Place of birth: Silvis, Illinois USA (I’m actually from nearby Andover, but it’s too small to have a hospital!)
Passport: USA only — but I’m on my third edition!
Overseas history: Japan (Yokohama, Kameoka, Nagoya): 1995-96; 1998-99; 2008-10.
Occupation: Mother and author of the Cherry Tucker Mystery Series. I’m also working on a mystery series set in contemporary Japan.
Cyberspace coordinates: The Expat Returneth — Sharing my life overseas, my life at home, and the other world that lives between my head and paper (blog); Larissa Reinhart: Writing mysteries and romance south of the sweet tea line (author site) @riswrites (Twitter handle); Larissa Reinhart (FB page); and Larissa Reinhart (Good Reads).
What made you leave the United States to live in a faraway land?
I’ve always wanted to live overseas. Before I got the chance to do it physically, I traveled through books — for instance, The Crane Maiden, by Miyoko Matsutani, and The Laughing Dragon, by Kenneth Mahood (I have passed them to my children). When I got older, I loved Elizabeth Peters mysteries, which are set in Egypt.
Was anyone else in your immediate family displaced?
My family is firmly rooted in Illinois, but was always interested in other cultures. My father was a history teacher, and I had a good understanding of geography and world history from him. I also had a grandfather who loved to travel. As a kid, I read his National Geographic collection and was fascinated by the countries he visited, particularly Egypt. He probably would have loved to have been displaced, but had to wait until retirement to travel.
Tell me about the moment during your various stays in Japan when you felt the most displaced.
My husband had a scholarship from the Monbu-shō to study at Keio University, so I applied to the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme — and ended up getting to Japan a few weeks before he did. I lived with a homestay family. They spoke no English. I spoke no Japanese. They were very sweet, but they swung between helicopter-parent smothering and leaving me for long periods of time alone in a tatami room. I had horrible jet lag and felt so isolated and helpless. Once I moved into an apartment, my jet lag abated and I began enjoying myself. I had traveled to Egypt previously — but hadn’t experienced that kind of debilitating jet lag that comes with a 13-hour time difference. It’s a killer!
When did you feel the least displaced?
We have two young daughters from China. Four years ago, we took them to Nagoya to live for a couple of years. We saw it as a chance for them to experience life in Asia at a time in their lives when it was still easy to move around and adjust. They loved Japan. By the end of our two years, we all wanted to stay, but unfortunately couldn’t. There is no one particular instance, but lots of little, everyday moments we hark back to and can’t seem to reproduce back here — our family living comfortably in our tiny house, walking to shops and restaurants in the neighborhood, my children riding their bikes with the local kids to play at the neighborhood park…
You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of the countries where you’ve traveled or lived into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
A ceramic tanuki (Japanese raccoon-dog). Japanese families and businesses keep them in front of their doors to welcome guests. It’s similar to the Maneki-neko (beckoning cat), but more fun because of their sake bottle and large kintama (golden testicles), which are meant to bring good fortune.
Hmmm…moving right along: You are also invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on the menu?
I like Japanese bar food, so we’ll have a meal based on that.
Appetizer: Edamame (boiled & salted green soy beans) and a Grapefruit Sour to drink. My favorite bars in Japan will give you a glass of ice, seltzer, and shōchū (grain alcohol) and a half-grapefruit with a strainer for you to squeeze the juice into the glass. Really refreshing.
Main: A bunch of Japanese tapas dishes — yaki-gyōza (fried potstickers), tebasaki (grilled wings), pari pari renkon chips (spicy, deep fried lotus root), tsukune (grilled chicken meatballs), and yakitori (skewered grilled chicken)
Dessert: Japan isn’t big into dessert, so we’ll have a savory bowl of ramen instead. And maybe another Grapefruit Sour. Or two.
Yum, you’ve brought me back to my own izakaya days… And now can you please suggest a Japanese word or expression for the Displaced Nation’s argot?
Chuto-hanpa. It literally means half-measure, but is used to describe doing something half-assed. I love this word.
We’re getting into a bit of a Halloweeny mood at the Displaced Nation. Tell me, did you keep the American Halloween tradition alive while living in Japan?
We did celebrate Halloween in Japan with our children. It’s becoming popular there in terms of decorations and parties (we even found an American-type pumpkin for $20), but trick-or-treating is an oddity. You don’t request gifts from people — certainly not door-to-door. Our neighbors would deliver snacks in a plastic jack-o-lanterns to our house instead. One expat friend arranged a trick-or-treating excursion for the children as part of a Halloween party. But first we mothers delivered bowls of candy to the businesses and homes in the area so that, when we brought the children round to trick-or-treat, they would have something to give them. People probably thought we were crazy, but at least they found the children in costume adorable.
Also in keeping with the season, we’ve started exchanging expat horror stories on the site. What’s the creepiest situation you’ve encountered on your travels?
It was on a trip to Thailand. My husband and I hung out on a beach at Koh Samui for a few days. To get back to the mainland, we had to hike across the island to catch a boat. We were proceeding along the dirt road, chatting…when I felt something grab my arm. Without breaking stride, I glanced down and saw a monkey, teeth bared, ready to bite me. Suddenly it flew off my arm, and I screamed. It had been chained to the side of the road, and was ripped away as it reached the end of its tether. Its vicious eyes and sharp teeth will forever be burned in my memory. That nasty monkey must have been someone’s pet. My husband saw it standing next to its stake before it jumped on my arm. Too busy talking, I totally missed it and walked within its perimeter. You can bet I have remained vigilant for monkeys ever since. I had a close call with some snow monkeys in Nagano, as well. I am not a fan.
The first book in your Cherry Tucker mystery series is called Portrait of a Dead Guy. That sounds a little creepy. Is it?
It’s actually a humorous mystery, but the idea of painting a coffin portrait is creepy even for my heroine, a sassy Southern artist named Cherry Tucker. However, she’s desperate for a commission, which is why she offers her services. The dead guy has been murdered, and his stepmother felt that a final portrait would be a fitting commemoration. Cherry ends up as another potential victim of the murderer because of her proximity to the corpse. That said, she does have one spooky scene at night in a funeral home, alone with the dead body, which ends badly.
Painting a portrait of a dead man — how did you think that one up?
In truth, coffin portraits are not all that unusual, depending on your culture. Many cultures use a portrait of the deceased with their memorialization. I know a family friend who was asked to photograph a coffin portrait to send to the deceased’s family in Asia. They would probably place the photo in a family shrine and burn incense for a specific number of days along with other rites.
Tell me about your plans for the Japanese mystery series.
I’m a humorous mystery writer, so I look at the lighter side of crime. Did you know that the Japanese love mysteries? I think it’s because they have so little crime. I have another Southern heroine for the Japanese series, which will bring an interesting cross-cultural twist. I love the interplay of cultures.
Say, what is this thing about you and Southern ladies? Aren’t you an Illinois girl? Is this another displacement?
It is another displacement! We moved to Georgia between trips to Japan, about fifteen years ago. Small town South is very similar to small town Midwest, except for the Southerner’s extravagant use of hyperbole and simile in conversation. I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the U.S. now, although I can place myself in some foreign spots quite easily.
Readers — yay or nay for letting Larissa Reinhart into The Displaced Nation? She has an affinity for dead bodies, true — but in a humorous sense! And she doesn’t monkey around… (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Larissa — find amusing!)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an interview with another former expat author.
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Images: Larissa Reinhart inside a subway station in Nagoya; her favorite tanuki (cute or creepy?); her book cover.