Shako Club: how a box lunch made me cry

Here’s the lunch box I received today from Shako Club.

11743007_10153394032260734_6053153501424641400_nI applied to receive a bento box a couple of months ago. The application process was a slightly odd questionnaire that I had some trouble answering. I don’t often get songs stuck in my head and it’s hard to pick my absolute favourite story from my childhood. We were told that our bento contents would be determined by the answers to this questionnaire.

The theme of land, sea, mountains is represented here with:

– top left (land) – chicken karaage, half a boiled egg on lettuce with 2 perfect crunchy cucumber sticks underneath

– top right (sea) red bean jelly made with kanten with a sansho leaves and a wee piece of candied ginger. there was a sliced strawberry hidden under the paper cup that held the jelly.

red bean jelly with ginger and shanso leaves on top that look like a flower

– bottom right (mountain) – veggie gyoza made with okara and spinach goma-ae

– bottom left  – rice with umeboshi

It’s in a gorgeous handmade maple box that’s been oiled with a cute Shako Club stamp on the bottom.

handmade maple bento box

Shako Club stamp

I sat down and Tazuko and I introduced ourselves to each other. There was also a translator who I didn’t introduce myself to until halfway through, which I feel was a bit rude of me. Tazuko talked a little bit about the process that they went through to make the bentos and then invited me to take the lid off and look. She explained the different ingredients and elements of this gorgeous lunch box. I was already familiar with the Japanese ingredients: okara (byproduct of making tofu), sansho leaves and kanten (agar agar).

Tazuko explaining the contents of the lunch box

She asked me if I liked Japanese food and I explained that I’m half Japanese and love Japanese food. I told her that karaage is my favourite and that I have really fond memories of the Japanese food that my Grandma used to make when we would visit each summer. Tazuko told me more about her history. She was born between Osaka and Nara in the mountains, and during the war their family fled their home to Yokohama.

She talked about the Japanese Canadian internment and the impact that WWII had on many Japanese and Japanese Canadian people. She talked about only having rice and umeboshi for lunch when she was a kid. I know how poor Japan was after the war and that for many people this is all they could afford, but hearing this truth from someone I had just met was really emotional for me. I was so touched about how much someone I had just met was sharing about their life with me, a complete stranger. I was also overcome with how lucky and privileged I am right now. I was blinking back tears then I really started crying, which didn’t seem to phase her or the translator. I forgot this cultural difference. In Japan it’s generally not seen as embarrassing to cry when you are extremely moved. In Canada I find that we don’t know what to do when people cry. We are generally uncomfortable with tears and “negative” emotions.

We chatted a bit more and I learned that she came to Canada 40 years ago and married a Nisei Japanese man. I was curious if she had kids but didn’t want to pry, so I didn’t ask.

We were asked to bring something small to gift back to the person we received the lunch box from. In my questionnaire I said that one of my hobbies is gardening. I ended up with a bunch of volunteer purple shiso plants in my community garden plot. I repotted one of these and brought one of the first cloves of garlic I had ever grown this past year. After all, who doesn’t like garlic? Also from living in Japan I know that gifts that can be consumed are often better. Tazuko and I chatted a bit about the connection between the umeboshi in the bento and the purple shies that I gave her—purple shiso is what gives umeboshi it’s colour.

We chatted a bit more. I took a few pictures of Tazuko and the bento she had made and then Cindy Mochizuki came by and said that Tazuko is her mom. Cindy is the artist responsible for this project and someone I’ve been getting to know better over the past year. It was awesome to find out that this amazing woman is her mom. If I had asked if she had kids earlier in the conversation I would have learned this.

I biked down to the seawall and enjoyed my lunch box and was reflecting on some relationships with work colleagues over the past month. I’ve delighted in a bunch of work relationships shifting to be more open and honest where other people have demonstrated courage in sharing stuff about themselves including: mental illness, learning disabilities, gender identity, sexuality, neurodiversity and personal insecurities that are incongruent with how I see them professionally. All of these people didn’t need to disclose these things about themselves but it made it easier for me to understand how they operate and gave me a glimpse of what they might be going through. To me these are acts of courage because they involve unpacking stigma and shame which is a revolutionary act that gives us all a little more room to breathe freely.

Handwritten note: "Dear Tara, I hope you enjoy this 'Bento box' lunch. Best wishes for a bright and wonderful future!! Tazuko"

Learn more about Cindy Mochizuki’s Shako Club project

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