Wednesday, February 15, 2006

P.S. Yes, I Did It On Purpose.

A friend of mine is a sushi chef, not a typical profession for an African American woman. I'm publishing this story of hers on her behalf. Please do leave comments, I'll make sure she sees them. If you'd like to contact her directly, send her your message through me; she'll decide if she wants to reply.

In the meantime, enjoy her intriguing tale of sushi bar drama. You'll notice that she has a great understanding of sushi culture; the conflict itself is not cultural (as I had first expected); rather, it is more a matter of sexist/racist discrimination on the part of her jackass of a boss. Enjoy!

Act One

Although becoming a sushi chef as a black woman was not a life threatening struggle, there have been many times when it has been quite uncomfortable and personally demanding.

�What's a kappa?� asked a bright eyed young girl standing on the barstool. She was grinning wide to show off the tooth that she was missing, occasionally sticking her tongue through the space.

I simply smiled and waited for him to speak. It's not that I couldn't answer, but I had learned that he preferred me not to speak. It was apparent that he wanted to be the one who would answer all of the questions. If He-who-must-not-be-named had no answer, he would simply make up an answer or draw me into the conversation to cleverly bail himself out.

�It means cucumber,� he told the little girl. �That's why it's called a kappa maki.�

I didn't even look up. Instead, I bit my lip, fought back a smile and pretended not to hear his answer.

Satisfied with her answer, she hopped carefully against her mother's wishes over a few barstools, stopping at random intervals to admire the strange contents of the neta case. As with most children, she was mesmerized by the octopus. I reached inside the case and pulled out the swirled leg. She watched closely as I cut the very tip part off with a long, clean stroke of my knife. I placed it on a small plate and
passed it over the sushi bar.

�Whoa!!!!� she said excitedly.

Her mother smiled and prompted,� What do you say?�

�Can I eat this?� the little girl inquired. The piece of tentacle was hanging from the very tips of her fingers as if she were afraid of letting it touch her full palm.

�That's not what you say!� chuckled her mother. �Try again.�

She sighed. �Thank you. So can I eat this?�

I nodded and continued working. The tickets were beginning to pile in and the last thing I wanted was to fall behind. I dipped my knife in my hand bowl and tapped the handle sharply on the cutting board to force the water down the long, thin blade.

�Why do you do that?� inquired the little girl.

Seeing this as a chance to have a voice, I answered quickly before He-who-must-not-be-named answered for me. �It's to scare off the kappas,� I said without explanation.

She looked puzzled and I proceeded in storytelling fashion. �A kappa is a scary creature that lurks around water waiting to play tricks on people. It looks kind of like a cross between a frog and a turtle that can walk on two legs. You see this water back here? Well, they sometimes try to sneak up on us, but we scare them off by making that noise with our knives. And if that doesn't work, we can feed them their favorite snack-cucumbers. They really like cucumbers.�

Her eyes were big. �Whoa!!!!� she exclaimed, before giggling at the silliness of my story.

I placed a few cucumbers on a plate and passed them over the bar with some advice, �If you eat these kyuri, the kappas won't bother you.�

She smiled and plucked a few from the plate. As I began to settle back into my tickets, He-who-must-not-be-named slammed the end of his knife onto his cutting board. The commotion caused a few cautious glances, but I pretended not to pay any attention. Instead, I buried my head and concentrated on working the tickets.

I knew that he would be upset. It was hard for him to admit, but when it came to the knowledge and craft of sushi, I knew what I was doing. He often had to ask me in private how to say or make certain things involving the very cuisine that was his boasted heritage. But because of his heritage, regardless of what things he did not know, He-who-must-not-be-named was my boss. It had only been a week since we had worked together and even then, it was evident that we were going to clash.

He-who-must-not-be-named moved over towards the hand sink. He looked down at the sushi on my cutting board and remarked loudly enough for everyone at the bar to hear, �I see it's going to take some time for you to perfect your sushi. We need to work on your rolls.�

My heart dropped to the floor. As was his intention, he had succeeded in whisking away any credibility I had established. I blinked hard to fight back the tears that were quickly forming in my eyes. A few of the customers were trying not to stare, but they looked at me pitifully from the corner of their eyes. I hung my head in shame for the night. To block out his tales of learning the craft of sushi from his uncle in Japan, I scrutinized every piece of sushi I plated. And each moment, I imagined an imaginary version of Sensei standing over my shoulder pushing me to be better. I could hear him shouting, �Think about your moritsuke!!! Plate looks like mess!� And though this was supposed to relieve me and cause some distraction, it made me feel worse.

