a wonderful testament to the difficult trial known as culture shock and a reminder that even the most spoiled and stuck up individuals can eventually embrace and walk away with unscathed and unforgettable memories.