Monday, July 28, 2008

Where Are the Japanese People in the Japanese Steakhouse?

Okay. I’m about to make myself vulnerable to you because I believe that in the quest for cultural understanding and inclusion, we must be honest about our own preconceived notions and prejudices.

My husband and I just moved to a very small town in Georgia in the Atlanta Metro area with the population of about 1,000 people. I noticed that in the 3 square mile radius of our town there are actually 3 Japanese restaurants. I love authentic ethnic food, and I absolutely love Japanese food. Based on past experiences at restaurants like Benihana (not to call out names or anything), I have noticed that there are less and less Japanese people working in “Japanese” restaurants. I’m originally from the Washington, DC Metro area, and there are plenty of authentic ethnic restaurants there. However, the last time I went to Benihana in DC, all of the waitresses were Ethiopian and all of the “Hibachi” chefs were Mexican. And I know some of you may be saying that Benihana is not authentic, but I can remember a time when everyone who worked there was Japanese. During that particular visit to Benihana, I had taken some of my students to the restaurant because they had seen the infamous episode of My Wife and Kids when the family goes to the Japanese steakhouse and it sparked their interest. They were so excited because the kids’ menus had a Japanese/English dictionary page on the back. So at the end of the meal, one of my El Salvadorian students leaned over to me and asked, “How do you say thank you again,” because he wanted to thank the chef. I sarcastically replied, “gracias.”

So, I’m a little apprehensive about going to a Japanese restaurant in Smalltown, GA. I decided to call each restaurant and ask for their hours of operation, but I was really just calling to see if the person who answered the phone had an accent (I know. I’m terrible! Shame on me! Just being honest.) My husband expressed how ridiculous I was being, but those who know me know that I will stop at nothing to get an authentic international meal. What can I say? Eating is my favorite pastime. Anyway, so I call the first restaurant—no accent. Second—no accent. And the third—no accent. I decided to call a restaurant in the next town over. I couldn’t even understand the woman who answered the phone—jackpot (I know. I’m so bad.)! Unfortunately, that restaurant is like an hour away from our house, and we really weren’t up for the drive. So far it’s not looking good for the kid. My husband then brings it to my attention that just because the person answering the phone doesn’t have an accent doesn’t mean that the people who are cooking don’t either. Good point-duh! So, I called the first three restaurants back to ask them if they had Japanese cooks. I know I have officially taken it too far, but a girl’s gotta eat. I called the first restaurant again. The woman who answered the phone said, “uhh, the guy who makes the sushi has 16 years experience, but he is Chinese, and everybody else in the kitchen is not Japanese.” Second restaurant—“no one in our restaurant is Japanese.” Oh, well excuse me! God forbid a “Japanese” restaurant actually have someone Japanese working in it. Is that too much to ask for?! Not to mention, your huge billboard on the highway has a picture of Japanese man in full chef’s garb holding cooking utensils. How’s that for false advertisement? Okay, third restaurant—accent?! After asking my question, the Asian-accented woman said, “our chefs are not Japanese, but we all Asian.” I assumed this was as good as I was going to get, so I decided on Hai Hai Japanese Steakhouse. Needless to say, I’m sure I’ve already been talked about in all three restaurants because I’m sure they don’t get asked my culturally insensitive question every day.

We arrived at Hai Hai restaurant and the woman who I spoke with on the phone greeted us at the door. We were then seated at the grill with 5 other people where we met our Asian chef “Steven” (the name is another post in itself). I really wanted to ask him where he was from out of curiosity, but I decided to listen to my husband’s pleading and saved him the embarrassment. The sushi was great and the grilled food was delicious too. My only complaint is that the rice tasted kind of like Uncle Ben’s—not that there is anything wrong with Uncle Ben’s, but you don’t expect to get it in a Japanese restaurant. Overall, we had a very pleasant experience. Although, I was a little disturbed when the chef yelled “OPAAH” after making a volcano with a stack of sliced onions. Isn’t that Greek? Oh well, just another day in Smalltown, Georgia.

Just out of curiosity, I checked the population for our small town. In the year 2000, according to the U.S. census, there was only ONE Asian person living in our town. I’m sure the number has increased over the past 8 years, but not exponentially. So where are the Japanese chefs? I don’t know. Maybe in Japan! Or at least, not here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The N-Word

In her debate with Whoopi Goldberg on the July 17, 2008 episode of ABC’s The View, Elisabeth Hasselbeck discussed the use of the “n-word”—not “nuts,” but the other “n-word” that Jesse Jackson had to apologize for using during his personal confession on a hot mic at the Fox News station.

