Monday, April 9, 2007

Lunchbox べんとう (弁当)

First time I had a chance to take a lunch to school was when I was when I moved to America in the second grade. Up to that point in time, I lived in Japan and went home for lunch everyday since my house was only a block away. I’m not sure if I was allowed to, but I did it anyway. When I get home for lunch I would always have something hot and ready for me to eat. Often times I remember eating Ramen… I liked ramen, still do, especially tonkatsu-ramen. Anyway, before this time only time I really ate a bento box was when we traveled or New Years, Hanami, or whenever the Japanese occasion deemed it necessary.

I really don’t want to get sidetracked but up until I came to the States, I really don’t remember much about school. Yes, I went but I wasn’t at all interested. I had other things way too important on my mind. Like playing and where I was going to go modeling the next weekend. My life was full of adventure in Japan and it was a great time. When I came to the States, my mother, who was the primary source of us traveling, didn’t have a driver’s license and wasn’t comfortable going anywhere. This put a major damping in going anywhere and doing anything. When this type of things happened in my family, my mother would compensate by making really good meals, hence starting my bento boxes in the second grade.

So, I’m in a foreign country, America, (it was foreign to me because I grew up in Japan) experiencing major culture shock. I missed Japan like crazy, I know we can’t go back anytime soon, and I kept asking my father why the US government hates us. My mother probably experiencing the same, wanted to bring a little bit of Japan to the both of us.

So, as you can imagine. I’m in an American School, in Los Angeles. I think there were 5 Asians in the entire school. The school had about a good representation of the other cultures though. Anyway, as you can imagine… not much bento boxes were being brought to school. So I started bring my bento boxes to school and ate it at lunch. The kids first started to make fun of me, then they start asking questions, then my second grade teacher hears about this and all of a sudden my lunch becomes a spectacle.

After my second grade teacher finds out about my lunch, she wants to view it everyday before the lunchtime starts. Basically my lunch had a set time of viewing everyday in my class. I recall the words, “Okay, it’s time to look at Joanna’s Lunch!”

Do you have any idea how weird that is? Thinking back I still think it’s weird. How many people do you know had to “show and tell” their lunch everyday?

All be it, my mother’s lunchboxes were absolutely beautiful. I had all the right proportions, excellently prepared, balanced nutritionally, and artistically sculpted. She woke up at awful times to make my lunch every morning. She truly put all her heart into that lunchbox. Sure, she was a layout artist/chef as a profession, but still she took a lot of time into preparing my lunch for me.

That’s one thing I completely recalled about American kids. There lunch wasn’t as thoughtful as my lunch was. Even if I had a sandwich, my mother would make lady finger sandwiches, cut off all the crust, put it in a special container, separated by artificial "grass" and gave me a variety of sandwiches because I might get bored with just one type. I don’t recall one kid in my class that had that thoughtful of a lunch. Sure they brought lunch, I’m sure their mom made it, but the quality of my lunch was far superior to any of the other kids.

I sometimes wonder why American mother's tend not to do that with lunch. It might be because presentation in American cuisine doesn't seem all that important (except in high end restaurants). They say they’re busy… sure if your mom works, but what about those stay at home moms? Being that my mother is Japanese, I never really had an experience with American moms… maybe the kids just have a lower standard of what they want to eat… I don’t know… I was a very refined eater even at 7… I didn’t like peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch; I considered it more of a snack food than proper lunch. Maybe American kids just prefer P&J over fish, vegetable and meat or other bento stuff.

Also when I can home around 3pm, my mother would have oyatsu (3 o’clock snack) ready for me when I got home. Whether it was cookies, cake, fruit, or rice crackers she would have it ready for me on a plate with something to drink next to it. I’m guessing many American kids didn’t come home to that. During that time she would ask me how my day was at school and what my homework was. If I had math homework she would answer my questions on a chalkboard next to the dining table while I ate my oyatsu snack.

I do miss the lunch boxes my mother used to make. Mainly because it was nutritional, I so rarely eat as nutritionally as I did when I was a child. I still think it’s amazing how much care my mother actually put into what we as a family ate. How diligently she would look through nutrition books to make certain all the vitamins and minerals were accounted for in her cooking. I really took it for granted growing up.


Shari said...

I think there are a wide variety of cultural reasons why American mothers don't make the elaborate lunches that Japanese mothers do. For one thing, kids in the U.S. don't appreciate that sort of thing. If a stay-at-home mother were to put all that effort into it, she'd probably end up with a kid who not only wouldn't care at all but would fail to eat a lot of it. Kids in the U.S. aren't raised on the same sort of food diversity that Japanese kids are raised with.

Also, Americans don't attach much pride or accomplishment to food preparation. Spending all that time on a lunch for a kid who doesn't care wouldn't be the mother's first choice for displaying her creativity or pampering her child.

Finally, and this is a rather subjective and uninformed observation, it seems Japanese mothers are more "into" their kids than American mothers. American people, in general, tend to segment their lives into "mother", "wife", and "myself". Western parents tend to want to have pursuits that are purely for development in a fashion which gratifies their own ego and spend time on such pursuits. Japanese mothers tend to find the same (or higher)gratification from the consolidated role of "wife/mother". This is probably because Japanese culture values women who do not work and U.S. culture, to some extent, feels that women who live only as mothers/wives are limited and dull.

The need to spend time on one's own pursuits to feel like a whole person in the U.S. undermines the time a mother can spend on doing things like preparing elaborate meals for their kids.

Miko said...

"Even if I had a sandwich, my mother would make lady finger sandwiches, cut off all the crust, put it in a special container, separated by artificial "grass" and gave me a variety of sandwiches because I might get bored with just one type."

Yep, nodding, nodding! That's exactly what my beautiful lunchboxes were like. I especially love the way she used to pack everything into that small lunchbox so carefully, the packing is an art in itself!

Having said that, I never bother with doing that sort of thing for my son. If I want to show my love for him, I tell him that I love him. No ambiguities there, he *knows* how I feel. (Although I bet he wishes I was more like other Japanese mothers sometimes.)

Miko said...

You might find this article of interest:,,2054078,00.html

Ricky said...

Bento lunches rock. I SO love every single bento that my students and coworkers have made for me. Hand made from the heart, I've even taken pictures of them and blogged about them. Every time I receive one it confirms my decision that Japan is the place for me!

Helen said...

When I was an older student...around grade 6, I started making my own lunches. (for earlier grades I wasn't in Canada and had school lunches). In my part of Canada students made their own lunches. I got tired of sandwiches so I often brought soup or alfalfa sprouts and other things to put in my lunch bag.

I can't really remember my Mum ever making my lunch. She certainly didn't make bentos! (She was from Scotland so.....)