"Chinese, Japanese- Not Difference"


chapter from the upcoming book
WOODY ALLEN ATE MY KIMCHI

I was twenty-two when I took a job as a delivery boy at China China. I had recently been dumped by Angie, my high school sweetheart, for a boy who was – she made a point of declaring this in her last voice message – “much better looking" than me, but whom my friends immediately insisted was my intellectual inferior. That they said this without ever having met him has never sat very well with me.
China China was a shoebox-sized restaurant four doors down from 519, the Gay Community Centre, on Church Street, and owned by my sixth aunt and her husband, Yang Soonal-Yual, or Uncle for short. It specialized in anything that sounded remotely Asian and if Asian wasn’t your thing, there was a smorgasbord of fallbacks including burgers, chicken wings, fettucine Alfredo, and – my Uncle proudly articulated – Ukrainian perogies. That he knew the difference between Polish or Latvian or Ukrainian perogies was never brought up for discussion for fear that he might lose face in front of our cook. Jimmy, an aging bachelor, was from a village in some remote northeastern part of China that I could never pronounce, famous for its exotic food. One day Jimmy brought along some photos he had taken on a recent trip back home. These were delicacies of his hometown, he explained, waxing nostalgically about the skewered giant dung beetles, roasted black scorpions and deep-fried deer testicles. One photo had what appeared to be a dark mushy stew in a stone pot.
"What's that?" I asked.
"That dog brain soup," he said, his eyes misting over.
There was a rat infestation on our block that summer. In both body type and general outlook on life, the rats had more in common with the rabid wolverine than their genetic cousin, the hamster. The source of the infestation was a large garbage bin in the back parking lot that China China shared with Pizza Pizza. My uncle blamed the Lebanese manager of Pizza Pizza for not double-bagging the Italian sausages and the Lebanese manager in turn accused my Korean uncle of dumping unwrapped Vietnamese vegetables into the bin. Neither of them could have passed a grade two English proficiency test, not to speak of a cultural identity exam, so they spent a lot of time furiously wagging fingers at each other and swearing in their native tongues. We brought in spring-loaded traps, steel traps and bucket traps from Chinatown but nothing seemed to work. Some of the rats were so big that they swaggered around the lot donning their glue traps like flip-flops. The infestation got pretty nasty that summer and my uncle considered shutting the restaurant down. Meanwhile, I kept looking over Jimmy’s shoulder, hoping that his nostalgia for his native cuisine would not get the better of him.
It was my aunt’s idea to get a cat, so one day she returned with a morbidly obese tabby from the Humane Society. With its orange and black stripes, it brought to mind a tiger, and was intended to inspire fear and dread in the rodents. I named him P.P., a clever acronym, I thought, for Pied Piper, and envisioned big things for him. He would be a storied feline resistance fighter, his prowess and determination to rid the world of pestilence turned into a blockbuster animation film, by Hayao Miyazaki. I imagined him on the cover of Maclean’s magazine, profiled in David Suzuki’s ‘The Nature of Things’, and whispered in the same breath as Terry Fox and Wayne Gretzky at the annual Greatest Canadian Of All Time gala.  But P.P failed to live up to expectations. He did little more than nap all day in the small patch of sun at the storefront, rolling onto his back and purring at the first sign of a sucker coming into the restaurant. When he did manage to stagger onto all fours, it was to eat and defecate, the only activities he engaged in with any sense of purpose.
One night, after a platoon of rats brazenly raided our pantry while my uncle stood on top of the stove banging his spatula against a pan, I picked P.P up by the scruff and dumped him in the back lot. With my ears pressed to the door, I cheered when I heard him hissing and clawing, the empty plastic oil buckets being tossed around. Once the noise subsided, I opened the door and could see shadows scurrying toward the garbage bin. I looked around, but P.P was nowhere in sight. Tufts of orange and white fur drifted in the air. I walked around the parking lot whistling and calling out his name. I checked under the Pizza Pizza delivery cars, behind the hardware store tool shed, inside the landlord’s garage.
"P.P, where are you? P.P, come on out!" 
A voice barked out from a second-floor apartment.
"Use your own toilet, you fuckin' drunk!"