Before the night was over, I left the sushi bar several times to release the wells of tears in the privacy of the bathroom. Little did I know that this was mild compared to what was to come over the next few months...

Act Two
As time passed, working with He-who-must-not-be-named got worse. One minute, he was discreetly asking me questions only to turn around the next minute to embarrass me in front of the others or even worse, the customers. The others, all Americans and all men with little to no experience in sushi, worked quietly with heads down and looked up occasionally for guidance from his cutting board. After months of enduring his abusive behavior, I had resolved to try and work peacefully. It had been my choice to stay and work, so I had no one to accuse for my working conditions but myself. Each day, I stood and worked in my designated corner to the far left contemplating if my love of sushi was enough to justify working another day with He-who-must-not-be-named.

The constant discouragement I received proved to be so mentally challenging at one point, that I began questioning myself. Had I lost something? Did my skills diminish that quickly? Or even worse, had I imagined my whole experience in sushi school? My confidence was slipping away fast and in every attempt to save it, I went home every night and studied my book and notes from school just as I did each night after sushi classes. One day, I took in a picture of Sensei and taped him to my station as a constant watchful eye and guardian angel. Each time I felt discouraged, I remembered that Sensei himself had been born in Japan and had actually spent years learning sushi the way He-who-must-not-be-named pretended to have done. If Sensei had approved of me and encouraged me, then it was his standard that I would continue to strive for. While the others looked to He-who-must-not-be-named, I constantly imagined Sensei over my shoulder encouraging me to reach beyond good and always be a little better. Whenever He-who-must-not-be-named tried to discourage or embarrass me, it was my imaginary version of Sensei that came to my rescue and reminded me that traditionally, the head sushi chef stood to the farthest most left position.

Most customers at the sushi bar engaged in conversation with He-who-must-not-be-named or the others. They seemed mostly enchanted by his stories and tales. I had begun to enjoy them as well, wondering with each new customer, what details of his sushi history would change. As I listened to each account, I even started to pity him. He had a vivid imagination that I could relate to, but I began to hope for his sake that he would never get caught in the details.

He-who-must-not-be-named was not so lucky. The questioning of his authenticity began late one night. I was making a California roll, when a lone customer approached the sushi bar.

�Irrashaimasen!� shouted He-who-must-not-be-named, ignoring all of the discreet ways I tried to tell him that masen was not the proper ending. After a while, I had given up and assumed that nobody would think twice about me not giving the greeting since I was rarely acknowledged. Noticing that I had not joined him in the greeting, He-who-must-not-be-named frowned a little before turning back to his conversation on Buddhism. I hoped that this wouldn't be one of our infamous after work talks.

The guy looked curiously at me as he walked from each of the cases and inspected the fish inside. I watched him as he sat down. Something in the way he was looking at the fish, mostly inspecting rather than the usual manner of curious people who wondered if the fish were real or just display, suggested that he knew sushi. He glanced again at me curiously. I smiled, put my head down and watched from the corner of my eye as he observed He-who-must-not-be-named for a few minutes.

He leaned in towards the bar a little. �Ita-san,� he said. It had been a while since I had heard these familiar words and I immediately looked up as if he had called my name. Only he wasn't looking in my direction. He was trying to solicit the attention of He-who-must-not-be-named, who at the time was deeply engaged in his conversation and didn't even notice.

I looked back down. �Excuse me, ita-san,� the guy said again just a little louder.

He-who-must-not-be-named did not look up. I looked over at the guy and responded. He began asking me a world of questions about our fish and after a few minutes, He-who-must-not-be-named took notice.

�Do you have toro?� the guy asked me.

Before I had a chance to answer, He-who-must-not-be-named answered for me. �Yes,� and he rattled on a few minutes successfully omitting my presence from the conversation. It had been nice for a few seconds to have a proper acknowledgment of my existence and get a chance to speak, but I was accustomed to being pushed out of conversations. I put my head down again and observed from the corner of my eye.

The guy had one final question before making his selections. �Do you have otoro or chutoro?� he inquired.

�We have both,� He responded.

My heart sank as I glanced over the fish in the cases. A vivid imagination when it came to relaying your history was one thing, but to outright lie to a customer was another. There was no chutoro in sight. I suspected that He-who-must-not-be-named would pass our otoro off as chutoro if the guy were to order some. I looked to the others who seemed to be unaffected by this statement as they continued working diligently.

The guy spoke again. �Okay, I'll have a hamanegi temaki. And I'll have maguro, chutoro, otoro and shake, all sushi,� he stated.

