In the Marist cafeteria, 4:00pm is a meticulously organized time – a calm before the storm, when the cafeteria workers are preparing dinner and bracing themselves for the slew of hungry students soon to arrive. “We are pretty busy!” answered JoJo Naing from behind the sushi bar, when I if he could spare a minute for a few questions. His wife, Thin Thin, was feverishly setting up the ginger, wasabi and soy sauce station while he checked the rice cooker. JoJo and Thin Thin are happily married – and you can tell. Together, the couple works six days a week serving the Marist students their very own delicious sushi, from tuna avocado to California rolls.
Jojo and Thin Thin are originally from Myanmar, but left their homeland 10 years ago due to the serious ongoing civil conflict there. “There is no peace in my country”, Jojo stated. Along with their two daughters, the Naing family now resides in Hyde Park where they have their own sushi restaurant, KT Sushi. Occasionally, you can even find their daughters behind the counter, helping their parents by rolling out sushi or preparing rice. The two more or less communicate with the Marist community with the help of a translator, but can get by in casual conversation with the students. “They are always smiling, and I can tell they love what they are doing!” says Marist freshman Kevin Stewart, who admits to eating from the sushi bar almost daily.
Sushi may be a passion of theirs, but it is not their whole life. As a kid, Jojo always wanted to be musician, like his father, Kyaw Kyaw Naing who was a world-renowned Burmese musician. In fact, Jojo came to America five years earlier than his wife and daughters because he was invited to play pat waing, a Japanese drum circle instrument for the University of California at Los Angeles. This initial trip to America shocked Naing. He realized, “I need to bring Burmese music to America”. Upon his movement to the states, he worked with MIT, UCLA and the Bang on a Can Organization to create a presence of Burmese music in America. New York Times writer Ben Sesario wrote about Naing’s musical contributions to Bang on a Can as “astonishingly playful, communicative and warm”.
Amidst his musical endeavors, Jojo and Thin Thin were recognized by Marist when they began to distribute sushi from their restaurant to the Cabaret, Donnelly and Dyson cafes on campus “about 9 years ago”, according to Jojo. The sushi bar subsequently appeared with the reconstruction of the dining hall, which opened up at the start of the Fall 2013 semester. “The students just love the sushi,” boasted Roberta Muscarella, Sodexo Supervisor for the dining hall. Muscarella noted that the sushi bar, and the dynamic duo behind the counter, is a hot topic during campus tours for perspective students. “Not a lot of college’s have a sushi bar six days a week, which makes Marist stand out.” Muscarella noted that the sushi seems to be especially popular with freshman living in the dorms, because they depend on the cafeteria for most meals and are always looking for variety. Marist senior, Monica Couvillion, noted that the sushi bar is a huge improvement to the dining services. “I appreciate the authenticity that’s comes from Jojo and Thin Thin. They put up Japanese decorations, and they even make sushi figurines to put on display!” “We love the students! And we know they love sushi.” Jojo translated through Thin Thin. Their love for each other, for their job, and for their cultural origins is evident and captivating. Behind Jojo’s traditional Japanese sushi coat and hat hides a virtuoso and passion for Burmese music. There is a passion for culture that comes from behind Marist’s sushi bar and shines on through each student the couple serves.