Upper West Side blackout

Chris and I were at dinner early this evening when suddenly, all the lights and music suddenly went out in the restaurant. The service staff got into motion, checking everything, ensuring that the patrons were all fine. Our server/bartender served each of us two shots of tequila on the house. They took care of credit card payments the old fashioned way. And as we finished eating and exited the restaurant, we realized that this was affecting the entire area. We were literally standing in the heart of the theater district, where shows had to stop mid-way through or had to be cancelled. Crowds and crowds of people were exiting theaters, unsure what to do next or where to go. Traffic lights were not working, and cars and pedestrians alike were hesitant to move forward.

It was a strange sight and lasted for a good handful of hours. We were lucky and regained power just past 10:30 on Saturday night. It really would not have been so bad if it were not for the sweltering heat. But it really became jarring to know that this power outage happened when someone posted a photo on Twitter showing how Manhattan looked to someone viewing the island from New Jersey…. lots of glittering lights as usual… except for an entire 20-block stretch of Manhattan that was just all black, lights fully out.

What do we worry about?

Tonight, Chris and I treated my friend and her boyfriend to a belated birthday dinner at an omakase restaurant I’d been wanting to try in the Flatiron. We caught up over sashimi and sake, and then ended up making a detour back to our place because Chris accidentally left a gift we got her at the apartment. It ended up all working out since it just meant extended time together in the comfort of our own home, with far less expenses under our belts since drinking and eating cake at home is always cheaper than doing the exact same activity outside.

During our catch up, my friend’s boyfriend said, “Yeah, I worry about a lot of things… like money, having enough money to do what I want to do, for the future, and all that. But us? I don’t really worry about our relationship. Not saying that I take her for granted because I don’t think I do… but well, I just don’t worry about us. I think we’re good.”

I didn’t say anything to that. I guess that’s how he feels. But I did think about it for a bit in the context of myself. What do I worry about? What makes me fearful of the future? In response to him in my head, I’m very lucky and privileged because I don’t worry about money. In fact, my entire life, I’ve never really had to worry about it, and that is a massive privilege in itself. While I never thought my parents were rich, I always knew we were comfortable in that we never had to worry about rent money, having a roof over our heads, or how we would get food on the table. We always had more than enough to eat, and a variety at that. But the saddest part about that is so many families do have to worry about that, as well as their children. And to me, I don’t think the worries of parents should ever, in a perfect world, have to be the worries of their children. And in the event that I ever had money issues, I know that Chris and I would have the support of our families. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be in that position.

I don’t really worry about work, even though I have a lot of frustrations with it, as any average person would. Circumstances and expectations frustrate me, internal politics and favoritism anger me to no end, but as far as the day to day goes, I’m not very concerned about the stability of my job; I do not fear that my next paycheck will get lost. I earn a comfortable living and have relatively good work-life balance.

Health, knock on wood, is not a concern right now. Other than the annoying colds I’ve gotten which have reignited bad coughing fits that have been reminiscent of my whooping cough days, I’d say I’m relatively healthy and fit for my age.

And similar to my friend’s boyfriend, I guess overall, I don’t really worry about my relationship with Chris. I think we are pretty stable and happy together. We have a lot of differences. He drives me crazy pretty much every single day and is one of the most annoying people I know, but he likely feels the same way about me, and to my friend’s point, that’s probably what keeps us together in the end, whether we are fully conscious of it or not. We both get bored easily; if you get annoyed by someone, it probably means you’re not getting bored.

So what does worry me? I don’t think about it very often, but I guess it’s all the things that are fully out of my control: stupid political situations like the U.S. becoming more anti people of color, anti-women, anti-immigrants; a potential World War III created by President Dipshit, climate change wiping out entire islands, cities, and states. I also worry about the things that are fully not real, but could easily become real in a second: a sudden death of someone close to me, who is going to take care of my parents one day when they are not able to take care of themselves, one of us getting a heart attack and dying while in flight on an airplane and having no help until it’s too late, contracting stage 4 of X cancer and not having any awareness of it until it’s too late. It all sounds a little ridiculous, some more than others, but when I do worry, those are the things I think about.

All in all, I’d say it’s a pretty decent set of things to worry about because I suppose this means I am fairly stable and relatively positive? I don’t always think the worst, even if it sometimes seems to be that way.

