Of Sushi, Insurgents and Cowboys

Masaru & sushi

The night we spend in Bangkok, just before heading to Cambodia, our good friend Masaru (another photojournalist) invites us for sushi. His wife, Youme, has already gone to Aceh and Masaru is in Bangkok alone. He wants to cook.

We arrive at his apartment and find a large white paper taped to the floor. On the paper is a spread of sushi rice with little flecks of plum, a bowl of natto, a plate of seaweed, a platter of sashimi, a dish of of bright orange roe, a bowl of soba on ice, tubes of plum sauce and wasabi, a heap of fresh greens, a stack of fragrant plum leaves, a tiny dish of miso-sesame paste, a plate of fried eel wrapped in foil, bowls of soba sauce, a tray of sliced green onion and pounded ginger. “I had no idea!” I tell Masaru. No idea he could cook like this. But he reminds us he worked in a New York restaurant many years ago.

That was before his start in photography, before his first trip to Colombia, which forever put him on the trail of unjust wars and dissidents and the under-covered wrongs of the world.

Meals with Masaru and Youme are always centered on conversation, and the conversation is always of international import. “Heavy,” Jerry says at one point, laying down his chopsticks.

“The food?” Masaru asks.

It is not the food; it is the talk of insurgency in southern Thailand, where an on-again off-again war has simmered for decades but come to a boil again in the past two years. It’s called a separatist movement, a fight between the Thai Buddhist government and the Muslim natives of southern Pattani who want their own state (as they had in the past). But no one really knows what’s going on.

One of Masaru’s best friends comes from Narithawat province, one of the hardest-hit. He went into hiding after receiving death threats over the phone. Since then, Masaru has grown afraid of the south, where people disappear every day — Buddhists and Muslims — and the numbers are never reported. Not 30 in a month, every month. There’s a village where the widows live together, Buddhists and Muslims. They’re afraid they will be killed as their husbands were.

I have watched over the years the way these stories take their toll on Masaru. It happens to anyone who spends too much time on war and tragedy. It has happened, he says, to a photographer friend in Africa. “He doesn’t talk about normal things anymore,” Masaru says. He talks only of war and bloodshed. He no longer emails about his family. “I am worried about him.”

So we talk instead about “normal things.” We change the subject when the south leaves us feeling heavy.

We talk about the abundance of wrong-number phone calls we receive in Thailand, and intermittent Internet service, and the difficulty in getting a TV repaired.

And we talk about Brokeback Mountain and the harsh corners of Wyoming where the wind blows so hard and cold you can feel it years later while watching a movie about the place (Masaru is stunned to learn that Jerry and I began our newspaper careers in a small town not so far from Lightning Flat.).

Masaru wonders about the accent in Brokeback Mountain. He told Youme: “Do you understand? I don’t understand. I think I need to go back and study English more.” He returned home from the theater and got online to research the jokes he didn’t get. “I think: Why did I pay money to see a movie I can’t understand?” We tell him about Western accents, the drawl of a Wyoming rancher, and he’s happy to learn his lack of comprehension had nothing to do with a lack of English skills. Masaru spent several years in New York — but he ain’t never heard nobody talk like that!

We stay late, sitting on pillows around the leftover fish and rice. We drink Singha beer and when it’s time to go, Masaru shows us a three-liter bottle of sake, insisting he will keep it for us for the next time. We must drink it, he says.

It’s the Japanese way.

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