Planting Roots: Farming memoir combines heritage, study abroad

The hauntingly beautiful memoir, Harvest Son (1998), is one of David Mas Masumoto’s many critically acclaimed meditations on contemporary farming life. The memoir opens with Masumoto admitting his own sense of in-betweenness, feeling torn between the present and the past. As he prunes the peach trees and grapevines which are his livelihood, Masumoto describes the sense of being haunted by the ghosts of his two grandfathers who died during the forced internment, as well as by the shadowy memory of the Japanese family who owned his land before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and who had to sell it in order to prove their fealty to the United States country by complying with Executive Order 9066.

Through a particularly effective use of flashback in the memoir, Masumoto pauses to recall his study abroad experience in Japan during college as a sociology major at UC Berkeley.  David’s decision was prompted by the love and admiration he felt for his aged grandmother, who farms alongside her son and grandchildren in California. Masumoto travels to the ancestral homeland to connect personally with his heritage and to try to reclaim the language skills he had used to communicate with his grandmother as a young child.  Masumoto readily admits that he had trouble learning the Japanese language and mastering kanji characters, partly because he is left handed and thus has trouble producing neat handwriting, but also because he had not received formal language instruction as a kid. After his Tokyo sensei tells David he “was failing kanji miserably” (61), Masumoto lowers his expectations and decides to have fun practicing the language outside of a classroom setting: “instead of daylong classes, we met for half-days, then explored the massive city and complex culture around us. Daily we made fools of ourselves out in the streets with our pathetic conversational Japanese” (61-62). This low-key confession of his lackluster linguistic performance while abroad is one of the ways in which David Mas Masumoto’s memoir challenges the model minority myth.

Masumoto’s linguistic woes are confounded when he finds out that his extended family speaks a dialect with which he is not familiar, Kumamoto-ben. Masumoto connects with his relatives by exchanging the fruits of his own agricultural labor with them: a pack of raisins grown, harvested, and dried in his parents’ farm. After sharing his bounty, David was permitted to help the family patriarch in the fields. Yet again, Masumoto confesses to naïve shortcomings as an American youth who harbored stereotypical assumptions of his
ancestral homeland when he recalls that during the journey towards his family’s region, he had expected to see the landscape dotted with rice paddies. Much to his surprise, het discovered he was in buckwheat country. As he watched his grand-uncle use farming techniques unfamiliar to him despite having grown up in a vineyard framed by peach orchards, David felt a sense of shock which marked the third of his uncanny experiences visiting family in Japan:

I had never sown seeds before.  . . . I copied Jichan Tanaka as we walked side by side, our arms swinging back and forth. The buckwheat looked like waves suspended in a comma shape before they hit the earth. As we trudged back and forth, the seeds arched into the air and plummeted downward, nestling in the soft dirt where next we’d rake and stir them in. (104)

The time he spends with his grand-uncle’s family in their farm in Kumamoto, Kyushu, an island in the south of Japan, is what makes him experience an epiphany or awakening: for the first time, he seriously contemplates making a living as a farmer upon graduation and one day buying his parents’ land. The recognition of a fundamental difference in the way each man, family, and country approaches agricultural labor does not make Masumoto feel insecure about the relative degree of authenticity of one or the other. Instead, his book celebrates the continuity across the diaspora of a family tradition of having a close relationship to and appreciation of the land, and valuing manual labor and hard work. This sense of sameness within difference, entirely brought about through the chosen displacement of studying abroad, fills David with peace as he later recounts his choice to make a living by working the land.

David had first recognized the presence of the local within the global when dining in Japan. He initially feels that dining abroad is a more “authentic” version of the Japanese food he grew up eating, although his comparison is inherently asymmetrical in nature, since the dishes he experienced abroad were prepared in restaurants rather than family homes. Nonetheless, Masumoto recalls how eating in Japan made the foreign country seem more familiar to him: “From the time I arrived in Japan, I felt the most comfortable during meals. I grew up with Japanese food—we had rice at every lunch and dinner, sometimes even for breakfast, and holidays were filled with sushi, teriyaki, sashimi, and manju” (66). At home, eating was one way through which Masumoto and his family performed their cultural identity as people of Japanese ancestry either privately as a family, or publicly at the gatherings of the Del Rey Japanese community in the local gathering hall. Abroad, eating Japanese food is a means through which Masumoto can honor his heritage and fit in with the locals more readily than when he tries to speak. However, though his physical appearance might fool the locals, including his sensei, the taste of food itself stands out as somewhat uncanny to Masumoto’s own palate:

in Japan, the flavors were different, familiar but not what I had anticipated. Most of the sushi had a tarter flavor, the yakitori and other noodle dishes seemed to use stronger seasoning, a bit more karai/salty, and the teriyaki sauce on chicken did not taste as sweet. When I first noticed the difference, I thought each restaurant had a regional flavor; perhaps I could not read the door sign or menu promoting a “southern-style” or “east coast” cuisine. Maybe Tokyo had its own style of stir-frying vegetables or making dashi/soup stock. Japanese food had subtle tastes and flavors that did not match my childhood memories. (66)

This first-hand experience of culinary and regional variation makes Masumoto develop an embodied recognition of “the local” that supports his intellectual understanding that cultural norms vary between the country of origin and the diaspora. Likewise, by spending time with his relatives away from Tokyo, the official location of his studies, Masumoto knowingly gives up his sense of U.S. privilege and avoids the perils of “academic
tourism” Marcus Breen warns so much about. As Breen defines it, “[a]cademic tourism is travel that occasions connections with academic programmes whose intended outcomes are the reproduction of existing perspectives on the state of things, against claims for the creation of critical thinking” (84). Because he stays with his family members, helps out with the farming and lives as they do without receiving college credit for it, Masumoto derives the intellectual and cultural benefits of an immersive experience.

Throughout the rest of his memoir, Masumoto often stresses the point that traditions must change in order to stay relevant; such a philosophy seems to have been rooted during the time he spent studying abroad in Japan in both urban (Tokyo) and rural (Kumamoto) settings. When he returns to Berkeley, he does so with an open mind that allows him to embrace first organic ingredients and, eventually, organic farming methods. He shares these new insights with his family by altering the character of the Japanese food they enjoy in a substantial way; he switches from white to brown rice and prepares sushi with his new favorite grain, much to the older generation’s chagrin. While he did not learn to eat this healthy way in Japan proper, his experience of culinary dislocalism abroad made Masumoto more eager to embrace change as a means of updating ethnic traditions for his own generation and for passing down to his own children.

Although David Mas Masumoto has made his literary reputation by singing the praises of the land he so lovingly cultivates, his experience of travel as an undergraduate student has deepened his appreciation of the sacrifices his immigrant grandparents made in order for him to enjoy the freedoms and responsibilities he has now as a fully enfranchised Japanese American farmer. Although local in emphasis, his vision of agriculture and locavorism is global in scope. Masusmoto’s personal account of successful and productive international education experiences should motivate others to consider such opportunities for personal, intellectual, and gastronomic fulfillment, to say nothing of the benefits this global outlook has had in furthering his career, as a high profile advocate of organic farming and mindful stewardship of the land in the global food system.

Works cited:
Breen, Marcus. “Privileged Migration: American Undergraduates, Study Abroad, Academic Tourism.” Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies 26.1 (2012):.
Masumoto, David Mas. Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

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June 13, 2013 · 3:26 pm

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