Tupperware

I participated in six hours of onsite customer meetings today and am completely drained. Something surprising happened today, though, when I was at a prospective meeting this afternoon with the company Tupperware. I usually do not attend prospect meetings since I work on customers post-sale, but since I was down in Orlando anyway, I offered to come with my colleague to visit this prospect to shed light on what they could expect from a post-sale enablement standpoint. One of my colleagues mentioned how she owned Tupperware products because of her sister-in-law’s Tupperware parties. I shared that my parents owned Tupperware, as well. Towards the end of our two-hour onsite meeting, one of the prospects quietly stepped out of the room. I assumed she left to use the restroom or take a call, but instead, she actually came back with multiple gift bags with Tupperware products – as gifts for us! I ended up taking home a Tupperware microwaveable container, as well as a Tupperware flask that keeps liquids hot for up to six hours. 

I am not used to customers giving gifts to me at all; as a technology company, we are used to treating customers and sending them gifts, much less having a prospect, not even a customer, give usa gift. The other funny thing about this happening was that it all reminded me of Ed. While working at Macy’s, Ed befriended one of his colleagues who hosted Tupperware parties and asked him if he would be interested in buying some. He took a look at the products when she brought them in, declared they were far superior to any of the plastic reusable containers my parents had at home, and bought three different types: black lidded, teal lidded, and dark blue-lidded. He insisted we needed to buy better quality products, and he told us these were much, much better for us to use. These Tupperware are not at all cheap; each of these pieces costs $25. Ed was always far more generous than anyone could know or ever fully appreciate. For someone who didn’t earn much money, he constantly surprised me with his level of generosity. It made me sad when I got to the airport this evening and opened the containers, wondering what Ed would have thought if I told him that I not only visited the Tupperware US offices, but that they even gave me free Tupperware. I’d imagine he would have been really excited and would have wanted to know what they looked like. I don’t know anyone who would have been as thrilled to hear about the Tupperware visit and gifts as much as he would have been. It is a depressing thought. 

Work travel two days after coming back

I’m on a plane again just two days after coming back from China. My colleagues were making fun of me yesterday about this. “You just got back last night, and you’re on a flight again tomorrow? You’re crazy!” Well, when work has to get done, work has to get done. And I’d like to say that I pride myself on being productive and getting crap done, which means I oftentimes need to travel to do this with customers. 

Traveling to see customers also takes me out of my usual day-to-day routine, which helps me keep my sanity, especially when yesterday’s snafu occurred. I don’t have to directly deal with the same politics, the same insipid nonsense of office life that makes me want to grind my teeth down. And, I also get the ability to have little luxuries like a hotel room that overlooks a manmade lake at a resort in Orlando, or enjoy lobster deviled eggs at a well-appointed bar at the JW Marriott in Grande Lakes. In this sense, I don’t have much to complain about and recognize that I am quite a lucky person. 

Poor business acumen

I came back to work today to a lot of drama resulting in some poor business decisions that were made on an account that I’m assigned to, so I was no happy camper pretty much all day today trying to deal with the mess I was coming back to. It never ceases to amaze me the complete lack of empathy and foresight that goes into decisions made by egotistical, entitled white men. I can say that as an Asian American female in a white male-dominated work place, when someone, anyone, ever even for a second, questions something I’ve done, my immediate default response (if only internally in my head) is to second-guess myself, wonder if I am actually in the wrong and if I could have done things differently. It has pretty much never occurred to me to immediately result to a stubborn deadlock, insist I am right without any thought or reflection, and continue to defend my “right” no matter how glaringly wrong I could be. What is even worse is the absolute refusal to admit any wrongdoing when they are clearly wrong… and have outright lied. And I always attribute this to the conditioning and painful awareness of my race, of my gender, something that white men are so privileged to never truly be forced to think about. It doesn’t even matter if you are in a city or country where being white male is not the majority. Why is that? Because in countries like China, which are painfully racist even against people from other cities and provinces within China, they still look at “the white man” as the preferred race to defer to. 

Moments like this always make me wonder if I was really ever “made” to be in the corporate world, constantly battling fights that seem so pointless, especially in the year 2019, when you want to believe that “progress” has actually been made. I want to believe that people at least have the intention of being “good” and have some level of integrity, but that seems to erode every time something reckless and toxic like this happens. 

