Creative non-fiction / March 2013 (Issue 20)

Native Language

by Tracy Slater, art by Mia Funk

Metamorphosis, oil on canvas, 166 x 230 cm

I had just turned 40 when I married a man who could barely speak my language. Toru and I met in my late 30s, when his Japanese company sent him to earn his executive MBA at the Boston-area university where I taught. I was a writer with a PhD in literature, a die-hard sceptic and a staunchly independent Jewish-American feminist. But within three days of meeting Toru, I fell hopelessly in love, his unhurried gestures and semantically skewed expressions snaring my heart more fully than any man's eloquence ever had. "Nice to be meeting you!" he said, and I felt a little tremble. "I'm appreciate you," he announced when I helped him with his English, his dark eyes looking directly into mine, and my heart quickened.

Within three weeks, Toru declared, "Lub you," which I asked him to repeat three times before realising this was "love" with a Japanese accent. Then I knew, despite my cynical nature, I would take the crazy leap of faith required for a liberal American writer to marry a Japanese businessman only faintly conversant in my language.

I'd hoped Toru would move permanently to Boston, until a drunk driver in Osaka killed his mother on the morning that would scar his family forever. According to Japanese tradition, Toru, the eldest son, was now expected to return home and care for his ageing father. So I went with him, and I became the one whom fluency eluded.

I knew almost no Japanese when I followed Toru to Osaka. I signed up for a language class at the local YWCA. I was the only non-Asian in the course and the only woman who didn't introduce herself as a shufu, or housewife. Watashi-wa To-ray-shi, I learned to say ("I am Tracy"). Watashi-wa wrii-taa des, "I am a writer."

"I feel proud you," Toru told me, smiling hugely, when I learned the first of Japan's three alphabets.


Although I had regressed to functioning like a barely literate child in my new East Asian life, my love for Toru never waned. How could I, I wondered, a former academic who built her life around language and literature, be so happy in a relationship that lacks linguistic commonality? I didn't have an answer, but when I was with Toru, I simply felt warmer, more at peace, than I ever had before.

As I approached my 40th birthday, we prepared to travel back to Boston, bringing his family to meet mine so together they could watch my mother's rabbi bless us under the chuppah. I came home a few weeks early, leaving Toru and his father, sister, aunt and uncle to follow.

Before they arrived, my own sister and I had one of our usual fights, flinging accusations over who had failed to call whom back. Was she coming to Temple for the marriage blessing? I had wanted to know. I've been trying to reach you, so can you call me back soon and let me know? I left on her answering machine. A week later, we were still debating who had failed to be clear or respond in time, and how to measure the exact meaning of "soon."

"OK, I agree to take 50% culpability for the misunderstanding," she said when we finally reached each other, her tone insistent through the late-night phone line. "Now," she added, "I want you to take—to make very clear that you take—at least 50% culpability, too."

"Well, I take some responsibility, but 50%, no. Maybe 40%. Maybe 45," I countered.

"That's not good enough," she said. "I want it understood—I want it very clearly agreed upon—that this is not my fault. I refuse to have this go down in the family narrative as one more time I screwed up. I refuse that."

"Well, I refuse to be lumped in with the rest of the family," I retorted. "This is between you and me," I added, pleased with the simple calculus of my rejoinder, "and I don't believe, if we're going to define it precisely, that your stance is as logical, as reasonable as mine."

Then I realised, as I heard myself speak these words aloud, that this is how we bond: we listen to ourselves fight, secretly awarding ourselves points for the semantic elegance of our barbs. In my native family, my tribe of second- and third-generation Jewish Americans who strive to belong by attaining advanced degrees, we love each other through the struggle to make meaning, to reach precise designations upon which we all agree. And because it is a losing battle, and because we know this but can't stop trying to deny its inevitability, we fight all the more furiously. Suddenly, I understood how, although my love for Toru sometimes eludes the verbal and my life in Japan leaves me frequently stranded in linguistic confusion, I've found solace in a world that expects no eloquence from me.

The next morning, I called Toru, who was preparing to leave Osaka for Boston. I complained to him about my fight with my sister, telling him I was reluctantly going to meet her for breakfast. "I'm still annoyed at her," I sulked.

"You know, this is OK," he said, the rhythm of his syllables rising and falling with his accent. "Just remember to be generous. Remember how you have the love of her," he told me. And I said, "I do."


Days later, under the chuppah, Toru's family bowed politely while the rabbi prayed, my mother beaming uncharacteristically. She even nodded approvingly when she saw Toru's proper suit and the yarmulke he wore atop his black, spiky hair. She hadn't mentioned Japan siding with Hitler once since we agreed to this blessing at her temple.

Toru responded with alacrity to each part of the rabbi's prayer. His American graduate program taught him to provide verbal cues of understanding to native English speakers, and he deployed this practice faithfully. "In the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…" the rabbi intoned, Toru interjecting with "un huh, un huh," dutifully nodding to assure the holy man that he was following right along.

Although we were marrying according to the customs of my forbearers, I approached the ceremony more circumspectly. Deeply critical of the wedding industry—and much of the Bible, for that matter—I shunned convention, wearing a little cream and black cocktail dress, a ring with a black glass bauble. I also held doubts about living long-term in Japan, so far from my own family, friends and speech patterns. But as long as I don't have a kid to tie me down, I reasoned, I can come back to Boston whenever I want.

