The View from Breast Pocket Mountain by Karen Hill Anton
Reviewed by Craig Storti
Readers have good cause to be wary of memoirs. They usually only work if the writer is very well-known, which means the details of his or her life are automatically interesting precisely because they apply to that individual. But if the memoirist is not well known, then there is no built-in interest of any kind; the details themselves have to be interesting. But not to worry: Karen Anton’s details pass the test—and then some.
I should say at the outset that it is not a typical cross-cultural memoir or even an especially cross-cultural book at all, for that matter. By that I mean that Karen Anton does not write about The Cross-Cultural Experience; she writes about her experience, which just happens to have taken place in a lot of other cultures, most notably Japan. It’s a very personal story, in short, and contains very few of what we might call overt cross-cultural insights, which for this reader made it even more interesting. When people set out to write deliberately about crossing cultures, they sometimes get so wrapped up in making their points, they forget to be interesting (I should know!).
Karen doesn’t try all that hard because she doesn’t have to; her life just is interesting. The impact of culture is there in this book, of course, and you will certainly take some cross-cultural lessons away with you from the book, but you probably won’t realize you were ever in a classroom. Once in a great while she pauses to make a cross-cultural statement, but it’s just not in her to pontificate. God knows she could: a black woman married to a white man of Jewish background, driving from Amsterdam to Afghanistan in a Volkswagen Beetle, ending up living in rural Japan, whose father and then whose brother…well I don’t want to spoil it for you.
To my mind one of the most interesting cross-cultural moments in the book comes in a briefly sketched scene that occurs when she returns to New York City from her first time living abroad (in Scandinavia).
My good friend Keith Johnson picked me up at the airport. He took me to a loft he and some friends were sharing downtown on Pitt Street.
“What happened here?” I said to Keith, noticing a garbage-filled empty lot between two apartment buildings?
“What do you mean?”
“It’s so dirty.”
“Karen, “ he said. “It’s always been like that.”
I actually had not noticed before. Coming back from Copenhagen, where I felt I could have eaten off the streets, I realized I was seeing New York City for the first time.
This scene is unusual in that it is one of the very few places where Karen underlines and draws attention to the “cross-culturalness” of the moment. “It was my first experience,” she writes, “seeing my country…from a new perspective.”
It’s one of the strengths of this book that that’s about as didactic as Karen gets. But she doesn't have to be didactic; her life is the lesson. It doesn't matter what experience she is telling you about—living on a farm in rural Denmark, talking with three Afghan women outside Herat, trying to find a sympathetic doctor when she’s ready to give birth to her second child—her encounters with others are so inherently cross-cultural, she doesn't have to spell anything out for you. She could, of course—“Now what that experience taught me was…”—but that would have been a much less compelling book. She trusts her readers enough to let them draw their own conclusions from the anecdotes she describes. Here’s the life, she seems to be saying; you do the work.
At the time she wrote The View, she had lived in Japan almost five decades and raised four children, and the second half of the book is a fascinating account of what it’s like for a foreigner who is also a black woman and an American to make her life in Japan. She is amazingly non-judgmental—some of the more extreme cultural differences she has to confront would defeat most of us—always trying to understand, but she is not afraid to stand her ground, culturally speaking, when she must.
On a personal note, I’d like to point out that Karen makes a comment in her author interview (see below) that struck me almost as much as anything she writes in the book. It is the one-line observation she makes in answer to question #5: “Crossing cultures is a two-way street.” My instinctive reaction was: No, it’s not; it's up to the foreigner to do the crossing, to adjust. And then I thought: Hmm. Is that altogether true? If you are in your own culture interacting with foreigner, is it too much to ask that you should be sensitive to the fact that the foreigner is out of his/her comfort zone, unsure, struggling, and that you might want to extend a helping hand? I have no idea if this is what Karen means by that statement, but it made me think.
1. Why did you write this book?
I had a dedicated readership of my Japan Times column “Crossing Cultures”. But I always knew my readers were only getting part of my story—the story of an American woman married to an American, raising four children in rural Japan. I had more stories to tell and experiences to share.
To say my life has been unique is not to say much since every life is unique. However, I am fully aware my life has not only been different, but unusual. For instance, I imagined there were those who’d be interested in the details of how I travelled to Japan. I know there are not many women who can say they drove from Amsterdam to Afghanistan in a VW Bug with a 5-year-old child.
2. What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from this book?
If we could see the future, we could prepare ourselves for tragedy, steel ourselves against heartbreak. But that prescience would also ensure that we be cynics.
We all may face adversity, be it loss, hurt, or rejection. We can overcome these by choosing to highlight those instances in our lives of caring and friendship, encouragement, support, and love. It is what makes us resilient.
3. Name one or two books in our field that influenced you the most, that you think all interculturalists should be familiar with? Why?
Education for the Intercultural Experience (R. Michael Paige, Editor, Intercultural Press). I had the pleasure to be in Michael’s seminar at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication in Portland, Oregon. The book is a compilation of essays by established interculturalists, and I remember telling Michael that I’d actually checked the copyright date (1993) because I was sure I had been plagiarized! Michael laughed and responded: “It just means you are entirely original.” The book may now be dated, but I recall its many insights closely aligned with mine.
Deep Culture (Joseph Shaules, Multilingual Matters) stands out among his many excellent books. Shaules is an astute observer, and participant, of the intercultural experience, and his well-written books are a valued contribution to the field.
4. What is one of the most significant, most memorable cross-cultural experiences you have had?
In 1982, I planned to attend my daughter Mie’s kindergarten recital. I knew all of her classmates’ grandparents would be there. Not having grandparents in Japan ourselves, I decided to invite my neighbors, Ōi-san, Ōtani-san, and Arai-san. Farmers, and ladies born in the Taisho Era, they accepted my invitation, donned kimono, and accompanied me to the recital. I felt I had their support.
5. If you could pass on only one insight/one lesson learned to others about crossing cultures, what would you say?
Crossing cultures is a two-way street.
6. This newsletter goes to nearly 1,000 readers, folks who are either in or interested in the field of intercultural communications. If you’d like to say something else to these folks, something we have not asked about in this questionnaire, feel free to add your brief comments here.
Even with its challenges, many of us may count ourselves fortunate that we have had the intercultural experience. We’ve come to know the many benefits of living outside the cultures we were born into. And we may learn that although we appreciate and respect how different cultures are, there is a deep joy in finding how much we share and are alike in the things that matter. We are all, truly, connected. Transcending the bonds of identity, by strengthening those bonds of our shared humanity, gives us the world.