Fueled by guilt-ridden courage, I approached the garbage bin, slapping the ground with a broken hockey stick and growling like a grizzly bear. I stopped when I heard the rumble of charging rat feet, and then, with my courage evaporating quicker than a snowflake in the desert, I resigned myself to poor P.P.’s fate, tossed the hockey stick aside and headed back to the restaurant. It was then that I heard a feeble meow coming from somewhere above my head. I looked up to see P.P trembling like a leaf on a branch of the maple tree. How the morbidly obese cat managed to get himself up there is anybody's guess. I swore at him and went inside.
*          *          *
A colorful cast of characters dropped by the restaurant, including a small band of Rice Queens who dropped in for lunch at least twice a week, each one outdoing the other in order to be the first to charm and deflower me. They came for their usual Combo #6, our house special with sweet and sour roasted suckling pig, Shanghai noodles and mixed vegetables. They affectionately referred to the dish as ‘Suck me pork’, and it accounted for almost fifty percent of our overall combo sales. One day, a light bulb went off in my Christian uncle's head. It dawned on him that it was not the dish itself, which, like everything else Jimmy cooked, had questionable culinary value, but the nickname given to it that made the dish so popular. One day, I came to work to find him painting over the menu board and rewriting the names to all of our specials. So, Combo #1, sweet and sour chicken balls, was simply shortened down to "Sweet Balls"; Combo #2, the shrimp with lobster sauce was changed to "Lick My Shrimp"; and Combo #4, a vegetable stirfry in blackbean sauce was given the name "Stir My Black Beans".
"Uncle, that’s racist.”
He paused thoughtfully, and then: "Okay, we call it ‘Bean My Chick’. Jimmy, we put chicken in Combo Four!"
The Rice Queens all got a big kick out of this as though it was some elaborate inside joke we had concocted on their behalf. But others, especially customers calling for delivery, were not so tickled by the new branding exercise. 
“So, let me repeat the order back to you. You would like Bean My Chick, Lick My Shrimp and Sweet Balls? Would you like some Hot Doggie Style on the side? Cash or charge?” There would be a long pause on the line.
“Ch-ch-charge, please.”
It was at the instigation of my aunt, who feared that exposure to such sexualized lingo would retard the mental health of their two pre-school boys, that led my uncle to grudgingly take out the paint again and revert back to the original names.
And to add sushi to the menu.
“Sushi?”
“Why not?” my uncle said. “Very popular now.” Every day, on his way to work, he walked past Hiro Sushi, a few blocks south on Church Street. My uncle would stand on the sidewalk, watching the throngs of customers filling the sushi master’s bar. Hiro Yoshida, once the king over the sushi bar at the venerable Sasaya on Eglinton Avenue, had a large following of mostly Japanese businessmen and well-heeled gaijin. He would eventually find local celebrity and move to a better location on King Street, continuing on with his eponymous restaurant, but it wasn't before my uncle got infected with the tuna bug.
“You work at Japanese restaurant before, so you know.”
“But you don’t even know how to make sushi. It takes years of training.”
“Rice and fish. Simple.”
If I had never felt shame for a family member in the past, I did at this very moment. I vowed to commit ritual suicide by plunging a knife into my guts and carving out my liver if Ohsada-san, my former master sushi chef from Nami, ever ventured into the neighbourhood and saw me standing here peddling sushi at a Chinese take-out restaurant.
The confusion about the offerings at our restaurant was most evident over the phone. Canadian customers seemed to forgive fall backs like burger and fries or spaghetti and meatballs on Chinese menus, in part because these items have historical precedents, going all the way back to the pop-up coolie restaurants along Canadian Pacific Railway routes. But there were very specific skill sets demanded by sushi. You can do Chinese and Canadian, Chinese and Korean, even Chinese and Ukranian food, but you didn’t dare cross that line between Chinese and Japanese. It was an existential divide. Even the uber-omnivorous Chinese, until very recently, wouldn't go near half-quivering fish with ten-foot chopsticks. In fact, a Chinese man once called the restaurant. He was dazed and confused by our use of the conjunction “and”. 
“Are you a Chinese or Japanese restaurant?”
My uncle’s response was: “Chinese, Japanese- not difference.”  The caller hung up.