He-who-must-not-be-named nodded and moved passed the others. He came over towards my cutting board. It was quite convenient that our lone hand sink was by my station.

�What's shake?� he asked quietly. �And hamanegi?� he added as he pretended to wash his hands.

One of the others looked over in shock after hearing him ask me questions. Usually, no one else was around. He stared openly in amazement as if he were observing us cheat on a test. The thought that I was feeding him the answers seemed hard to comprehend.

Without causing a scene, I reached into the case and pulled out a piece of salmon and a piece of yellowtail and placed them on my cutting board. I pulled a bunch of green onions from my cooler and placed them on top of the yellowtail. He nodded and said, �Oh yeah.�

He walked a few steps before turning back around. �Why don't you go ahead and make his,� he said quietly.

Once again, my heart sank. He had told the guy we had chutoro and now he planned to stick me with making it happen. �What about the chutoro?�

He went back to his case and selected a regular piece of tuna. �Use this,� he said placing it on my cutting board. As he started to walk away, I began to get angry. It had taken a lot to get to a point where I could work with him, but something told me that this was going to be my last night. I grabbed a sushi order form and pencil and began scribbling furiously across its surface. Satisfied with my words, I folded the paper in half and wrote his name on top. I placed it on the cutting board next to me and watched as it made its way to his station. The others glanced cautiously back and forth from him, me and the folded paper that was studded with four sets of oily, fishy fingerprints. Even the sharpest sashimi knife could not have cut the tension that formed that night.

He picked up the note and looked at me with anger. I stood at my station working as if nothing had happened and turned to face him. His eyes widened as he read the letter. He crumpled the paper in his hand and slammed a fist into the cutting board. As he turned to walk back towards me, his hand �water� turned over and sent a fierce river of the murky, vinegar studded with several hours worth of roe and fish bits into his rice pot.

Act Three
Taking a few deep breaths, I braced myself for his entrance into the kitchen. He was going to be very mad and I wasn't quite sure what he would do. Disagreeing followed by heightened arguments had become so normal for us, that I wondered if somehow we secretly enjoyed the challenge. But after months of subjecting myself to his way of running a sushi bar, I had reached my limit.

Knowing that after the night was over I would have to endure no more, I managed to remain very calm as he flung open the swinging door to the kitchen. His face was flushed as he stormed in my direction. The kitchen staff gave me their familiar �Good luck� glances as they turned away.

He-who-must-not-be-named unfolded the paper and threw it at my feet. �What do you mean, you won't do it?� he said yelled.

Just to make sure that I remained calm, I counted to ten slowly in my head before speaking which seemed to infuriate him further. He-who-must-not-be-named was not a man of patience, though he portrayed moments of it when talking of his religion. Right as I said ten silently, the kitchen door opened again and one of the others carried his rice pot to a side table. Then, he pulled out the hangiri and without wetting it, dumped the contents of the pot into the wooden bowl. I walked over and looked into the bowl. The lumpy rice seemed to be like little islands surrounded by a shallow sea of vinegar and water. Little bits of masago, fish, nori and cucumber swam slowly in the sea and landed on the banks of the islands.

�Um, you can't really be thinking about serving that rice,� I said.

He walked over to the hangiri and started stirring the concoction around with the shamoji. �We still have an hour of service left. If I throw this rice away, we may not make it until the end,� he said.

I looked at him in disbelief. It was true that without the rice in his pot, we would probably not make it through our final hour. And unfortunately, one hour was not long enough to prepare more. �No really. You can't use that rice. Your hand water fell into it. You've had that same bowl of water since we opened. It's not clean,� I pleaded.

He sighed deeply and turned towards me. �You know, this is getting really old. Why can't you just do what I say? You're always telling me what you will and won't do and I'm getting sick of it.�

I looked over into the rice pot again and frowned. �Would you eat that?�

He looked at me and winced. �Probably. The rice already has vinegar in it, so what's the big deal?�

I looked him directly in the eyes before hitting him with the heavy artillery. He had a habit of holding himself to different standards when it came to serving his Asian patrons, especially his mother, who when it came down to it, was the one who actually had taught him the cuisine of his heritage. �Would you serve this to your mother?� I asked.

He turned and glared at me. �What's that supposed to mean? My mother would throw this away if she saw it, so of course I wouldn't serve it to her. I would never hear the end of it.�

I crossed my arms and waited. He-who-must-not-be-named shook his head and turned to me. �No, there is nothing wrong with this rice. I wouldn't give it to my mother because she's Japanese and her standards are very high. But I can serve this to Americans,� he explained with a look that suggested that I was better off talking to a wall.

