Maki Sushi by Nagy David
Maki Sushi by Nagy David

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.

Starry Night by Mangpages
Starry Night by Mangpages

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.


  1. Interesting experience! As a Caucasian American living in Japan and now studying Chinese, it pains me to see all the animosity between China and Japan. At least in Japan the racism is quiet, more like a deep-seated distaste (I’ve never heard anyone say they wanted to kill Chinese people).

    My own experience with intergenerational racism was this: My grandfather was an army doctor in WWII, and for my grandmother the war was essentially the defining time of her life. When I told her at the age of 80-something that I was moving to Japan she said, “You can’t trust those Japanese. You know what they did at Pearl Harbor.” I was shocked at first, but I can’t blame her. The world has moved on without her.

  2. After reading the Nanjing Massacre book by Iris Chang, especially the pictures the actions of the Japanese were evil. It reminds me of the Holocaust where people were treated as sub-human. Unfortunately for political reasons the Chinese government has kept anti-Japanese sentiment alive and tries to do just enough anti-Japanese sentiment to help, but not enough to upset Japan. and the way rightest political parties in China try to deny or white wash what happened is just wrong.

  3. nice post. i can relate to the sushi with chinese characteristics as i almost wrote a post on it myself the other day. not wanting to go out to get dinner, i shuffled through the various menus left on my door over the last few months and then left it to my girlfriend to choose. we it it regularly so i thought it would be safe to leave it in her hands. bad move. one was chinese style hotdog rolled with meat floss and carrots with a thin coat of rice and nori. another replaced the hotdog with bacon. the third had imitation crab. then mayonnaise was spread over two of them and thousand island on the third. next time i’ll order myself.

  4. If the Chinese hate Japan so much, no doubt they will soon boycott Karaoke bars, stop driving Honda and Mitsubushi cars, stop buying Sony televisons, stop reading Manga comics and stop copying Japanese fashion. Andstop eating sushi.

    Fat chance.

    Yes, Chinese youths often tell me how much they hate Japan, but it just parrot talk.

  5. Chinese youth aren’t some monolithic block. There’s plenty of nationalists that won’t touch Japanese stuff and others that don’t give a shit about historical grievances, pretty stupid to merge everyone into “the Chinese”.

  6. spare me the PC nitpicking. china has almost a billion and a half people; of course there will be differences in opinion. what i will say is that the vast, VAST majority of the population holds these viewpoints. (in my own experience, every single person i’ve talked to on the subject). as liuzhou noted, however, a lot of it sounds like parrot talk by now. this is one of the many reasons it’s such an interesting time to be living in china.

  7. I think that hate – like kindness and forgivness – is something that is taught. Chinese children learn to hate/distrust their eastern neighbors from their parents and teachers, who in turn learnt it from their elders who witnessed the event. I remember a Chinese translater who told me her son “could marry anyone he wanted, as long as she WASN’T Japanese.” While that attitude is unfortunate, it is hardly surprising considering the Nanjing incident wasn’t that long ago. I remember a Chinese student once commenting on the French revolution, that the impact of revolution on France was “too soon to tell.” It isn’t a wonder, then, that the Nanjing incident is so clear in this nation’s mind, and wont be forgiven OR forgotten for generations to come.

    The thing of it is, I don’t believe there is a country on earth, past or present, that is innocent of some attrocity or another. You certainly don’t have to go back far in China’s history to shake a few skeletons out of the closet.

    While the Chinese ingrained hatred of all things Japanese is understandable, it is unfortunate. Bitterness, after all, is the poison I would take hoping you would die. I believe that like the French revolution, the effects of the Nanjing incident and the residual ill will are too soon to tell.

  8. Quincy, beautifully written post.

    @Kellen: Like “Communism with Chinese Characteristics”, pork-floss is one of those things that no matter how long I live in China I fear I’ll just never “get”. I mean, who was sitting around eating cotton candy and was like, “Yeah sure, this candy flavour is good… but you know what would be even better!”

