Dysfunction magnet

I met my mentee after work today at Starbucks. She’s had a really dramatic last week, which included her mentor (through a program where people formerly in foster care mentor foster care children) x-ing her out of her life, accusing her of breaking and entering, and having her granddaughter threaten my mentee over text; a good (now former friend) getting admitted into the hospital for a pill overdose/suicide attempt, who is now ignoring my mentee and saying she only causes more problems and doesn’t genuinely care about her; this former friend’s boyfriend threatening my mentee. It was an earful for the hour we spent together.

I was exhausted. I was already tired from the work week, which felt way too long after the week away we had in Portugal. My morning workouts, full-days of work, plus going out or having to work the first three days of this week really were catching up to me in the form of a regular splitting afternoon headache every single day after Monday this week. This conversation didn’t help. I want to be there to her, to give her suggestions and offer guidance. She does take a lot of my suggestions, but I always think it won’t really help in the long run. She needs to break herself out of all this mess that she is inclined to be a part of, and that’s going to take the power and strength within herself to get that done.

I told Chris about this before we met our friends for dinner tonight. “You attract dysfunction, and she given her life circumstances is going to keep attracting dysfunction,” he said.

Well, I can’t really do anything about that, can I?


Post-interview group sync contention

I was the only one who rated this person as a “maybe to a no.” Everyone else gave her stellar reviews. But I had to say what I needed.

“If the question is, ‘can she get the job done and is she competent,’ then I would say, yes, she is, and yes, she is qualified for this job,” one of my colleagues said.

This job is not rocket science. You do not need some advanced degree for it. We are not doing open heart surgery here. This is a customer facing role at a SaaS company that has a complex product. But we really are not looking for people who are going to cure cancer or bring world peace. This is not that difficult.

“I don’t think I’m questioning whether she is competent or can do the job,” I countered. “What I am really saying is — what is this person going to contribute to this team and to her customer in her potential book of business that is compelling? Because frankly, if I had to sum her up into one word and be really honest, the word is ‘boring.’ That’s what I took away from this conversation. My eyes were glazing over.”

That drew a lot of chuckles and laughter. The hiring manager grimaced at me, but eventually let a smile out.

And funny enough, I just finished reading Adam Grant’s book Outliers tonight, in which he argues that organizations should not be hiring for cultural “fit,” but rather “cultural contribution.” So exactly what I said — what is this potential employee contributing to our organization that is notable, or perhaps something we are lacking that we need more of or could benefit from?

She’s moving onto the next and final stage, but she has two other strong candidates competing against her. I really just do not want to talk to anyone who is bland and boring during an interview. Otherwise, what is this company going to become?




Boring is the only word that comes to mind

It’s only Wednesday, yet somehow, this week has felt so long, likely because I came back from the beautiful fairy tale land of Portugal to a boat load of work and drama this week. It wasn’t made better by the fact that I had to sub in to do an interview of a San Francisco candidate for our team, which meant that not only did I have to spend time interviewing and watching this person’s mock presentation, but I also had to participate until 7:15 my time. So I left the office early to do both the interview and the presentation at home.

It was the most excruciating interview I’d been in. I’ve had good interviewees and bad ones, but this one, if I had to sum her up in just one word, I would say she was the most boring candidate I’d ever interviewed. She gave long-winded answers to the point where I’d forget what my original question was. She constantly was thinking out loud, so it was hard at times to follow her thought process. And although she was trying to appear enthusiastic, she kept using this nasal part of her vocal chords to speak (is that the voice thing that millennial women are accused of doing all the time?!). It was just painful to be in and to pay attention.

For parts of the interview where I did not have my earbuds in, Chris heard it, and he texted me one word in all caps: BORING.

Aren’t we supposed to be looking to hire dynamic people who have personalities that would win over our customers?

Keeping it real at dinner

A work friend from our San Francisco office is in town for the next three weeks to train one of our new technical support engineers based out here, so we decided to plan for dinner together tonight to catch up. She was born in Korea, raised in Queens, and then eventually moved to San Francisco, where she’s lived on and off the last 10 years. She went to culinary school, was a line cook, decided she didn’t want that life anymore, went to dev boot camp, and has since been a lead technical support engineer in our SF office after being “discovered” while working as a Lyft driver in San Francisco by our head of solutions architects. She said that San Francisco softened her, and if she came back to New York, she’d probably get too hard and angry all the time. She said she could see elements of the SF and New York personality in me. We basically switched places. I love her edginess, her bluntness, how she really breaks all the stereotypes when it comes to being an Asian woman. She is opinionated, feeling, empathetic. But she knows she needs to be heard and says difficult things when they need to be said. She really DGAF. I need more friends like her.

