In a World Without Sushi

Images: Luigi Pozzoli and Brandon on Unsplash

Salmon is the most popular fish on American plates, and in sushi restaurants around the world. As the owner of Sushiville in Portland, Oregon, my father put me through four years of college by selling thousands of them—an act of love that has left a bright pink wound in my mind.

Long before my father assumed ownership of the restaurant, he was an executive at Hyundai in Korea. I remember little about my childhood in Incheon, but I know that I had more than my school friends did: my own set of skis, my own room with a balcony, brocade and satin curtains. In 1996 my mother, older sister, and I left it all behind, moving to Portland while my father stayed behind to work. This was a trend back then among upper-middle class Korean families, an inversion of how Mexican and other immigrant fathers often live and work alone in America to send money back home. If seeking economic opportunity is among the most celebrated immigrant stories, ours was about seeking education and fulfillment—primarily for my sister and me, but also for my mother, who would go back to school for a master’s degree in education. Yet at nine years old, I couldn’t understand why we had traded our abundance and comfort for bone-chilling rain, evanescent winter days, and a school where I couldn’t understand more than a sentence or two each day—to the point that I got a C+ in Computer, which was just typing and playing The Oregon Trail. There was one silver lining of my limited English: I didn’t know how much the other children made fun of me. During lunch, when I pulled out the scrambled egg burrito my mom made for me, was when I learned the words “ew” and “disgusting.”

In 1997, while the three of us struggled to gain our foothold in Portland, my father lost his job during the Korean economic crash. A man’s inability to provide for his family has always been seen as shameful in Korea; after the crash, this caused a social phenomenon of unemployed fathers abandoning their homes and families to live on the streets. My father was under particular pressure because he had to send money to us in America, and the Korean won had become worthless against the dollar. Eventually, he found a job working for a young former colleague who used to report to him. But when that fell through, he turned to the only people who still wanted him: us. My father was in his mid-forties when he arrived in Portland, and ready to do any work for his family. He painted houses under the raging sun and came home with blistered red skin. He drove a van picking up ingredients for a teriyaki joint. Sometimes he brought home bizarre things that he thought he could sell—anti-blemish treatment, oversize photo prints. Nothing got off the ground.

Years passed; we lived in smaller and smaller apartments. The scratchy wall-to-wall carpeting in these places had the magical ability to make all our possessions look awful. These included our once dignified and now increasingly tattered leather sofa set and the 29-inch tube TV, as thick as it was wide. Some years I slept on a twin mattress on the floor; some years I didn’t have a room. To those who have never lacked for anything, it may seem as though such circumstances would lead to rage, bitterness, and hatred. And we did fight, but we loved one another desperately. What was love? It was my mother, my sister, and I thinly slicing cucumbers and putting them all over my father’s sunburned back. It was doing well in school so that my parents could say, “When we look at you, we don’t regret coming here.”

Then in my junior year of high school, my father used the last of his savings to buy Sushiville on NW 23rd Avenue. Though the restaurant was just as unrelated to his background as his other schemes, it struck me as much more impressive. The historic avenue of high-end boutiques and restaurants in century-old houses was a world away from our apartment in the suburbs. The trees in front of Sushiville were draped in twinkle lights that glimmered fashionably year-round. My father put up a new sign, and I designed the A-board that stood on the sidewalk, promising sushi “so delicious, it melts in your mouth.” (My first writing job, unpaid of course.) We were full of hope—we finally had something of our own. But as weeks passed, my father became tense. Every night, he brought home takeout boxes full of unsold sushi, which we sleepily ate at eleven p.m., talking sparingly.

In the flimsy plastic boxes were spider rolls dipped in spicy mayo, rainbow rolls with alternating stripes of fuchsia tuna and coral salmon, sweet and chewy unagi belted onto rice with a strip of seaweed, octopus speckled with purple tentacles. There were California rolls with avocado scales that must have been bright green a few hours earlier and were now a sad yellow-brown. And there was always plenty of salmon nigiri, a translucent orange tongue over a thumb of pearly rice. I didn’t really like sushi, but in solidarity, I tried to eat as much as I could. So did my father, even though he had already had his restaurant’s food for lunch. He couldn’t have loved eating the same thing over and over again, but everything was a matter of principle in my family: “Wasting food is a sin!” my mother would say. It wasn’t all sushi, all the time: Our other staple was Thomas bagels, which I ate for two meals a day, and then sometimes once more late at night if I was hungry doing homework. I craved something other than leftover sushi, or supermarket bagels and jam. But I avoided asking my parents for money because they were stretched so thin. Unbeknownst to them, I went without lunch at school for months at a time, hiding in the library under the guise of reading or studying.

