my effects on other people

Today, a semi-new colleague who works remotely from South Carolina was in the office, so I suggested that we take a walk and catch up. Based on the few chats I’ve had with him and observing him when he’s been in the office, I can tell that he’s not quite at ease with his job responsibilities or his place in the company yet. He’s still adjusting to new processes and of course, learning our technology, which certainly can be a challenge. He’s also still trying to find his social niche here, particularly given that he’s a remote employee and doesn’t have a lot of face time with any of us. We spent most of our half hour talking about non-work related things, which I purposely constructed. So I told him about observations and experiences I had during my recent India trip, and he talked about the adjustment of his college- and post-college age children moving out, adjusting to adult and work life, and living a bi-state life (they go between New Jersey, where they’re originally from and have relatives, and South Carolina, which is their primary residence). “It’s nice to have a conversation not about work at work!” he exclaimed to me, smiling. It was clear he doesn’t really talk about non-work related topics with other people here.

It’s almost been like an unspoken role of mine, to make people feel comfortable here and at ease. I don’t even know how that’s really happened. I don’t know if it’s just part of my aura, or the questions that I ask or the efforts I make to talk to people, but it’s just kind of become part of my de factor non-job responsibility here. “You make people feel comfortable with your presence,” a colleague in this office recently said to me. “You keep things calm and organized.”

The more I think about it, though, the more it seems like additional pressure on me. It also seems like a bit of a gender role if I want to start digging deeper into this because what man has ever been told that he has a calming presence that puts people at ease?

Home grown peaches, generosity, and lack of gratitude

When you live in the concrete jungle that is New York City, or just live in this area where a small amount of space costs loads of money, you start realizing how luxurious it must be to have space for things like gardens, vast open spaces for outdoor chairs, tables, and grills, fruit trees, and vegetable shrubs. A remote colleague who works out of his home office in Atlanta had a work meeting a couple weeks ago in Miami, and he’d told me that he and his daughters had spent a few hours that weekend picking peaches that were ripe and nearly falling off his peach tree in his garden. In total, they collected nearly 200 peaches; they had so much that they just couldn’t eat them all in time, so they went door to door handing them out to their neighbors. I jokingly suggested to my colleague that he share some peaches with another colleague coming down to Miami to join him for his meeting. My colleague actually took me seriously and gave my New York colleague a few peaches (and some plums from his other tree!). He presented a few to our New York colleague, who ate the fruit.

This New York colleague proceeded to text our mutual colleague here to complain about our Atlanta colleague’s generosity. “Why would he give me fruit? I’m traveling back to New York, and he wants me to cart fruit back?” he grumbled to our mutual colleague. When our mutual colleague told me this, I was livid. What is wrong with this guy? How can he not appreciate homegrown fruit; who in this area ever gets gifted anything that is homegrown or homemade? You’re lucky to ever get anything gifted to you for any reason!

There are fewer things worse to me than an inability to be grateful for what you have and are given, especially when someone has been so kind and generous to give you something for absolutely no reason at all other than for the sake of giving and sharing. It never fails to shock me how ungrateful and miserable people choose to be in their overly privileged lives that they take small acts of kindness like this for granted. He even ate the fruit, too, and said they were really good!! 

Post-India trip food cravings

Since we’ve come back from India, deciding what to eat has been pretty difficult. At work, I’m lucky to be able to get Seamless ordered from any place within the delivery radius of our office, but even that has been a (first world) struggle in deciding what I want. I think part of the reason I can’t decide is because I keep thinking about all the flavors and textures I had during our India trip, and I honestly would prefer to just continue eating different variations of that while here. But alas, that isn’t quite possible, especially in the Flatiron area where my office is.

