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The Men in My Country

Marilyn Abildskov

Publication Year: 2004

In the early 1990s, at the watershed age of thirty, Marilyn Abildskov decided she needed to start over. She accepted an offer to move from Utah to Matsumoto, Japan, to teach English to junior high school students. “All I knew is that I had to get away and when I stared at my name on the Japanese contract, the squiggles of katakana, my name typed in English sturdily beneath, I liked how it looked. As if it—as if I—were translated, transformed, emerging now as someone new.”

The Men in My Country is the story of an American woman living and loving in Japan. Satisfied at first to observe her exotic surroundings, the woman falls in love with the place, with the light, with the curve of a river, with the smell of bonfires during obon, with blue and white porcelain dishes, with pencil boxes, and with small origami birds. Later, struggling for a deeper connection—“I wanted the country under my skin”—Abildskov meets the three men who will be part of her transformation and the one man with whom she will fall deeply in love.

A travel memoir offering an artful depiction of a very real place, The Men in My Country also covers the terrain of a complex emotional journey, tracing a geography of the heart, showing how we move to be moved, how in losing ourselves in a foreign place we can become dangerously—and gloriously—undone.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Front Matter

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pp. 1-4

The town? A medium-sized city in the mountains, someplace called Matsumoto. I had just turned thirty, a watershed year. I would start over that year. I knew I would. I wanted to, I needed to. I didn't know the difference then between want and need. All I knew is that I had to get away and when I stared at my name ...

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pp. 5-10

At first I am charmed by this, at what "cultural exchange" here means: that the businessmen will crack jokes most nights in Japanese—jokes about each other, each other's wives, each other's girlfriends, real and pretend; jokes about waistlines that thicken, jokes about hair as it thins. Their jokes, I reason, give me a glimpse into a

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pp. 11-14

Does Mr. Yoshida prefer chopsticks to forks? Bread to rice? Sapporo to Kirin beer? Mr. Yoshida's attention drifts elsewhere, down the row. He is as bored with me as I am with him. Nozaki, at the end of the table, says something and the whole group explodes. I feel a surge of pride at his cleverness, his wit. He has told a joke. Nozaki has told a joke tonight ...

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pp. 15

I can feel the eyes of the other businessmen on us both, wondering at the meaning behind Marilyn-sensei's singular approach. No one is laughing tonight; no one is making any golf- or sex-related jokes. In one way, no, Nozaki says. But in another way, he has already traveled the globe. What do you mean? I ask. ...

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pp. 16-21

At Meizen the classrooms look all alike. Old hardwood floors. Beat-up desks, six across, six deep. Potted flowers near a sink. And a blackboard that students, including Ken'ichi, wash twice a day during our ritual cleaning shifts. Outside is a garden filled with snow all winter and flowers all spring. ...

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pp. 22-24

Natalie gives me the professor's phone number and tells me she will also give the professor mine. You two would probably like each other. She accomplishes this so effortlessly I think this must be how an omiai must work, what a relief it must be to have these small details orchestrated by someone else. ...

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pp. 25-26

And this is the night the professor opens up, telling me the sorrows of his professional life, his days as a student activist, how he'd been branded in the sixties because of his Marxist beliefs, so that now he stood no chance of becoming a professor at Tokyo University, his alma mater, the country's most prestigious university, what everyone ...

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pp. 27-30

But the room is too dark and I cannot see, so I settle in and watch as the play proceeds in its ramshackle way, scene changes taking longer than the play itself, actors stumbling over foreign language lines. And the seven dwarfs, inchoate junior high school boys, marching across the stage solemnly, as if in a funeral procession, looking so ...

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pp. 31-32

I tell him these children need to learn some respect, that they ought to realize even gaijin are people too, but I mix up my words in Japanese and wind up telling the principal, even foreigners are carrots, too. After lunch another day, a boy approaches me at my desk in the teachers' room and points and turns bright red. ...

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pp. 33-36

Yesterday it was reams of rice paper, enough to wallpaper a small house; the day before that, three red paper umbrellas, the kind I could buy in the States for a fraction of the price. These trinkets, these CDs—they are an attempt, I know, to weigh myself down, to keep myself from floating away as if I were Dorothy in ...

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pp. 37-42

He finishes the vegetable soup I have prepared; I finish off the first bottle of wine. Then we sit back and watch the candles shrink and the night open up and the professor asks why I came to Japan. I want to tell him about how my life used to be, not its facts exactly but its temperature, how the temperature went up and down in ...

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pp. 43-46

You remember that you don't leave chopsticks standing up straight in a bowl of rice because it's a sign of death; you do not wear bathroom slippers anywhere but in the bathroom stall because to do so is—well, it's just gross, that's all. You go along and you adapt and you change and you are young, you are still so young, and you are so lucky to be living in a foreign ...