There was sushi on the menu, but we also carried dishes asphyxiated with teriyaki sauce. In my uncle’s mind, virtually anything could be transformed into a Japanese dish with a generous dollop of teriyaki sauce. It was like magic. Teriyaki instead of black bean sauce, sure, why not? Teriyaki instead of oyster sauce, here you go. Teriyaki drizzled over perogies instead of sour cream, no problem. It pleased my uncle to know that by stocking a bottle of Kikkoman Teriyaki Sauce™ in the kitchen legitimized his standing as a Japanese chef. Ten years later, after his untimely and tragic death from a fall down a flight of stairs outside his home, my aunt would point to a row of bottled teriyaki sauces in the fridge at their home and shake her head with a smile. 
On busy nights, my uncle prepared sushi on the cutting block behind Jimmy, manning the wok, while my aunt took orders at the counter with the boys on her lap. One night, an order for Spicy Tuna roll and Chicken Chop Suey came over the phone. It was from a regular customer, Douglas, who lived on Alexandra Street. He was coaxed by my aunt to try our sushi for the first time. After the order was passed on, I heard some raised voices in the kitchen. I stuck my head in to find out what was going on. Jimmy was jabbing his tongs at a piece of fish my uncle was holding in his hand.
“Can’t use. Not fresh. Must be cook.”
My uncle was dousing white strips of week-old grouper, which I usually saved for P.P, into a watery kochujang paste. The Korean chili paste turned the white flesh of the fish into a deep scarlet colour.
“Can’t waste,” my uncle said. “You always waste.”
My uncle placed the fish strips with some cucumber slivers into an inside-out roll.
“Uncle, he ordered Spicy Tuna.”
“Take it” he said holding out the take-out container. “For white people, no difference, taste.”
I delivered the food to Douglas’s apartment and avoided his eyes when he opened the door. Whether this white person knew the difference between tuna or grouper became a moot point. He never ordered from us again.
*          *          *
One night, during my first Gay Pride Weekend, I took an order from a man with a high-pitched voice.
“Tell me the truth. How good is your sushi? I’m from San Francisco. Best sushi outside of Tokyo.”
I didn’t know how to answer his question, having never been to San Francisco or Tokyo. What I did know with unwavering certainty was that our sushi wasn’t good even compared to Toronto standards.  
“Alright, alright, never mind. Give me one of each roll. How quickly can you get it here?”
“We’re quite busy at the moment, sir, so-“
“You want my goddam business or don’t you?’
“Yes, but-“
“Then move my order to the front. I wasn’t born yesterday, nut-fuck.” He hung up before I could respond.
The delivery was to a seedy hotel on Dundas Street, called Filmores, which the drivers from Pizza Pizza and I referred to as Filthymores, with its urine-scented hallways and sticky floors. The rooms, which could be rented by the hour, were above a strip club. I never liked to deliver there because its guests were on the creepier corner of the human crosswalk, usually the shady johns of the strippers, with their potbellies and chest hair sprouting out of open shirts. When I arrived, the usual gorillas who manned the front door waved me by. I climbed the staircase to the second floor, carefully negotiating the vomit on the landing, and knocked on the door.
"What?!" It was the same voice I had heard over the phone.
"Sushi delivery," I called out.
“For Christ’s sake!” From the tone in his voice I could tell he was expecting some minion at the castle gate to have called ahead and requested an audience with his royal majesty.
When the door flung open, there stood a dwarf. The top of his head reached just above my belt buckle. He was wearing a black leather cap with a matching collar and a studded harness that criss-crossed across his bare chest. A red jock strap the size of a library card covered what I presumed to be his appendage. He looked like the love child of the Leatherman Biker from the Village People and one of the Munchkins.
“Why didn’t you buzz up from the lobby?”
“There is no buzzer…”
“Okay, stop blubbering and put the bag down on the floor.” The top of the bag reached just below his chin. He gripped the bag with both hands and dragged it across the floor and into the room. The door was slightly ajar so I took a peek around the corner. A grown-sized man with a grayish goatee was down on all fours on the carpet, panting, and his face as bright red as low-sodium Sriracha hot sauce. The sickly smell of sex and sweat permeated out of the room.
“How much?” The dwarf called out.
“$19.85, sir.”
He came to the door, holding out a twenty dollar bill.
“Stop calling me “sir”. You trying to patronize me, punk?”
“No, sir…I mean no.”
I took the money, thanked him, and turned to leave.