So on Friday night, I made a masoor dal, a lentil stew, to satiate my dal cravings. Then, on Saturday, I made a version of the minced string bean dish that Chris’s grandmother’s servant made for us. It’s called green bean thoran and is a very common vegetable side dish in the state of Kerala, where Chris’s family on both sides is originally from. It was purposely different than the one the servant made, but still tasty and what I wanted. And then today, I made a version of Indian-Chinese vegetable fried rice. Unfortunately, it tasted nothing like the Indian fried rice we had at the Intercontinental in Mumbai, where we were able to enjoy a few gorgeous breakfasts. I remember asking the server and then the chef what spices were used in their fried rice that was part of their breakfast buffet, and they insisted no spices were used, just salt, pepper, chilies, and broth powder. We have no idea what spices were in the broth powder. Ugh. I even tried doing multiple variations of Google searches for “Indian Chinese fried rice recipe” that yielded zero even partially promising results. Lastly, I defrosted the organic chicken I had gotten from Costco a few months ago, spatchcocked it (removed the backbone, and for the very first time, which I was terrified of doing… It was actually harder than the videos made it look. You really need to apply some elbow grease even when you do have a pair of kitchen shears, which I specifically bought for this purpose), and rubbed home-blended garam masala spices over it, then roasted it whole for dinner. After seeing how quickly a whole chicken roasts (35 minutes!) in the oven with its backbone removed, I may never roast a whole chicken with its back bone in ever again. This was truly dinner-changing.

Now, I’m wondering what will be next: Kerala fish fry? Double-rise dosa? Cabbage poriyal? The list of things I want to make has only grown exponentially since this trip has concluded.

Family ties

Today, we received a phone call from Chris’s cousin to let us know that he and his wife were separating. It was certainly not news I was expecting at all; if anything, I was expecting that he would tell us that they were expecting another child, or there was some big career change move that we would have no idea about. Honestly for me, it was pretty devastating, and I didn’t even know what to say. His wife and I had grown close during our wedding planning periods since our weddings were not too far apart, and we actually learned in spending time together that we had so much in common, everything from our tastes in food and the way we like to travel to our general outlooks on life. We had many Whatsapp texting sessions every now and then, and so it’s hard to believe that now that they are separating that she’s technically no longer “family.”

How do we define “family” anyway, though? Is family just the legal ties, or the blood ties that bond us? Or, is it something less concrete and more fluid than that? She’s still going to be the mother of the child they will continue to share. She’s not the kind of person who would cut any of us off, so what type of relationship are we supposed to have, if any, to her? It’s not as though we live in the same city (or state, or country, or even continent), so it’s not as though we will need to deliberately avoid her or seek her out often.

I just felt so sad today — for them, for their daughter, for us, even. There will be a long road of unknowns coming up very soon.

Getting older and its implications

Yesterday morning, I woke up at around 4:30am, likely again from the little bits of jetlag that I’ve faced this week. It’s not something to complain about of course… until about an hour and a half later, I woke up again from a half-sleep, this time to a sharp, stinging, biting pain in my right calf that would not stop, and I started grabbing my calf and trying to depress my fingers on the spot where the stabbing feeling seems to be radiating from. It lasted for a good minute before I could stop holding my calf. I was pretty much screaming or moaning the entire time, and it certainly felt like longer than a minute. It felt like at least two or three times as long as that.

This type of pain seems have happened every now and then for me in the last couple of years, and it always happens when I know I am not getting enough potassium. This never used to happen to me before. “It’s a sign you’re aging!” my colleague, who is in her 50s, told me, laughing. “Welcome to aging, you youngin’!”

That… is not comforting. I actually am very comfortable being in my early 30s. I am probably the most confident about myself than I have ever been in my life. But sudden muscle spasms… no. These are not welcome at all.

Lack of curiosity

In the world of tech startups, I’m basically surrounded by highly privileged people every single day. At my company, which like most companies is mostly a bunch of white people, every single day I interact with people who have no idea what it’s like to have a real life dilemma: to struggle to have food on the table, a roof over their head, legitimate and legal status in a country, the difference between life and death of a struggling loved one. So if I am surrounding myself every day with people who generally have the means to live a comfortable life, then why do I feel like every time I take an international trip that I am the one who is privileged versus them, and they make it seem like they could not do the exact same trip?