One night that winter, I went to the restaurant with my father at closing. It was pitch-dark outside, almost cosmically black, the way rainy nights are in Portland. When we opened the door, the restaurant was cocooned in a welcoming, golden light. But there were no customers, just dozens of brightly colored sushi plates going around the conveyor belt. One of the chefs was rapidly picking up each plate and throwing the food into the garbage. “That’s so much wasted food,” I said to my father, aghast. “Can’t we figure out a way to donate to a soup kitchen?” He told me coolly that it would be too difficult. I stared back in surprise—I didn’t expect to be admonished when I was only trying to help. Since I was little, he had been the one to teach me to always do the right thing. But I stopped arguing, because in his tightly drawn lips and armored eyes, I recognized an emotion that I myself felt too often: wounded pride.

I think most people would have given up before my father did. But he poured himself into the business, twelve hours a day for six days a week—often seven days, when employees didn’t show up to work, the kitchen ran out of avocados, or some other crisis befell the restaurant. Eventually, his tenacity began to pay off. By his second year, customers were lining up outside for lunch and dinner, and when I dropped by I could see my father whirling around the restaurant like a conductor: seating customers, manning the cash register, comping dessert to regulars, sometimes going behind the sushi bar in a chef’s outfit to slice fish himself. Sushiville was a microcosm of Portland: There was Micah, the skinny, bearded vegan electronic musician; jet-haired, sleeve-tattooed Rachel; brawny Mexican sous chef Miliano, who was shaped like a USPS mailbox. Tony, a customer-favorite server, looked like a football-playing jock, but also carried a Tribal membership card and was as sweet as can be. It was Tony who came to pick me up after I took the SATs because my father was busy fixing the conveyor belt that carried plates of sushi around the dining room.

What my father lacked in language, he made up for in kindness. Kids especially couldn’t get enough of Mr. Kim; he handed out crayons, candies, and little toys he’d go out of his way to buy in Central Eastside. He ran into adoring customers everywhere he went, from Home Depot to the PDX airport. “Mr. Kim!” They would shriek like children spotting Santa Claus and shyly ask for a selfie. He always obliged, carrying on a conversation in his halting English, beaming with pride.

I was proud of my father not only for making a new life for himself, but for becoming so valued in a society where Asian men of his age are often caricatured—or worse, are simply invisible. In American culture, they are resigned to the wordless background, and serve as punchlines for white people’s much more exciting lives. They show up in movies as unsmiling bodega owners or restaurant managers with heavy accents. Older Asian women, of course, are frequently ridiculed for their mannerisms, accents, and even physique: I can’t forget the deep hurt I felt upon reading in The Other Language by Francesca Marciano—one of my favorite contemporary writers—a description of “Korean women in floppy hats, dark shades, and with short legs.” But older Korean men have it even worse, characterized as stern and reserved, with the emotional life of a toaster oven. Why should other Americans expect these men—formerly white-collar professionals, now breaking their backs at dry cleaners, restaurants, and grocery stores—to be loquacious and jolly? And yet, without ever becoming fluent in his second language, my father managed to communicate something of his inner self. His humanity spilled out in the way he taught Miliano how to ski, the way he lent money to his cash-strapped employees and didn’t get angry when they disappeared. And it was especially evident in how he made people feel happy with something as ordinary as a sushi dinner.

* * *

One day, back home in Portland after my first year of college, I met up with a high school friend. She told me she had become vegan. That night I looked up some facts about animal agriculture, and was stunned to learn how, after suffering in hellish conditions, billions of sentient, intelligent beings are brutally killed each year—just to end up on our plates. The next morning, I came downstairs for breakfast and told my mom I was vegan. She said, “That’s good—it’s much better for your health,” and served me doenjang stew with tofu and mushrooms. My father was also unbothered, and immediately took to offering me avocado and asparagus rolls at Sushiville instead of dynamite rolls and spicy mussels.

