Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tea With Milk - Asian/Pacific American Literature

Say, Allen. 1999. Tea with Milk. New York, NY: Walter Lorraine Books. ISBN 0-395-90495-1

Plot Summary
Masako grew up in America outside San Francisco. When she graduated from high school, her family moved back to their homeland of Japan. Masako quickly learned that Japan was not her homeland and that she missed her life in America. She left her family home and moved to the city of Osaka. Here, she felt a little more at home. She was able to get a job after a while using the English she learned in America. Through this job, she me a young man who had grown up in English schools and also felt a little out of place in Japan. The two marry and create their own sense of home together.

Critical Analysis
This is a lovely story about learning to find comfort and a sense of belonging in a world that does not necessarily feel like home. The ending, which describes a culture almost opposite to that of the beginning, brings the story full circle. It also happens to give insight into the Japanese and Japanese American cultures.

The main character is named Masako, or Ma-chan for short. However, in English, she is called May and when she meets her future husband, he tells her that the English school he went to “called him Joseph” revealing that many Japanese people change their names in English. We also learn that at home, Masako’s family at rice, miso soup, and green tea for breakfast but that when “May” was in the home of her friends, she ate pancakes, muffins, and tea with milk and sugar. When Masako’s family moves back to Japan, we learn that her home is drafty with paper windows and they often sit on the floor. Masako must wear kimonos and go back to school to learn Japanese and even though her goal is to go to college and live on her own as American girls do, her family wants her to become a proper Japanese lady and marry a good husband.

When Masako moves to the city, we find that it provides some of the things she misses from America like tall buildings and large stores. It also shows that the opportunities for women in the work force are limited. However, once Masako is able to put her English skills to work in a city that feels a little more like America than where her family lives, she is able to better appreciate her Japanese roots. It is the appreciation and blending of both cultures that truly classifies this as Japanese-American literature.

Professional Reviews
From Hazel Rochman (Booklist, March 15, 1999 (Vol. 95, No. 14))
On the title page of Say's new picture book, there is a small frame from his Caldecott-winning Grandfather's Journey (1993), a picture of his mother, Masako, as a Japanese American child in California. Say tells her immigrant story: how, when she finished high school in California, her restless, homesick father took the family back to live in his village in Japan. Masako becomes a foreigner in her parents' country, longing for home in San Francisco. Instead of college, she has to go back to high school to learn Japanese. She must learn to be a "proper" Japanese lady. Say's watercolors are quieter in line and color this time, and the text is much longer. Together, they tell an elemental story that will appeal to everyone who feels a stranger at home. The pictures of Masako show her sad and wooden, bound up in a kimono, kneeling on the floor, or walking alone in the empty schoolyard. In a climactic scene, she sits fuming on a park bench next to the stuffy banker with whom an arranged marriage is planned. When she rebels and breaks away, the bright red color of her fitted dress is as startling to us as to the staring villagers. Like many foreigners everywhere, she discovers her home in the city, where she finds work, opportunity, and a husband from an even more diverse background than her own. They speak English ("at last, a real conversation"); they drink their tea with milk and sugar; and when their son, Allen, is born, they speak English to each other and Japanese to him. Both an "ugly duckling" romance and a universal story of leaving home, this is a picture book that will have intense appeal for older readers. Category: Middle Readers. 1999, Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $17. Gr. 4-8. Starred Review.

From Marilyn Courtot (Children's Literature)
If you loved Grandfather's Journey then Tea With Milk will give you another look at the author's family, only this time it is through the eyes of his mother. Masako has never known her parents' homeland. She spent her life growing up in the United States. Just as she is planning to head off to college, the family returns to Japan. How frustrating--she is an outsider who must wear kimonos, sit on the floor, and worst of all, her parents have hired a matchmaker to find her a respectable husband. Masako rebelled at a time when properly raised girls in Japan just didn't leave home, head for the city, and look for a job. May, as she preferred to be called, found work in a department store where she also met her future husband, another foreigner who was raised by an English family. They discovered that they both share a love of tea with milk and sugar along with a desire to create their own home and place in the world. The poignant story is accompanied by Say's glorious paintings that look like photographs from a family album. They beautifully capture the setting and the emotions. 1999, Houghton Mifflin, $17.00. Ages 5 to 8.