I don’t believe it’s because of lack of ability or lack of means or lack of money. It’s really about lack of desire or curiosity. I have shopaholic colleagues who spend endlessly on clothing, shoes, and accessories, and others who spend way too much on rent when compared to what they probably earn. I have another colleague who has an inordinate amount of extremely expensive and collectible Nikes. And then there’s my colleague who loves flashy cars. We put time, effort, and money into the things we care about. They don’t really care about travel or learning about the world. But I do.

A lack of curiosity about the world is so unattractive to me. If you live a comfortable life and do not struggle to make ends meet, it’s hard for me to fathom why you would lack curiosity in understanding other peoples, other cultures, other places in the world and how they operate. The world we live in is so vast. It’s far more than just the tri-state area.

Where I am when I wake up

It’s been two days since I’ve been back at work, and I actually feel quite comfortable and fine. I was wondering how much jet lag I would feel given that there’s a 9.5-hour time difference between New York and India, but I somehow managed to still wake up in time for my morning workout, shower, and get ready for work at the usual times I do this during the work week during the last two mornings. The worst thing that has happened was that this morning, I woke up at 3am and wasn’t able to fall back into a fully deep sleep, then woke up at 6:45am to go to the gym, but that was really it. I even made cold brew coffee and had it this morning just in case I’d get sleepy at work, but the sleepiness never seemed to come.

One funny thing that has repeatedly happened during the last four years of summer Asia travel is that at some point during the return week in New York, I will wake up in the middle of the night and think we are still in the destination we were in, whether it was Japan in 2015, Korea in 2016, Taiwan in 2017, or now India this year, and then be a little bewildered when I blink my eyes a few times and realize that I’m in my own bed, back in my own room, in our own apartment here in New York. I’m not sure if it is a good feeling or a neutral one.

Conversations that will never happen

In the summer of 2006, when I came back from a month in Shanghai, China, which was my very first time ever being out of the country, I returned home with lots of pictures and random souvenirs to share with my parents and Ed. Ed had endless questions about the way life was like there, what people were like, what the food was like. In his nearly 34 years, Ed had never held a passport, nor did he ever leave the country, though he did thikn about it in his last six months and asked me how he could apply. Sometimes, in our chats about China, he was so child-like that he’d just ask constantly variations of the same question and not even really realize it. Throughout the last week in India, I thought about things that Ed would have liked and responded positively or negatively to. Indian food was always one of his favorite cuisines, so every time we ate something new during this trip, I thought about how he would have enjoyed it.

I thought about the conversations we’d have about the dals, the pooris, the mostly vegetarian meals that we had. I imagined him asking me about the lack of beef due to the sacredness of cows, asking if idlis, dosas, or vada were really filling and satisfying enough, as I don’t believe he’d ever had any of those things before other than dosa. I imagined him asking if the gulab jamun was as gross and greasy as at India Clay Oven, the Indian spot we used to have lunch buffet at in the Richmond District back home. I’d tell him about the endless varieties of Indian sweets, the milky ones to the semolina-based ones, and how I would think he’d enjoy trying all of them. I thought about telling him about the traffic, especially in Agra, where we walked among cars, “autos,” cows, goats, and even chicken, and how freaked out he would be by all that madness. I’d tell him about how persistent the beggars and the auto drivers were to get our business, and he’d shift and get uncomfortable, wondering if he could handle all that himself if he were to travel to India.

But as I sat on the return flight yesterday, eating my meal, thinking about these potential conversations, it hit me that none of these conversations were potential; they were all just in my head. They could never have the potential to happen because Ed is no longer with us. I could have these fictionalized conversations with him in my head or in my dreams, but they’d never be able to happen ever. There’s no possibility that these conversations would happen because he’s been gone nearly five years now. These are futile thoughts — to think about conversations that will never happen, chats that a brother and a sister will not be able to have because they are separated by life and death.

