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An identity nourished in body and heritage

Special to The Times

Linda Furiya grew up acutely aware of being different. She was the only daughter of the only Japanese American family in the tiny town of Versailles, Ind., and the physical and cultural differences that separated her from her classmates were obvious. In grade school, she endured teasing and taunts from her Caucasian classmates. But the differences felt the most acute the first day she brought her lunch to school, as she writes in “Bento Box in the Heartland”:

“I expected a classic elementary school lunch of a bologna, cheese, and Miracle Whip sandwich and a bag of Durkee’s potato sticks, but all I saw were three round rice balls wrapped in waxed paper. Mom had made me an obento, a Japanese-style boxed meal.... My desire to emulate my classmates was palpable. My obento lunches were a glaring reminder of the ethnic differences between my peers and me.”

Food became a touchstone of her childhood -- and this cozy memoir. The Furiyas’ family life centered on meals, traditional Japanese dishes lovingly and efficiently home-cooked by her mother. Although born in America, Furiya’s father had been raised in Japan and returned as an adult after World War II; her mother was 30 when she came to America. Neither parent spoke English well, and familiar foods became a way to preserve their identity in a strange land:

“Japanese home cooking had become the only daily thread my parents had to their culture. Even I knew that the Japanese food symbolized something greater than sustenance. It ... assured them they could make it through the daily challenges of living in a country not their own.”

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Much of Furiya’s story centers on the complex relationship she shared with her mother. Her father appears only at scattered points in the book; when the author was growing up, he was usually gone, working two jobs to support his family. Her two older brothers receive scant mention.

Isolated in a rural town by her limited English and her inability to drive, Furiya’s mother relied heavily on her daughter. Furiya soon came to resent both her mother’s demands and the need to fulfill them. They shared not just the usual conflict between generations, but also the gap between traditional Japanese culture, with its emphasis on consensus, etiquette and male domination, and ‘70s American culture that stressed independence, freedom and gender equality.

When Furiya visited Japan as an adolescent with her mother, she gained a greater appreciation of how alien life in the United States must have seemed to her. The daughter of prosperous rice merchants, Furiya’s mother had pursued a career in Tokyo during the postwar economic expansion and enjoyed the life of an independent single woman with an income of her own. She came to the United States to marry the author’s father, an arranged marriage that seems to have been a reasonably happy one, but the sophisticated pleasures of Tokyo must have seemed very far away from the Indiana town her father had chosen for its physical beauty and its proximity to a well-paying factory job.

Furiya’s mother clung to her Japanese upbringing, waiting on her husband and making her daughter wait on her brothers. But she also cherished the memories of her independent urban life, and she urged her daughter to go to college, to pursue a career, to live her own life. These mixed messages only deepened the friction between mother and daughter.

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As an adult, Furiya discovered she was bound more closely to her family’s heritage than she realized -- or intended. That bond was linked to those traditional foods of her childhood. “Most of what I learned about my parents’ culture was taught to me through Mom’s cooking talents and Dad’s enthusiastic appetite. It was only at the dinner table when I was a child, and later in the kitchen, that I experienced an absolute peace and connection with my Japanese heritage.” Furiya went on to write a food column for the San Francisco Chronicle and to teach Japanese and Chinese cooking.

At the end of each chapter, Furiya offers a recipe for a dish that figures in her reminiscences. Most of these are relatively simple to prepare, but some of them are deceptive. Properly shaping the kind of rice ball she found in her obento lunchbox takes practice. It’s much trickier than the sentence, “Using the same motion as in making a snowball, mold the rice between your hands into a ball” suggests.

Although Furiya’s prose is sometimes marred by awkward constructions, “Bento Box in the Heartland” is a pleasant and engaging memoir to curl up with on a winter evening.

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Charles Solomon is the author of many books, including “Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation.”


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