In the mini-ethnographies below, I attempt to detail my observations based on minor fieldwork experiments concerning the Asian-Canadian food culture, and the economy that surrounds it.
In the first mini-ethnography, I take an ethnographic vignette approach to discuss my experience at a Japanese all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. By using suggestive descriptors and accentuating the details of the setting, I hope to create in the reader a desire to question the normalcy of the events.
In the second mini-ethnography, my approach leans more towards sensorial description, blended with a thick description of my field-notes and an ethnographic portrait (although a “snapshot” may be the more appropriate term due to the brevity of the encounter). In this way, I am taking a more intentionally subjective perspective on the goings-on in the restaurant, and in doing so, hoping to elicit empathy in the readers, so that they may follow me in my observations and my questioning of the setting.
These practice ethnographies are meant to give a glimpse into the Ottawa restaurant culture and spark anlarger conversations about cultural appropriation and diasporic practice.
Quickly Now, It’s Getting Cold
In from the cold, the door jingles, colliding with bells above it to sound the alarm. English pop music, blended with an occasional Korean hit, plays in the background, over the murmur of voices, out of which sometimes emerges an odd fractious laugh.
The waiters rush around, some purposefully, others simply to watch their customers. The service worker’s eyes are glazed, and emit brief flashes of lucidity only when asked to seat someone new or when someone has questions about the food. Often the answer is “Yes, Sir… Ma’am.”
Once someone notices the new arrivals, dithering at the door, “How many?” is the first question the waiter must ask, before pointing to the first available seating area as quickly as it is humanly possible. Once seated, speech between waiter and customer becomes optional.
The menus are on the table, the plastic plates painted with a beige and brown design, vaguely imitating watercolour painted pottery. On the back, they say, “Made in China”. The chopsticks pop out of their paper wrappers with a crinkle and a rip. Then, two confident hands crack the wooden pieces apart, and rub them together in anticipation of the meal to come, shaving off any wayward pieces caused by the rupture.
Water is served quickly, without asking, and the customers don’t bat an eyelash. It has ice in it to the brim. The first heavy snow fall of the year, trickles down outside the large bay windows as restaurant guests gulp down from blue polyethylene cups, calling for a pitcher. “Saves the waiter the back and forth.” Someone might mutter, eyeing the jug uneasily on the small table area.
All-you-can eat sushi requires the consensus of the group to order; it involves a tiny sheet of paper onto which numbers are written, instead of names. One hand holds the pen and the impatience of the group at bay, scribbling shakily. Once filled, the group waits tapping fingers on the table, sending up prayers that the waiter does not return to tell them that they have asked for too much, more than they could eat, or that the numbers are unclear in their too quickly written handwriting.
A middle aged blonde wife and her balding husband arrive with the two teenagers in tow, ask for a booth, and are seated at a table, with disgruntled frowns. The table seems almost too small to hold them. Distractedly, the man realizes that he must cease from spreading his legs wide, in order to avoid his left knee being in the way of passerbys in the walkway. He eyes the servers walking quickly, too quickly, with heavy trays in both hands, laden with the barely made sushi, still warm rice, and pieces falling apart at the seams of their nori wrapped structure. No one will care about that much, once each platter is placed before the guests.
Five sushi chefs bow their heads at the work bar, barking out orders in Cantonese to the other workers around them. They must be precise and careful with the fish filet knives they wield like modern day samurai, but above all they must be speedy. There is no barrier between them and their customers. They are part of the display. One large tray, filled to the edges is picked up, heading towards its destination in the far corner of the room.
“Ah, I’ve been waiting for this all day!” chortles a man in his mid-twenties, wearing an Ottawa Senators hockey jersey. They have come here hungry, starving, empty—they fasted to able to devour more before coming here. That is why they are here. To be filled with inexpensive sushi, in a warmly lit booth, laughing with friends, as someone unused to chopsticks, drops their sashimi into the soy sauce. The waiters don’t flinch anymore.
Making and Breaking Rituals
Warm air, and the smell of freshly cooked rice and cleaning product rush at me as I walk through the door, glancing around worriedly. I wasn’t sure if I was late, my phone died on the bus ride over, but luckily it seems I am the first one to arrive. Then I realize they could be sitting down already: my friend and the new person to whom she wants to introduce me, in the hopes she’ll join our self-made family of friends.
