Nordic bombshell Ulrica Marshall is an expat and journalist who made a splash with her début novel $Expat Wives (available here). Most recently she created a firestorm of controversy by writing an article for Tokyo’s ‘Metropolis’ magazine that depicted wives of wealthy expats as extravagant and slothful, when everybody knows that they dump the kids with the nanny and head to Starbucks spend their days doing extremely meaningful and profound work.
Charles (C): Going from Scandinavia to Tokyo, was the change in climate a shock to the system?
Ulrica (U): Shock no, a joyful surprise yes! I actually moved to Japan during winter time, and I was delighted with the longer evenings (it is dark in Sweden from around 2pm in the bleak midwinter) and the clear, crisp blue skies. I definitely think the weather and light affects people and most of the year, Japan’s climate is lovely. There is a really hot, grey and humid period during the summer, during which time most expat wives and children decamp to fairer shores, often nearer home. But once back in late August, a pleasant warmth stays until late October and by November there are stunning autumnal colours in the parks. There are usually a few chilly weeks in late December through to February, but I quite enjoy the seasons and the excuse to snuggle up at home with a good film and a glass of Merlot. It is a chance to restore energies for the spring’s busy schedule, not least the hanami (cherry viewing) parties once the sakura blossoms in late March.
C: Sweden has an amazing reputation for environmentally concerned living and recycling. How does Japan compare in this respect?
U: With some 130 million inhabitants on a small patch of land, the clever Japanese have worked out that if they do not respect nature and one another, life will fall apart. Recycling and efficient disposal of waste is paramount and even at rock concerts you will find people placing the pet-bottles in designated bins, the paper label torn off and disposed of in another. Cigarette ash (they do like to smoke, the Japanese) is disposed of in portable ash trays. It is all very civilised. Not sure the same can be said about nuclear waste, but that is another story.
C: Your writing about expat wives made quite a splash. How would someone best prepare for the expat wife experience?
U: The thing about expat life is that often only one spouse – mostly the man – works, so for the wife the day-to-day circus of school drop offs, coffees and lunches and other activities take on a whole new and paramount meaning. I am not sure it is possible to prepare other than arriving in your surrogate country with an open and positive mind. Without your usual friends and extended family nearby, your new friends become a bit of a lifeline, so it is worth making a real effort as soon as you hit terra firma. There will always be a period of adjustment but as with everything in life, it’s what you make it.
C: I had the good fortune to live in Tokyo for a long time, and the Swedish Embassy always had the best parties. In post-earthquake Tokyo, is the party scene quite the same?
U: Really? Don’t think I have ever been invited to a party at the Swedish Embassy. I must have strong words! Still, social life slowed to a trickle after the earthquake. Many, many expats upped and left never to return and there were far fewer new arrivals in the expat community. Social life – at least for the expat community – had already slowed considerably due to the economic crisis as many employers relocated to other Asian cities, like Hong Kong and Singapore. That said, Tokyo will always have a sophisticated and chic party scene, people now just congregate in the same few bars. The Oak Door and Two Rooms bars remain popular and you could live a long time in the city before running out of fabulous restaurants to go to. The monthly Blacklist parties are always fun and, if in doubt, there is always a great buzz at old favourite Gonpachi (a plush restaurant) in Nishi-Azabu.
C: Are there any ways your daily life is still disrupted due to the 3.11 Earthquake?
U: Sadly, yes. Those who remained in Japan live on a kind of heightened alert. There have been a fair few shakes since the first one – though not strong enough to cause major damage, it is psychologically stressful knowing that it could happen again. The worlds’ scientists seem to be falling over themselves predicting the next big one, which doesn’t help to ease the mind. Also, there is still concern over radiation, even in Tokyo. None of this is a patch on the trauma and hardship suffered by those who live in the regions affected, though, so it feels wrong to complain too much.
C: Many people in Tohoku and around Fukushima are still displaced. how could people get involved and contribute to helping those people?
U: The Japanese Red Cross is still looking for donations (see here). There is also a good chance your local charity is collecting goods to send to Japan. The ultimate way to help, of course, is to go to the region and assist with the clearing and reconstruction, which sadly is happening at snails pace at the moment. There are many teams of volunteers going up every week, so you can join up with one. A friend runs a group called Save Minamisoma, which holds regular fundraising events as well as going up to the region with provisions. To find out more, look them up on Facebook.
C: When it comes to a meal, are you still craving hard Swedish bread (a staple food in Sweden) or will onigiri (rice balls) suffice?
U: Maybe I am Japanese at heart, because the onigiri wins hands down every time. My favourites are tuna mayonnaise or ikura (salmon roe). If the comparison had been to Japanese style bread, the Swedish alternative would have prevailed, as the other is full of refined carbohydrates and milk.
Without onigiri rice balls, the nation of Japan would implode.
C: What Japanese food do you recommend for people who have never visited Japan?
U: Everything apart from natto (a sticky unctuous bean curd)! Most people are well-versed with the delights of sushi, so this needs little introduction, a good kaiseki combines the best little bites of Japanese cuisine and my all time favourite is a tantamen (spicy sesame noodle soup) from a good ramen restaurant. There is a reason the Japanese live a long time, their traditional diet is full of good stuff, the vegetables, fish, rice and miso soup are hard to beat for nutrition and taste. But then, as I said, I am rather partial!
C: Do you intend on being in Tokyo for long time, or is a placement in Hong Kong, Singapore or some other Asian center looming?
U: After five years in Tokyo, I actually left for a host of reasons in December and am now living in Mallorca, one of the Balearic islands, in Spain. I had a wonderful – possibly the best – time in Japan and would recommend it to anyone. It is a much underrated tourist destination and surprisingly fun for children too. Mine will take a long time before forgiving me for uprooting them from their favourite place in the world. On the upside, the move will provide plenty more material for a follow-up to my debut novel, $Expat Wives, which was set in Tokyo. Expat life here is rife and very entertaining! So watch this space…
C: Please tell me a Japanese song you listen to a lot on your iPod.
‘Shine’ by Weaver. My youngest daughter is on the front cover of the album this song was on, and I became strangely hooked on this tune.
Image of ‘smoked salmon onigiri’ by Racum.