While having dinner with her tonight, I realized even more how frustrating it is to make friends in a city as big and crowded as New York. Really, the only quality time you get to know people when you work full time is at work. But you don’t really want to just be friends or get too close to your work friends. I somehow have work friends I spend time with when one of us is in the other’s respective towns here or in San Francisco. Then, I thought about our couple friend who moved from here to Sacramento earlier this year, and while they are closer to their family, they said they haven’t made any friends in the area. Either way, whether you’re in a big city like New York or a smaller, small-town-minded city like Sacramento, it’s always going to be challenging to make friends once you are out of school. Plus, at our age, people are juggling with different life stages and choices, so that makes it even harder. But that makes me appreciate these times more when I can find commonality and have fun with visiting work colleagues. There is some distance there, but we can still find areas to bond over.




“How was your Thanksgiving?”

Most people did not seem like they wanted to talk about their Thanksgivings back at the office today. Most colleagues grunted or avoided the topic completely.  In fact, the most I really heard was a few family gatherings where the family was feeling so-so about being around each other, maybe they looked forward to seeing one baby cousin or niece, the food was pretty good, but the turkey was terrible (so many  people I know seem to dislike turkey and say it’s flavorless sadly). It was just extra time to zone out, post and look at social media, and pretend that they were having quality “family time.”

So a lot of people wanted to ask how my Thanksgiving in Portugal was. I shared with them what I ate, the castles and palaces we visited, and how delicious the bread, wine, and cheese was. I told them of the other American families I met during our travels and how they were taking advantage of Thanksgiving week to have an “alternative” Thanksgiving by exploring another country and culture. And, to kind of stick to them, I told them I had already had my “Thanksgiving meal” weeks before and had made a delicious Cantonese-barbeque style roasted turkey that everyone agreed was delicious, and would be using the carcass this week to make rich turkey stock for turkey jook/congee, among other delicious soups.

Yep, when it comes to who had the best Thanksgiving, I think I win at work.

Birthplace of Portugal

Today, Chris decided that we would take a day trip from Porto to what is often considered the birthplace of Portugal, or the ‘cradle city’ of Portugal because it is widely believed that Portugal’s first king was born there, and also due to the fact that the battle that led to the foundation of the Kingdom of Portugal was fought in the general area. Guimaraes is famous for its many castles, but unfortunately for us, we didn’t have too much daylight time to see a lot of it. We were able to have time to wander through its historic streets and also dine at a delicious local restaurant that we had to navigate through a parking lot and side alleys to get to.

At this point, we’d eaten so many delicious dishes during our Portugal trip, but this particular meal was especially notable given how local it was (it felt like local people who knew the owners were dining there, and we heard no other language other than Portuguese other than our own), how hidden it was through a parking lot, and how simple, short, and straightforward the menu of the day was. Simple is not a code-word for “boring” or “bland” at all here; instead, we had two of the most traditional and tasty dishes of our trip here. We enjoyed tripas a Portuguesa (traditional Portuguese tripe, pork, and white bean stew) with buttered rice and bacalao com nata, or salted cod baked with cream and what seemed like cheese, in an earthenware dish with a crunchy breadcrumb top. We also had the vinho verde, or “green wine” also known as a local young red wine (hence the “green” in the name) that is made from young grapes and has a thick viscosity.. it honestly reminded me of pouring blood out into a bowl. You drink it not out of regular wine glasses, but rather out of rice-shaped bowls like in Chinese cuisine. The dishes were simple but so comforting and homey. I kept eating more and more of the stew, struck by how simple the flavors were but how good it all tasted. The white beans were so soft and creamy, and the tripe had a little bit of chew and almost melted in my mouth. And the bacalau — this was very likely my favorite way that bacalau was prepared during this trip.

Portuguese tripe stew was actually on my original list of dishes I wanted to eat while in Porto, but here we had it in Guimaraes, which is close by. According to stories I read, tripe stew is a symbol of the Oporto people’s generosity, as according to the legend when Henry the Navigator was preparing his ships to conquer Ceuta in 1415, he asked the people of Oporto to donate supplies to stock the Portuguese navy. Well, they apparently donated so much that they had nearly nothing left to eat other than tripe.  However, that did not mean starvation for the people. Instead, they used their imagination to create this amazing recipe, which granted them the nickname of “tripeiros” or “tripe eaters.” 

I love stories like this when people use in cooking what would once be considered “poor people’s food” and turn their limited ingredients into something delicious that would eventually be treasured by a whole people.

