Book Review: Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America

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This is about my third attempt at this review. The problem, in addition to being in the middle of Day Four of a kick-my-ass spring head cold, is that I just have too much to say about this book. I like it too much to be short, so on this third attempt, I’m giving up on being even vaguely brief and also on being smoothly coherent and essay-like. So here for your reading pleasure is a grab-bag, fuzzy-headed list of all the things I need to say about Bento Box in the Heartland.

-This book is set in Versailles, Indiana, which is just about 20 miles up the road from Madison, a town I drive through often on my way to visit my parents in Kentucky. The Furiya’s are always taking trips to Cincinnati in their search for Japanese ingredients to cook with. There’s something so delightful about reading a story that’s set in your home turf. It was especially interesting for me because Furiya is roughly my age, which means we were growing up at about the same time, just about a 40 minute drive away.

Bento Box in the Heartland is a “food memoir.” I didn’t know such a thing as food memoir’s existed as a genre, but now that I do, kind of brilliant. Apparently, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a food memoir, and there are several lists out there if you’re curious as to others in the genre. I personally feel almost every story is made better by the addition of food.

I imagine for a food memoir to work, you have to do a fairly convincing job of placing food at the center of your story. Food is definitely at the center of Furiya’s memoir. You could buy this book just for the recipes. Food is central to Furiya’s memoir because food was a crucial way in which her mother and father held on to their Japanese culture and traditions while living miles away from any other Asian families, let alone Japanese families. Each chapter in Furiya’s book ends with a recipe, and it’s clear that food and a love of food is one of the most important legacies Furiya’s parents gave to her.

– I loved this book. This is one of those books that I read and think, “Why isn’t everyone reading this? Why didn’t I read this in a race and ethnicity class somewhere along the way? Or a women’s studies class? Or a class on immigration? Why isn’t everyone I know talking about this book?” I don’t know why, and who knows if there’s a coherent answer, but people should be reading this book, using this book in their classes, teaching about this book, talking about this book.

– What makes this book most compelling to me is the brutal and courageous honesty with which Furiya tells her story. I think it’s this honesty that transforms the book from being not just about the experience of a Japanese-American girl in Versailles, Indiana, but a book about an experience that is much more universal. Partly, it’s the fact that Furiya grew up right down the road from me that helps me identify so much with her story. But also, it’s her honesty and specificity which make her stories ring so very true to a whole host of larger experiences.

– I could identify with the story she tells about her reaction when a Vietnamese family moves to Versailles. At first, she’s so excited to have another Asian family in her town. She assumes she and Tam, the daughter closest in age to her, will be best friends. But what she finds is that Tam brings out all her conflicted feelings about her parents and her heritage and her life before she became more “Americanized” and developed her own strategy for dealing with the racism in small town Indiana. She’s sympathetic to Tam, but all in all, doesn’t want to hang out with her. She’s carved out her own relatively safe space in the social fabric of Versailles free from too much teasing or torture, and she doesn’t want to jeopardize that by hanging out with Tam, who is quite fresh off the boat.

So, I’m not Japanese American or Asian American, but I found this story made me think of the people I knew in elementary school and junior high and high school whom I knew I should have been nicer to, more sympathetic to. The boy whose pants always fell down so that his butt crack showed. The poor kids who didn’t always smell so great. The girl who didn’t know any better than to keep her enthusiasm for shows like Star Trek (which I loved, too) to herself. I saw myself in those kids, but instead of being compassionate and kind to them, I as often as not avoided them and sometimes even joined in making fun of them.

What is that about? We’re afraid that the part of ourselves we see in those other people will suddenly be outed for everyone else to ridicule. We’re afraid they’ll pull us back in to a time and place when we felt like the outsider, like we didn’t belong. This fear seems to be at the root of so many ugly human behaviors. It’s hard to be honest about those ugly tendencies in ourselves, and I have great respect for Furiya for doing so.

– Another example of her beautiful and complicated honesty is in her description of her relationship to her parents and her Japanese heritage. Towards the end of her memoir, Furiya recounts an instance at a Japanese-American gathering in Cincinnati where she’s essentially harrassed by the white husband of a Japanese war bride. He tell stories about Japanese prostitutes during World War II and refers to Japanese people as “Japs.” All of this in a room full of Japanese-Americans, including Furiya’s mother. And no one comes to her aid until she finally pushes away from the man herself.

When she tells her mother and father (her father was not in the room at the time) and asks why no one stopped the man, they laugh off her anger and outrage. “He’s just an old GI,” her mother says, while her dad advises her to “just let history be forgotten.”

Furiya writes about the long process of making sense of her parents passivity and what appears to be a lack of pride in their Japanese heritage. She feels that passivity herself as she sits being harrassed by the man, the need to not make a scene that is so important to her parents’ world and their culture. But why don’t they feel her outrage, even after the fact?

It’s always seemed to me that there are two kinds of people in this world. There are those who turn their backs firmly and squarely on who they are and where they come from and those who turn around and do the hard work of trying to reconcile who they were and where they’re from with where and who they are now. The first kind of people make me nervous, I think because they themselves are nervous. If you haven’t come to terms with your past, you’re always going to be standing on shaky ground. The first path may seem easier in the short run; it’s hard work coming to grips with your past. But that first path seems empty to me, like you’d always be living with a whole inside yourself and nothing big enough to fill it.

I love reading about Furiya doing the hard work of that second path. What do you do with parents’ whose sense of themselves and their culture and their place in the world seems so different from your own? How do you continue to love them when you might not agree with all the decisions they made in their lives? Furiya engages these questions in the specific context of a second generation immigrant, but these are questions that face first-generation college students and others who are upwardly mobile. I could relate to Furiya as someone who came from a rural background myself into the world of academia and higher education. What do you take with you and what do you leave behind? Furiya writes beautifully about these questions.

– Somehow, I will be working this book into one of my classes, because my students would benefit greatly from reading a first person account of what it’s like to be the “Other” in small town Indiana. To be the other in a small community, unremittingly and without any relief. Furiya doesn’t get to wake up and not be Japanese. She wishes she could blend in seamlessly with her friends in Versailles, but comes to realize that to some people, she’ll always be Japanese-American, and therefore, different.

She does an eloquent job conveying what it’s like to have to help her father communicate with the butcher in a local grocery store. The sheer rudeness and lack of compassion exhibited by people who have difficulty understanding her parents’ accent. The feeling of having a fellow student point a finger shaped into a gun at her in class and say, “Bang. Kill them all,” during a discussion of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the teacher who has no other response to this action than to say, “Yup.” Furiya tells these stories with a lack of bitterness that is heroic. For many of my white students who feel that racism is a thing of the past, they need to hear these stories that took place right in their own backyard. For my students of color, this can be a story of survival and coming to terms with one’s heritage, in all its complexity. Because the heritage Furiya comes to terms with in this book is partly being Japanese, but also being from small town Indiana, which is very different from being Japanese in San Francisco or New York or Chicago.

– This review is like my lectures about the topics I’m most excited about….kind of incoherent. Really, you just should to read this book.

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Comments

  1. I loved this review — I'm glad you didn't keep it brief. My favorite reviews are those that tell me about the reader and the book, and this one did that — so thanks.

    If you're digging food memoirs, I highly, highly recommend Diana Abu-Jaber's Language of Baklava — just marvelous, and beautiful, and moving, and also, delicious.

    I'm going to have to get this book — Abu-Jaber also writes about being an outsider and foreigner and how food both connects and isolates her.

  2. Thanks, Audra. Abu-Jaber's book came up on several of the lists of the food memoirs I saw, so I will have to check it out. Glad you liked the review.

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