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I grew up on a dairy farm in northeast Ohio. At that time—in the late 70’s, through the 80’s, and eventually into the 90’s—it was a significant milk producing region, the rural area just north of the industrial city of Youngstown and its surroundings.
That was also a time of the growing Japanese car industry significantly competing against their North American rivals. The times—as it seems, all times—were a-changing. Then, even in the largest of suburban grocery stores in a sizeable Midwestern market, the most you’d find in Asian foods was perhaps something of the La Choy brand in the “ethnic” food aisle packed in alongside generous offerings from Italy, Greece, and other parts of central Europe. There was really nothing particularly Japanese. Store brand sushi rolls still decades to come.
My Grandmother, my mother’s mother, was born in Japan and married my American Grandfather after he served in the Korean War. After many years as an enlisted service member he brought her home to Ohio, where my uncle and mom ultimately grew up, and much later, I came about.
In my childhood, about twice a year, my family—sometimes everyone, sometimes just the women and children—would make the one hour trip into Cleveland’s near east neighborhood to a small mom-and-pop-owned Japanese-American store on Payne Avenue.
I was but a wee child and the place seemed filled with both wonder and intrigue. Wonder at all the smells! Wonder at all the different foods that were not typical for my day to day. Wonder at the way my Grandma and the store owners greeted one another and chatted in Japanese. I assumed at the time that they knew one another, that they went way back, even that perhaps the old couple who ran the store were somehow relatives we only saw twice a year! (They weren’t. But it would take me time to learn and understand that.) There was intrigue simply because we were in an urban environment so very different from where I lived.
There we would pick up some of the basics, things I did eat on a daily basis, rice in a fifty pound sack and soy sauce by the gallon. We also got other things like sheets of nori, wonton wraps, and tempura mixes. My grandma sometimes splurged on the frozen seafood, items exotic to my childhood experience like squid or octopus. And my little brother and I always stocked up on little candies, particularly ones that had a rice paper wrapper that would melt in your mouth. Probably the item most enjoyed by everyone was red bean jelly candy called yokan. We were allowed to open and have just a small piece once we got back to the car, bites that we cherished.
Then on the way back home, around the halfway point or so, we would stop in the small suburban community of Chagrin Falls. There off of Main Street was a Chinese restaurant we would always go to for lunch. Mind you, this was thirty to forty years ago and Chinese food was not as plentiful as it is today. This was special! To tell the truth however, I don’t remember much about it other than the fried rice. It was good but different from ours, and especially different because they used “Chinese” soy sauce and not “Japanese.” And their barbeque ribs had a funky red color, although tasty, different from the ones we ate at home too.
They had placemats on the tables that showed all of the Chinese Zodiac symbols and list of years. Every time we had to go over the differences between the Chinese calendar and the Western calendar. I was especially fascinated by the symbolism of the animals associated with one’s birth year. I am from the year of the rabbit, my little brother from the year of the snake.
Beyond this experience we didn’t much pay attention to the Lunar New Year when I was young. It wasn’t part of our general customs back then nor was it really part of Japanese practice. But as said, times they have a-changed, and I’m grateful for that! I’ve appreciated that in conversation and exchanges over this weekend, holiday greetings and new year wishes have been shared among many whether they are of East Asian heritage or not!
My Grandmother passed away in 2014 and my mother just a few months ago. These memories somehow seem more vibrant now yet the details make me wonder evermore. What have I forgotten? Where am I mistaken? Who can remind me now? Holidays are like that, as is the changing of the year — bringing back, causing us to recall, to remember, maybe to question. Everything is tinged with a hint of sadness…
Yet at the same time the turning of the year, the remembrance back and the movement forward has brought for me an appreciation and a real sense of gratitude that I would not be here and who I am was it not for them.
So later today different foods will be eaten, many to represent luck and to symbolize good fortune for the year ahead. But probably most special for me, I will eat red bean candy. I will think back, will remember, and give thanks.
Wherever you are and how ever you may be celebrating today, Happy Lunar New Year.
(I’ll end my temporary return here to the blog next week with the second part of “Of Community, Worms and Flowers and Everything Else.”)