 

Fusion foods in India

During our short stay in India, we’ve been fortunate to try a number of different “fusion” Indian cuisines. As I’ve always loved Indian Chinese food since I discovered it at Tangra Masala, an Indian Chinese restaurant that was just a five-minute walk from my old Elmhurst apartment, I knew that Indian Chinese food would be high on the list of things to try while in India. Back in the 1700s, the Chinese had been visiting India in search of Buddhist teachings, and so many Chinese people settled in India and established businesses of their own. The Chinese assimilated the Indian ways of living and beliefs.They even embraced the Indian spices and masalas, and created their own version of the cuisine. This gave birth to things like chow mein with Indian spices, “Sichuan style” dosas, and vegetable Manchurian, which is usually some vegetable coated in corn flour, fried, then tossed in a reddish-brown sauce that has a base of onions, green chillies, garlic, vinegar, and soy. The rumored epicenter of what was the beginning of Indo-Chinese food was Kolkata.

In addition to Indian-Chinese food, we also enjoyed Goan-Portuguese food (an incredible Goan-Portuguese fish fry with a fish called rawas, which is considered Indian salmon – this is probably one of the biggest highlights in terms of individual bites I had on this entire trip); Muslim Indian food in the form of these delicious grilled mutton and lamb kebabs; and finally, the most surprising for me was the Burmese-Tamilian noodles and lentil soup. Before we arrived in Chennai, I had no idea that this type of fusion food had existed. But based on what I read, the Tamil-Indian population in what was Burma was quite large during the British rule in the 19th century, as Indians were considered the backbone of civil administration and were very influential in Burmese society. But during the civil unrest that occurred during the ’60s, many Indians were forced to leave the country. When the Tamilians came back to India, they came in droves to Chennai, and some of them brought back the foods that they made on the streets in Burma and set up shop here.

The dish that I read the most about was atho, which is a Burmese-style stir-fried noodle made with cabbage, tamarind-based gravy, fried onions, spices, and other vegetables. Just the sheer thought of Burmese-Indian cuisine had my mouth watering, so I insisted to Chris that we go to one of these places on Saturday night.

We arrived at what I thought would be a restaurant, but was actually a food stall off the street. A man was standing, stir-frying noodles to order, while another man was dishing out bowls of hot, spicy lentil soup to patrons. We ordered the large chicken atho, and although it didn’t look particularly impressive, after the first bite, it was pure love. It was spicy, salty, sweet, sour, tangy, and amazing. I was sad when the last forkful was done. It’s probably high on the list of favorite bites of this trip next to the Goan-Portuguese fish fry we enjoyed in Mumbai. It came with a bowl of the spicy lentil soup, which was also incredibly fragrant and flavorful.

These types of fusion foods are always so exciting to discover and eat. I wish we could have access to Burmese-Tamilian food back in New York.

 

Mehendi

Ever since we saw some signs for mehendi in Jaipur, I knew I wanted to have this done on my hands while we would be in India. Mehendi is a form of body art in India and the surrounding regions in Asia where decorative designs are created on the body using a paste that is made from powered, dried leaves of a plant called henna. Traditionally, as least from what I have seen and read, henna is done for special occasions such as weddings or major holidays on the hands, arms, and feet. Some women even get this done on their pregnant bellies. If done and maintained properly, the temporary paint on the skin should last anywhere from two to three weeks.

I’m honestly not sure where that ballpark estimate came from because everything seems to be the enemy of henna: sweat, lotion, sunscreen, washing of the hands. Those are all things that you have during the heat and humidity of summers in India! We found a henna artist in Chennai today, and he did my right hand/arm on the top and the bottom. Using his booklet of images, I pointed out the design I wanted, and he immediately shut the book, pulled out his henna cone, and started painting away, completely free hand, without looking at the images at all — all from memory. It was pretty amazing how skilled he was, and how swiftly he did each of the strokes. Watching him in action was like watching an artist paint, just on my body.

It took about twenty minutes for him to complete both the top and bottom of my right hand and arm, and he suggested another twenty minutes to dry. Well, I read that you should really keep the stain on as long as possible before scraping the dried paint off, and then afterwards, keep the area away from soap or water at least overnight. So I followed this general procedure and woke up to a much darker stain on both sides. I obsessed over how good the design looked, and then I immediately felt sad knowing that all the things that degrade henna would have to be a part of my everyday life for the next week, so there was no way my mehendi was going to last as long as the general guides say. But I’ll enjoy it as long as it lasts.