Dear Mr. Burke,
I have read your open letter to me and appreciate that it is considerably more thoughtful than many of the comments below my original story, left by people who clearly didn’t read my piece very closely. Unfortunately, I don’t think you read it very closely, either.
In the email to which you attached your letter, sent to Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley and freelance contributor Chris Chamberlain — but not to me — you wrote, “Steve raised some interesting issues about this business, but he also said some pretty harsh things about me and my team.”
“Pretty harsh things.”
What did I say that was harsh? Here’s what I said the only time I referenced you and your team by name: “The owners of Two Ten Jack, Patrick Burke of Seed Hospitality and chef Jason McConnell, are white. Executive chef Jessica Benefield is white.” Apart from that, I noted that the entire staff of your “authentic” Japanese restaurant seemed to be white, I described a bartender crushing ice and mentioned a maitre d’ telling me a table was ready. I counted the number of minutes it took for my party to be seated. If you find these words to be “harsh,” then I doubt you’d last a week in this country with a face and eyes that look like mine.
But let’s return to your letter.
“I obviously can’t completely empathize with you, Steve, or anyone else from a minority group who’s experienced prejudice,” you say. “But that shouldn’t stop me from working to share a love of Japanese cuisine with others. Should it?”
I never said it should. I never said that.
And that is what’s so disheartening about your letter, Mr. Burke. In my piece, I write, “To be clear: I have no problem with white people making Japanese food.”
That is literally what I said. So why ask me a rhetorical question when I’ve already answered it?
Elsewhere in your letter, you say, “The lesson Gary instilled in me was that ethnicity didn’t matter — anyone could make quality Japanese cuisine if they studied and worked hard enough.”
Again, if you’d read my piece carefully, you might have noticed the part where I say, “Food is culture. It’s transmittable.”
That is literally what I said.
My larger point was that yes, ethnicity shouldn’t matter — but for some of us, despite our best efforts, it does. We are despised, belittled, poked at. But I suppose I can’t expect you to engage with my larger point when you don’t seem to have noticed even the most basic ones.
There’s a word among people of color for when our views are disregarded and then told back to us as if we’d never considered them: whitesplaining. Oh, it’s a silly term, but you get the idea.
In your email you also wrote, “I’m hopeful my passion for the business I’m in is evident.” You know who else has a lot of “passion”? People who are … not well-intentioned. Let’s leave it at that.
I called for no boycotts in my article. I proposed no legislation. The only request I made of anyone was this: “Before you play the authenticity card, don’t forget who still has to live with the negatives.”
Don’t forget. That’s all I asked.
And in asking, I hoped you would consider how, in a city that is both booming and becoming increasingly unequal, presenting your restaurant as “authentic” and “the real izakaya experience” — the real experience — might be perceived by people who are despised, mocked and marginalized. I hoped you would consider what “the real Asian American experience” is like, and how your claims might sound a little discordant in that context. I asked you to check your privilege, but I didn’t ask you to wreck it.
So what, then, was your response, that you asked the editor of the Nashville Scene to print for all to see?
Your response, in essence, was to post a selfie.
For sure, Japan is quite conspicuous in the background, as are your non-white associates over the years. I especially enjoyed the story you told of the late Gary Flood, the African American sushi chef who was your first mentor. He seemed like a fascinating guy, and I wanted to know more about him.
But the real hero of your letter, of course, is you.
It’s National Poetry Month, and I’d like you to consider these words by the Japanese American poet David Mura. They’re from the poem “Gardens We Have Left,” which I hope you’ll read in its entirety someday. It begins with the speaker and his young daughter:
As Sam fingers lumps of tofu on her tray,
I sizzle onions in oil, shoyu, rice wine,
toss noodles, ginger, sugar, shitake;
shoots of bamboo and chrysanthemum leaves.
Before the beef, veined with fat, thin as gauze,
I stir what for years I could not love.