Narita Airport’s duty-free: success

The last time I transited in Tokyo Narita International Airport was two years ago when Chris and I were passing through to and from Taiwan. I remember thinking that on our way back to New York, I wanted to stop by one of the duty-free shops, Akihabara, to pick up some Royce chocolate that I love. In Japan, these Royce Nama chocolates are only the equivalent of $4-5 USD, while at the duty-free shop at Narita, they are around $6 USD. However, if you want to buy them in the U.S. at an official Royce shop, like the ones that are in New York City, for the same box, you’d pay $18 USD, which is crazy! I understand why they would do this from a capitalistic, money-making perspective, but on the consumer side, there’s no way I would be that desperate to pay over three times as much for the same product, even if I only pass through Tokyo every few years. These are little luxuries I can live without.

Two years ago, though, I failed at my attempt to buy them because the line for checkout at this duty-free shop was far out of the store and snaking out. I couldn’t believe that I was seeing this with my own eyes; the wait would have been at least 45 minutes in line, not to mention all the aggressive Chinese tourists literally sweeping up shelves and shelves of products into their shopping carts. Others were running around chaotically, grabbing whatever was available and barely even looking at what they were snatching up to buy. I was really upset then and determined to make sure I actually came out successful this time. And I was successful this time at two different stores, one without even a minute’s wait. There was slightly less aggression from Chinese tourists, but this time, I noticed that some of the people buying multiple shopping carts-worth of Japanese chocolate and green-tea biscuits were not just Chinese this time, but white American and European tourists! More competition at duty-free now! It seems like everyone is discovering all these Japanese sweets and wanting to take them home, both for themselves and as well as their family and friends as gifts.

Hangzhou cabbies

The last time I was in China, I lamented not being able to visit Hangzhou. Everyone, from my local teachers to tutors to other local students I would befriend on campus, insisted that Hangzhou was one of the most beautiful places in China to come to. It is known for being a popular holiday and honeymoon spot, and because then, it was only about four hours by bus, it wasn’t too far from Shanghai to get away to for a long weekend. Hangzhou is famous for its large and stunning West Lake, Longjing (“dragon well”) green tea, and for having a good balance of both urban life and gorgeous nature flanking it.

Well, fast forward a few years, and a high-speed train system has been built that can take you from Shanghai to Hangzhou comfortably in just under 50 minutes. We took advantage of this during our trip and did a day trip to Hangzhou today. While the city was beautiful, with lots of nature, hiking, and yes, a stunning West Lake, what I took away from the day had mostly to do with our transportation.

Chris is usually a very easy-going traveler. “Keep it moving” is one of his favorite phrases to say during our trips. He doesn’t love it when I insist on taking five different food shots of the same dish, nor does he enjoy it when I linger and take about 10 different landscape shots of the exact same angle of a scene. But when it comes to little mishaps and things that can go wrong, he’s usually very relaxed… until today. His Didi app (similar to the Uber app here, but made for China) decided to randomly flag his account for “malicious” behavior, and so we were banned from using the app to call cars to pick us up. A sea of cuss words followed, plus very obvious frustration on his face. I figured, it couldn’t be that hard to hail a cab here… I mean, everyone else uses them, right? And my Chinese is decent enough, so as long as I know the Chinese name of where we’re going, I think we should be okay, more or less.

Yeah, more or less.

The first guy I hailed who accepted us charged us about 10 yuan, or $1.50USD, for a trip outside of the hiking area to the national tea museum… or what was supposed to be. He was friendly and chatty, eager to make conversation with his American-born Chinese passenger and her brown husband… and then decided to drop us off at a tea shop that does free tastings about ten minutes-walk away from where he should have dropped us off. The more I listened to the people around me, the more I realized that cabbies were just set up this way in the area. They weren’t going to take you to the tea museum because they were getting kickbacks from these tea shops to take you there to taste and buy tea instead.

The tea museum ended up being a total dud when we did walk to and find it, though. The area where they usually do tastings was closed. Half the exhibits looked like they were in progress of being installed. And the remaining ones didn’t really mean much to me or to actual tea, but were more about art work that captured how beautiful tea leaves are supposed to look. Okay… pass.

