Life in America is puzzling enough if you come from a country like Japan that is a world away in taste and customs. And just when you think it can't get any more disconcerting, your child comes home demanding a PB & J on white bread.
For a group of Japanese women in Westchester County, N.Y., one way to figure out the puzzle has been to learn to cook and shop the American way.
"I want to understand America," said Keiko Senda, a 35-year-old mother of one, who used to think American cuisine was burgers, meatballs and frozen foods, the things she saw in movies back home.
Lauren Groveman, a Larchmont homemaker and cook, provides some of the answers, teaching Japanese women how to schmooze with the butcher and feel at home in American supermarkets, but most importantly how to make meals like pot roast and concoct a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for children immersed in American culture.
"They have to get hip because their children are plunged into the mainstream of American society," Mrs. Groveman said. "It's hard, and they're fed up."
Her students reflect a growing Japanese presence that has transformed many of the New York region's most affluent suburbs. Westchester County alone has as many as 15,000 Japanese residents, many of them transplanted here for several years because of job assignments with Japanese corporations.
While newcomers may shy away from social connections with Americans, partly because of culture and language barriers, that was not the case for the five Japanese women who paid $350 apiece to learn what was truly American in the five-class course in Mrs. Groveman's sunny kitchen.
For Mrs. Senda, meals like honey-baked chicken, pot roast and hot biscuits with sweet cream butter changed her perception that Americans give short shrift to meal preparation. She now has a particular taste for veal. Her husband likes rib-eye steaks. Her 10-year-old daughter likes "everything."
"American food is just as good as Japanese food, I think," said Mrs. Senda, whose family eats American-style meals about three times a week.
Mrs. Groveman, who teaches everything from bistro cooking to baking in her home, said she decided to organize the course exclusively for Japanese women after she was asked to contribute recipes for banana bread and mixed-berry shortcakes for a Japanese cookbook titled "American Country Cakes."
"I thought if they are turned on by that, wait till they see my roast chicken," said Mrs. Groveman, a 34-year-old mother of three who is married to the president of a Wall Street brokerage firm.
She sent brochures to Japanese grocery stores in Westchester and placed advertisements in a Japanese newspaper that is circulated throughout the United States. She got the names of some prospective students from the mother of her 9-year-old son's best friend, who is Japanese.
One woman who responded was Yoko Emori, whose family moved here from Tokyo two years ago because of her husband's transfer to a Manhattan bank.
"In Japan, there are many cake shops, so we don't bake at home," she said. "We go to shops, but I like to make dessert." Through Mrs. Groveman's course, she was able to satisfy her family's taste for American desserts and she also developed a hearty appetite for meatloaf.
Mrs. Groveman's class includes a course on American supermarkets and a sort of show-and-tell on where to find items like mayonnaise and chutney. "A lot of the Japanese will travel miles to a Japanese grocery store just to buy a can of Campbell's soup that is written in Japanese letters," she said. Her course gives students the confidence to navigate the aisles of American stores, she said.
As the course progressed, Mrs. Groveman said she found that the Japanese women had complaints similar to those of their American counterparts, including husbands who worked late and the lack of conversation at the family dinner table.
But she also noticed large and small differences between the Japanese and Americans. While American students lapse into conversation about a classmate's hair color or the weather, she said, the Japanese students focus studiously on the meals.
And while her American students called out for doggie bags for leftovers, she said, her Japanese students ate until they cleaned heaping plates of meatloaf, whipped potato casserole, buttermilk biscuits, cole slaw and strawberry sauce over vanilla ice cream.
"I didn't want them to blow up in front of me," said Mrs. Groveman, who later assured the students that it was perfectly proper if they did not finish their meals.
By the next session, the Japanese women showed they had learned one lesson. One by one, they removed their forks from hefty rib-eye steaks and asked for doggie bags.