“Where’s my change?”
“Your change…?”
I pretended to dig into my pocket for some loose change. This ploy usually worked for those customers who had an iota of shame. They were usually unable to bear the discomfort of being viewed as a cheapskate and would mumble, “It’s alright, keep the change,” as though they were philanthropists all along waiting for just the right moment to reveal their true natures. But the dwarf just stood there glaring at me.
“Sorry,” I said, pulling out a nickel. “But I think I might be a bit short – I mean I didn’t bring enough with me.”
He gave me the evil eye, muttered something about nickel-and-diming Chinese people in San Francisco, and slammed the door on my face. Walking down the hallway, I could hear him yelling at the man with the goatee.
“Who said you could rest? Get back on your hands and knees, bitch!”
*          *          *
That weekend was the Gay Pride Parade. I had been asked by my uncle to come early to set up the food station on the street. When I got there, Jimmy was setting fresh rat traps in the alleyway and my uncle was leashing P.P. While I was setting up the station, my uncle called me into the restaurant. He was holding a fleece panda costume in his hand.
“For Parade. Everybody dress up. You dress up, too.”
“It’s thirty degrees outside.”
“Don’t worry, I give you break.”
The food was set up on a fold-out table, with packaged sushi rolls on one side and chicken balls and fried rice in chafing dishes on the other. By noon the sun was beating down on the table, the raw tuna and salmon baking in the heat. A lineup formed down the street and I handed out every conceivable chicken ball and sushi combination I could. Spicy tuna roll with chicken balls. Salmon and cucumber roll with chicken balls. But it seemed that people were more interested in taking photographs with me in my panda jumpsuit than ordering lunch. They cajoled me away from the steam station, some of them slipping money into my paw. I was made to pose in compromising positions, like being taken doggie style by a masked person in skin-tight gold lamé outfit or having a pair of gooey chicken balls held over my plush-lined mouth while on my knees.
When we finally closed up shop around midnight, I was delirious from all the water loss in my body. My uncle and Jimmy were long gone by the time I managed to tear down the station and put everything away. I wanted to go home, but my body was too wired for bed. I went to the fridge and returned to the front of the restaurant with a cold bottle of beer.
“Hello my little carpet licker.” It was Sam, one of the Rice Queens. He was dressed as a nurse and accompanied by two topless Chippendale boys, in suspenders and wearing sailor caps.
“We’re closed, Sam.”
He was drunk and pretended not to hear me.
“How do you say, “You need a facelift” in Chinese?” 
“I’m not Chinese,” I said lamely.
“Chin Tu Fat.” He squealed like a pig. It was an old joke, I had heard it before, but the two beefheads laughed as if they were in a synchronic laughing contest.
“Chinese, Japanese, all the same when they’re on their hands and knees.”
I didn’t have the energy to tell him that there were differences – and many – that I was a Korean from a country nestled right in between China and Japan; that we liked our miso less refined than the Japanese, but less robust than the Chinese; that unlike the Japanese, who used bamboo chopsticks, we preferred metal ones; that unlike the Chinese, we preferred to cook in clay bowls and not metal woks. But it was too late. Before I could open my mouth, Sam and his Chippendales closed the doors behind them.
I sat at the storefront window in the dark with P.P. lying on the counter, looking out onto the street. I scratched him on the back of the neck and he purred. Outside, half-naked men and women sauntered up and down Church Street, joyously, as if they were passing by a funhouse mirror which, for the very first time, reflected back to them their true selves.

4 comments:

  1. Sang... This is so funny that I'm crying with laughter!

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  2. Sang, I laughed so hard that I almost P.P.'d my pants!

    Woody Allen Ate My Kimchi could be the next Curb your Enthusiasm with a Korean slant (no pun intended).

    I'm looking forward to the next installment...

    thanks for the multiple smiles,

    Les

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  3. Ive read this multiple times now, and every time I love it in a whole new way!

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  4. Unprecedentedly funny. I want more! Book-length standup. Club Filmore scene too hilariously plausible (and, tbh, too much like certain memories.)

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