Then, we hailed our second cab. Perhaps it was a mistake, but I accepted a ride from a cabbie who already had a passenger and his toddler child with him. He asked where I was going, I told him, and he seemed to indicate it was in the same direction, so I figured, why not just jump in? The meter was already going, and I could tell when the passenger got out of the car that this was bad. The passenger told the driver, “This isn’t where I wanted to be dropped off,” and in rushed and impatient and rough Chinese, the cabbie responds back that it’s a short walk and straight ahead, so don’t make a big fuss and just get out of the car. And, when the passenger and his son did get out of the car, the cabbie did not reset the meter…. I wanted to tell him to, but I didn’t know the word for “meter” and didn’t want him to stop the car. He tried to get us to get out at the same time, but Chris insisted we were far, far away from where we were supposed to go. So I went back and forth with the driver, insisted this wasn’t the right spot, and he finally drove us to where we wanted him to get us… but then he ended by trying to make us pay 25 yuan, which would have been the fare for our segment of the trip, plus whatever trip he had going with the previous passenger. I immediately refused.

And this is when the real fun began. We started raising our voices at each other. I yelled at him and told him I wasn’t going to pay double what the other passenger paid because he already had someone in the car when I got in. He yelled and said a ride is a ride, pay up. I told him he was trying to rip me off and I wouldn’t tolerate it. He yelled back and said I had to pay him 25 yuan. Chris yelled in English at a far higher volume than either of us and kept repeating “No! No! No!” The cabbie didn’t even know basic English and kept freaking out, as was obvious from his eyes every time he looked at Chris while Chris was yelling, asking me in Chinese repeatedly, “What is he saying? Translate it!” I ignored him and never responded. I told him I’d pay him 15 yuan. He yelled that I was crazy, and frankly, the only reason he even took me was because he thought I was a real Chinese person and not a foreign tourist. He gestured to Chris — “foreign.” Racist slime, but hey, what did I expect?

In the end, I had little leverage because I didn’t have any small enough bills, so I had to have him break my 100-yuan note. He handed me back 80, which in the end, meant that he made me pay what was halfway between what I wanted and what he wanted. I still got ripped off and did not like it, but there was little for me to do. I called him a cheap skate and got out of the car while slamming the door.

Well, I guess all those Taiwanese soap operas I watched to procrastinate on my economics homework in college paid off. I had a real fight in Mandarin with a cabbie. And I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t have had the same vocabulary to leverage had I just used what I learned in my Chinese classes.

Hangzhou was fun and beautiful. But I think I will always look back and remember the cab experiences there.

Suzhou noodle heaven

In 2006 when I spent a month in Shanghai, we did two day trips over the weekend to famous cities that were within driving distance of the city: Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, both in neighboring Jiangsu province, and both famous water towns that are well known within China. Suzhou is oftentimes nicknamed “the Venice of the East” or the “Venice of China” because of its many canals that make up the city. That, plus it is famous in Chinese history and culture for being one of the most scenic and idyllic towns. 

There’s this saying in Chinese that goes, “Shang you tian tang, xia you Su Hang – 上有天堂, 下有苏杭.” That roughly translates to, “In heaven, there is paradise, while on earth, we have Suzhou and Hangzhou.” In other words, Suzhou and Hangzhou are the beautiful places we have to enjoy on this earth; to the Chinese, these two towns are like paradise on earth. During my day trip here in 2006, we visited a number of famous, gorgeous gardens in Suzhou, and this time around, Chris and I also did. But for me this trip, the highlight was certainly the two noodle dishes we enjoyed at two different restaurants on the same block in Suzhou. 

The first place we went to was well known for its san xia mian, or “three shrimp noodles.” “Three shrimp” does not reference three different types of shrimp, but rather three different parts of the same shrimp that are separated and then put back together for your consumption while eating this dish. These local shrimps, which are seasonal for a very short period during the spring to early summer, are teeny tiny, just a bit smaller than my thumb nail, and are manually cleaned with an instrument that looks just like a little toothbrush, deshelled, scrubbed of its little shrimp eggs, and then degutted. As the final step, the shrimp bodies, eggs, and guts are all put back together and cooked, then served on a small serving plate for you. Alongside it is a bowl of dry, toothy wheat noodles that are perfectly straight and al dente, slightly salted with a few spoonfuls of broth to keep the noodles moist. Then, there is an accompanying bowl of plain chicken broth for you to enjoy, plus a plate of simply seasoned bok choy and a side plate of finely shredded ginger. 

