BASS 2019: Weike Wang, “Omakase” from The New Yorker 6/18/2018

Stories come to me in waves. I will have an idea, usually a setup, and then in the months after, build out and then in ….
For “Omakase”, my husband and I had just gone out for sushi ….what was odd about the meal was that for the entire night my husband and I were the only customers. I just found that setup interesting and rich. What could happen if a couple came here and chef was slightly off – jilted, perhaps – and overshared as people do when no one is around? How intimate could a conversation get? How much do we really know about each other? And what kind of history goes into an interaction that seems fine and easy on the surface? I thought about the story for over half a year. When I sat down to write it, it was done in a week.

Weike Wang, Contributor Note

Jake Weber’s post on this story tells us he found it frustrating; he even provides a handy-dandy list of the most frustrating moments. Frustrating? I found it enraging. I wanted to smack The Man – and The Woman, for that matter – around, and towards the end, I wanted to grab a box of toothpicks and hand them to her one at a time, as fast as she could handle them (the story is available online if you haven’t read it and don’t know what I’m talking about). But, as usual, blogging about these stories makes me calm down, pick up the book I’ve thrown across the room, and see if I can see something deeper, or at least articulate my annoyance in literary terms.

The couple decided that tonight they would go out for sushi. Two years ago, they’d met online. Three months ago, they’d moved in together. Previously, she’d lived in Boston, but now she lived in New York with him.
The woman was a research analyst at a bank downtown. The man was a ceramic-pottery instructor at a studio uptown. Both were in their late thirties, and neither of them wanted kids. Both enjoyed Asian cuisine, specifically sushi, specifically omakase. It was the element of surprise that they liked. And it suited them in different ways. She got nervous looking at a list of options and would second-guess herself. He enjoyed going with the flow.

That first paragraph tees up the story better than I’d realized on first read. Each element is examined further in later paragraphs, and the rather sparse introduction blooms into something much more informative. I particularly like that she is looking to relieve her anxiety, and he is looking to have fun.

My first problem is just a personal preference. Some people hate second person, some dislike dialect; for me, constructions such as “the man” and “the woman” feel so unnatural, so contrived as to poke a stick in my eye. I accept that there’s nothing wrong with this kind of narration, and it works, particularly when there are very few characters to worry about. Here there are four active characters, and none of which have names. But I really dislike it.

My second problem is that a lot of issues come up – racism and ethnic conflict, differences between how immigrants, their children, and their children’s children interact with the US, privilege of race and sex, parental and societal expectations, the urban landscape. These come up, but they’re merely toyed with then batted away by another issue, as if merely mentioning them is enough to generate some insight in the reader, while all the while we’re dealing with The Man’s asshattery.

The relationship between The Man and The Woman had me by the throat, and didn’t leave much room for worrying about Chinese-Japanese relations (which I would have liked to have known a lot more about) or what it feels like for a rule-following first-generation American from China to see a (maybe) second-generation American from… well, somewhere in the Far East, wearing purple nail polish and sporting a nose stud and a lip ring (something else I’d like to know a lot more about).

And playing in the background is this intriguing stuff about Asian pottery, both Chinese and Japanese, which of course makes me want to go look up all the unfamiliar terms and learn more about the stuff. While it’s used here to emphasize The Man’s know-it-allness, both in relation to the chef and to The Woman’s mother, it serves to distract me from those relationship issues and send me googling yunomi and sancai glaze. I was sure I would use teacups as the header image, but in the end, I felt the toothpicks were more central to the heart of the story.

And of course omakase, a sushi service similar to a tasting menu in Western restaurants. I’d never heard of it (sorry, I appreciate the idea of sushi, but don’t ask me to eat it).

…[A]n omakase chef determines at the spur of the moment what will appear on the plate. This is typically driven by the ingredients available to them, which are customarily selected based on both quality and seasonality.
That being said, the philosophy of the chef will also guide what they serve, and this is important for diners to keep in mind. The omakase experience can vary dramatically depending on the philosophy and cooking style of the chef.
At Sushi Taro in Washington, D.C.—about which Michelin inspectors say, “The overall experience at the omakase counter is truly stellar”—chef/owner Nobu Yamazaki says, “We start off with a few appetizers to see how the customer reacts to our food, then if we think they can go for [dishes] a little more adventurous, or a little more of something they’ve never had before, we’ll try to put those out there little by little.” According to Yamazaki, his most pressing concern is whether or not a diner is enjoying their meal. “Sometimes we might just completely change it in the middle of the course,” he explains. “It really depends on the customer.”

