Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Writing And The Cross-Cultural Heart - Part 1

Over the years, I have been divided in half. Into thirds, actually--a part of my heart here in the U.S., where I was born, grew, studied, and intertwined with family, and another part scattered abroad in tiny pieces: Japan, where I lived abroad for the first time, and then Brazil, where I was married and became a mother.

All the memories, the faces, the smells. Those scraps of memories that seem strange now, out of place: snow piled on the sidewalk, palm trees in the sun. These fragments of images dwell within me, sometimes sleeping in peaceful silence, sometimes crowding and jostling and crying out. Each one rising to the surface like bubbles, transparent, evanescent, fragile. Fragile because I loved, and still love, and because the memories of where I was and no longer am sometimes brings pain.

A bittersweet pain of something beautiful now gone, and yet something beautiful that can never be gone because it lives in me. It is me. The muddle is confusing, perplexing. Rich and deep enough to touch my very roots, and yet leaving me with a gaping "something," a yawning question that never seems filled or answered.

For I can never live in all three places at one time, and there is always someplace--someone--I miss. 


Sometimes I look back at old photos and can almost taste the Hokkaido fresh-cream ice cream that the server mounded in fluffy spirals, right there next to my good friend Yumiko, and I am there again--remembering, with painful slowness, the kanji characters on the sign, the ubiquitous cross-chest messenger bags of the college students, and the smell of cold air in northern Japan. 

And other times it all seems so far away and ethereal, like it almost never happened.

Yet even now, more than ten years later, I still feel something tangible, something painful, flood my heart at the sight of even an obscure photo like this. I was there. I lived. Japan still lives in me, and a part of me lives vicariously through it, even now.

I read about the latest weird Asian burgers, and I am teaching my oldest son Japanese kanji characters. Remembering my own lessons, my own messy pencil strokes. My own throbbing heart as a naive student of cross-culture, never dreaming it would change me so much.

And through the years it becomes more and more tangled. My marriage to a Brazilian man (whom I met in Japan), and the humid salt air of our first home along the ocean. The beans and rice and soccer games and passion fruits and dry summer heat of the cerrado, the desert-like savanna of Brasilia where I spent more than eight years.

It has transformed a part of me as well, and I will never be the same.

None of us who step abroad into unknown lands are ever the same.

We age, I think, not only in years, but in emotions, in language, in humiliation at mispronunciations and social faux-pas, and in sincere gratitude to God as we cross over yet another cultural bridge to love a foreign friend as dearly as a sister or brother, as fiercely as if we were born of the same blood.

For in Christ we are, if we remember that He "is all and is in all," and there are no separations, no divisions, no arguments over geopolitics in His kingdom.

In fact, living abroad resembled a sort of "second birth" for me. Not merely the awakening to new cultures and customs, but the wholescale, awkward stumbling from first day to last day: my child-like groping through complex verb forms, using the wrong slippers, trying to make a sentence. A grown woman with a college degree unable to understand an elementary-school Japanese boy's question, no matter how many times he repeated it, and later a married woman with a son, nearly reduced to tears because she can't think of the right word for "cup" to ask a Brazilian street food vendor and asking for a slice of pork instead.

And yet surging joy as I realized I could do things I never dreamed: I could take buses all through the city of Brasilia by myself--by myself! I could pay, and ask questions, and shop for papayas at the market, and take myself to the doctor without a translator, and after a while, people sort of seemed to forget I was a foreigner. I worked at a Brazilian English-language school, the sole foreigner employed in our branch, and clocked in using the same time sheet everyone else did. When I flew home to the U.S., the waitresses offered me the Brazilian menu in Portuguese without asking--instead of the English one.

And there's more than fitting in, although that brings its own happiness of accomplishment. In one of my most treasured memories of all, I remember meeting a Japanese woman on a train who had kept a Bible hidden from her husband for fifty years--and she still recalled whole chapters and thought it just might be true... that perhaps it really was the Word of God. So keen was her love for the Bible! It was as if all time converged on this one single point, to lead my Japanese Christian friend and me to talk to her, urging her to get that Bible out and read it again, because its message was still true all these years later--and God still loved her, and still longed to have that relationship with her that He had offered the first time she opened it.

All of this swirls in me--the missed opportunities that still hurt, the deaths of dear friends I never quite got over, the memories of Christian friends from countless nations standing side-by-side at church--and it has become who I am.

When I write, I find this strange muddle, this tension, constantly at work in my prose and in my fiction. I cannot operate without it; it has overtaken me. Even in stories that have nothing to do with other countries, I can't help but think that way--look at characters that way--and ask myself, "What is it they are afraid of? What is it they miss most deeply?" And, "Where is home for them?"

For you can learn a lot about people, and about fictional characters, by learning what they miss and where they consider home.

If you asked me where I consider home, I would have to say, "I have no idea."