I am asked immediately how many people are with me by a frazzled looking young Asian man, probably around twenty-years-old. “Two more,” I say quickly, trying to be reassuring. I know what it is to work in the service sector. We, Millennials, should stick together. “I’m not sure if they are here yet. I’ll just look around for now, thank you.” He looks at me uncertainly and I try to look calm, as I walk around the booths trying to find a familiar face.
No such luck. I go sit and wait in the small area with a coffee table covered in American magazines. I flip through the pages of one whose name escapes me, cringing at the prices of items listed. The coat racks beside this area are empty; no one dares leave their items unattended.
This isn’t my first time here. In fact, we, the “squad,” as we refer to ourselves, have been here three or four times now, at the request of “Alexandria,” the friend who is introducing me to her friend “Dana.” It’s something of a tradition now for our group to come here when we want to eat together. Tonight, only the two I’ve previously mentioned could make it. Fifteen minutes later, “Alexandria” arrives, as we find a table to wait for “Dana”, removing our outer layers, settling in.
Both of us are tired on a Sunday night, and we aren’t much for conversation, at least during the fifteen minutes before “Dana” arrives, hesitating at the door, glancing around, covered in snow. “Alexandria” waves at her to come over. She does, and smiles nervously Off come the scarves the hat, the coat and gloves, damp and cold, all placed precariously on the back of a chair.
“Dana’ is caucasian, lithe, perhaps five foot and five inches tall and has a dark brown pixie cut with dark flitting eyes to match. She smiles a bit too quickly, as “Alexandria” makes the introductions. We don’t shake hands. Once she’s seated, I begin to interrogate the potential friend, to get a better idea of who she is and whether or not she will fit into our inner sanctum.
“Dana” is two years younger, and we “the elders” treat her as such. Not with any kind of meanness (no that’s not acceptable in our group), but with the good-natured ribbing of older siblings. Has she had sushi before, I ask? “Of course!” she says excitedly. “I love sushi.”
“Of course.” I repeat with a smile just a bit too wide. We quickly order, “Alexandria” taking the lead and writing down everything that we ask for, making sure we have enough for the three of us.
We talk until the food arrives, discovering we know each other’s tumblr blogs and share the same fandoms. This is certainly a good sign, seeing as mutual interests are a large part of the glue that holds us together. “Dana” seems to become more at ease once she realizes we aren’t planning on making her uncomfortable in any deliberate way.
Alexandria has made it clear that “Dana” is a lesbian, who has a girlfriend already. The “squad” is made up of mainly non-heterosexuals persons. Another point in her favour. While quiet and a little wide-eyed, she seems to enjoy our interaction, laughing at the back and forth of quips “Alexandria” and I manage.
"Alexandria”, exhausted from school work and a new love interest, picks up a piece of sashimi and her chopsticks wobble. The piece falls in to the mixture of wasabi and soy sauce, splattering on the table a little. She lets out a dramatic cry and “Dana” and I laugh with her at her woes.
We eat until we cannot anymore, and are filled with the familiar sleepy sensation of overindulged stomachs. “Alexandria” and I have both made it abundantly clear that we would like to include her in to our group by this point. We pay individually, and exit the restaurant. Standing at a street corner, blinking hard against the snow, we separate with the promise of more time together on our lips. All that’s left is to wait and see if “Dana” will come back for more.
Professor Larissa Kurtović once told our class early on, that we would have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I didn’t entirely understand what it was she was referring to at the time, but thinking about larger conditions of cultural existence and the utterly helplessly theoretical work, which Ethnography seems to entail, (outside of applied Anthropology), I have begun to be more at ease with concepts that terrify me. When writing or observing, anthropologists look for the things no one else is looking for. The intricate little pieces which reverberate through an entire culture, or many cultures, as the case may be, which influences life on an even larger scale.
Through reading such as Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, and Joao Biehl’s “Ethnography in the Way of Theory” and many others which are too many and varied to name here, I’ve begun to get an impression of the publishable nature of certain articles, the accessibility to content with which authors must take into consideration exactly who their audience is and what impact they hope to have in the anthropological conversation.
To be aware, and conscious of the implications of the choices we make and are subjected to. Anthropology is a mega discipline, which refers to itself as the study of Man. I understand now that I want to explore meta-theoretical texts, and post-colonial reverberations, after being in this class. Before it, I didn’t have the words to say that. Like a child I have learnt a new vocabulary, a new language, a new culture, about culture.
In these mini-ethnographies I hope to evoke similar awakenings for whomever may actually read this. Awareness leads to change and hopefully, all these words, essays and theories will lead to a culture which accepts and functions as a balance of individualism and communal structures.