Before reading Rain Fall, what my year in Japan reminded me of most was a year my family spent in England. Instead of an eighth-grade teacher, I was the student. Superficial things: the food is different, the language is different, the kids wear school uniforms. Deeper attitude things: both are island nations with a sense of apartness from the geographical region (Europe and Asia are Them, not Us). In both places I felt tagged as an outsider. In Japan, obviously so, but to be perfectly clear, 96.9 percent of my family tree originates in the British Isles (and the rest is northern European): one might think that in Manchester I would have blended in.
But everyone in my school of nearly 2,000 knew that I was the American kid.* When I walked down the hall, someone would start singing “We’re the Kids in America” (a song I think is stupid to this day). In English class we read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I was the translator for cultural questions. Another teacher wanted to compare the educational system with the United States. I didn’t understand his questions, but even at fourteen I did my role as ambassador, and I could mumble something about there being pros and cons to everything.
It was also my first brush thinking about identity. My best friend, who’d been born in England, considered herself Polish—that’s where her parents were from—and had to defend herself against probably the “We’re the Kids” songsters on the playground.** Her thinking primed me for a conversation with a frustrated teacher when I got to Japan: how had my relatives responded when the Scottish one wanted to marry the English one? And then, good grief, a German one? Which side had they been on in the war? What did I call myself?
Some in my family probably did care. They were certainly keeping track: once, out of the blue, my grandmother told me, “All our Irish were Orangemen, you know.” In other words, they were Protestants, probably Scots, although like my Polish-English friend, that emigration could have been generations before. My grandmother said this like it was an anecdote about her immediate family, but she was talking about ancestors who’d come to the United States in 1810—generations before any firsthand knowledge of her own. And she was probably right.
Others in my family didn’t care—in fact, thought the tallying prideful. What would it feel like not to care? What would it feel like not to know? And what would it feel like to be someplace where people did care, and everybody knew?
That’s what being in England and Japan felt like to me—sometimes—not to make this sound like two years of oppression. Add a few more years in small towns with seasonal tourist trade; an ongoing, international, multivalent discussion of nationalism and allegiance; and out of the stew comes the novel I’m working on (a woman who discovers there’s a secret to her family past in Ireland, a country she’s never been to) and the empathy for the character I just read (the assassin in Japan). If this means I can now deduct genealogy as a business expense, this first draft will have worked harder than many.
* Another scarcity stat: in my grade—about 400 kids—I was one of three new students.
** A word of advice to bullies everywhere: do not mess with field hockey players. They’re in just as good shape as soccer players and they’re armed.