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January 25, 2013 / Karen Hill Anton

Different strokes for different siblings

Obento, 'designed' by Lila

Obento, ‘designed’ by Lila

(May 11, 1995)

Although I didn’t expect to see samurai swaggering around with swords at their sides when I first came to this country, I did think everyone in Japan ate brown rice.

That’s because of my husband. Way back in the early 60’s, when almost no one in the United States knew rice came in any color but white, and almost everyone believed it had to be smothered in gravy or soaked with butter to be edible, he was following the way of eating known as “macrobiotics”.

Since the macrobiotic diet had originated in Japan, imagine my astonishment when every Japanese guest we had for dinner asked “What’s this?” after I served up a bowl of genmai. And it did seem kind of strange that although our old farmhouse was practically in the middle of  a rice field, we had to travel to the edge of the prefecture to buy organic brown rice.

Not easily deterred, we continued our diet of brown rice, no sugar and no meat, and raised our eldest daughter Nanao on it as well, and she didn’t have a problem with it. But she probably did get tired of being the “only” — foreigner in her school, student without a television, student who had brown rice in her oebnto (lunch box).

As she got older and the views of peers mattered more than the values of parents, when she needed obento for school, she’d visit the farmhouse next door to ask our neighbors for enough cooked white rice to make her lunch.

They didn’t have children, and were happy to give her whatever she asked for, and even what she didn’t. They would invite her to stay and sit at the kotatsu to watch television, while munching on a pile of sweets.

They were nice people, but I was convinced they were going to undo the work of years of carefully considered nutrition and child raising. And it wasn’t until my friend Zoe visited from Paris that I started to see things differently. When I complained that the neighbors were practically poisoning my children, Zoe, herself a health-food enthusiast, said: “Relax. You weren’t raised on health food and you made it. They’ll survive.”

Of course I’ve chilled out over the years, but junk, garbage and poison are still the words I use interchangeably and in combination for television, manga and fast food.

And whenever I think our three younger children are overindulged (which seems to happen naturally as parents age and grow up) I remind them what it had been like for their eldest sister.

But my youngest daughter Lila isn’t impressed. When I tell her that her that Nanao could only read manga on the weekends and the only time she could see television was when she visited a friend because I wouldn’t permit a television in the house, Lila’s reaction is: “How sad! How cruel you and Papa were! Poor Nanao!”

When I remind Lila, as she digs into a banana split, that Nanao thought a handful of raisins was a big treat, and the few times she ever had an ice cream cone, it was so precious no drop was ever dripped, Lila is not in awe. Quite the contrary. According to Lila, what I did was a form of child abuse. The look on her face says she has half a mind to report me.

“Were you crazy?” she once said to me.

No. Just serious. Very serious.

But I threw in the towel because it all seemed for naught. I found out that in Japan you’re never far from a grandmother and they’re never far from a bag of sweets. And these grandmothers are the the allies of small children.

One day when we lived in town, when Lila was 5, she begged me to let her go to the store by herself. Since she only had to cross one street with a traffic light, I said OK. Thinking I’d give her a small task for her excursion, I asked her to buy some carrots and tofu.

She came back dragging a shopping bag — because it was that heavy with junk! I thought I was going to have apoplexy. She dipped her little hand into the the bag, emptying the contents like Santa Claus, saying this was for her brother, that for her sister. She had gotten treats for everybody.

I scolded her, but there we no tears. She just didn’t seem to understand my reaction. That is, why wasn’t I having the same reaction as Ishihara-san, the woman of grandmother age who helped me in the house.

Ishihara-san took one look at Lila’s bag of stuff and started complimenting her. “Isn’t this wonderful!” she enthused. “Look at all the goodies she bought for her brother and sister.” I could swear she had tears of joy in her eyes when she bent down and said to Lila, “What a kind, generous, thoughtful girl you are!”

While she praised Lila to the skies, I stood there speechless, contemplating how I could get the shop to take the stuff back.

Ishihara-san looked at me and said: “It doesn’t matter what she bought. What’s important is that she thought of of others and wanted to do something nice.”

It took me a while to see it her way.

But as the Bob Dylan song goes: “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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