    @FG: I agree with Quincy, there are few opinions (parroted or otherwise) as wide-spanning as anti-Japanese sentiment in China. It’s literally everywhere – 5 out of 20 TV channels, 3 out of 10 movies released, history books, childrens’ books

    @Becky: Your Chinese student was quoting Zhou Enlai, who famously said the “it’s too soon to tell” line in regards to the French Revolution.

    While I agree that relatively the atrocities of the Japanese occupation were recently, I think your main point is the key. This hate is kept alive by people who (rightfully) don’t want to forget the horrible things Japan did, and people wishing to use that focus of anger for nationalistic gains/control.

    It’s out of hand though. I read an article yesterday in the NYTs which profiled Lu Chuan and his new movie Nanjing Nanjing. And despite the movie clearly showing the brutally horrible things Japanese did in Nanjing 72 years ago, because he had a single Japanese character in the movie that wasn’t a monster and showed remorse and repulsion to what was being done Lu Chuan has received many death threats from Chinese who feel he has betrayed his country. The outcry was so loud that the Chinese film bureau would have pulled the film had a government official not stepped in.

    To me that illustrates a rabid unbalance in perspective and teachers at the least (if not parents) should be trying harder to level it.

  9. Wonderful writing Quincy!!

    The sad thing is that the Chinese have killed more Chinese and picked on more Chinese than any outsider nation/race ever has over China’s long history, often with more brutality than the Japanese in Nanjing (ask any Shaanxi person about Henan people). The education and reinforcement of the hate of the Eastern neighbor and the portrayal of China as a victim over a century at the hands of foreign powers is a calculated move to build up a sense of Chinese nationalism of focusing attention on an “outside” enemy. Demonizing the “other” is historically one way that States/Govts detract attention from their selves and enlist the support of the people to pursue the State’s endeavors. This does not only apply to China!

  10. Great post.

    I ended up in conversations about Japan far more often than I should have during my time in North-East China. This was especially interesting given that my wife is Japanese. So a conversation like this was not unheard of:

    -Where are you from?
    -Oh, Canada’s nice. You know I really hate Japan.
    -You hate the Japanese government? or all Japanese people?
    -Hmmm, all Japanese people.
    -Do you know any Japanese people?
    -No, but you know, the history is really terrible.
    -Yes, I’ve heard. Have you met my wife?

  11. Fantastic post Quincy! It reminds me a great deal of my English grandmother, who up until her 80s refused to buy anything Japanese because of how they treated their POWs. Yet somehow, she had no problem forgiving the Germans, as she worked for Volkswagen for a number of years.

    While there is a very obvious logical gap in place there, there is a clear practical gap there. My grandmother had never really came into any sort of deep or meaningful contact with anyone who was Japanese (even living in Canada) but routinely interacted with German people, seeing that they are not all Nazis. She never had (or took) the chance to see that all Japanese people are not like the soldiers in the war.

    I think that this further adds to Terry’s point of the Chinese being the worst perpetrators of violence against the Chinese. Clearly Shaanxi people have came into contact with Henan people enough over the centuries to realize that any sort of long held grudges are pointless. Yet, since China was closed for the decades immediately following the Nanjing Massacre, the Chinese did not have the same opportunity with the Japanese, so the hate snow-balled over the past sixty years.

    Hopefully now that the country has opened up a great deal, the old hatreds can go away, but like with everything else, it will certainly take time.

  12. This is the first time I’ve seen well thought out and spoken comments on any blog. And to think.. its a pretty touchy subject for a lot of people. I’m just glad to see this kind of maturity finally. Reading this gets me excited to go visit Hunan in August 😀

  13. Hey Quincy! Just wanted to say that all the sushi I’ve seen for sale here in Huaihua, Hunan has been clearly labelled as Korean. Asking the cook he denied any Japanese involvement in the creation of sushi. So while I agree that a lot of the harsh and violent language the Chinese youth have for the Japanese people is just parrot talk and doesn’t affect their shopping decisions, I don’t think anyone is going to start selling Japanese sushi anytime soon in Hunan.

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