Here’s my disclaimer for the remainder of this post. I will now replace the “n-word” with the word nigger because as a writer, I don’t have to censor myself. And quite frankly I feel like saying the “n-word” takes away from the impact of the topic which is the word nigger.

The discussion on The View started with Whoopi sarcastically asking if anyone was surprised by Jesse Jackson’s comments and ended with the word nigger literally on the table after Whoopi uttered the word a half a dozen times to get her point across. Unfortunately, the question of who can use the word still stands. And after the co-hosts went back and forth on this issue, Hasselbeck was reduced to tears. But what is it about this particular conversation that would bring Elisabeth to tears?
Here is my theory. For hundreds of years white people have had literal control over black people—socially, economically, sexually, politically, institutionally, and emotionally. The word nigger has created this power struggle between blacks and whites because white people feel entitled to everything because they’ve always had everything. Now white people have a group of people who they historically have had control over telling them there is something in this world they can’t have. I imagine that’s hard for someone who is historically “privileged” to digest; the thought of losing that privilege and power might even make me shed a tear. Black people are using the word to have something that white people don’t. It’s just a power struggle and all over a word that was used to keep discrimination and racism alive and kicking in this country. This issue is about so much more than a word. It’s not the word that black people are trying to hold on to—it’s the power. If the word nigger is “buried” forever, than white people have won again, and all of the power is back in their hands. It’s a way of bowing down “to the man” once again. That’s hard for a lot of black people to swallow. I think if black people alone--without white people saying “if we can’t use it neither can you”--made the decision to “bury” the word, then maybe black people would have no problem putting an end to the use of the word. White people have taken the power for black people to do this away from them, so now there is this never-ending power struggle over the use of the word. It’s kind of like (and forgive me because I know this is a very loose analogy) a younger sibling who constantly gets hand-me-downs—the older sibling has everything they want already and has the power to give it to them, but that younger sibling just wants something to call their own. I wish it were something different that black people could call their own—something without such a stigma attached to it, but it seems to be all blacks have to hold on to in terms of having some sort of power over whites.

As far as where I stand personally on the issue—I’m indifferent because I can understand (which doesn't mean I agree wit it's usage) both sides of why people use the word and why people don’t use the word. Anderson Cooper interviewed Al Sharpton on July 17, 2008 about the issue, and I believe he brought up a very valid point. He in essence said—and I’m paraphrasing here—people cannot preach one thing publicly and not practice it privately. He added that there are no double meanings of hateful terms used against any other groups, and that for some reason, those hateful terms are clearly defined for them [non-blacks] but not for us [blacks].

I personally believe as Americans we’ve been taught that we have a right to choose the type of language we use, and we don’t like being told what we can or cannot say. Regardless of how we choose to speak we must realize how what we say affects other the people and accept whatever consequences come along with it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Closing the Achievement Gap


One of my fellow What If? Diversity bloggers posed the question of what we should do about closing the achievement gap in our schools—address diversity or poverty. The quote above embodies my feelings on this topic.
If we look at education like we do business, the business of education is failing one of its most rapidly growing clientele base--children of color. When businesses are not performing well, they restructure and fire people who are not producing for the company. They don't blame the clients! They change their practices to satisfy their clients. Why are we not getting this in education? Of course all of the outside influences that our children who are living in poverty bring with them to school don't make teachers' jobs any easier, but teachers and administrators mustn't dwell on it. If you want an easy job, don’t choose teaching—you’ve got the wrong profession. More focus needs to be put into teacher quality and training (and yes I know that resources are limited, but something needs to change so that teachers have more resources). The bottom line is that teacher education programs do not prepare teachers for even half of what they will face once they reach the classroom, and our children are suffering because of it. Of course diversity is a big piece of the puzzle too. School systems should really ask tough questions and try to get to the heart of teachers' philosophies of education during the hiring process. If a teacher professes to "not see color" and possess some sort of inherent "colorblindness", that teacher probably should not be placed in a school where all of the faces are shades of brown--or any school for that matter. In order for the achievement gap to change, teachers need to change, the institution of education needs to change, and our society as a whole needs to change.