Authentic, Real, and Good
The truth is I got hired for my looks and promoted for my flexible standards of truth and that is really all there is to say about it. Except the job was easy enough at first, standing by the door and chiming Irasshaimase! whenever anyone entered, even though it was really more like a roar, IRASSHAIMASE!, which always gave people a shock because we were hired to be pleasant and invisible and the bossman had not counted on us girls developing a bet over who could jump scare customers the most. Fourteen times a day bossman would come out of his office and tell us off, but he didn’t pay enough to hire professionals and he knew it and we knew it and so all he got were three teenagers bored off our tits and entertaining ourselves by valiantly shouting IRASSHAIMASE! on the rare occasion that someone new walked in. That’s what happens when you’re a cheap Chinese man trying to pass off your budget bistro as a hidden Japanese gem, I snarked, to the chef, who was fresh out of polytechnic, and the kind of guy who rolled his own cigarettes. I breathed, you can smell it, and Chef said, smell what, and I said, smell the desperation.
I thought that splinter of coquetry solidified a comradeship between us, but he snitched, and next thing I knew bossman called me into his office. I raised my left eyebrow at the other two girls to remind them that if I went down we all went down; we’d formed a pact to quit together, all at once, out of the blue one day, just to fuck with bossman, but they didn’t say anything back, just looked a little afraid. Everyone lets you down in the end, I remember thinking, and I found myself surprised by how bitter the thought, and not surprised by bossman saying so you’re a clever one are you, and then surprised again when he promoted me there and then to Marketing. What the hell do you need Marketing for, I said, already pleased, and bossman could tell. He simply smiled and said, make me a hidden Japanese gem. When I left his office with my apron off, the girls’ eyes went wide and then wider when they realised I had been elevated off the serving floor.
No more irasshaimase! for me; I sat in the air-conditioned office and banged out things like House of Bamboo Upholds Philosophy of Making Quality Japanese food Accessible to All and Nothing Warms the Heart like Homemade Miso Soup and at first it was fun, writing these stories, like when I submitted Once Turned Away from an Upscale Restaurant, House of Bamboo Boss Vows to Keep Bistro “Unpretentious” to a local listicle site, and you could see, people loved it, it made a real difference; from the air-conditioned office, I could hear the other two girls outside crying Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase! like headless chickens, running this way and that, trying to seat customers and take orders. Bossman was thrilled, he tapped my head, and said, you’ve got a creative brain in there, you’ll go far. Tell them we only use Japanese rice. I outdid myself; the new menu reflected, Come try our Lovingly Prepared Bentos Crafted with Best Taste Koshihikari rice imported from Niigata, Japan! Chef didn’t like this. He said anyone who knew anything about rice would instantly be able to tell we were trying to pass overcooked jasmine rice as sticky Japanese short grains, but I hadn’t forgotten his betrayal, and the next day I wrote Progressive Japanese Eating House Gives Ex-Cons a Second Chance, and Chef was really mad, like, come on, that’s not funny, my mom reads that news site, but he didn’t have time to finish before the streams of Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase! piped up again.
Come out and look, he said finally, and I did, but not properly, I said, what is it, almost aggressively, I was still trying to impress him. Look, he repeated, at the type of people buying into your bullshit, you’re terrible, you don’t have a conscience, and I did look, this time properly. Looked at House of Bamboo full for the first time in god knows how long, stuffed with women in their late forties sporting bad perms and floppy t-shirts; overweight fathers with their bored school-age daughters; flocks of aunties, too impressed by each Irasshaimase! and too excited over the low, low prices, what a value find, what a steal. I was stung, I said, it’s just food, people should be more discerning anyways, precisely as a mulchy looking woman said to her older companion, it’s good, right, do you like it, it’s good? Chef didn’t say a word. I turned and went back to the air-conditioned office and listened to the cries of Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase! and thought about how it only meant I was good at my job and hey at least there was a queue, a real queue outside, it’s just business at the end of the day, and you know, it’s a dog eat dog world out there. I was seventeen. I turned the computer back on and started to type but Chef had broken my flow and I kept thinking about that woman in the mid-thigh mom shorts and how she had her hair up in one of those giant faux tortoiseshell clips and how her voice was all bright, like, it’s good right, it’s good? to the wrinkly old lady next to her, was that her mum? I pushed my chair back, crept to the door, and peeked out.
Business was booming. No one was looking in my direction, not Chef, who was carefully poring over a donburi bowl, not bossman, who was plastering my latest poster to the walls, and least of all not the two girls, who were bowing and chiming Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase! in sync, just like in the movies, just like in a real Japanese restaurant.
Jemimah Wei is a writer and host, based in Singapore and New York. She’s a Singapore National Arts Council Scholar and was recently named a 2020 Felipe De Alba Fellow at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, X-R-A-Y Literary magazine, JMWW Journal, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and époque press, amongst others. She is a columnist for No Contact magazine, and is presently at work on a novel and several television projects. You can find her on twitter at @jemmawei
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