Linda Furiya does a wonderful job of evoking place throughout her memoir Bento Box In the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America. Although I read it as part of my challenge travel through Indiana, it also has parts that take place in Japan and New York City, and, to a lesser degree, New Jersey and San Francisco.
Through the states I’ve visited so far, we’ve looked at setting expressed through the (expected) landscapes, the characteristics of the people, the local birds, and food. There are no birds in Bento Box, however, Furiya is a master at expressing setting through food. She pairs each chapter of the book with a particular food, often through a symbolic story, and gives the relevant recipe at the end of the chapter.
In the first chapter, she relates her mother’s folktale about the dangers of fish bones, and how overcoming fish bones was seen as symbolic of overcoming life’s challenges, observing, “Growing up in the only Japanese family in Versailles, Indiana, I quickly learned that I would have to overcome many fish bones.” This metaphor becomes an oft-referred-to theme throughout the book.
She then moves on to a story about wanting to be like the other girls in her school who bring their own lunches from home, but she quickly realizes that the rice balls her mother packs in her bento box make her stand out much more than she had intended, making her a target for bullying. The recipe for the chapter, of course, is for the ongiri (rice balls).
My favorite, however, was the story related to the recipe for the final chapter–for yakibuta (roasted pork loin). Furiya was visiting her parents as an adult, and her mother had prepared the dish, one of her favorites. She says both she and her dad loved the end pieces of meat best.
I had a habit of saving my favorite for last, savoring that best morsel for the end. The anticipation of those last bites, to me, made the meal all the more enjoyable, the eating version of the way I collected memories to enjoy later. I would wait until the end of my meal before claiming the coveted end pieces of the tenderloin.
But just before she can get to them, her father takes them, leaving her surprised and somewhat hurt as she watches him dip them in sauce and eat the first.
As he was about to eat the second piece, he said, “I used to eat like you, the best for last. After being in the POW camp, when you never knew the next time you would eat, I changed my thinking. Eat your favorite first.” He waved his chopstick at me. “If you wait too long, it won’t be there to enjoy.” Then, with a teasing twinkle in his eyes, he placed the last pork loin back on my plate.
These food-related moments of her Japanese family life are the core of the book’s setting, but Furiya also does a good job of peppering her stories with comparisons and comments that show her upbringing in rural America. For instance, when she visits Japan as a girl, she makes this comparison about one of the stores:
At the back of the cash register stood a rack of colorful plastic bags: salty snacks such as dried cuttlefish, rice cracker mixes, and dried salted plums. They reminded me of the Slim Jims and salted cashews sold at the grain co-op back home.
Also in Japan, she notices the difference in size of living quarters, showing a very American preference for our typical sprawl of space.
It consisted of a living area tatami room smaller than my bedroom, a blue-tiled squat toilet in a phone booth-size closet, and doll-size kitchenette. Although Obachan couldn’t have understood my anyway, I waited until we were in the privacy of our own room to tell Mom how I couldn’t imagine living in their house, a place so small and confining. Even the big American suitcases we brought dwarfed the room. As she unpacked our clothes, Mom told me the tatami room served as the living room, bedroom, dining room, and study all in one.
She mentions visiting a small Shinto temple, “slightly bigger than a hall closet,” observing, “I had seen elevators bigger than the plot of land the temple stood on.”
There are also wonderful bits that bring to life some of the characters of rural Indiana.
I … saw our neighbor Mr. Jones drive by on his riding lawn mower. At the start of summer, the police had pulled him over for driving under the influence and taken away his driver’s license. His lawn mower now served as his mode of transportation to the liquor store and back.
I can relate to this, as seeing tractors in my hometown wasn’t at all unusual. And other small town customs:
We raised our hands to him in unison, as we did with all passing motorists–an unspoken rule of small-town friendliness.
Having grown up in rural upstate New York, I can attest to this as well. Much as Furiya is told by her city cousin to stop saying hi to everyone, I remember receiving similar advice from a college professor about waving to passing cars! (Although the ironic part was that I had seen him coming from a distance and recognized his car, so when he got closer I waved–I didn’t actually wave at everyone!)
Rural harvest festivals have a place too. Her New York City cousin asks, “What’s the name of the festival in your town again? Zucchini festival or something like that?” Furiya minimizes the festival’s importance in her response, while acknowledging her feelings to us, the readers.
“It’s just a fair with rides and games. At the end of the week, there’s a contest for the biggest pumpkin.” My voice trailed off. I left out the fact that, in Versailles, there was nothing that rivaled that particular autumn festival. Not to mention it was my favorite time of year. The grounds surrounding the courthouse square were carpeted with blazing autumn foliage, the air scented with the intoxicating smell of funnel cakes, corn dogs, fallen leaves, and pipe tobacco. … I also decided not to mention how much I and everyone else in town looked forward to the event every year.
At the same time that this conversation and thought process is going on, Furiya herself is fascinated by seeing her very first African American person close up. Again, I can relate to this aspect of rural Midwest America, as there was only one African American family in my upstate New York hometown, and their children were older than I was. However, I find it interesting that she seems to make no connection between her own staring fascination and the way others stare at her which she finds so objectionable.
I mentioned in a previous post my observations about her use of the phrase “Indian summer.” Maybe she just sees it as a typical rural American phrase, but there are other images she uses that capture the setting without the baggage.
The soft, buttery late-afternoon light I saw on the rooftop reminded me of a similar hue, when the sunlight filtered through tall wheat fields in Indiana.
And this description of the Vietnamese immigrant girl, getting used to the Indiana weather:
As she waited for me to respond, a blast of wind swirled around us like a vortex and she burrowed down deep into the collar of her coat. The temperature wasn’t really low compared to how low it would get in the coming months. The cold of a Midwest winter was unbearable for a girl who, up until then, had spent her entire life in the tropical climes of Vietnam.
Furiya acknowledges the contradictions of her upbringing where she didn’t belong to either world fully–judged first by what she looks like, but still a product of the place she comes from, despite the fact that that place is not the place most people expect based on her Asian features.
No matter where I lived in the world and no matter what people saw, the small-town country girl from Indiana would always be part of me.
As I’ve noted throughout this piece, many of the descriptions and memories of small-town rural Indiana are very familiar to my own small-town rural upstate New York, so I’m having some trouble deciphering what makes the two regions different for my reading challenge, however, Furiya’s memoir was definitely a step in the right direction toward getting to know Indiana better.