In terms of my challenge–to read 3-5 books set in each of the United States, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes an integral part of the story–I have mixed feelings about Bento Box In the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America by Linda Furiya. The author grew up as the daughter of Japanese immigrants in Versailles, Indiana. Although she experienced many instances of casual (and overt) racism, and spent much of her girlhood longing to escape rural Indiana, she seems to agree that we are all (at least in part) a product of where we were raised–the place and its customs and idiosyncrasies–as well as of who we were raised by.
She notices this especially when visiting her relatives in New York City as a teenager, talking about the “city Furiyas” and the “country Furiyas” much as one would the “city mouse” and the “country mouse” in the old story (and that knowledge of rural American folkstories is, in itself, indicative of her American upbringing). She seems torn between her country upbringing and her recognition of the isolation of being from the only Japanese American family in the area. Not only does she suffer from the casual injustices wrought by the other kids (and at time adults), but she has no real support system to help her weather the storm.
In some ways, the love-hate relationship Linda has with Indiana makes her memoir a particularly good fit for my challenge–she gives us some really wonderful quotes about Indiana, both the landscape and the people–but much of the memoir is focused on her personal journey to find her place as a child of immigrants. This is a wonderfully interesting story, with many elements that I’m familiar with from stories by Hispanic American writers, particularly related to language and parent-child relationships. And I really love the way she hones in on food as both a source of difference and a source of comfort. However, those elements, in this case, take away from the Indiana setting here, because Indiana is where Linda feels the most isolated, so she tends to focus mainly on getting out of Indiana (and why she needs to).
One odd thing this book introduced us to was the profession of “chick sexing” or “poultry sorting”–checking day-old baby chickens to see what gender they are and sorting them accordingly. Now, obviously, this is an important role for chicken farmers. Remember the scene in The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols where Herbie Goldfarb ends up traumatized by the neighbor’s killing of all the roosters? If only they had had a chick sexer! Apparently, it’s not surprising that Indiana farmers were looking for Japanese chick sexers, either. A more reliable method of determining the chicks’ gender was developed in Japan in the 1930s, and it soon became common to hire someone trained in Japan or to send your own people there for training.
Food is an integral part of this book and of Linda’s story, and I often found my mouth watering at some of the descriptions of Japanese dishes. Unfortunately, many of the recipes contain meat, and my family is mostly vegetarian, so I won’t be trying out most of the recipes, but it was a wonderful addition to the story. The tales she tells of searching for Japanese ingredients reminded me of similar stories I heard from the owners of Indian Groceries & Spices in Milwaukee. Their family became so frustrated that they started their own import business and now have their own label of Indian food imports, and stores across the country. But the stories they tell of the early days trying to find the correct ingredients or trying to find an appropriate substitute, are very similar to the ones Furiya tells. (Incidentally, the story of their marriage is also very similar to the story of Linda’s parents’ marriage.)
But could this story have taken place elsewhere? I think perhaps it could have taken place in other rural farming communities throughout the Midwest. Much like Andrea, the Other Blogger, I am also still looking for that quintessential piece that separates Indiana from other places. I don’t think I’ve found it yet, but we are definitely closer with Bento Box In the Heartland.