Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bento Box in the Heartland: Growing up Japanese in middle America

Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America
by Linda Furiya

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the things I miss about living in Japan, the food is on the top of the list. So a memoir about Japanese food, by a Japanese-American being reared in America's heartland, was right up my alley.

Furiya grew up in rural Indiana, in one of the few Asian-American families in her Versailles community. She takes us back to her early childhood and describes her unique family upbringing, of which food was central. Furiya's parents felt closer to home (Japan) when they could eat Japanese food; however, this was not easy given the unavailability of fresh Japanese ingredients in rural Indiana in the 1970s. Furiya recalls with fondness the occasions when they would drive into Chicago or Cleveland to procure Japanese ingredients or go to a Japanese restaurant, and how those excursions lifted the whole family's spirits.

Each chapter ends with a recipe, most of which are fairly simple for those unitiated to Japanese cooking. (I did notice an error--the recipe for dumplings, or gyoza, is repeated.)

She describes her parents' unique journeys to Indiana--they both experienced hardship and starvation in the war and were extremely strong people. They came together through an arranged marriage, and Furiya's upbringing and family life sounded very Japanese. She balked at the fact that she (as the only girl) had to do all of the chores, while her brothers could relax--just as her mom was on her feet during the entire meal, serving her father's and children's every whim. When she was grown it became increasingly annoying to her that her dad barked orders and requests at her mother instead of serving himself. (This, too, grated on me deeply when I lived in Japan.)

Furiya's father arrived in the U.S. from Japan with $29 in his pocket. Her mother left a highly satifying, fulfilling life working in Tokyo and spending the weekends skiing and hiking, to go to the U.S. to get married and become a housewife in a foreign land. Her dad worked two jobs throughout her childhood, one of them "chick sexing" (separating the male and female chickens), and her mom spent much of her time planning how to make Japanese foods and rationing ingredients so they wouldn't run out.

When Furiya was 10, she accompanied her mom on a trip to Japan--the first time her mom had been home since she had left. She describes the wonderful feeling she had of being at home, amongst people who looked like her and figuratively embraced her as family. (This description made me realize how fortunate I am to be growing up near so many of my own extended family members, something I probably take for granted.) When it came time to leave Japan, she couldn't bear to go.

One thing I found odd about the description of her trip: she and her mom went to a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), and when they were taking the traditional Japanese bath, they soaked in the tub first, and then got out to soap up and rinse off, followed by another soak. This is not proper Japanese bathing etiquette...the whole point being to keep the water pristine and pure. You are not to step into the hot bath until you have soaped and cleaned yourself. I was surprised that in her time traveling through Asia, she hadn't learned that important point.

She also writes about her deep happiness from buying yakitori (broiled chicken skewers) from a stand on the sidewalk in Tokyo, and walking along as she was eating...another no-no in Japanese etiquette (eating while standing on or walking down the street, unless at a festival). According to this web site, it's mostly frowned upon by the older generations...but I imagine in the 1970s, it was quite a rare sight.

This is certainly not to say that I didn't make a lot of etiquette errors while living in Japan (I could list them for you!), but I was surprised that I knew more about these things than she did, being raised by issei (first-generation Japanese).

Later she writes about a Vietnamese family coming to live in Versailles, back in the era when the U.S. took in a lot of Vietnamese immigrants, often sponsored by churches, and they were spread out to lessen the burden on one particular community (also ignoring the importance for immigrants of having access to their own community, and food ingredients). Although she was initially excited about the prospect of other Asian-Americans in her school, she eventually grows to be resentful and withdraws from their outreach of friendship, mostly because they were not Americanized enough. (When an adolescent girl is trying her best to fit in, the last thing she wants is a friend who makes her feel more like an outsider.) I know that most of us have a few skeletons in our closet as well, from a time when we treated someone unfairly or unkindly. Furiya writes openly and honestly about hers.

Her descriptions of the regular gatherings with other Japanese-Americans in the area reminded me of similar memoirs. The food usually made it all worthwhile, but for the children, it wasn't all fun and games. Sometimes she heard parents joke about life in the (Japanese internment) camps, hinting at much more serious content underneath. At the last potluck she attended, she encountered a lecherous American man who was stationed in Japan during occupation and picked up a war bride. This reminded me of many of the men I met in Japan...westerners who never really fit in back home and who wanted to find a docile, submissive Japanese woman to wait on them and cater to their every need. I thought most of them were total creeps. Even though this lecher made a move on her (as a teenager), no one stepped in to intervene, reflecting the conflict-averse culture that she found stifling and at times like this, infuriating.

The descriptions of Japanese food--and the recipes--reminded me of all of the wonderful eating adventures I had in Japan. Now, in reflection, I realized that I took them for granted at the very young age of 21 to 24. The beautiful presentation, fresh ingredients, and special attention that goes into making each Japanese dish are colorfully described in this memoir, a love story about Japanese food, and an anchor for a young girl growing up in whitebread America.

As a memoir, it's not really complete, though...because it stops when she goes off to college. She alludes to having a son and getting divorced a couple of times. Time for a sequel...perhaps about introducing her son to the foods and cultures she has come to appreciate more as she's gotten older.

Note: I just discovered that Furiya has a blog, a web site, and a book about "living, loving, and eating in China," so I will have to investigate!

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