Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Relocating to San Francisco with a Japanese spouse

by Nicolas Gattig

Contributing Writer

The mariachi blares through the night, mixed with the hustle of elephants. It is Friday night in Oakland, California — a fact embraced by our upstairs neighbors, who are partial to Mexican polka.

“It’s 11 p.m. — urusai (shut up),” my wife says with jet-lagged despair. She fears for her sanity, the future of sleep in a strange noisy land, where the savages do not care about others.

“We are not in Japan,” I observe, unhelpfully. “We could crank up ‘Deguello’ — the song of death from the Alamo. That would make the point.”

It’s not funny, and she lets me know. Her nerves are frayed: her American adventure, launched by the giddy attainment of a Green Card, appears fraught with concern and regrets, only three days after arrival.

Perhaps all immigration is traumatic. No matter how urgent the push or pull, attachments are cut and lives left behind, in exchange for an uncertain future. Especially when leaving Japan, which instills a sense of belonging and can tie people sentimentally to its soothing routines and rituals, the everlasting ways things are done, any transplantation can be unsettling, a possible crisis. “Is this my life now forever?” is a scary question, especially when you’re unhappy.

It was with nervous cheer that I saw my Japanese wife come to America. We left cushy jobs and the perks of the Tokyo middle class, pushed by fears of complacency and drawn to dreams overseas. The move was counter-intuitive, like leaving a warm bubble bath to search for excitement out in the cold.

America, of course, is in convulsions. Mapped into tribes and riven by inequality, it churns through a noisy historical time that renegotiates seemingly everything — from race relations and respect for women to the number and types of people who may legally come and stay.

Will she be able to start a new life? Or will she end up a lonely shut-in, hooked on social media and Japanese television?

Our new neighborhood takes getting used to. Located in the East Bay of San Francisco, Oakland teems with ethnicities and lifestyles. The melange is unapologetic: We see a large African-American population, interracial couples, Muslims with hijabs and young Asian women holding hands in the street, speaking languages we have never heard.

It is a threat, in the eyes of some — and a shock to many Japanese. And now it is joined by a Tokyo newbie who navigates through the hood, bewildered, petite and guarded, boosting the Japanese population past its former 0.5 percent. Impossible to keep it real; she doesn’t know what it means.

Her new social contract assumes that you watch your back, a skill atrophied in Japan. The Japanese have a word for it: heiwa boke (peace stupid), which connotes people so socially mothered, so used to safety and prearranged systems, that they lose self-reliance. You can do this in Tokyo, but it’s no way to move around Oakland, once labeled the murder capital of America. Some Japanese can’t adapt to this loss of safeness, like a spiritual dislocation.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Where am I?'” she says. “Am I an immigrant? Or an expat?”

“You’re a resident alien,” I say, affecting a transatlantic accent. “Only Westerners can be expats. It’s like, we own that.”

“But this is America.” She smiles a smile I have not seen before. “Japanese can do everything Westerners do.”

And so, the hustle is on, with agility and a hungry spirit. She swaps her Tokyo fashion for sneakers and jeans, making a habit of reading the street and accepting that Oakland’s convenience stores are places where people do drugs. She lands a job at a Japanese bookstore, researches health care coverage and plans (for the first time in her life, she is uninsured) and, after a cumbersome trial and error, finds a shop with the perfect tofu. Most impressively, she yells at our neighbors to reign in the fetes.

All throughout, she witnesses the Me Too movement and crowds marching for female empowerment. She sees women jogging in the park, physically chiseled and wearing shirts that say “Nevertheless, she persisted.” She absorbs it all, thinking — American invocations of strength.

“Am I creating a monster?” I wonder in jest. But then a part of me is curious, watching our relationship grow, wondering how we will change. To fully know my Japanese wife, it seems, I’ve had to take her outside of Japan.

Sometimes I think of Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club,” in which a Chinese mother in San Francisco looks back on her life abroad, taking stock and asking herself, like immigrants in so many places: “What did I lose? What did I get back in return?”

To some extent, these are unanswerable questions. It may be easier to say what the immigrant brings, what her or she adds to the mix. After all, if given the chance, the foreign element is an element of surprise, a disruption of the same old ways.

One night finds us at the last ungentrified cafe in San Francisco. It was a long day at work and we are quiet, thinking hard thoughts about Mexican polka.

The barista is a tattooed toughie, projecting brawn that will take no mess. The place has its share of combative customers and he glares at my order, defensive. When it’s my wife’s turn, however, his attitude softens. Like a mild-mannered Southern gent, he prepares her latte with loving care, almost listening to the milk as it drips.

“Thank you,” she says, her eyes warm. “You are very kind.”

The rugged face cracks, then eases into a smile — the happiness of a person astonished to find himself liked. The barista untenses, pleased by the simple validation from what is clearly another tribe. It is a side benefit of diversity, a gift from the outsider alien to a nation that is fighting for its soul.

“I’d never say this to staff in Japan,” my wife remarks later, somewhat amazed.

“Thanks for coming,” I say, for once truly glad we are here. “That thing that you do … America needs some.”