I lived thousands of miles away from home, at the university that my father worked so hard to pay for, so the restaurant was far removed from my daily reality. But the more I learned, the more I began to question. I first became aware of the salmon decline in the mid-2010s, as climate change was worsening, the rains dried up for weeks in the traditional wet season, and the mystique of pristine Pacific Northwest nature was fading away. The first year in my family’s memory that unstoppable wildfires engulfed Oregon was 2015; in my New York apartment, I felt sick to my stomach seeing photos of the Martian orange sky over Portland. When I saw the news from home that summer, I was struck to the core by the breakdown of my beloved Northwest. Everything was going through staggering changes: the forests of soaring Douglas firs and cedars, the abundant rain that used to soak the land and protect it from fires, and the glacial rivers that once teemed with salmon.

More recently, in October 2019, wildlife photographer Rolf Hicker gained widespread attention for his photograph of an emaciated grizzly and her two cubs searching in vain for salmon in Knight Inlet, British Columbia. This was when, following decades of steady decline, chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon runs of British Columbia dropped off the precipice. Other conservationists took note of starving bear populations just north of Vancouver, and an emergency measure was taken to feed them five hundred salmon donated by a local fishery.

Even more impassioned media coverage fell on the plight of the orca, a salmon predator and one of the great symbols of the Pacific Northwest. In 2018, a southern resident orca named J35 (Tahlequah) attracted an outpouring of sympathy from around the globe after she gave birth to a calf that died just minutes after birth—and then carrying her for 1,000 miles over seventeen days. Even as the dead calf began to disintegrate, Tahlequah continued to float her up to the surface as though air could make her breathe again. This extraordinary act of grief showed the world that humans are hardly alone in experiencing the deep devotion and unconditional love of motherhood. Anguished questions arose: why do 70 percent of orcas miscarry or give birth to a calf that dies soon after birth? Why are the southern resident orcas—a species that feeds primarily on chinook salmon off the coast of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia—facing extinction, reduced down to just seventy-five individuals? It didn’t take long to discover that the orcas are facing extreme reduction of their food supply, as well as pollution from chemicals and pesticides, and noise from ships.

The grizzly bear and the southern resident orca are both iconic species that are almost exclusively dependent on wild salmon, a keystone species. The salmon’s precipitous decline over recent years is due to many factors—all of them man-made—but it was far easier to drum up political will against another culprit: In 2018, our dysfunctionally partisan Congress passed a bill allowing nearly a thousand sea lions on the Columbia River to be killed, to stop them from hunting salmon. “No one wants to harm these great marine mammals, but effectively dealing with a small fraction of the healthy sea lion population is preferable to losing unique and irreplaceable species of salmon,” Governors Butch Otter (R-Idaho), Kate Brown (D-Oregon), and Jay Inslee (D-Washington) wrote in support. The lethal removal program was expanded in August 2020 despite protests from environmental groups and studies that show that killing sea lions would not have the intended effect of reviving the salmon. It’s certainly telling that the common cause that can unite the warring parties isn’t tackling the climate crisis, but targeting intelligent and affable pinnipeds.

To the vast majority of Northwesterners who opposed the program, it’s clear that the explosion of greedy sea lions isn’t responsible for decimating the wild salmon population. Sea lions have been feeding up and down the Columbia since time immemorial: In 1805, Lewis and Clark were astonished to find thousands of pinnipeds enjoying a salmon feast at Celilo Falls, two hundred miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia. The truth is that sea lions, salmon, grizzlies, and orcas flourished in balance with one another until white settlement. Lewis and Clark’s pit stop at Celilo Falls, then, marks the last time the colonizers saw the Pacific Northwest as an elysian salmon country, the way it was meant to be. Back then, the number of fish in the annual Columbia salmon run was estimated to be as high as twenty million. Those who lived and fished there—including the Wascos, the Yakamas, the Wyam, the Nez Perce, the Umatillas, the Chinookans, and the Warm Springs peoples—believed that the salmon were a life-sustaining gift from the Creator, to be treated and consumed with reverence. Today, as a result of dams, the climate crisis, commercial fishing, and competition with farmed salmon, the wild salmon stock in the Pacific Northwest is all but depleted.