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pp. 47-51

Rachel nods. Understands. Agrees. Trouble is everything. She is of the opinion that sex and love can't be bedfellows, anyway, so this particular split seems fine to her. The ideal situation: a decent bloke, an above-average fuck. She knows, too, that woman does not live on fantasy alone, that it's not enough to lust after the boys at school, which we do. ...

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pp. 52-54

... owners have artistically arranged various blue and white bowls and plates and cups and it strikes me as strange that this is the place where clandestine affairs take place and I wonder if people have, at various times, in the midst of a fight, wanted to smash those beautiful blue and white dishes to the ground. ...

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pp. 55

... use that money to visit me in the States, he says. I hold the tiny slip of paper with numbers on it and am moved that this man has done the math on us, figured a way to concoct a future even while our present, at best, remains precarious. You'd be welcome, I tell him, and I'm pleased with myself for this ...

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pp. 56-58

... sometimes shows up and sometimes doesn't. Tonight he has shown up, Nozaki has, and I am trying to explain what the anthropologist Ruth Benedict said in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword about the distinction between shame-based cultures and guilt-based cultures so I can ask the businessmen what they ...

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pp. 59-64

I've already received two gifts from the businessmen: a single elegant lacquer teacup with a delicate lacquer saucer and spoon (which I imagine they have purchased for me because I am a woman alone and they envision me drinking tea in a solitary state) and a nylon travel bag (which they have reason ...

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pp. 65-66

... happens next happens as if out of time and space. The time is spring. The place is Japan. The woman is me. Nozaki is the man. These are the facts. But why is it facts never seem like enough? What I want to remember is not meeting the men but the feeling after. The weight involved. The weight of affection. I remember that. ...

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pp. 67-69

Nozaki's black cat saunters by, pauses by her master, then arches her back, hisses and storms past me, her neko nose high and haughty in the air. She is only jealous, Nozaki says when I ask if it's something I said. I am pleased by this, that there is something for Miss Kitty to be jealous about, but also just a little stung. ...

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pp. 70-72

Usually Nozaki negotiates all our eating and drinking in Japanese. When our beers arrive, I forget where I am—the country of Japan—and drink straight from the bottle rather than pouring the beer into glasses—first for him, then for me—as I usually would. Nozaki watches, his eyes getting wide. ...

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pp. 73-76

... men in my country smoke too much. On trains, in restaurants, at temples, at home in the middle of the night—they reach for cigarettes first thing in the morning, before they eat breakfast, before they drink coffee, before they have kissed the women they claim to love, the women who sleep so quietly, who never smoke. ...

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pp. 77-78

When I took the job at the ABC School and moved out of my teachers' flat, owned by the city, I became a vagabond without a place to call her own, moving between Natsume-san's house and Sara's borrowed extra room. Amir's place, where he lives ...

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pp. 79

... me back to the ABC School that day, I'm reeling from what I think of as the greatest of put-downs. I script mine to throw back at him, telling the professor he reminds me of Mr. Kato, one of the Japanese businessmen. Mr. Kato, the professor knows, is someone who brags about his routine extramarital affairs and I have ...

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pp. 80-82

... an exhibit in a Chicago art museum once that featured the work of the American photographer Harry Callahan: black and white studies of nature and the female form. Black and white studies of the sensual slope of grass. Black and white curves of a woman's back, of Eleanor, Callahan's wife. ...

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pp. 83-86

We continue meeting and I see that, as neither mistress nor friend, I occupy some peculiar in-between place in the professor's life. And I begin to think of us as two people stuck on some terrible borderline, a place where ordinary restrictions no longer apply but where ordinary pleasures, too, cease to exist. ...

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pp. 87-88

... about scientists once, who, in studying deer mice, found that in taking the small creatures out of their nest boxes at night, the mice were quick to return home to their nests, their boxes, on their own. But when the scientists returned the deer mice to their homes by hand, the mice were quick to try to leave once again, causing the scientists to conclude the mice cared ...

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pp. 89-93

... continues calling, usually just to check in and see how my day has gone, something I realize—and even now, years later, I find this both startling and sad—I have never before experienced with a man. And eventually, I recant on my earlier position, tell him it's okay to continue having sex. ...

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pp. 94-96

... in the land of memory now, have remembered now for seven years. I remember fragments, piled up. The rustling of the trees. Laundry flapping in a breeze. The curve of a river. Steps leading to a temple on the hill. A girl next door practicing the violin at 8 'clock every day. An old man on the street, singing. A chant? A Buddhist ...

