Jeanine Walker is currently a PhD student in poetry at the University of Houston. Her novel, Three Hours South of Seoul, was a 2002 finalist in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.
Marilyn Abildskov's The Men In My Country
Expatriate in Love
Marilyn Abildskov. The Men In My Country. University of Iowa Press, 2004. Hardcover, 166 pp., $29.95.
I remember first leaving the customs area of Kimpo Airport in South Korea—I’d safely arrived for the first time in a foreign country, on my way to experience something I was unable to imagine. I remember how shockingly different I expected it to be. Yet all of the familiar things were right there, just as they’d been in the U.S. airport I’d left: telephone booths, exchange banks, buses waiting outside to take passengers to different cities. When I arrived in the city where I would spend the next three years, I was shocked at the number of cars on the road, at the plethora of neon signs, at the clothing shops that lined the city streets. Wasn’t it supposed to be different? It all seemed too familiar.
It took me months, or years, to understand the very particular way in which Korea was different from the U.S. The culture, yes, but those differences were always so exciting that I rarely felt them. What it was, really, was simply that I didn’t belong there: I would never be more than a foreigner.
In The Men in My Country, Marilyn Abildskov captures that constant feeling of displacement foreigners experience. For anyone who has ever been an expatriate, the foreignness depicted in this memoir will be achingly familiar. But even for those who have never left home, The Men In My Country resounds with its all-too-human sense of estrangement that we all feel from time to time.
An account of Abildskov’s years spent as an English teacher in Matsumoto, Japan, this book explores the life of one foreigner, a teacher to both children and adults, a friend, and most important to the theme of the memoir, a lover to three men. The narrative traces her relationships with Nozaki, a single lawyer in his forties; Amir, an Iranian factory worker; and a man simply referred to as the professor—married with a child, Marilyn-san’s only lover who is fluent in English. Abildskov takes us deep into her world, past Japan and into reaches governed by the heart, where not only gaijin are foreign but so too is anyone who has ever struggled with the complexities of love.
Marilyn first meets the professor at a speech competition for one of her junior high students. The professor engages Marilyn in a “seduction of facts.” They meet in his office, then in coffee shops and restaurants, each time moving closer, through their words, to intimacy. Her relationship with him, though it progresses, is kept in check with her occasional admissions that he’s married. This relationship exposes her as particularly harsh, yet conscious of her capacity for cruelty. More than once she expresses regret for something she has just said to him. “When I tell the professor he has, of the three men, given me the least, I wonder what possesses me to say such awful things.”
She encounters Amir in a music shop, and her conversations with him are shared in broken Japanese. Amir is the soothing one, the man who gives her a place to rest, someone she feels comfortable lying against. Their relationship is one of sex and food and nighttime meetings, and while she admits that she loves him, it is not the same love that she feels for Nozaki. Her interactions with Amir show Marilyn’s capacity for patience, kindness, for a warm love. Eating dinner with Amir and his Iranian housemates, she speculates about their mothers: “I imagine the trees of Iran, the poplars, the myrtle, the kunars. And always my mind returns to the mothers, the women I imagine weeping secretly into colorful scarves, the women cooking dinners of okra stew and rice and lentils and lima beans and missing these boys who will always be boys to them, these boys that tonight I see as men.”
Nozaki is the one man with whom Marilyn falls in love, prompting her to imagine a future for them in Japan, to conjure images of their possible children. She first meets Nozaki at a class she teaches for Japanese businessmen. In a room full of men whose only interests seem to be sex and golf, Nozaki stands out. He is a reader, a thoughtful, quiet man, who, like Marilyn, doesn’t seem inextricably tied to his home. He claims that his extensive reading has made him into a world traveler. She falls in love with his mind, with his particular English, with the simple way he tells her that he sees a rabbit in the moon. With Nozaki, Marilyn is a woman in love, happy and sometimes desperate, eager to see him when things are going well and endlessly willing to call him when the relationship starts to turn.
