Top | Excerpts

Bento Box in the Heartland

(article, Linda Furiya)

h3. From the chapter "Mom's Write Hand"

One afternoon after a shopping trip in Cincinnati, I learned that I couldn't shelter my parents the way I had hoped. We had stopped at a large supermarket chain on the way home. Mom and Dad headed to the meat department to buy ground pork. Keven and Alvin went to browse the science-fiction and rock-music magazines while I checked out the makeup section to look at the nail polishes and smell the shampoos.

"What?!" a woman's voice boomed.

h1. About the book and author

What's it like to be the only Asian family in an entire town? Bento Box in the Heartland, Linda Furiya's memoir of growing up in Versailles, Indiana, is both a portrait of an era (the 1970s, mostly) and a couple (her parents) who had the grit to overcome war, imprisonment, disease, and famine to start anew and raise three children in the hills of southern Indiana. 

Furiya, a food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, first made her name writing a syndicated column about growing up both Asian and American. Her memoir is a distillation of the challenges and rewards all immigrants and their children face. 

"Life had given Mom and Dad every reason to hate it," Furiya writes. "But somehow, through it all, they drew strength to protect and nurture themselves in whatever way they could."

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Seal Press, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group. Copyright © Linda Furiya, 2007. All rights reserved.

My stomach muscles tensed when I distinctly heard Dad stammering and then the woman shouting, "What are you saying?!"

My vision felt acutely bright and clear as I followed the voices as quickly as I could. I arrived just as the woman behind the meat counter threw up her hands as though she were giving up on something broken. 

She was the grandmotherly-looking type, with a white apron covering a huge chest that thrust forward like a robin's and a round Kewpie-doll face with several chins. Beneath a white cotton cap, her Tabasco-red hair was set in tight, shiny ringlets. Thick, candy-smelling cologne sold in the locked glass cabinets in the cosmetics aisle clashed with the gamy smell of raw meat.

Smothering and familiar, jolts of anger and guilt took the place of my stomachache.

"What's going on?" I asked. A tall glass refrigerated case displaying the cuts of meat stood between us. I made an effort to speak as slowly as I did when dealing with bills over the phone. If I talked too quickly, I'd start to slur my own R's as L's, something that often happened when I got nervous or spoke too fast, having grown up listening to my parents' accents. I worked to fix this tendency by practicing enunciating my words while I watched anchorwoman Jane Pauley on "The Today Show" before school every morning.

Here at the meat counter, the adrenaline pumping in my veins made it difficult to talk slowly. The pained expression I saw on Dad's face made me angrier. Mom peered out from behind him, her arms crossed as if protecting herself. The way her face softened with gratitude when she saw me pushed up my anger another notch.

Dad turned slightly away from the woman and explained under his breath, in Japanese, what was going on. Hearing him, the woman's eyes glazed over, and I wished Dad had told me in English.

He waved at the meats in the case. "All he wants is some ground pork. It's usually in the case, but it's not here today," I explained, trying to raise as much nonchalance in my voice as I could muster. There were other customers milling about, waiting to be served.

"I'll have to grind some up special," she said, sighing, talking straight to me and ignoring my parents as if they had disappeared into thin air.

As she pushed the meat through the meat grinder, the counterwoman said cheerfully, "Your father kept saying, 'Poke, poke.'" She laughed. "I had no idea that he was trying to say 'pork.'"

I didn't even look at her when she said this, diverting my eyes to the bright redness of the meat and the pale, puckered skin of the headless chicken carcasses. I fought the overpowering urge to reach across the counter to find out how hard I'd have to shake her to make her ringlets jiggle.


Mom smiled and laughed, a reaction she had when she was nervous. Dad appeared to have taken solace in the fact that I had intervened and felt better enough to ask a question about the beef. Like a baby startled from sleep, the woman shouted in an alarming way, "What?!"

"Whaad? Whaad?" I cawed, mimicking her Midwestern drawl. I savored the way her eyes widened and rolled with indignity. I felt that familiar, satisfying hot electricity tingling all over me. I wanted to get revenge, to make her feel the stab of humiliation my parents had.

The control I had struggled to rein in was completely gone. "What is your problem?" I yelled, waving my hands. "Don't you understand English? Won't you just try to listen to what he's saying before screaming 'Whaad? Whaad?'"

I stopped when I saw how nothing was registering in the woman's eyes. It was like pounding my fists on a solid metal door. It was no use.

[%image feature-image float=right width=350 caption="How hard is it to buy meat at a supermarket?" credit="Photo: iStockphoto/creacart"]

I took a deep breath and looked around me. A mother and father and their young son walked by slowly, staring. An older woman wanting to buy some cold cuts looked at us, reconsidered, and walked the other way. Keven and Alvin finally emerged from the magazine aisle. I wondered how long they had been hiding between the aisles before deciding to make an appearance.

"What's all the yelling about?" Alvin asked. We all ignored his question.

The woman slid the paper-wrapped meat toward us and turned her back. 

I swallowed hard several times, trying to dislodge the imaginary fish bone in the back of my throat. The meat paid for, we walked through the automatic doors, as if in a trance, out to the parking lot. 

The white sunshine made me squint and cover my eyes. I hated my parents more than I hated the woman behind the counter. I hated them for not fighting back, for allowing her to push them around. I hated them for always bowing down, for letting the other person be right.

My eyes welled with tears. I didn't dare sniff, though my nose was stuffed up. It took all my energy to keep my face from scrunching up. I tried to get my mind off crying by imagining I was wearing a mask.

I joined my brothers in looking out the car window, but without seeing the square green and brown patches of farmland that passed by. I watched my own distorted pale reflection in the window. The sunshine made my eyes water, but I didn't cry.

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