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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #44 (November 4, 2008), page 16.
The best of both worlds
Tea with Milk
By Allen Say
Houghton Mifflin, 1999
Hardcover, 32 pages, $17.00
By Josephine Bridges
In some ways, itís the best of both worlds for the protagonist of this story. She has two names, Masako and May, and speaks two languages, Japanese and English. In her home overlooking San Francisco, "She had rice and miso soup and plain green tea for breakfast. At her friendsí houses she ate pancakes and muffins and drank tea with milk and sugar." But when her parents decide to return to Japan, their homeland, after her high school graduation, she is sad to leave "the only home she had ever known."
Itís even worse when the family arrives in Japan, which she thinks she will never get used to. "She had to wear kimonos and sit on floors until her legs went numb." She has to attend high school all over again. "To learn her own language, her mother said." She hopes to befriend the woman who teaches English conversation, but the teacher thinks of her as an American and refuses to speak English with her.
When her parents hire a matchmaker, Masako exclaims, "Iíd rather have a turtle than a husband!" and she finds the young banker to whom the matchmaker introduces her, "Charming like a catfish!" So the spirited young woman puts on "the brightest dress she had brought from California" and takes the train to Osaka, where she finds a job as an elevator operator in a department store. One afternoon when she has become thoroughly bored with her job, an English-speaking family appears at the store and she helps them find what they are looking for, whereupon her supervisor offers her a new position as the storeís guide for foreign businessmen. "She had to wear a kimono for the job. How funny, she thought, that she had to look like a Japanese lady to speak English."
Itís the beginning of a series of pleasant surprises not only for the protagonist but also for the reader, the best of which appears on the very last page. Author and painter Allen Say outdoes himself with every book he writes and illustrates, and Tea with Milk is no exception. A meditation on the nature of home, an exploration of the joys and trials of living between cultures, and a portrait of a woman youíll wish lived next door, Tea with Milk is a joy.