The shrimp tasted like the ocean – briny, salty like the sea, with a good bite indicating that they were cooked perfectly. To me, the noodles were the biggest highlight – each strand of noodle was long and firm, and the flavor was just pure wheat with a hint of salt. Each bite required a good, long chew. This was so satisfying and worth the cost. At this point in our trip, this bowl cost the equivalent of about $15USD, which was quite expensive for China. When I looked at the cost breakdown, the real cost was in the shrimp; the bowl of noodles barely cost a dollar. 

Chris and I shared this bowl, finished, and went a few store fronts down to the second noodle spot on my list that is well known for noodle soup, with the broth being a “gao tang,” or “high soup,” meaning it is a superior stock made with the finest ingredients available. Unlike stocks made in the West, this soup was made from all fresh ingredients, meat, bones, vegetables, even rice wine, and simmered for over 10 hours. If the stock is no good, the dish would be no good. 

This dish lived up to his reputation. The soup was infinitely layered, extremely rich, with so many different flavor elements. You could tell right away that it was made from rich pork bones, but there were also flavor notes of seafood, perhaps dried shrimp and scallop, and even a bit of rice wine, onions, and other fragrant herbs. We ordered the soup with a topping of one piece of “big pork,” which mean that a massive slice of hours-long-simmered pork laid on top of the noodle soup bowl. We took a bite into this and realized right away what a treat it was: it was so tender, not even needing any chew. It was intensely rich, fatty, and delicious. The noodles were quite similar to the noodles of the first restaurant, but given they were soaking in the soup, were not as toothy as that first bowl. But clearly here, the soup was the main star, and the pork slice, as Chris noted, was extremely rich, “maybe too rich,” he admitted. It wouldn’t look like much from its photo, but this is one of the best bowls of noodle soup I’ve probably ever enjoyed. It is deceptively simple looking, but fails to be judged merely based on its humble appearance. 

While most people come to Suzhou for its immaculate gardens and historical architecture, I hope they do not overlook the delicate and refined cuisine that this city has to offer. It doesn’t look like much at first, but don’t judge its dishes by its cover. 

Shanghai – then and now

I don’t know what has changed more in the last 13 years — Shanghai or me, or maybe even both. While a lot certainly felt familiar walking through the streets of the Paris of the East, a lot also felt quite different. The streets are far cleaner with less litter. Fewer Chinese men are hocking up mucus and spitting it carelessly onto the street. I recall often seeing men peeing in the street here and there; it was pretty much a daily occurrence. This time, not only did I not smell the scent of urine anywhere, but I still haven’t witnessed public peeing. The air quality seems better. Overall, it felt fine to breathe in air, and I didn’t end my day by blowing my nose to reveal a black colored tissue.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, was on their mobile phones… doing everything from speaking to dictate text messages, watching movies and videos, to just reading the news. This is a very different world than it was 13 years ago. That, and WeChat is literally everywhere; even random fruit vendors accept WeChat payments here! They are more enabled from a mobile standpoint than we are in the U.S.!

The traffic has become… what Chris called, “almost boring.” In other words, it was not anxiety-inducing to figure out how to walk across the street, even when the light was green for pedestrians. We didn’t see anything that was much different in terms of driving than we’d see in New York or San Francisco. People were generally abiding by the usual driving rules we’d expect in the West.

I still remember being terrified of crossing the road back in 2006. Yes, even though it was my first time out of the country, something told me inside that this was not good. Then, ti didn’t matter if the light was red; cars would still go and finagle their way out. I remember having a conversation with a friend I’d made on the plane ride over to Shanghai about the traffic towards the end of my stay:

“The traffic in Shanghai is crazy!” I exclaimed to him. “The drivers are so reckless. It’s like they don’t know how to drive.”

“No, drivers do know how to drive,” my friend countered. “Have you ever witnessed an accident in Shanghai in your entire month here?”

No, I hadn’t.

“So then… drivers do know how to drive,” he chuckled.

