Bento Box in the Heartland Summary

Linda Furiya

Bento Box in the Heartland

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Bento Box in the Heartland Summary

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Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America (2006), Japanese-American author Linda Furiya’s memoir, covers her upbringing as she attempts to balance her Japanese heritage with her home in the small farm community of Versailles, Indiana.

Much of the balance Furiya seeks to strike involves food. For example, her family has to drive all the way across the Ohio border to Cincinnati in order to obtain the ingredients they need to cook anything even resembling traditional Japanese food. In fact, some have described Bento Box in the Heartland as a “food memoir.” Each chapter ends with a recipe. Many of Furiya’s metaphors are also food-based. For example, early in the book her mother advises her about the danger of ingesting “fish bones” when eating Japanese food. For Furiya, “fish bones” are akin to all of the obstacles she will face as she learns to live as a Midwestern farm girl who also happens to be Japanese.

As Furiya adjusts to life in the Midwest, she learns a great deal about herself and American assimilation. At first, she is ashamed that all the other kids at school have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch while she brings rice balls prepared by her mother. In time, though, she becomes proud that she brings such comparatively unique (and delicious) food while everyone else is eating the same boring stuff.

One day a Vietnamese family with a daughter named Tam moves in; Furiya is excited to have another Asian American family in the neighborhood. At first, Furiya is excited to spend time with Tam because of their shared experiences as Asian American immigrants. However, Furiya soon becomes uncomfortable because Tam, whose family just arrived in America, reminds her of herself before she fully assimilated. Their relationship also reminds Furiya of her loving, yet occasionally fraught, relationship with her parents, who are less assimilated. Furiya, who has taught herself a number of ways to deal with implicit and explicit racism, is somewhat ashamed to be selfishly fearful that spending time with Tam will set her back in this respect.

One of the more explicit examples of racism Furiya encounters is from an American GI who married a Japanese war bride. He repeatedly uses Asian-centric racial slurs in the presence of Furiya and her parents. Furiya is angry that her parents treat the situation passively, laughing off the GI’s ignorance and advising their daughter that “history should be forgotten.” Furiya struggles to accept that this attitude doesn’t mean her parents aren’t proud of their Japanese heritage.

Nevertheless, Furiya is just as sensitive to the charms of small-town life as she is about the more unseemly elements. For example, one of the funniest small-town stories she shares is of the neighbor who constantly drives his riding mower up and down the street. At first, Furiya is confused. Then she realizes the man’s license was suspended for driving under the influence, and so now, his riding mower is his only legal way of traveling to and from the liquor store. She loves other elements of Versailles, too, particularly the Harvest Festival. When she mentions the Harvest Festival to a big city friend, she downplays its significance. However, Furiya quickly realizes she is ashamed of talking about the Festival in this way. Despite the fact that it may not sound special to an outsider, to a community member, the Festival is the greatest time of the year.

Just as the “fish bones” metaphor kicked off the book, Furiya ends with another instructive food metaphor. When she returns home as an adult, her parents make her favorite dish, a roasted pork loin known as yakibuta. When she doesn’t immediately take a bite, her parents wonder why. Furiya says she always likes to save her favorite food for last. Her father recounts his time as a prisoner of war during World War II: he used to save the best food for last until he found himself in a POW camp where he never knew when he would eat. Then he ate his favorite food first because if he waited too long, it wouldn’t be there to enjoy.

In addition to being a great de facto cookbook, Bento Box in the Heartland is an inspiring story about finding one’s place in an unfamiliar community without losing your identity.