These three men reveal Marilyn in a way she wouldn’t be revealed if the reader saw her as only a teacher or witnessed little more than her interactions with friends. With Amir she is settled; with the professor she is daring; with Nozaki, vulnerable. What makes this memoir memorable, though, is not just this courageous revelation of character, but also the singularity of the narrative: these three men could be in no other place. They are tied to Japan and to her experience of the country, and what brought them into her life was her desire to feel a bond with the land where she felt she was merely a foreigner. “The fact is, the men are all mixed up together, the thread of one running into another, the threads of all three part of the country itself….” In this sense, the presence of the men in the travel narrative makes the book richer: the foreign country as a place of love; love as can only be experienced in a foreign land.
That said, the memoir functions quite stunningly on the level of the travel narrative. Abildskov describes Japanese culture with a poetic precision: “The woman at the post office figuring change out on an abacus, click, click, click. The men outside workplaces doing jumping jacks. The girls walking from juku, black braids swinging, bodies wrapped in dark crow-like coats.” While the pacing of the narrative shifts as Marilyn moves more deeply toward intimacy, the details continue, becoming increasingly tied to the relationships with which she is engaged. She weaves familiar details with unfamiliar. “We meet again one evening in the professor’s small office and continue talking about a range of topics, about Japanese farms and samurai and the ongoing controversy over imported rice.”
If in the typical travel narrative the traveler is supposed to emerge somehow changed, Abildskov certainly does that too. She changes from a woman who came to Japan to escape the tears that accompanied her waking to a woman happy with her life in rural Iowa. She offers more than the knowledge of herself, though, as she shifts roles in narrative stance. Abildskov begins from the position of a storyteller, which places the reader in the role of the patient or eager listener, and transitions to a more intimate relationship with the reader, in which she asks questions and writes conversationally. In this, she also gives the reader the chance to grow along with her. The pacing of her writing is such that one can travel with Marilyn as she experiences Japan and the different loves she finds there and can feel comfortable with the role she invites one to take as reader.
Abildskov appeals to the romantic in all of us. “Romance remains so misunderstood. It’s not about two people coming together. It’s about alienation, then reunion with the self. The secret life of what we love.” It becomes clear, by the end of the memoir, that foreignness is at least an actual state of being, and at best a metaphor for love. The narrator begins the book needing to leave her own country, feeling that alienation, and then finds herself again through a secret life in Japan—a life, though she shares it, that will always be mostly misunderstood by her American friends. Referring later to something Nozaki once said to her, Marilyn ruminates, “Love is wide….With the arrogance of youth, I thought I knew what he meant. How love was open and generous and kind and full. But now I know that love is sometimes narrow too. This is the paradox. Perfect but flawed.”
Two of the memoir’s most impressive strengths are the accurate portrayal of “foreignness” and Abildskov’s bold move to take the narrative beyond the story of being foreign—to use foreignness as a metaphor for one navigating her way through love. Upon first arriving, after beginning her teaching job, she writes, “I knew that no matter how much I felt a part of the place, I, too, could float away, that no one would notice, that I would not leave a trace. I watched the place from a distance; that distance made me ache.” This leads to her search for and introduction to the three men: “I must have been ripe for trouble. I must have been ready to meet those three men.”
Here is where Abildskov begins the book’s real journey: the search for confirmation that finding love will make Japan less foreign. In a way, it does: Japan, which at first is distant, becomes “my country” only after a declaration of love from Nozaki. Having found that love, Marilyn then feels comfortable enough to claim the place. Her foreignness prevails, though; she will leave all three of her lovers, and only then will it become clear to her that the true ache, that very real sense of foreignness, was her heart yearning for love.
After making the journey through the foreign country and through her own heart and having returned to the United States, Abildskov is shocked at the familiarity of it all. She becomes someone who now loves where she lives, who remembers. “I live in the land of memory now, have remembered now for seven years.” Abildskov makes it easy for the reader to remember with her, to know what it felt like to be a foreigner in Japan, to live and love there with such intensity that we too are forced to conclude that foreignness is a thing most often found in romance, which alone has the possibility to take us so far away from ourselves that we end up coming back, a familiar foreignness about us now, distinctly different.