A person’s reasons for leaving their country and moving to another range far and wide. We leave in pursuit of dream jobs, or maybe just dreams. We leave because we’re escaping something from our own society. Those we leave behind regard our departure as abandonment, thinking we don’t appreciate what our country has done for us and instead choose to pack our bags to a foreign land. What they might not realize is that to some people, even if they live a comfortable life within a free environment, that doesn’t mean they are at home. The status quo may appeal to some; they enjoy the life they have. A decent job, perhaps a relationship. They go through life just as a current flows. They are carried away by the raging waters, never stopping to discover their own feelings, their own purpose. But what of those who resist the current? They don’t resist as an act of rebellion, but rather they feel lost within the flow. That’s just how Gabriela Stanton, the female protagonist of Sara Backer’s American Fuji, feels.
American Fuji serves up a story driven by two polar-opposite characters. On one hand there is Gaby Stanton, an American professor turn “fantasy funeral” saleswomen living in Japan. And then there is Alex Thorn, an American psychologist who’s come to Japan to uncover the truth about the sudden accidental death of his son (an exchange student at Shizuyama University). Alex stumbles through the customs of Japanese culture as he is diverted from the truth (in true Japanese fashion) time and time again. Gaby comes to Alex’s aid as his interpreter, though what follows for the two of them is a looking glass straight into the core of the Japanese. Nothing is what it seems on the surface, and no one is who they say they are.
Backer casts the story against the backdrop of quaint Shizuoka and Mount Fuji itself. The sheer entertainment and bittersweet humor of Backer’s writing sheds light on the mysteries of such a society. You can almost feel the pressure of being a gaijin (外人), or foreigner, within the sentences as Japanese girls cover their mouths with their hands every time you pass by.
I recommend American Fuji to anyone who sees themselves in Japan in the future. Some are drawn simply by the neon culture of Tokyo and the obsession with otaku-ism. But there’s so much more to Japan, and any other country for that matter. People flock to these kinds of abstract cultures and metropolises, but what do they really find? The beauty of living, working, or traveling to another country is to experience something that makes you stop and really think about what makes you happy. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with living a high-octane life at times, seeking out new opportunities, experiences, and pleasures. But eventually, where do you feel at home? While Japan is indeed ambiguous and withdrawn, some people, like Gaby, find comfort within that very rigidness.
I learned a lot while reading this novel. I’ve been studying Japanese for about three years, and hope to participate in the JET Programme after I graduate, and maybe even end up working in Japan. While reading the novel, I at first began to feel scared of and hesitant about working and being in Japan for a prolonged stay. I always hear people telling me, “The Japanese love it when you visit their country… as long as it’s less than three months.” Staying any longer would be “infringing upon the isolated culture of Japan”. But as the story progressed and I got to see more of Gaby’s courage and stubbornness to stay in Japan, all of my fears vanished. Of course I’ll still be nervous and awkward, but this is what I want to do. Not all of Japan is hellbent on the concept of uchi-soto (内外), or inside vs. outside. But the fact that there is such a mentality actually gives more reason to go. Foreigners never fit in Japan. But because of that, they can find a sense of purpose and uniqueness they may not back in their own country. For the most part in other countries, such as the US, people have some sense of equality. And yet that very equality removes the individuality of each person as they are cast into where everyone else is. In Japan, the distinctions between Japanese and foreigners in fact enables some to feel special; to truly feel they remain in that land out of choice, not obligation.
I hope you get a chance to read this book, and check out Sara Backer’s website and her blog!
– Image source @ http://americanfuji.blogspot.com/