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.