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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Memoirs of a Gaijin: Emails from Japan - Book Review

I am in the process of reading yet another book on someone who went to Japan, taught English and had a good time.

I said "in the process". So why am I writing a review now?

It's because I am half-way through it, and I am waiting for something interesting to happen, and I don't think it ever will.

I've been a newspaper reporter in the past, and know that for the story - excluding thee headline - the firrst paragraph needs to bee something of a zinger to capture your attention. The second paragraph backs up the zinger and the third paragraph should be a quote to again back up the focal point of the story. Everything else after that is filler to give the reader a better view of the topic.

Granted I am reading a book and not a newspaper article, but I'm assuming that by the half-way mark, my attention should not only be smacked in the face, but I should be on the hook to want to continue reading the article/book.

That, sadly, is not the case when it comes to Memoirs of a Gaijin: Emails from Japan by author Benjamin Hesse.

It's not that Hesse is a bad writer - he's not. It's just that not a lot happens over the so-far 179 pages out of 265.

His hook, for me, was the fact that the majority of his description of life in Japan as a gaijin (foreigner/outsider) was done in the form of e-mails (I add a hyphen, but I am unsure if there is a more accepted way of writing the short-form word 'electronic mail').

I thought the concept to be inventive, so I was hooked enough to see how that would play out.

But... aside from multiple interesting tidbits of what his life was like as a teacher in a private English school for kids from age three on up to adults of whatever age, not much seems to be happening, except that people come, people leave, he has bad roommates, good roommates, makes friends, has friendships on hiatus as they leave... and all are with other foreigners. Borinnnnnnng.

Also boring are the included e-mail responses from his large cadre of family and friends who describe life back home in the U.S... boring news about the pro baseball and football teams, and god help us all, his alma mater small town university football team. Somebody just use my head as a football and kick the extra point!

There are some good tales about the wacky students he encounters at the school... but because the tales are encapsulated in an e-mail or six, they aren't fleshed out enough. It was a teaser, but after any prolonged bout of teasing, people begin to get fed up.

There was quite a good segment on his seeing a kabuki theater show - and full props on that for not understanding everything but describing it very well, nonetheless, but anyone can go to someplace and not understand things. Don't we read about Japan to learn something new or interesting about the place?

He also visits a kite museum, but doesn't explain - maybe because he never learned - why kites are a part of Japanese culture. Good grief! Even I know, and wrote about it in a blog here. 

Aside from the odd visit to Tokyo, and first-hand travel descriptions of his hometowns of Tsukuba and Tsuchiura, he doesn't appear to have done much while in Japan. Okay, he climbed Mt. Fuji, too, and while his description was decent, there wasn't constant enough diverse content on Japanese things for me, the reader.

I guess having an English degree from St. John's University in Minnesota is not a guarantee that one can have an interesting time in Japan or be able to adequately convey that with words.

Also annoying to me is that while Hesse seems pretty adventurous at traveling around his hometown by himself discovering new things, he wasn't adventurous enough to study and learn two of Japan's alphabets (hiragana and katakana) until well into his sixth month there. Plus, while I understand this, he also said he had no interest in learning the Chinese alphabet of kanji.

How can you go and live in Japan and not have any rudimentary language skills after six months? How do you even teach anyone in a classroom when you are by yourself? No wonder the kids are hitting each other - they are bored from not understanding what is going on.

And mind you, these comments come from a guy useless in Japanese language skills, but at the time I still knew hiragana and katakana - and could read parts of most sentences even if I didn't always know what it meant. As well, I did at one time memorize and learn how to correctly write over 500 kanji. Consider that to pass Japanese classes, a high school student must know the specific set of 1,942 of them - and I'm an idiot when it comes to foreign languages compared to most foreigners living and working in Japan.

In my defense, I did use those rudimentary language skills to my advantage to query Japanese people about their culture, society, history, and, who's kidding whom, to get laid.

Hesse also disappointed me by appearing to rarely be adventurous enough to sample Japan's ample cuisine... sure he ate the odd squid or octopus dish, but nothing else is mentioned... you know, like excessive amounts of corn on dumped on to pizza...

I was really hoping he would have some more exciting adventures than the thrill of finding a lost winter glove. Really. That was one of the highlights he excitedly wrote home about. It was just a lot of nothing about something uninteresting.

I'll finish the book, because that is what I do... I finish everything I begin. It's something I have been doing since I was 24. To Hesse's credit however, is that at least he wrote a book. I tip my hat to him for doing that. Starting earlier this month, I began doing that in earnest myself. I'm pretty sure I can fill a book with interesting stuff that will make a reader want to turn the page.

I can only hope that in the few remaining pages of the book, that Hesse and his story will begin to interest me as a reader. But, just like a newspaper article, if you don't grab the reader quickly, you risk the chance they won't read it.

Published by iUniverse, Inc., Memoirs of a Gaijin: Emails from Japan bears the rather hefty price tag of US$20.95.

My thanks, again, to my buddy Vince for the loan of his book.

Andrew Joseph

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