The relationship between wild salmon depletion and your sushi is a little more complex, however. My father sourced farmed salmon from around Vancouver, British Columbia, just like most, if not all, sushi restaurants in Portland. Globally, farmed salmon makes up about 70 percent of the total market. At a glance, this may seem beneficial to wild salmon stock: If aquaculture can mostly meet the consumer demand, wouldn’t wild salmon flourish? But far from alleviating the burden on the ecosystem, farmed salmon has exacerbated the depletion of wild salmon stock. A recent study found that the presence of salmon farms in British Columbia almost tripled the chance of finding DNA from pathogens that can harm wild salmon. (Salmon farms harbor viruses and bacteria against which wild salmon are extremely vulnerable; these pathogens spread through the water, and through farmed salmon that escape.) As early as 2008, a study published in Science warned that salmon farms in BC were causing 80 percent of wild juvenile salmon to be infected and killed by sea lice. “If outbreaks continue, then local extinction is certain, and a 99 percent collapse in pink salmon population abundance is expected in four salmon generations,” the authors wrote. Fourteen years and seven salmon generations later, we are effectively at the extinction point that the scientists foresaw.

Many people know that the vast majority of soy grown around the world—90 percent—is used to feed farmed animals, but fewer are aware that 25 percent of all ocean-caught seafood is turned into fishmeal for farmed fish. This means fish farming is resource-intensive, the same way livestock farming consumes far more resources to produce a single calorie than plant farming. This makes sense: salmon are fairly big carnivores that take at least three years to mature in a farm. The ocean-caught small fish and so-called “trash fish” used to make fishmeal are the essential food supply for wild salmon and other larger species. When these are taken away to fish farms, it’s only logical that the great web of ecosystems will collapse. “There are many people who consider aquacultured fish—farmed fish—as a sustainable solution to the global fishing crisis,” Yvonne Savoy, a marine biologist and professor at Hong Kong University, told the Global Reporting Program. “But it’s not solving problems of overfishing our resources. It’s actually making those problems worse.”

But might there be, somewhere in the world, truly abundant wild salmon stock that can be sustainably and ethically fished? For US sushi restaurants, at least, the answer is no. My father used to scoff at a high-end mini chain in Portland that claimed to serve “sustainable” wild-caught salmon, but sourced the same farmed fish from True World, the powerful distributor controlled by the controversial, cultish Unification Church. In fact, True World—which has a history of illegal overfishing and deliberately obscuring its practices—supplies the majority of the nine-thousand-plus sushi restaurants in the US. The only difference between my father’s fish and his “sustainable” competitor’s was the price. Likewise, upscale grocery stores tout sustainability credentials, and some chains like Whole Foods do undergo a third-party vetting process. But one can’t help but wonder how its more than five hundred American stores can possibly peddle wild Alaskan salmon or farmed Norwegian salmon to tens of millions of customers without there being negative consequences for the ecosystem. Whether it’s a greenwashing high-end restaurant or a powerful grocery chain, selling “sustainable salmon” is an elaborate ruse playing on the sensibilities of well-meaning (but not necessarily well-informed) consumers.

Whether wild or farmed, salmon are a limited resource. Global salmon consumption today is three times higher than it was in 1980, and what used to be a luxury is now a staple—a veritable prerogative of upper-middle class and upper-class, health-conscious diners who don’t mind paying a premium to alleviate their eco anxiety but balk at actually considering the consequences of their diets. Meanwhile, the Indigenous tribes who used to live primarily on salmon are now surviving on processed eats in food deserts, where a single grocery store serving thousands of residents might be stocked primarily with chips, boxed dinners, and soda. “You got your farmed salmon, they’re in their cage, and that’s where the fish lice comes. It’s an epidemic on the wild salmon,” my friend James Edmund Greeley, a Warm Springs tribal member and a Native American flutist, told me when I met him in his rambling hilltop house. The Warm Springs still fish for salmon at Columbia and its tributaries using traditional methods, but some are wary. “As First People’s main food source, you’re really taking your chances on eating salmon with all the contamination,” James said. That is, if there is much left to catch in the ever-dwindling salmon runs. Even further down the food chain, salmon’s natural predators—like bears, orcas, and sea lions— are either starving to death because they couldn’t adapt, or gunned down because they could.

Today, billions of us are treating salmon not as a means for survival as its animal predators have—let alone a sacred gift from the Creator, as the Native Americans have—but as a commodity. Salmon have been ripped from the natural ecosystem and crucified to our consumerist system: In the former, the salmon existed alongside its predators, who only took what was needed for survival; in the latter, the salmon only exists insofar as it can satisfy the appetites of billions of human predators, at the risk of all else. This is certainly the ethos behind the burgeoning of aquaculture, which justifies the caging of these remarkable creatures that swim in the open ocean for years and return to the exact place of its birth to spawn, traveling thousands of miles over the course of its life.