From Janice M. Del Negro (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June 1999 (Vol. 52, No. 10))
Writing a family history in a manner that interests anyone but blood relations is surprisingly difficult; putting a family story into a picture-book format is even more difficult, as picture books require an economy of form and style that is not necessarily family-story friendly. Allen Say writes family stories for youth, treading the path of his family’s past with a sure step, never slipping into the chasms of nostalgia that yawn at his feet. A matter-of-fact tone and a certain severity of style serve to discipline his unsentimental look at his family history, resulting in emotionally resonant stories that are crisp and clean, yet not antiseptic. Tea with Milk is a love story, and it is a love story in more ways than one. It is the story of a young Japanese-American woman’s love for her country; it is the story of her parents’ love for their country of origin; it is the story of how Say’s own parents met and fell in love; and it is the story of the love between a mother and child in this son’s tribute to his mother’s life. The opening sepia-toned, snapshot-like illustration shows a little girl dressed in her best clothes; behind the girl is the door to her house where, peeking out from a small window, is the half-hidden face of an observing adult. The accompanying text states: “From the window of her room, the girl could see the city of San Francisco. She imagined that it was a city of many palaces. And one day her father would take her there, he had promised, riding on a paddle steamer across the shining bay.” But the girl Masako’s parents are homesick, and, after she graduates from high school, they return to Japan. Masako had planned to go to college and get her own apartment. In Japan, however, she goes back to high school to learn to speak Japanese, and she takes lessons in flower arranging and calligraphy in order to become “a proper Japanese lady.” When her parents hire a matchmaker to find her a husband and arrange a marriage, Masako realizes that, despite her Japanese parents, she is an “American daughter.” She cannot adjust to the life her parents wish her to live so she moves to Osaka, where, thanks to her excellent English, she gets a job guiding foreign businessmen around an exclusive department store. On one such tour, she meets Joseph, the man who becomes her husband and the author’s father. From the title page illustration of the young Masako standing next to a baby carriage with a blonde ringleted doll, Say renders his mother’s struggle to maintain her balance on the line between her two cultures with compassionate insight. The loneliness of the uprooted Masako, her conflicting desires to please her family and be true to herself, her courage in leave-taking, all are communicated in a telling combination of words and pictures. The full-page watercolor illustrations are thinly outlined in black with wide white borders, and the spare compositions are elegantly balanced within their frames. The face of the main character articulates her changing emotions as her solitary figure stands isolated and apart in several of the spreads. The faces in the crowds are integral to the action of the scene; every now and then a character will look out from the pages, seemingly directly at the viewer, further drawing the reader into Masako’s environment. The illustrations have a translucent, light-infused quality, illuminating both setting and characters with unremitting honesty. The backgrounds, whether busy street-scenes or the palatial store interior, serve as uncluttered settings for the story’s characters. There have been several generations of family stories in picture book format over the last several years; their apparent aim has been to contribute to a sense of personal and family history, to give young readers and listeners a sense of where they come from so as to provide them with a sense of where they might go. Unfortunately, many such books are nostalgia pieces for adults, memory anecdotes that require the reader to bring a certain amount of regret or longing for days gone by to the story in order to appreciate the experience. Say has a gift for descriptive prose that effectively communicates the emotional nuances of his family stories; that gift lifts his stories above nostalgia and invites young listeners and readers to an understanding of the passage of time, the impact of distance. Opening with a snapshot-like illustration of Masako and closing with a photorealistic portrait of his parents, Say’s respectful tribute comes full circle, ending with a gratifying sense of something well-considered and finally understood. Review Code: R -- Recommended. (c) Copyright 1999, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 1999, Lorraine/Houghton, 32p, $17.00. Ages 6-9 yrs.

This would be a good book for readers who are new and feeling out of place. It would also be a good book to share with students when asking them to set goals or helping them work through the process of changing goals when those originally set can not be met for some reason.

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