Guest editor Anthony Doerr plays on this in his Introduction comment: “a story as meticulously structured as any omakase dinner and which will wake you up to the minute-by-minute realities of white privilege as well as anything you’ll read this year.” I see part of what he means: the story procedes in small bites, each having their own flavor, working towards a climax. I wonder if I would have thought of that had I not read his comment. Probably not. But there’s a lot more going on here than white privilege. Male privilege, for one.

You worry too much, the man said whenever she brought up the fact that she still didn’t feel quite at home in New York. And not only did she not feel at home; she felt that she was constantly in danger.
You exaggerate, the man replied.
At the restaurant, he gave the woman a look of his own. This look said two things: one,you worry too much, and, two, this is fun—I’m having fun, now you have fun.
The woman was having fun, but she also didn’t want to get food poisoning.
As if having read her mind, the man said, If you do get sick, you can blame me.

The literary omakase leads to a penultimate victory but ultimate defeat… maybe. Because we don’t know what reaction The Woman, already piqued to the point of toothpicks, has to the final pat on the head and that condescending advice to stop overthinking. Which, in this case, means stop thinking and let The Man do and say whatever he wants without objection. Does she fall back in line to think about it some more? Or, already feeling something, does she let him have it? I fear the first; I hope for the latter.

I found the heart of the story in the relationships: not just The Man and The Woman, but also The Man and the chef, The Woman and the chef, and both of them with the waitress; and then there’s The Woman and her mother, The Woman and her friends. They all bounce off of each other in different ways, showing different expectations of women, of Asians, of daughters. At one point, it seems there should be some rearrangement: The Man should be with the waitress, and The Woman should be with the chef. I’m thinking the waitress is humoring The Man and subtly making fun of him – which he can’t recognize because he assumes all flattery is earned – and then the chef makes what might be an anti-Chinese slur. Good for The Woman, she immediately speaks up (after pulling some egg from her tooth) and tells him she’s Chinese. The Man, again, decides she’s making too much of this. This is his shining moment of white privilege.

But not the only moment. The Woman wonders if he is attracted to her Chineseness; no, she decides, it’s not yellow fever, they’re “merely one out of a billion or so Asian girl–white guy couples walking around on this earth.” Yeah. Exactly. But she doesn’t want to overthink things. In her TNY interview, Wang says, “Not having to think about one’s race is, I believe, a privilege. This woman is more preoccupied with race than the man is, because race has permeated more aspects of her life.” And heaven forbid The Man might have to consider someone else’s point of view. This is perhaps the foundation of contemporary racism: it’s so much easier for white people to not have to think about race if there aren’t not-white people pointing it out all the time. Giving up even a little white privilege – telling those jokes, making those generalizations – seems like an unacceptable infringement for some. Getting rid of not-white people seems like a solution. The other solution, learning basic manners and getting to know not-white people as individuals, is just too much work.

As I said, there’s much more than white privilege here, too. The waitress pulls a stunt by bullshitting about wine, a trick The Man falls for – partly because he’s flirting with her, and parrtly because he must always show he Knows Everything – but not The Woman. She keeps her silence, though. As does the chef, when The Man makes more of a fool of himself by insisting he’s seen the man working there on prior nights. The chef is taciturn, letting out information in small bites (again). He answers more freely when The Woman asks him, indicating more of a connection between them. Maybe it’s partly because she isn’t acting like a fool, but there’s an implication it’s more of a racial connection. Until he brings in what well could be a slur about the Chinese manager at his former job. It’s interesting that The Woman stands here ground for the first time in this exchange, prepping her for the toothpick scene.

So again, the effort to look beyond my initial reaction paid off. I appreciate a lot more about the story having screened out the overwhelming noise of The Man and taking some advice from both the author and editor.

One response to “BASS 2019: Weike Wang, “Omakase” from The New Yorker 6/18/2018

  1. I found reading this story to be a little like being forced to go to a meeting because someone keeps pouring their coffee grounds in the drinking fountain. It wasn’t me, I know I’m not supposed to do it, and I don’t, but I’ve still got to sit here for 30 minutes while we listen to someone tell us what every single one of us except one person already knows. I agree with the points raised. But so do most people nowadays. These aren’t unknown or new points about male privilege or white privilege. They’re not even old points packaged in a new or interesting way. Having Doerr gush about how this story would “wake me up” to stuff every semi-woke person has been aware of for a few years now just makes the whole thing even more grating. It makes me think he doesn’t really get out that much if he thinks this is news. It’s like with Yoon Choi’s “The Art of Losing” from last year. The editor from New England Review who published it was in love with the image of a student eating pages from the dictionary, like it was a really fresh and piquant image, when in fact this is a well-worn cliche in Korea. She thought we all ought to love it because she had never heard of it before. That’s how Doerr’s love of this story struck me.

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