Hold that image in your mind for a moment, especially the last nine words. Later in the poem, he addresses his wife:
… Think of all
the devourings of flesh, the way a babe
suckles, nuzzling the nipple with gummy jaws,
or how some Mifune samurai slouches to his hashi;
how our daughter nibbles pea pods, grasses, beans,
or the earth swallows our dead, sanding
flesh, leaves, bones; peeling hair, eyelids,
bark, bugs and bacteria searing through soil.
What do I find here in the gaze of a toddler,
this ancestral food, the lines my father once cast
in the L.A. surf, or those I paste to this page?
When you hold a great sorrow, it lasts
almost too long. And then it lasts some more.
But the same is true also of a great joy.
In the island of light we make with our bodies,
in the lullabies where our daughter sleeps,
we open a picture book, and the images are
for the first time. Once I lost something
of great value. And then I sought it.
Everything changed then. Everything changed.
Do you know what the “great sorrow” he refers to is, Mr. Burke?
Do you know?
As a child he wanted so badly to assimilate that he forsook Japanese food. He hated it, because he had learned to hate himself as others hated him. He wanted to melt in the pot — to rehash a tired metaphor you use in your open letter to me — but that isn’t so simple for some of us. People seem to notice that we’ve not melted, though our insides have in so many ways. That’s what I wanted you to consider, Mr. Burke, but you seem not to have considered it very long or very deeply, if you considered it at all. Why else would you try to lecture me about how irrelevant one’s ethnicity should be — as if I hadn’t said the exact same thing in the first place?
Do you know that many Japanese Americans were so ashamed of what they lived through during WWII that they refused to talk — to their own children, even — about how their government imprisoned them under the pretext that they might betray their country? Do you know about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team? Do you know what I mean when I say, “Go for Broke”? Do you know that Japanese American men fought and died for the United States while their own families were locked up in concentration camps on our soil? Do you know that Japanese Americans in the post-WWII era out-married at a higher rate than any other ethnicity?
Do you know what the speaker in David Mura’s poem means when he says he lost something of great value, Mr. Burke? Do you know what he means when he says everything changed once he sought it? Do you know what it means to eat the food of the culture you descended from and to find yourself overwhelmed by the sensation that, at long last, it brings you happiness instead of pain? Do you?
“I really think we deserve to have our story told,” you wrote in the email accompanying your letter. Deserve. Where and when have you been denied that opportunity? In the Nashville Scene?
Here you are laying out your plans for Two Ten Jack to Dana Kopp Franklin. Here is Lesley Lassiter delighting in your media sneak preview. Here is Chris Chamberlain singing the praises of your official opening. A review of Two Ten Jack is forthcoming.
How did my expression suppress yours? How?
Do you know that schoolteachers often told Japanese American kids they were lying — lying — when they asked about the camps years later?
In my piece I asked you, and other nextifying white people of Nashville, to consider a perspective other than your own. Consider it. That’s all. I never said you shouldn’t serve Japanese food. Not once. Your “passion for this business” is irrelevant, but I never questioned it. I never doubted the provenance of your grill. But thanks for telling me the effort and expense it took to procure.
Do you know that Asian American kids are the most frequently bullied in New York City schools?
What I hoped, more than anything, was that you would think — meditate, if you will — on how your gestures might resonate beyond and in spite of your intentions. I never second-guessed those intentions, or your culinary knowledge, or your willingness to learn more about Japanese culture. I didn’t ask you to go to Japan to prove your commitment to craft. I asked you to look around the city we both live in and try to picture how it looks through someone else’s eyes.
Your response is not a response — it’s a refusal to respond. It’s an attempt to present your virtue as unassailable and to suggest that anyone who finds your effusive display of Japanese-ness off-putting has misunderstood you, not the other way around. Of course I can never completely empathize with you, Mr. Burke, or anyone who owns a restaurant, but I do know what it feels like to be misunderstood.
So I’d like you to read my piece again, slowly this time. Carefully.
And the next time you eat a plate of meticulously prepared Japanese food, I’d like you to imagine, if you can, that it’s the first time you can ever remember feeling joy, instead of sorrow, when those beautiful flavors delineate along your tongue.
This post was originally published on Tumblr on April 17, 2014.