Ten years ago I would have quickly said, "The U.S." It's my home. It's what I miss. It's where I grew up; it's where my roots are. But I have learned over the years that roots are not such tender things that they cannot be uprooted and replanted, or perhaps even overgrown by memories--spiritual lessons and people who have lived as shining examples in the faith to me--from other lands.

All that I am has be reshaped, and so has my writing.

So has my sense of home.

When I write fiction, I can no longer incorporate the "expected" characters that appear in so many books... the clever and beautifully perfect golden-haired heroine, the handsome and dashing hero. While those images are all fine and good, I have seen too many people. And my thoughts jump to people I now consider supremely interesting: the late 40ish Japanese convenient store worker who studied English strenuously and religiously for more than two decades for no apparent purpose, the old Japanese man who gave me a bag of chocolate and hid a sad, dark secret about his absent family that he never shared, the Korean-Brazilian Christian singer whose Portuguese-language sermon on suffering made me fill up notebook pages with tear-stained notes, the brown-haired Brazilian woman who translated an interview for me in French because her French was better than her English--and I translated (if you can picture this!) from French to English to write the story.

They are the people I want to write about. They are the real faces, the real voices, and theirs is the real struggle we fight as we flesh out stories, choose words, and plot and craft books that we hope will touch generations for Christ. This is why I chose odd and unusual characters in my "Southern Fried Sushi" series, and fill my novellas with nerdy types, unconventional people, and people of different colors and cultures.

This is why I choose to write about Chinese immigrants in the San Francisco Gold Rush instead of the more expected Anglo-American--because my mind immediately shifts to the people I've known, the places I've walked (like China) and the way these people of different nations have changed forever the fabric of our nation. (Look for "The Golden Cross" in Barbour's Gold Rush collection, releasing early 2016).

I have learned, too, through it all, that there is a danger in stereotyping even those we'd consider enemies--and caricaturing them as evil while we sit on the side of good.

For we are all evil, really--"all have sinned"--all--including me, including my beloved country, including my people. I had never really thought in these terms before. In my teenage American patriotism, I thought loving my country meant denying or justifying all wrongdoing across the centuries. After all, if my country has done wrong, how can it be perfect?

It wasn't until I saw a Japanese pastor's wife lead her little Sunday school children in a weekly series called "The Sins of Japan" (complete with maps of invasions) that I realized how humble and mature was her love for her country in comparison to mine. She, you see, had grasped that it's possible to love your country without agreeing with all of its decisions, and without sugarcoating our past into one of pure, "kum-ba-ya" perfection. That is not only love, it is reality--and thinking over our American policies, both external and internal, made me think differently.

I wrote about this tension in my novella "Kamikaze" (Yellowstone Memories) which explores Japanese-American relations and tough issues all the way back to World War II, and about Native American policies and failures in "Black Widow."

If I were to be honest, I also think living abroad has brought a certain element of bittersweetness to my writing. Just like I have seen too many fascinating people to be satisfied with the simplistic, I have seen to many hard things to be satisfied with a sugar-coated ending. Life isn't sugar-coated, and neither are God's plans for most of us. I have seen street children with no shoes, people living in garbage heaps. Beautiful teenage girls selling themselves in Brazilian newspapers or Japanese online ads for money. My Japanese friend told me about a woman who committed suicide with her newborn child when she found out he was deaf.

I no longer believe in "sappy-happy" endings where everyone is perfectly thrilled to pieces, riding giddily off into the sunset, but I prefer to leave a lingering ache in there somewhere. A bit of a struggle that never truly goes away, even when the hero and heroine are finally united, and a bit of a longing that leaves us still waiting, perhaps unconsciously, for something.

For the plans God has for us, which so often include a heavy dose of both joy and suffering, hardship and joy. The same push-pull tension that works in us to build character, hope, and faith, and shows us more of a God who is bigger, greater, and more wild than we ever dreamed. He isn't a Santa Claus, He's a father. A loving father who sometimes includes pain in His greatest plans for our growth.

For those places we miss. For those countries where I once lived, and grew, and have now said good-bye to. Perhaps forever.

For those people who have shaped me, in all the places I've lived.

For home.

For heaven, my true home, where all of those longings and questions will finally--ultimately be fulfilled. Where I will never have to leave, never have to say good-bye. Never look back in nostalgic mistiness wishing for something that cannot be recovered.

All of this has shaped my writing, subtly, effortlessly, like a river polishes rocks, smoothing, sanding, changing, molding.

How has your cross-cultural heart shaped your own writing? Where is "home" for you, and how has your journey changed your fiction?

Jennifer Spinola has published four full-length novels with Barbour Publishing, along with several novellas. This year she also co-authored her first non-fiction book this year about the tornadoes that devastated Moore, Oklahoma. In her spare time (does she actually have any spare time?) Jenny changes diapers, scrubs spots off the carpet, hikes with her family, and serves up Brazilian-style rice and beans nearly every day.

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