Gou ni itte wa, gou ni shitagae, runs an old Japanese proverb: Obey the customs of the village you enter.
Just don’t overdo things.
It may already be too late for Cricket Collins, a recent Ivy League graduate who travels to Osaka for his first real job as an English instructor. The time is late 1970s, with Japan quickly becoming the new find-yourself region that India was to the backpack set in the 1960s. From pachinko parlors to paper cranes, tea ceremonies to translation problems, everything is entrancing to Cricket, at first, as he throws himself headfirst into a two-thousand-year-old culture.
But soon he gets fired from his teaching job at Kansai Gakuin for petty theft, and on a brief trip to Korea he becomes embroiled in a sexual misadventure with painful after-effects. Spinning slowly out of orbit in his free-floating expatriate existence, he starts to lose touch with family, friends, and reality. It isn’t until he returns home to America that he begins to turn Japanese with a vengeance.
Turning Japanese is as much about the allure of a foreign culture as it is about the divided existence of an expat and the terrors of ones own mind. Be careful of breaking down the barriers between two cultures: the breakdown you create may be your own.
Though its general appeal is limited, Galef's second novel (after Flesh) is bound to strike a chord with the 20-somethings who, like protagonist Cricket Collins, have postponed (or have contemplated postponing) post-college life with a teaching job in another country. Cornell grad Cricket has put off law school for a year and signed on as an English instructor in Japan, but he quickly finds that life for a gaijin is more complicated than the one he has left behind. Cricket's minor misadventures--dealing with an officious cleaning lady, teaching enthusiastic but only slightly comprehending students, romancing Reiko, his Japanese girlfriend, during a lugubrious visit with her parents, even trying a Korean prostitute--fail to add up to much of a narrative. If the reader doesn't get much of an insight into Japanese culture, it's because we're stuck in the orbit of Cricket, a young man who interests himself more than he interests us. When Cricket cracks up while leading a class of businessmen in conversational English, the book spins (with its protagonist) out of control toward an unearned "tragic" ending back in the U.S., with its sad young hero still trying retrospectively to break out of his expat isolation. FYI: Galef, who has lived in Japan, is the author of "Even Monkeys Fall from Trees" and Other Japanese Proverbs.