Harry Potter world in Porto

J.K. Rowling, the author of the infamous Harry Potter book series and movies, once taught English in Porto and frequented the Livrario Lello, a bookstore in the town that goes back to the 1800s. She loved this bookstore so much that it’s been said it is one of her inspirations for Harry Potter. And you can certainly see the influences, from the stained glass ceiling above, the circular staircase that is in the center of the bookshop, to the old and classic facade. Once Harry Potter took off, the bookstore could not handle all of the tourists that came to visit, so it started to charge a small fee for entrance that visitors could use towards any book purchase. In a day and age when more and more bookstores are going out of business, this actually is a really good business model. People will come for the Harry Potter inspiration, and while they’re at it, why not buy a book and use the credit they paid to get in towards it?

It’s amazing that they were able to preserve the original look and feel of the bookstore so well, and continue to do refurbishments to keep the look the same. It’s one of the most unique and beautiful bookstores I’ve ever been in.

Portuguese translated into English

Our Thanksgiving meal in Porto last night was reserved months in advance. We had so many beautiful meals in Spain, Portugal’s neighbor, that I figured that Portugal would also have a number of fine-dining interpretations of Portuguese cuisine that would be interesting to try. One of the spots that was highly recommended and has a Michelin star is Pedro Lemos. It opened in 2009 by a chef of the same name, and this restaurant is a modern interpretation of the local Portuguese cuisine with some international twists. It’s located in Foz, which is a historic and very residential neighborhood in Porto.

All the dishes we were served in our multi course tasting menu were delicious, creative, tinged with Asian influences, and beautifully plated on colorful and ornate pieces of local pottery (of course, since we are in Portugal, all the ceramics are going to be stunners and custom crafted). We were even served a bottle of local wine that is two years older than me for a price that was so low that it would be unheard of back home. But one of the most interesting things of the night to me, other than the food itself, was listening to the dishes described to us in English with Portuguese accents, and noticing how certain things were said.

We’re really lucky that we learned English as a first (well for me, semi-first since I learned English and Toisan at the same time) language. There are so many nuances in this language that are hard to understand, from variations on pronunciations on certain sounds and letters to even sentence structure, that make very little sense when you speak another language first. When I studied French, I really struggled to understand when to use an article before a word or not (do you say “people” or “the people”?). There was a rule, but there were five million exceptions that “you just need to know and remember,” as my French teacher said. When you say “of the world,” do you say “du monde (which is “de” and “le” combined, or “of the”), or “de monde” (“of world)? It’s not consistent, and what is correct in this example varies depending on the exact use case. When I started to formally learn Chinese in college, I realized that the sentence structure is so simple, especially since there are no tenses in Chinese. But that makes it even harder to get English as a second language as a native Chinese speaker. For example, in Chinese, if you want to say “I like to eat Chinese food” in Chinese, it would be (in pinyin): “Wo xihuan chi zhongguo cai” (literally: “I like eat China food”). So when I learned this, I realized, ah, that’s why sometimes people who are speaking English as second language after Chinese forget to use articles in speech (“to”) or they say the country name instead of the adjective (“China” versus “Chinese”).

When the server was done describing each dish to us, she’d always end it by saying, “Enjoy it.” In the U.S. or any English-speaking country, you would know you’d never hear this. In fact, this short sentence is a quick giveaway that even without her accent that she speaks English as a second language. Instead, with a native English speaker, you’d hear the person say, “Enjoy.” But, when learning from a romance language, you rarely say a verb as a standalone and that’s it; you say the verb then the object, which is why our server said “enjoy it” rather than “enjoy.”

This reminds me to be more empathetic to people who are learning English as a second language, and of course, to remind myself that my own second language capabilities are so little in a country like Portugal, where it’s common for people to know two to three languages fluently.

Porto bound and surrounded by American travelers

After the last bits of gallivanting around Lisbon, we boarded a train that was Porto bound. In just a couple hours, we’d be in the city famous for port wines, or, really, old rich white men’s after-hour drinks.

While getting situated into our seats, I noticed a number of Americans on the train with us. One group was three generations of a family: a husband and wife, likely just a little older than us, with their five-month old son, their 5-year-old daughter, and the husband’s parents. We made some small talk; I found out that the husband and wife lived in D.C., while his parents lived in upstate New York. They loved to travel and didn’t want to stop when they had kids, so they’d bring their kids with extra gear with them to every place they wanted to go to. “It’s just a little extra to pack — that’s all!” the husband said to me, smiling, while holding his young infant son. He’d also sold his parents on the value of traveling during Thanksgiving given that many Americans get both Thanksgiving day and the day after off, so they’ve been using this time to explore internationally. And his parents seemed fully bought in. “In so many places, it’s low season, so it’s not only less crowded, but it’s cheaper!” the husband’s mom said to me. “I don’t know why we never thought of this before! But now we’ll be doing this more often.”

I did notice a lot more American tourists in Lisbon with us. While I’m all for the less common American route of traveling during Thanksgiving, I do not necessarily want to hear American accents and English while I am traveling abroad much. But I do commend them for taking the road less traveled and traveling, especially during a period when most Americans would never even think to do it.

