Cross-cultured leader keeps Asahi Foods’ promise of perfect sushi fish

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DSC_3297It’s cold outside, but it’s colder in Asahi Foods’ refrigerated cutting room, where stacks of cardboard and Styrofoam boxes filled with giant fish await. The fish cutter is in early on a Saturday, wearing a white lab coat and heavy rubber gloves, various razor-sharp knives at the ready.

Charlene Thai, a tiny woman in a similar lab coat, hovers nearby, watching over the daily cutting ritual that begins the flow of fresh-cut fish for sushi and sashimi to 200 restaurants in Colorado and surrounding states.

“If you see our tuna, it’s clean-cut, like a machine,” she says. “It’s not just the texture, but the clean cut that matters. If it’s not right, our customers can return the tuna and say ‘this is not the way I want it to be cut.'”

Thai is Asahi Foods’ general manager, and oversees two dozen employees, including the fish cutter as he tosses a headless 70-pound tuna onto an enormous cutting board and first trims off the collar and tail. He guts it from underneath, then hacks along spinal column to slice the fish all the way through. Then he deftly cuts the tuna neatly into filets about equal size, about 15 pounds each. They get gingerly arranged on trays and will be wrapped, labeled and delivered to sushi chefs up and down the Front Range.

Hapa Sushi owner Mark Van Grack was Thai’s first customer when Asahi Foods launched five years ago, although he didn’t realize it.

“But I do remember meeting her when she came in to take some of our fish business, and I really liked her right away,” he says. “I thought she was a lovely, bubbly woman. ”

Since that day, Asahi Foods has been “one of our biggest suppliers.”

Van Grack credits Thai’s commitment to customer service for Hapa’s bond with Asahi Foods.

“One of the reasons we’ve had such a good relationship is that she has the same mentality about her customers that we have for our customers,” he says. “We want everything to be right 100 percent of the time, which is impossible, but it’s what we do when something’s not 100 percent that’s what’s important. Charlene has the attitude of ‘we’ll do whatever it takes to make it right.’ ”

Tokio chef Miki Hashimoto, who serves sushi and ramen from his restaurant in the shadow of Coors Field, has known Thai for years and says he buys from her because he respects her. “She’s loyal and has a wonderful personality,” he says. “I trust her.”

That’s why it’s important to Thai to make sure the fish is cut cleanly — just right for her customers.
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Five Years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Note: I’m now a regular monthly columnist for Discover Nikkei, the multilingual project of the Japanese American National Museum. For years they’ve repurposed my blog posts, but now the tables will be turned: I’ll write something for DN first, then post them afterwards here. This is the first column I wrote for them.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver's Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

I can still remember March 11, 2011, the night of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which devastated a huge swath of northeast Japan, as if it were last week.

It was just before midnight in Denver when I got an alert on my phone. An earthquake had been reported off the eastern coast of Japan. I turned on CNN and watched in horror for the next couple of hours as the footage came in. I saw the tsunami rolling over farmlands and crash into cities, carrying with it buildings and cars and ships. I saw footage of people trapped on rooftops. I saw houses being shoved aside as if they were origami boxes being blown by the wind, before they burst into flames. That was just the beginning; the seven meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant were caused by the quake, and the cleanup around that disaster is still ongoing.

The disaster remains the worst earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, and the fourth worst in the recorded history of the world’s earthquakes. The toll was awful: almost 16,000 people have been confirmed dead, and over 2,500 still missing. Almost 229,000 people have been relocated or are still living in temporary housing.
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Is China’s economic domination coming to an end?

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I follow news from all over Asia. Primarily, I pay attention to all the news happening in Japan, from the goofy stuff to the serious headlines. But the world is so interconnected these days, that Japan can easily be affected by news developments — political, economic, cultural — in other parts of the globe, and especially Asia. The crazy dude in North Korea, Kim Jong Un, for example, has been shooting missiles into the sea to flex his weak muscle and try to scare Japan and it allies, like the U.S. and South Korea, whenever the U.S. conducts military exercises in the region.

The most important news from Asia is often about China. China is the 800-pound economic gorilla of Asia. A more appropriate description might be a slinky Asian tiger or dragon, but the enormity of China’s outsized impact is like a gorilla: brute strength sometimes flailing about like King Kong beating his chest and romping through Manhattan — Wall Street, to be exact.

For years, China’s economy was growing so fast that it attracted laborers from rural regions (of which there are many) to the cities where good paying manufacturing jobs were available. For years China invested huge amounts in building cities and the infrastructure to reach those cities. For years, China’s growth and spending was a windfall for the rest of the world, which was happy to supply the raw materials and technology to help China become the second largest economy in the world, overtaking Japan.