That didn’t really convince me, but that conversation would never even happen today because the traffic flow has changed completely. Not to mention I was shocked when we got into the Didi cars (their version of Uber), and almost all the drivers asked (in Chinese) to make sure that we fastened our seat belts. Seat belts?! Back in 2006, that was a total joke. Even cab drivers wouldn’t wear seat belts!

Shanghai has changed. But I suppose I have changed, too. I’m no longer a travel virgin, having visited to this day 44 U.S. states, 6 Australian states, 6 Canadian provinces, and 29 countries. Back in 2006, China was my very first country I’d visited. I had no idea what to expect and did little research outside of my Lonely Planet book, but now before going anywhere, I usually do my research and have an idea of what to expect. Shanghai and me – we’re both quite different now than we were before.

Back in Shanghai after 13 years

During our flights over from New York to Tokyo and finally to Shanghai arriving tonight, I thought about the last time I was in Shanghai about 13 years ago. It was my very first time leaving the U.S. The only reason I even went was because I applied for and was granted a scholarship to study in the month-long Wellesley-in-Shanghai language-immersion program at East China Normal University. The scholarship covered my full tuition and housing at a four-star hotel on the East China Normal campus, plus side day trips to Suzhou and Zhouzhuang, many activities and banquet meals, airport transfers, and about half of my round-trip airfare. I remember feeling anxiety over whether the scholarship would come through because at that time, my parents said they wouldn’t pay for me to study abroad there: why would they pay for that if they are already paying my extremely expensive tuition, room, and board at Wellesley? They’d only let me go if the scholarship was granted. So I learned probably about a month and a half in advance of the trip departure date that I received it, so I had to expedite my passport processing and quickly book my airfare.

I remember feeling pretty resentful at the time of my parents. I knew they had the ability to pay for it, but they didn’t see what benefits there would be in studying in another country. If anything, they thought the idea seemed pretty fluffy, like an excuse to have fun being masked as “study.” I get that completely; most of the time when I see study-abroad photos of friends and former classmates, they are usually party photos that showcase people doing all the things they are unable to do legally in their own respective country. However, my gripe at the time was that my parents didn’t understand that true language immersion meant actually immersing yourself in the motherland of the language you were trying to gain fluency in. You will never gain fluency in a second language within the walls of a classroom; you absolutely need to speak the language in the real world, and there’s no better way to do it than to do it in that actual land.

Even though I scrambled after my scholarship was approved to get my flights, passport, and travel visa in order, I think in the end, I felt better that I was doing this study-abroad program with a scholarship. It meant I actually earned this opportunity on my own, that I was “paying” for myself to do this and didn’t have to rely on my parents. I still believe it is a privilege to travel; not everyone has the time or money to do it, but when you are presented with an opportunity to do it, you should grasp it firmly and go. That experience forever changed my perception of the world, as hyperbolic as that may sound. At the time, I’d always thought myself more mature than others my age, but that trip really made me realize how little I knew about the world outside not just the U.S., but my own teeny tiny bubble. I really knew nothing. I was unworldly and not traveled at all.

I remember the evening I arrived, and the first morning I woke up, jet lagged and not even aware I was jet lagged. I rose at around 4:30am, eager to step out of the campus and actually see the city. My roommate then was still fast asleep in her bed. I had small talk with street food vendors, some of whom I repeatedly saw and gave business to over the course of my four weeks there. Without realizing it, I purchased and ate my very first sheng jian bao (basically like xiao long bao / soup dumplings, but thick-skinned dumplings, filled with meat, steamed and then fried on the bottom, and spilling out with soup when you bite into them), and also started my Shanghai morning habit of having hot, sweet freshly made soy milk each day, drinking it out of a plastic cup wrapped with another clear plastic bag. Everyone seemed to eat everything out of a clear plastic bag here on these streets. Just that experience in itself excited me then.

Those are just the simple memories of the beginning. So as I recalled all of this upon our arrival, I wondered what this city would be like to me 13 years later. I’m older, a bit more experienced, with slightly stronger language skills under my belt now. I’ve traveled more and seen more around the world. What would be the same and different about my first international destination? What would my perception be like? Would it still be as fun and exciting to me as it was in 2006? Lots of anticipation bounced inside my head as we arrived at our hotel this evening and would start the beginning of our 11-day China trip.