14 March, 2013

Intriguing thoughts about long-term living in another culture

Image from amazon.com
"Bento Box in the Heartland
My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America" by Linda Furiya.

This is the intriguing title of a book I've just finished. 

Bento Box is a Japanese lunch box.

It is a first generation Japanese-American's story about growing up in a small town in Indiana with her Japanese parents. The memoir centres on food, but it isn't a typical food memoir. She explores a whole variety of things related to her childhood, but particularly her struggle with identifying who she was.

For me the intriguing points where where her story parallels our own.

Like when she talks about how her parents carefully monitored  their Japanese food supplies. And would drive six hours to Chicago to buy Japanese ingredients. I realised this is just an extreme version of us going to Costco. 
"Japanese home cooking had become the only daily thread my parents had to their culture. Even I knew that Japanese food symbolized something greater than sustenance. It was like a comforting familiarity that assured them they could make it through the daily challenges of living in a country not their own. A simple bowl of perfectly steamed rice or ramen noodles in hot broth could do wonders in keeping homesickness at bay, lift the blues deepened by the adjustment period of learning new customs, and stir the appetite to eat.
It wasn't until I was in my thirties and living in Beijing that I really began to understand what my parents must have gone through. On the days I was most homesick, a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich or a homemade milkshake did wonders to boost my flagging spirit. p95 
And about their first trip to a store they'd discovered in Chicago:
The cooler was soon overflowing with seafood and other cold items. The knowledge of their presence put my parents at ease as Dad wove his way out of the city and onto the highway." p105
I realise that sometimes I feel guilty that I'm not more Japanese in my food tastes and what I cook at home. Probably I don't need to feel that way, though.

The other point of parallel is even closer to home. Often she writes about her mother's struggles with English and how she spoke as little as possible in public, worried about her accent. Her mum relied on her husband for everything outside of the home, including driving and making phone calls. The author did all her mum's English correspondence from 3rd grade on, including her own school permission letters.

This is painful to admit, but I too rely on my husband a lot in areas of dealing with Japanese, especially phone calls, and official things. I don't feel as free here as I do in Australia. I wish I did, I wish my Japanese was better. My confidence is lower here than in Australia.

But in general I do have a much better deal of it than this family, there are some stark differences between us. We aren't immigrants. We aren't expecting to spend the rest of our lives here. We are supported here by a mission organisation that cares about our well-being. I have lots of English-speaking friends and our kids are in an International School and speak the same language at school as they do at home (which does make it easier for us all). This family was the only Asian family in their town. And of course the Internet has changed things significantly for those of us living in a country not our own.

Sometimes I wish we were more "Japanese" in our lifestyle, but I think we've had to find a level of acculturation that works for our family, our personalities, and our abilities (not to mention our jobs). When we first came to Japan I assumed that we'd be much more immersed than we've ended up being.

Actually it was a source of great concern for me early on. I couldn't figure out how I'd be able to get that comfortable with "being Japanese" and still be able to stay a long time (which has always been our goal). After a while, I figured out that we'd never "become Japanese". I also was told by a veteran who'd "stayed a long while" that you just need to do it one day at a time. "Can you cope for today? Then you're okay. Leave the rest." That was a great comfort.

This has been a bit of a ramble, but I hope that it gives you another insight into what it's like to live overseas in a culture that is very different. Any thoughts?


CathB said...

absolutely agree.
When we were living in Bangladesh it was difficult to admit just how much comfort I got from walking into the Australian Club, eating burgers & chips & being able to sit without being harassed or stared at. The simple things from home are often the things that get one through the day!
I was not expecting to feel the need of being around other Australians (even more so than just English-speakers) & expected to be more integrated into the culture than I was. It's a difficult thing to deal with & something that bonds expats together wherever they are in the world, no matter where they've come from (in the western world)
I enjoyed your post, as always.

KarenKTeachCamb said...

I like the quote in the second last paragraph, which reminds me of Jesus' instructions about tomorrow: Matthew 6:34 So don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

It's easy to get stressed by living in a "foreign" environment, and to let the "little" things become big things.

I confess my biggest regret about my role here in Cambodia is my lack of local language. Teaching full-time in English, I've found it impossible to do any real language study. I know others have done it, but I just cannot seem to do it. I'm grateful that the Khmer people are so ready and eager to learn English, and that I can usually get away with that, allowing me to be reasonably independent.

Aussie foods are reasonably accessible here (yep, I can by Arnotts' bikkies reasonably easily, including Tim Tams, and Vegemite is pretty much a staple in the cupboard), so I don't really miss that much. Coming up to Easter I confess a desire for a Brumbies raisins only Hot Cross Bun. Otherwise, my favourite treat would be a Roast Lamb Dinner, with all the veggies, mint sauce and gravy.

I try to respect Khmer culture as much as I can, but deep down I guess I'll always be an Aussie!

Wendy said...

Your responses confirmed what I suspected, it is much harder to leave behind your childhood culture than most people imagine. Being in Japan brings out the "Aussie" in me in surprising ways!

April said...

What town did she grow up in? I lived in Indiana for a while (and Dusty is from there) so I'm curious.

I know exactly what store "in Chicago" she's talking about, although it's really outside of Chicago. I've been there many times, and my brother used to live within walking distance of it. It had a huge parking lot that was always completely full from open to close, with license plates from many different states.

It *is* similar to Costco in that you can get imported foods there, but it's not a bulk supplier (it's like a regular grocery store) and the import costs don't make the groceries cheap. You have to budget carefully and only buy the things you really can't live without.

As for the topic at hand, I'm finding it interesting to live back in Japan as an adult. This is the culture I grew up in and feel most at home at, and yet I am much more aware of my foreignness than I used to be. And since I lived in the US for a few years, I find myself wishing for "comforts" (both food an otherwise) that I had gotten used to but didn't grow up with.

I don't think I can truly feel at home anywhere anymore. Not until I get to heaven, anyway.

Wendy said...

Versailles. They were the only Asian family until some ?Vietnamese refugees moved there in her teens.

We've found Japanese speciality shops to be expensive in Australia too.

I'm definitely more Australian than Japanese, but from time to time do crave Japanese food when we're there.

The book is in the CAJ library.

April said...

Sounds vaguely familiar, actually. I wonder if someone from my college was from there—or near there—because I never went that far south in Indiana myself (stayed mostly in the north-east).

Wendy said...

By the way, April, the comparison with Costco was only in terms of getting "comfort" food. In pre-Costco days in Sapporo we went to a little import shop, except that it imported stuff from all sorts of cultures, a bit like a less up-market version of Kaldi. It took some sorting through to find what you wanted (good Katakana practise).