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Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

On December 13, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army stormed Nanking, the former capital of the Republic of China. In the six week period that followed, they killed an estimated 300,000 soldiers and civilians, including women and children, the latter in...

Photos from Nanking via Wikicommons

On December 13, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army stormed Nanking, the former capital of the Republic of China. In the six week period that followed, they killed an estimated 300,000 soldiers and civilians, including women and children, the latter in front of the former, whom they raped as well. Iris Chang introduced most Westerners to the Nanking Massacre, sadly not through her book, The Rape of Nanking (1997), but her subsequent suicide, which has often been attributed to the severe depression incurred by her research. She shot herself in the mouth in her car by a rural road in Los Gatos, California.


My mother, in her mild anti-Semitism, always told me this was the unsung Holocaust. If Jews didn’t run Hollywood, she reasoned, maybe there'd be more movies about the Nanking Massacre and less about the Nazis. I did elementary math. "Six million is more than a third of a million though," I offered, as if this were some perverse genocide competition. "Yes, but this was personal," she said.

Her point was that the Nazis methodically killed the Jews, that they devised ways of killing them as efficiently (time and cost effective) as possible—namely, with gas chambers. It was impersonal. I'm sure there were always a few rogue soldiers who went bat-shit on victims, but that was not protocol. The Japanese would, according to her and various accounts, toss infants in the air and spear them with bayonets, display their entrails to their horrified mothers. Of course, human-on-human travesty, political or otherwise, is, well, a thing of humanity; but race—or at least our idea of it—is quite personal.

My mother is Chinese, and clearly knows what side she's on. She doesn't "hate" the Japanese any more than a Jew living today hates a German living today, or a Muslim in Baghdad hates a Christian in Jackson, Mississippi, he's never met. It's that we must protect our ideas, our history, our identity; and conceptual—perhaps merely semantic—hatred is a good way of doing that. The sentiment in my mother is fickle, though, and only comes out in the context of the massacre. Her allegiance to "the cause" always ends in front of a sushi place.


My grandmother, however, will not eat sushi; she will not have anything to do with the Japanese, as is common with most of her generation. Her history to the event is closer. She was 12 years old or so, though technically in Sichuan, a province a good 1,000 miles west of Nanking. I once bought her a bowl with Koi fish painted in blue, naively lumping Chinese and Japanese culture together. "You know, they killed us," she said, in Mandarin. "Whoa," I said, in English.


Shunryu Suzuki visited San Francisco in 1959 and unwittingly developed an earnest following of somber white hippies, for whom he stayed. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1970) was not written by Suzuki as much as it was a transcription of his recorded talks from the Zen center in Los Altos, California. It is translated into 14 languages, and a common "gateway" book into Zen Buddhism for Westerners. The "gateway" is a light play on a book of koans, The Gateless Gate ("Mumonkan," c. 1200), whose title, as a tiny koan itself, posits that there is no entry to enlightenment; that acceptance of this may be enlightenment itself.

In my hashtag first world problem depression—made worse by a self-consciousness of how lucky I actually am, and how grateful I fail to be—I started going to the San Francisco Zen Center every Saturday morning for their 10:00 AM Dharma talk. Call it church without God, or therapy without the co-pay. The eternal cynic in me will tell you it's just a bunch of relatively rich and unsatisfied hippies sitting on cushions in a room listening to bald old people meander about life and "being chill" under the auspices of humble wisdom. The budding optimist in me will tell you it's the best thing I got in my life.


It rained yesterday on my way home from a talk, dangerously riding my bike down Valencia Street with fly vision kaleidoscopically divided into a hundred pieces by droplets on my glasses. I have a bunch of face washcloths my ex left behind that I saved for bike maintenance. I lift the back wheel and run the pedals with my hands as some deformed version of myself with arms for legs. With my other hand, I clamp the circling wheel with the cloth, collecting the oily grime from the rim. The wheel thinks it's going somewhere, but the bike does not move. It lets the wheel move because it doesn't: the harmony of duality. May this be my not-so-subtle metaphor. I do the same with the other wheel, and chain. Each time I clean my bike, after it rains, I throw one more blackened cloth away.

After each Dharma talk, we gather in the courtyard for tea and cookies. The large brick building used to house Jewish women fleeing Europe during World War II. I think of my friend Leonard Cohen, likewise smitten with Zen, and this Suzanne hottie with her "tea and oranges that came all the way from China." I drop two dollars in the donation basket and get the ginger lemon tea. My grandmother would not be happy about this. Zazen, the style of mediation I practice (I actually can't meditate, but I'm quite good at sitting there being both self-critical and defensive about this) is Japanese, as well as many of the "cooler" things in my apartment.


I doubt I'm a traitor. I do feel bad about the Chinese babies on bayonets, the inviolate sheen of their entrails catching the sun, dampening the dirt, but hardly think the fault can be directed at the small over-grateful merchants of Japantown who spastically bow at my touristy patronage. They simply have better style. Europe had Bauhaus, Asia has Japan.


Safeway began selling sushi sometime in the early 2000s. Quite a profit can be made rolling up cucumbers and imitation crab in rice and seaweed. When I visit my parents, I will bring back sushi for lunch. California rolls, since we in California, yo. Spider rolls because we crazy. There is an art to the perfect ratio of wasabi to soy sauce. It should be somewhat strong, enough to permeate one's sinuses, but not so strong to where it overrides them. If it's weak (i.e. mainly soy sauce) you are basically reducing sushi to a salt sponge. The wasabi is necessary to clean your palate while you chew so that you can taste the fish.

My mom is screaming. I am laughing. She put way too much wasabi in the soy sauce and is now crying. Schadenfreude is a German word ("harm joy") meaning pleasure derived in the suffering of others. In order for this to work, there must be humor, or irony, and the pain of course must be relatively mild and not irrevocable. The Holocaust was not schadenfreude; seeing your sensitive mother ingest way too much wasabi is. After her fit, we continue our lunch.

The correct way to cut a sushi roll is to bisect it, then to cut each half into thirds, making a total of six pieces. An amateurenthusiast will mentally estimate the width of a perfect piece, which never works. One is bound to over or underestimate. You just don't know how it's gonna end.

I am screaming. My mom is laughing, hysterically. The wasabi shot up my nose into my brain, puncturing whatever slim membrane it had. I clamp my skull, lurching forward. We are both in tears. Hers are in schadenfreudean joy; mine are of a more complicated nature: I am happy, but my senses are terrified. Terror does not have the mind to talk it down. The reason why this is so funny to my mom is not that I fell victim to the wasabi, or made fun of her earlier, but that her reaction just moments ago had entirely slipped my mind. I'd forgotten about her pain, maybe even all the pain anyone has ever felt, the habitual pain of being alive which eventually merits its own creation. Such things had briefly escaped me. It was lovely.

Previously by Jimmy Chen - We Await Silent Thomas's Empire