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pp. 97-101

... afternoon, all the men in my country are all busy or away and I am free for the afternoon of my ABC School responsibilities. So I hop a train and go downtown. Downtown is pale and deserted and still—empty of schoolchildren who are still in school, empty of grownups who are all at work ...

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pp. 102

... this: A group of girls rescuing kittens abandoned in the forest on the outskirts of school. The girls kept the kittens in the English teachers' small, crowded room. Between classes, they ran to the box where the kittens huddled, cooing out loud, holding each kitten up. The kittens wriggled when held, made tiny sounds from perfect pink and o-shaped mouths ...

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pp. 103-106

Inside the dark theater, I hold the professor's hand, conscious of how he's watching, utterly rapt as imploded lives unfold on the screen and Newland Archer unbuttons Ellen Olenska's glove and Newland Archer says he has missed out on the flower of life. And when the film ends, I let go of the professor's hand ...

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pp. 107-108

... Nozaki in snapshots now: Nozaki in faded Levi's, an old sweatshirt. His hair greasy. I'm thinking he looks handsome this night, that it's just this greasy hair that men before have lacked. He has had car trouble earlier. Changed a tire all by himself. Never got a chance to go to the baths. He goes to the ...

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pp. 109-110

... drives me home, holding a cigarette in one hand, turning the radio with the other. Shadows of pine trees flicker by outside. I can pick out a word here, a phrase there, but my Japanese is too sketchy to make sense of something as complicated as the radio's nightly news. I wonder if this is as good it gets. ...

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pp. 111

... it happens. We meet for a drink. We talk. Nothing feels started or ended, nothing feels alive or resolved. Nozaki drives me home, drops me off in front of the ABC School and Natsume-san's house. There is nothing unusual about this night, save one small gesture. The absence of a gesture. ...

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pp. 112-116

Her fiancée had put a shotgun to his head after a long struggle with cocaine and booze and that sent this woman right around the bend. She told me about her stay in the loony bin, which lasted two weeks, without any embarrassment. But there were other things, she said. Things she had done ...

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pp. 117-124

I have remembered now for seven years. And what I try to remember isn't just the men or the country but also the woman who was me. The me who bought an expensive bottle of champagne one day. Then brought that bottle to a certain man's place one day at noon. The me who believed that love ...

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pp. 125-128

... I tell the professor he has, of the three men, given me the least, I wonder what possesses me to say such awful things. He stares at his coffee, then off into space. You're not in a position, I continue, hoping to soften this undeserved blow, to give me what I need. For this is the problem with married men: They're ...

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pp. 129-132

... it had ended there? With an exchange at his door about the weather that day? With the gift of an umbrella and a simple pair of good-byes? If it had ended on some note of dignity and calm? In my remaining days I do not understand that it is over. The reality, as they say, is not sinking in. ...

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pp. 133-138

... my remaining days, I carry a plane ticket that indicates when I will be leaving this place, but the reality of leaving does not enter me. Three days before this ticket indicates I am to leave, I check myself into an anonymous hotel, the restlessness that defines me having reached a fever pitch. ...

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pp. 139-141

... Narita airport two women saw me struggling with two overstuffed bags and helped me shove them along to the front of a line, where, waiting for the line to move, all the movies I had ever seen collided to convince me that still he was coming, that Nozaki would, in a dramatic last-minute cinematic scene, show up just to see ....

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pp. 142-146

... a long time, everything I encountered threw me back: I'd take a bath and long for an afternoon at the sentō. I'd see children and think of the black-haired children I'd left, wishing myself back to the ABC School. Cutting up construction paper stars. Looking for the rabbit in the moon. Seeing him. ...

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pp. 147

... went on, I adjusted slowly. And as I adjusted, I would be glad for physical reminders of the place I'd left behind. Those blue dishes. A book of poetry from a certain man. A string of teeny-weeny origami birds. Some seventh grade girls folded the birds for me and put them on a string as a good-bye gift. When they honored me, I remembered the story ...

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pp. 148-151

... men in my country are long gone now. I live in Iowa, a square and sturdy place. I like where I live, like how quiet the town is, lots of students and professors spending a good deal of time in their heads. I like Midwestern stoicism, which reminds me of the Japanese reticence toward anything but the smallest of talk. I like the weather. ...

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pp. 152-156

It was a night before winter turned to spring and I was seeing someone, a man fluent in many languages. I thought he was smart and elegant and I liked him because he liked me, he said, because I had a very distinctive nose and I liked him, too, because he was a man of two worlds and once, when I was sick with a cold, he left two presents in front of my door: a small ...


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pp. 157-158

E-ISBN-13: 9781587295126

Publication Year: 2004