Read an excerpt: Chapter 1 of The Good Shufu

Excerpt: The #GoodShufu by Tracy Slater CHAPTER 1

I met him in #Kobe, #Japan, in May 2004. Three weeks later, he told me he loved me. At least I thought that’s what he said.

We were hidden away far past midnight in my dorm room at a #corporate training center. He was balanced above me on his arms while I stared up from below. I was a new #faculty member in an East Asia executive MBA program. All twenty of my students were men. He was one of them. I’d already fallen #inlove with him, too.

I was supposed to be teaching these men business communication: how to lead teams and run meetings in a language and culture not their own. I knew almost nothing about English as a second language—or ESL—and had been hired under the flawed assumption that since I taught #writing to American graduate #students in Boston I could coach this group of Asian businessmen to talk like native English speakers.

I began to realize what I was up against on my first day of class, when I learned that most of my students had never worked with a woman who didn’t serve them tea. Anyway, by now, a few weeks into the job, I was already failing miserably in the #classroom, never mind my extracurricular late-night transgressions with a #student who could barely speak English but had already begun to make my heart spin.


Back in Boston a month and a half earlier, on the day I’d been recruited for the job, I’d been warned I might confront challenges as a young American woman #teaching senior Asian #businessmen. It was early April, before I’d ever set foot in the Far East, and the Korean faculty director of the program had tried, indirectly, to prepare me. I had yet to learn that in East Asia the most important #communication is almost always indirect, where #meaning is often a destination arrived at through multiple circuitous way-stops.

The director was sitting behind the broad desk in his office, books piled high against the wall, when he introduced his pitch to me. The window behind him boasted a panoramic view of the Charles River, #Cambridge stretched out beyond. One of #MIT’s domes stood proud and gray in the distance, as if nodding sagely at its lesser colleagues across the water.

“The executive students all work for global #Japanese and #Korean corporations,” he said. “You’ll be traveling with them to Kobe, Beijing, and Seoul for each of the program’s monthlong summer modules, where they’ll see firsthand the manufacturing sectors across a range of markets. Then they all come here for nine months.” He drew his hands wide in an expansive sweep, as if displaying the whole group in miniature right there. “They’ll finish their degrees in Boston before returning next spring to their homes and companies in #Asia.” He smiled broadly, then sat back and folded his hands.

“You won’t be giving them grades. Just sit with them at meals, get them talking, go to their #marketing and strategy classes with them. Help them on their case studies and assignments. Some may be demanding, but you can handle this, yes?” He leaned forward toward me, both hands on his desk. “You have a Ph.D., so you’re a professional, no?” Sitting back, he laughed then, at what I wasn’t sure, but I laughed along with him. I wanted to suggest that—for the business-class tickets and a summer semester of highly compensated #travel as a kind of “conversation coach”—this was work I could easily manage.

In truth, not only had I never been to East Asia or taught #ESL, my Ph.D. was in English and American #literature, not linguistics or organizational behavior. Moreover, I barely had an interest in cultures other than my own, although within my liberal #academic circle, my #provincialism wasn’t something I’d easily admit.

That April morning, just hours before the director offered me the job, I’d woken in my street-level studio apartment in #Boston’s South End, the city where I’d always lived and planned to settle for good. As the sun streamed through my old floor-to-ceiling windows, I lay in my high-thread-count sheets and savored both the stillness and predictability of my life as a left-leaning, thirty-six-year-old confirmed Bostonian: overeducated, fiercely protective of my #independence, and deeply committed to the #cultural values of the #liberal northeastern U.S.

Around me in the silence, the light swept across my bookshelves, full of volumes leaning left and right. Somewhere in the middle of all the Shakespeare and Milton, the Hemingway, Mailer, and Morrison, and the barely skimmed pages of literary theory, stood my own thinly bound doctoral dissertation on gender and violence in the modern American novel. On the floor lay a half-read copy of Vogue. My laptop was perched on a makeshift desk in front of kitchenette shelves stuffed not with dishes or pans but with papers and syllabi from ten years of teaching at local universities, which were crammed next to shopping bags and old tax returns. In the storage loft above the mini kitchen were all the shoes I couldn’t fit in the studio’s small closet, rows of heels and boots and little ballet-slipper flats stacked on wooden racks.

As I did most days, I lingered awhile before leaving for my meeting on campus, luxuriating in the quiet, grateful for both the life I’d built around me and what it lacked: no complicated marriage or crying child to colonize my time. Then I climbed out of bed, showered, dressed, added a swipe of makeup, and stopped at my usual café for a soy chai before heading to the Boston-area university where I now taught. On my way out for the day, I ignored the mezuzah my mother had insisted I hang on the door frame, its tiny Old Testament scroll hidden in silver casing.

The only time my regular morning ritual differed, before my trip to East Asia changed everything, was the one day a week I’d go to Norfolk Corrections Center, a men’s medium-security prison. Then I’d wake at dawn, skip the makeup, wear an old pair of flats, and drive the barren highway west. I’d reach the barbed-wired complex early, then pass through a series of electric gates before arriving at the classroom where I’d spend three hours teaching literature and gender studies in a college-behind-bars program to male convicts. This was the work I truly valued, one in a string of progressive education jobs I’d had: running writing classes for homeless adults, preparing inner-city teens for college, teaching first-generation undergraduates at a public university. The writing seminars for American MBAs funded my work in these other programs.

Either way, whether I was headed to prison or the ivory tower, I always began my morning firmly rooted on the exact path I had scripted for myself, what one ex-boyfriend termed “your life as a nonpracticing communist.” I had a large circle of like-minded friends; a combination of academic jobs that satisfied me politically, socially, and intellectually; plus cash to buy great shoes. I’d planned each aspect of my world meticulously until together they created a kind of bulwark against the handful of mistakes I swore I’d never make: to take blind leaps of faith, give up my home in Boston, become dependent on a man, build a traditional nuclear #family like my parents had, or, most important cook dinner on a regular basis.

When he sought me out, the Korean director knew me only from my reputation around the business school. The year before, the deans had hired me to create a new writing curriculum for their on-campus graduate management program, and though I told him I’d never even been to East Asia, let alone taught there, the director had convinced himself that I was the woman to turn his foreign execs-in-training into English conversationalists—and to start in just a few weeks’ time. Once he floated the idea by me, I assured him (remembering my Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking students in lockup), “Well, I have had nonnative speakers in my literature classes before, lots of times.”

“Excellent.” He nodded, confirming my perfection for the job.

I played along. After all, I reasoned, the money they were offering for three months of work was more than five times what I’d make in a whole year teaching in prison, and I liked to travel. Besides, what could these #EastAsian executives possibly throw at me that I hadn’t already seen either behind bars or in an #MBA classroom?

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