About my bond with Toru, I held no doubts at all, despite our many differences. "I love you first in world and always will," he told me. "We are together in always," he vowed. And I knew that, although living long-term in Osaka, where I still could barely speak the language, would prove a challenge, being with him "in always" was nothing short of a blessing. So that morning under the chuppah, as Toru stamped the glass binding us together in the tradition of my ancestors, I had to admit the day was perfect.


Months later, back in Japan, I sat on the floor of my father-in-law's living room, the worn but tidy rug rough under my limbs. Since my marriage, I called my father-in-law Otōsan, "respected father," bowing low when he came for dinner three times a week, serving tea to him and Toru on the nights we ate at his house, just down the road from ours. Strangely, my new role as "traditional Japanese housewife" didn't bother me, despite my history of feminism. This is not my culture, I thought. This is something I just do out of respect to Otōsan, when we're with him. I surprised even myself by how easily I could play the part, as long as it was only for a few hours a week, in a country and language I knew I'd never call my own.

That night, while the men sipped the tea I'd served, I flipped through old albums of Toru as a baby. I saw him as a newborn in his mother's arms, her face shining above his perfectly rounded cheeks, the red bow of his baby mouth. She stared at him with a love and pride so fierce it looked like hunger, a hunger I had never felt or wanted. Until then.

Suddenly, that hunger began to tempt me, my heart melting a bit until I could taste a new yearning on my tongue.


I was 41 when I first got pregnant. "Congratulation, Mrs Tracy!" the doctor at the fertility clinic in Osaka said, dropping the "s" and confusing my first name for my last, as everyone in Japan did. She pronounced my name "To-ray-shee," and she had doubted my ability to get pregnant at all, given my age.

The clinic nurses were giddy. They spoke no English, but I knew what their delight said: 41! Getting pregnant on your very first try of IVF! With your own eggs! They smiled happily and bowed enthusiastically when I came in for my weekly ultrasounds. "Iee, ne," they would say—"It's great, isn't it!"—and their eyes would sparkle as they clasped their hands against the bright pink of their polyester uniforms.

When I learned at my nine-week scan that our embryo's heart had stopped, the examining doctor tried to break the news without speaking. With his broken English, his Japanese insistence on politeness-at-all-times, he didn't say, "I'm sorry, your baby has died." He just kept shaking his head and sucking in his breath, moving the ultrasound wand around inside me, shifting the screen so I could see the stillness splayed across it, waiting for me to say something. But I wouldn't. I refused to birth those words.

After a week, the little embryo inside me still hadn't budged, despite its loss of heartbeat, as if my body refused to accept that the beginnings of our child had come to an end. The day was hot and clear when Toru brought me back to the clinic, holding my hand the whole way. Then the doctors knocked me out completely with anaesthesia, so I wouldn't hear them talking in a language I couldn't understand while they scraped our would-be baby out of me.


Three more unsuccessful IVFs later, Toru and I chose a new clinic in Osaka for our final attempt. I was 43, and I was done with the first clinic: where our embryo's heart had gone still, where our early good luck had bled into years of failed cycles. Gone were my visions of returning to Boston whenever I needed. I now shunned even short trips home, devoting everything I had to trying to conceive.

Also gone—or rather pushed so far back I barely let myself feel them—were my cares about who I might become if I had a child in Japan. The hunger that had tempted my heart that night at my father-in-law's house had now bloomed into a full-blown ache, a bone-gnashing yearning to meet our baby. The one with Toru's cheeks and lips, the one tying me to the woman who had gazed at him with an emotion so pure I could barely name it.

At the new clinic, none of the nurses spoke anything other than Japanese, and the few doctors who "spoke English" offered only a modest version of it. But my medicine came in a pink envelope with English letters sweeping across the top in white cursive. "Smile, Think Positive," the envelope instructed. "Let yourself Relax, and ready for Conception," it said.

Then, before I could complete our final round of IVF, I became pregnant naturally. Toru and I were overjoyed that I had conceived without petri dishes or syringes, pills or medical procedures. When the new clinic confirmed my second pregnancy, the doctor repeated the praise I'd heard two years earlier. "Congratulation!" she said, dropping the "s," then adding, "You are due March nine."

Less than a week later, after I returned for a second blood-test, the doctor's tone had changed. "I'm sorry," she said, looking down. I'd spent the previous few days terrified I was going to lose another pregnancy, and I'd entered her office fearfully, my heart pounding, my throat clenched, my test results spread out in front of her. "I'm sorry," she said again, "but your baby is not growing up." A week later, I miscarried.

At my follow-up visit, Toru and I told the doctor we were done with IVF. We would just keep trying naturally until I turned 45. The doctor sighed at the plan. "It's a miracle you ever got pregnant naturally at…at your age," she said, her voice low, her eyes slanted down, her English perfect just this once.


A few days before my 45th birthday, I lay curled in bed past midnight, sobs shaking my limbs. "Poor my love," Toru said, wiping strands of wet hair from my cheeks. "You know," he said, lowering his face so he could hold my wet eyes in the gaze of his steady ones, "if we can have baby, that would be like miracle. But it will still only be like dessert," he told me, "because you will always be main course."

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