The whole world got richer as China got rich, and the Chinese got rich too, relatively speaking. A middle class developed in the cities, and China became one of the biggest markets on Earth for cars. Hollywood studios regularly court China’s humongous audience, these days flush with disposable income and able to go see the latest theatrical releases. Luxury goods and Western brands are all the rage with the nouveau riche, and Chinese tourists, who now have the cash to travel all over the world, are visiting Japan in droves and returning with modern rice cookers and fancy heated toilet seats.

The downside to all this growth is captured in the nervous joke that’s been making the media rounds: “When China sneezes, the world catches cold.”
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Meet Leroy Chiao, a real-live AAPI astronaut

Note: This post was originally published on AARP’s AAPI Community Facebook page.

26-_MGL0235“The Martian” starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet curiously won the Golden Globe Award in December as the best musical or comedy (hint: it’s really not either, though there’s some funny lines) but on Oscar night, despite being nominated for six awards; the Academy Awards left the movie stranded.

The lack of awards hasn’t hurt the film, which is also now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming services. It’s a commercial hit.

But it took some critical hits when it was originally released in 2015, because two of its characters, who were Asian American in the bestselling book by Andy Weir, were played by Caucasian and African American actors on the big screen.

The switch was called “whitewashing” by Asian American groups who accused director Ridley Scott of depriving Asian American actors of significant roles. Both characters kept their Asian names from the book – one NASA scientist is named “Park” and her background is never explained while the other is named “Kapoor” and is explained in the film as half black and half South Asian.

The lack of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Hollywood is an old complaint, and especially in the science fiction genre. George Takei’s “Sulu” in the 1960s Star Trek series and subsequent films is a big exception. As an example, the “Star Wars” franchise features scant few Asian faces (unless they’re ugly aliens who dress and sound vaguely Asian). It’s as if in the future, Asians just never make it into space.

That lack of role models didn’t stop Leroy Chiao, who is one of only a handful of Asian Americans who have flown in space as a NASA astronaut. He flew on three Space Shuttle flights and was Commander of the Expedition 10 crew and lived on the International Space Station.

Chiao grew up in the Baby Boomer era when Asians weren’t generally included in mainstream American culture (except as the Chinese cook in “Bonanza,” the POW houseboy in “McHale’s Navy” and Kato, the martial arts-fighting chauffeur in “Green Hornet”). So he didn’t really think he was being ignored with the lack of role models.

He didn’t need an Asian role model to find his calling: after he watched Neil Armstrong make his historic moonwalk, young Chiao was hooked.

“When we landed on the moon in 1969, I was 8 years old. I was building model airplanes and model rockets even before we landed. When we landed, I thought ‘wow, that’s where I want to be.’ That’s where it started in my mind.”
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Building bridges with the Muslim community

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Late last year, Erin and I were lucky enough to travel to New York City to see the Broadway musical “Allegiance” starring George Takei. It’s a story about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, and it vividly and powerfully brings to life the emotional toll of the experience on JAs for generations since then. I wrote about the play and interviewed Takei and others for AARP’s AAPI Community.

Two nights after attending the show and while we were still in New York, the Paris attacks happened. The next day, we had scheduled a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and museum in lower Manhattan. Like the way “Allegiance” evoked the racial hatred against my community 75 years ago, it was a powerful reminder of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. There’s a lot in the museum exhibit about the terrorists who committed the acts, and the aftermath that included hate crimes, not just against Arab Americans but also Sikh Americans. I saw a photo of the slogan that someone put up on a banner in the Ground Zero site: “United We Stand.”

The rest of the day, I was haunted by the 1970 hit song, “United We Stand” by a group called the Brotherhood of Man: “United we stand, divided we fall; And if our backs should ever be against the wall; We’ll be together, together, you and I…”

The song was widely played in the days after 9/11, though most people probably missed the spirit of uniting with Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.

I was proud that JACL, the Japanese American Citizens League, held a press conference within days after 9/11 to decry violence against Arab Americans. We were the first voices nationally to warn against racial profiling in the wake of the attack, because we knew too well the potential disaster that can be sparked by fear and ignorance.

Unfortunately, there were hate crimes committed in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, including against Sikh Americans, who aren’t even Muslim. And some commentators supported rounding up Arab Americans into concentration camps just like the Japanese Americans during WWII.

Sadly, the hatred and fear that was aimed back then at Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians and anyone who might represent “the Other” are back.
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