In one last attempt to alter his opinion on the rice, I gave him one last bit of information that was a touchy and dangerous subject to bring up. But I was desperate to get the rice thrown away. �You do know that shari refers to Buddha's bones, right? Where is your reverence?� I said, anxious to see his expression.

He-who-must-not-be-named looked at me furiously. �Go back to the sushi bar and make that guy's sushi! Now!!!�

I nodded and took my place at the sushi bar. The others looked at me as if they were surprised to see me return. Pretending to be unaffected by the incident, I proceeded to make the sushi the guy had requested except for the chutoro. After explaining to him that we were out, he picked a piece of something else instead.

He-who-must-not-be-named returned to his spot at the sushi bar with his rice pot. The guy struck up a conversation with him about fish again and offered his gratitude for the delicious sushi. I looked away and pretended not to hear. It was something I was getting used to. Afterall, no one ever looked at me and assumed I was capable of making good sushi and He-who-must-not-be-named was not willing to suggest the idea either.

He-who-must-not-be-named was enjoying a shot of sake with the guy. I forced a smile and let my thoughts drift to a conversation I had with a good friend just the night before. She had called me excitedly to tell me of a classified ad that said, �Wanted: Experienced Sushi Chef�. She speculated on how much fun it would be if I moved back and told me of all the things that were new since I had left. I let the idea roll around in my head. Surely it would be better than this. And it would be nice to be closer to family and friends. But would the job still be open? And could I even get the job? It had been hard enough here, because I had been told several times that customers were not usually comfortable with a woman and that they would have a hard time excepting a female, African American sushi chef. Would it be the same back home?

A group of ten people walked into the sushi bar. I looked into my rice pot to assess the amount of rice left. It was very low, and the others had already taken their pots back to the dish sink. The thought of serving rice from He-who-must-not-be-named's pot was troubling me. Since this was going to be my last night, I decided that I may as well go out with a bang. I walked over to He-who-must not-be-named's station and reached into his sushi case. He moved over to the side closer to the guy and left the rice pot in direct access. I began shaking a little as I considered what to do. Luckily, he was too involved in his conversation to watch my actions.

�Yes, we do get in mackeral sometimes. My favorite is the horse mackeral. There is a marinade recipe that runs in my family and it is so good,� He-who-must-not-be-named said.

I frowned a little. The guy sitting at the bar must have read my mind. He frowned a bit as well before saying, �Aji is one of my favorites. Funny, I've never seen it marinated before,� he said suspiciously.

He-who-must-not-be-named turned to me for backup. �You've seen it marinated before, huh?� he prodded.

Without looking up, I simply shook my head no, and walked away from his cutting board with a piece of fish in my hand. As I left his cutting board, my elbow �accidentally� collided with his open container of masago and landed face down into his rice pot.

�Gomen nasai,� I said. �I'm so sorry.� I picked up the container and peered at the contents of the rice pot.

Realizing that there was no way to salvage the rice, He-who-must-not-be-named picked it up and carried it through the swinging door, �accidentally� brushing in me in the back with the handle as he slid past me. I moved my pot to his station and like the others started breaking down my station. One of the others leaned in and whispered, �I'm so glad you did that.�

I smiled and nodded. I pulled out another sushi sheet and started scribbling again. After my big two word announcement, I signed my name and added a thoughtful P.S. that read:Yes, I did it on purpose. I folded it in half and placed it on his cutting board. Although my future was uncertain, I felt quite free.

He-who-must-not-be-named didn't say a word to me as I left the building that night. As I left, I paused for a moment to sit on my knife case and think a little while enjoying the beautiful star-filled sky. I picked up my cellphone to make a quick call to my friend. The time was 12:21 and I paused quickly to make a wish. �I wish that sushi chefs were hired on the basis of their talent and not their gender or ethnic background!� I said with my eyes closed. And as soon as the last words of my wish were uttered, my phone began to ring.

Recognizing the number on my caller id, I answered cheerfully. �I was just about to call you.�

�Yep, I was was calling to pester you about moving back. So when you gone quit your job and come on back to the South?� she said.

�Funny you should say that,� I replied. �You'll never believe what happened tonight...�


DC Food Blog said...

What an amazing post. It's a sad sad brew when sexism and racism combine. Your friend is a brave woman and I would be honored to ever eat her sushi knowing the barriers and challenges she faces but also knowing she knows how to make good sushi.

.t said...

this is really hot. your friend is a fantastic writer. i want to eat her sushi in the worst way.