I was away at college when my family first got into sushi, but I remember the story well. During one of our weekly Sunday night telephone conversations, my mother drolly recounted to me how she and my sister had been sneaking take-out from a new local restaurant into the house behind my grandmother’s back.
While my mom is Chinese, she was born in America and harbors no personal resentment toward the Japanese or their culture. My grandmother, on the other hand, lived through the Second World War, witnessing the occupation of her homeland as a child. Like so many others of that generation, she’s been on boycott ever since.
When she discovered the family’s dirty little secret, her disapproval flowed forth, endless and unchecked; she vowed never to take part in such a callous betrayal of principle. As time went by, however, this outrage simmered to interest—be it guilty and heavily-guarded—and whenever sushi was brought home she could be found prowling about the margins of the table, feigning indifference with a cursory glare, declining invitation with a shake of the head. My mother and sister would roll their eyes in amused and unspoken laughter. They knew that for someone like my grandmother, to whom food is the be-all and end-all, it was only a matter of time.
And cave she did. After all, one little piece couldn’t hurt. Placing a slice on the tip of her tongue, she chewed the maki skeptically, choking it down and affecting a great deal of effort in the process. “Terrible,” she spat, quickly exiting from the room. Five minutes later, she came wandering back. “Just one more. Then that will be it.”
Growing up, I’d never fully understood my grandmother’s aversion toward all things Japanese, at best writing it off as an individual item on a longer list of quirks. Not until coming to China did I see this enmity in its broader, national context; did I realize how deep-seated it is within the mindset of a people. During a lesson on conditional phrasing, I asked my students, “If you only had one more day left to live, what would you do, and why?” The first hand raised? “I would kill as many Japanese people as possible. Because I hate them and they are evil.”
Sure, the Chinese take a hard-line approach, but their anger is understandable. The mutual history shared between these two great nations is lengthy and often punctuated with violence, yet another example of China’s past humiliation at the hands of a foreign power. By Chinese estimates, wars launched by Japan have resulted in the death of over 20 million citizens. During the Rape of Nanjing (or what the Japanese prefer to refer to as the Nanjing “Incident”), approximately 300,000 civilians were slaughtered in the streets.
Since then, the Japanese government has offered numerous apologies, but none have come close to the level of sincerity or remorse demanded by the CCP. Most recently, in 2005, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi issued a statement of regret over the pain and suffering caused by his country during the years of World War II. He did not mention China specifically in the apology, however, and a visit made by members of parliament shortly thereafter to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial which glorifies the fallen soldiers of Japan (among whom are included several convicted Class A war criminals), led Beijing to reject what it perceived as nothing more than another disingenuous stab at détente. Beginning in childhood, students here are taught to hate their neighbors to the east, from detailed accounts of wartime atrocities in their textbooks to wicked, often sadistic portrayals of characters in film.
One can only imagine my surprise, therefore, when I stumbled across a vendor selling sushi down by the river that runs through town. It seemed a futile—if not entirely suicidal—enterprise. Consuming raw fish off the streets of rural China isn’t something I’d normally recommend, but I’d been eating the same oil-drenched meals for almost ten months straight, in desperate need of variety. Like every other local restaurant claiming to serve foreign food, only half of the menu was available. I finally settled on a roll of salmon and some other fish of unknown characterization. Crossing myself just to be safe, I called out an order of each. It might as well have been Fugu.
The bustle of the nightlife, the stillness on the water. Writing everything down, the vendor rushes to the supermarket, dissolving away in the crowd. I set up by the curb on a red plastic stool, surveying the length of the street, pedestrians streaming down the road in a mass and perpetual exodus. Within a nearby construction site, rebar rises forth from several unfinished columns, leaning softly against the sky, cranes raking the spangled heavens of their starlight overhead.
A second supermarket, recently opened directly across from the first, glows candent in the night through the PVC curtaining of a strip door in front. An elevator shaft built of steel and glass, the first of its kind in town, sticks to the building’s façade like a giant silver remora, shuttling customers to and from the 天天 (Everyday) Internet Bar, as if people here need any more encouragement to spend their every waking hour inside those smoky, crowded dens.
The spread is impressive: rows of stylishly-upholstered ergonomic chairs, brand-new flat screens, an enormous waterfall window to dampen the drone of machines. Meanwhile, outside, in one of the many karaoke tents that line the public square, a man howls off-key into a microphone like a flockless muezzin. Men and women gnaw at the wings of chickens splayed in cruciform across bamboo skewers. Toddlers empty themselves in the street.
The vendor returned two cigarettes later hauling a bulky bag of goods. Rolling out his mat, he set to paving a handful of the soft vinegared rice upon a brittle sheet of nori, wearing those thin plastic gloves the Chinese sometimes use for fries. As with every other dish in Hunan Province, a dollop of hot sauce was added topped with strips of cucumber and carrot. Pineapple followed by pork floss. To my relief, the salmon came from a package which had been brought in from Guangzhou that week. To my surprise, a tin of sardines. Sushi with Chinese characteristics.
I watched as he sliced the rolls into twenty slender coins then thanked him and paid and took the food back to one of my usual hangouts, a music shop adjacent to the school, because I didn’t want the chef at the restaurant where I park my bike to think less of his loyal foreign customer.
As I pulled up, a middle-aged man reeking of alcohol greeted me at the entrance, brandishing a pack of Shuangxi cigarettes and shoving a thumb in my face. An inebriate’s show of approval. From the owners I learn that he is a local government official whom no one’s especially fond of, his rank being the only thing that affords him any leeway. I pull up a stool and open the carton of fish. The party official stands beside me placing cigarettes behind my ear one after the next until finally I begin to feel like some addicted, one-trick magician. Being younger and slightly more interested in learning about foreign culture than honoring historical grudges, my friends all dive right in. For the most part, they like it. Infuriated by the fact that we are eating Japanese food, the party official drops down at the drum kit and starts banging away uncertainly. A harebrained Paleolithic. We sit there eating, unable to hear ourselves talk. The hiss of the snare drum, a not-so-occasional crash.
When at last he dismounted, my ears were nearly bleeding. He came over with a shit-eating grin plastered to his chin and thrust a drunken thumb slantwise in my face. Via pantomime, he invited me to a brothel by jamming one finger in and out of the curled sausages of an opposing fist. At this point he was really starting to piss me off. He asked for some sushi with that same air of casual indifference I’d heard tell of from my mother and at once I saw an opportunity flash before me. With careful deliberation, I selected the most mangled piece I could find and spread a heaping pat of wasabi across the surface. Oblivious to what this green paste was, he tossed it into his mouth. It took three or four chews for realization to set in, but soon there was an accusatory index finger, not thumb, leveled in front of my eyes. Hawking, heaving, coughing, he ran out into the street. He didn’t come back. My friends burst out in applause as we opened the final carton, gorging ourselves on sushi in the darkness of rural China.