Portuguese cuisine’s divinities

Our exploration of Lisbon continued, and even more so of the divinities that make up Portuguese cuisine. While we treated ourselves to delicious local seafood on Monday, today, we tried the famous Portuguese egg tarts from Pasteis de Belem, famed for using the ancient recipe once used by nuns at the Jeronimos Monastery, Portuguese piri piri spicy chicken, Mozambican cuisine (given Portugal’s proximity to Africa, many Africans and thus their different countries’ cuisines are represented here widely), and Portuguese wine and cheese. Chris declared the pastel de nata (egg tart) from Pasteis de Belem the best egg tart he’d ever eaten. He rarely gets that visibly excited about anything, but after waiting in a short line (he absolutely hates waiting for anything), he purchased four egg tarts and said to me, “Okay, we’re getting four and then we’re leaving.” But I insisted we eat them there and take pictures. After taking his first bite, he exclaimed, “Holy crap. That’s the best egg tart I’ve ever eaten in my life,” then immediately and without hesitation made a beeline back to the counter to buy four more.

Chris grew up eating Nando’s piri piri chicken, so he was especially interested to try the famed Portuguese chicken while in Portugal. I’d enjoyed it with him a couple times during visits to Australia, and while I always thought it was tasty, nothing could have compared to the piri piri chicken we had today at a tiny hole-in-the-wall during lunchtime. We were served a little chicken (you know, the way they were before Americans decided to fatten them up and make them double the size of what they should naturally be), less than 1 kilo in weight, that was spatchcocked, marinated, and roasted over coals and a vibrant fire, constantly basted with additional piri piri marinade (the piri piri pepper originates in Southeast Africa, but was spread by the Portuguese to India). And finally, once the little bird is done roasting over high flames, the cook gives it one last brush with the piri piri oil glaze, chops it up ,and serves it to us on a long platter.

The smell was making me salivate as we waited for it. And when it arrived at the table, there was no mistaking it; it actually smelled and tasted somewhat like the Sichuanese (hua jiao) peppercorn chili oil I’ve been so used to having, just mixed with lots of herbs, spices, and the delicious smell of coal. The roasted coal flavor was evident, and the meat was moist throughout. This was probably one of the absolute best roast chickens I’d ever had in my life. In my humble opinion, this made Nando’s seem plain. The kicker really was the piri piri oil they brushed on at the end, which gave the chicken a slightly numbing and floral flavor. I was so sad when we were at our last bites. I kept licking my fingers and trying to mop up the remaining chili oil at the bottom of the plate with my last tiny bites.

The other delicious and surprising thing we ate today was at a random wine bar that we tucked into when the on-and-off rain came on again. It was a quaint little bar with no more than four or five small tables, a short menu of nibbles and local wines, and one server working there. We enjoyed two glasses each of local wine, ridiculously cheap for the quality and complexities, and since we were getting a little hungry but not too much from having two mini lunches earlier, we decided to eat a bit lighter and ordered a cheese plate, only 12 euros, which included five different local cheese, some mini toasts, and a little cup of house-made pumpkin jam.

I could honestly say that this cheese plate we ordered was one of my absolute favorite cheese plates I’ve ever had. I’ve always loved cheese, though I don’t really eat much of it, but this cheese plate really was the best and most interesting one I’ve ever had (and such a deal). Before we arrived in Portugal, I did a lot of research on the local food, and overall from food lovers who have visited Portugal, it’s pretty much agreed upon that Portugal is completely underrated for 1) wine, 2), olive oil, 3) bread, and 4) cheese. The cheeses of this multicultural and diverse country should be more known and celebrated, but I suppose they are like the Swiss with their delicious wines; they’d rather enjoy it and keep it to themselves rather than export it to other countries to make more money off of them; it’s a very anti-capitalist attitude, isn’t it? We enjoyed amarelo da Beira Baixa, a herby goat-and-sheep milk mix cheese, a cow’s milk cheese, two firmer sheep’s milk cheeses, and a softer goat milk’s cheese. They all went so well with the pumpkin jam, which I wanted to bottle and bring home with me. They were all a mix of grassy, vegetal, creamy, tangy, complex, and sweet. I looked back at pictures of the cheese plate when we returned to the hotel, and none of the pictures could do the cheese justice. they just look like cheese on a wooden board, but these cheese were truly spectacular.

It’s okay that we can’t get these cheeses as easily back home. I guess it’s one of those bittersweet things about travel; sometimes, it’s probably just better to enjoy the local foods and drinks in that area rather than trying to bottle and bring it back home. It makes it more special that way, and we’re then more grateful for the fact that we can be so lucky to travel to these lush regions with their incredible food.