Yet if you’re lucky, on a fall hike in the Northwest, you can still encounter salmon that leap over towering fish ladders and rocky waterfalls to fatefully give up their lives for more lives. These marvelous animals have value that has nothing to do with their utility to human enterprise. Their existence in nature is itself that value.

* * *

I know what it means to be hungry and unable to do something about it. Every piece of fiction I write has some trace of that elemental struggle, because somewhere inside me there still is a young girl who couldn’t afford to buy lunch, who craved something other than sushi or bagels.

So there is a single word I associate with salmon: survival. I know my father does not like to cause harm. I’ve seen him tenderly rescue hummingbirds, bees, and even wayward rabbits that feast on his garden. Gentle and good-hearted, he was not a colonizer, a flippant taker of salmon, or a celebrity chef, but a parent clinging to the edge of the cliff with his fingers. I see the same desperation in the starving grizzly with her cubs, and Tahlequah, the grieving orca mother. What would a parent not do to feed their young?

After several good years, Sushiville sales began to decline. This time, it was harder for my father to turn things around. He was an old man by the time he closed the restaurant in 2017, after fifteen years of twelve-hour days. There wasn’t much to show for his labor, at least in financial terms. He couldn’t find a buyer for the business, so he was forced to clean out his equipment and empty the space for the next tenant.

Before the closing, many regulars came to see him. There was a couple who met at Sushiville, got married, and had a baby—a boy, a regular since the womb, now in elementary school. He also got many letters, which I translated for him. On the very last day, my father let regulars take home colorful sushi plates as a token. One even took the board with the glued-on plates showing their prices. I didn’t see it myself—I was living in New York at this point—but I imagine my father standing with his hands propped up on his hips, looking at the dismantling of fifteen years of his life. I picture him breathing out a sigh, then picking up a broom.

These days, my father basks in the leisure of retirement. People still stop him in the streets and greet him like a long-lost relative; he was even recognized by a former customer as he traveled through Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. But he says he doesn’t miss working one bit. He happily fills his calendar with golf, gardening, hiking, and fixing things around my condo. (Like the salmon, I too returned to where I came from.) He did pick up one surprising new hobby: fishing. I would have thought that after so many years, he’d have had enough of fish. But he says it’s more about being outside and appreciating nature.

“You know how I appreciate nature? By observing,” I retort, on a recent day when I join him on Nehalem beach. I haven’t eaten meat or fish since that day I announced my veganism fifteen years ago, and I (still) never lose an opportunity for a teachable moment. He ignores me and wades into the ice-cold Pacific in his rain boots, casting the line about forty feet from the water’s edge. I wait on the beach, a fine rain misting my face. The wet sand is brownish gray, the sea is bluish gray, and the sky grayish gray. This kind of beauty doesn’t photograph well—it only makes sense in the present moment, when you look at your pruney fingertips and see the non-space where you end and nature begins. In this place, I feel both inconsequential and infinite.

The rain thickens, and still my father keeps casting his line this way and that. It seems the fish keep eating the bait around the hook and running away—clever fish. I’m turning quite gray myself, yelling at him to come out. Just then he grips his pole hard against a tug, and fights to reel in his catch. The line tightens and then whips up dramatically to break the surface: At the end is a tiny groundfish, about the length of my palm. My father unhooks it and tosses it back into the sea, and it swims away to safety. We decide to go home, too.

“Did you use up all your bait?” I ask, and he affirms. “So the fish ate all the food and didn’t get caught? It’s as though you’re coming here to feed them, not fish them,” I joke. “They’re saying to one another, ‘This kind grandpa is so naive!’”

He laughs, detaching the hook from his rod. Standing next to him, I know I won’t ever fully reconcile my conscience with my history, which is inseparable from the sushi restaurant that gave us sustenance and my father his place in the world. Sometimes, this dissonance feels like an open wound. And sometimes, like now—walking side by side with my father to the sound of the ocean’s roar, making our way back home in the rain—it feels like an inevitable part of my world, in which shadows and sorrow have always been entwined with beauty, strength, and life-sustaining grace.

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