Family video hangouts gone awry

Thursday nights New York time / Friday mornings East Coast Australia time are when Chris and I get together with his parents and brother for our every-other-week catch-up since quarantine began. To be honest, it was a bit ironic to me that we were chatting this often given all of us have far less to do (and thus far less to discuss) than usual, but it was what his parents suggested given we all have more free time, so we agreed to it.

As events usually go, in the beginning, it was kind of fun because we didn’t talk this often at all. And then as time went on, they started to become more of an annoyance. It wasn’t something we really looked forward to and did more out of obligation (when I say “we,” I mean Chris and me. His mom obviously is loving all the time with her sons). The same topics would come up over and over again: are we getting laid off/pay cuts, what I am cooking, how are Chris’s mom’s eyes (she had eye surgery a few months ago), his brother indulging in talking about himself, his dad showing us some random box of crackers he recently bought, COVID-19, COVID-19, and COVID-19.

So Chris decided to be a bit melodramatic and say that since Australia has been slowly opening up and they can more or less go about their lives (minus international travel, which affects ALL of us given we all love travel) that this will be our last bi-weekly hangout, to which his parents and brother started a bit of an uproar. His brother fussing over this was particularly amusing to me given that he’s usually sullen and looking bored during every single call, doesn’t angle his camera so that we can see his face clearly (and I have a feeling he does this purposely to evoke a reaction from his mother), and doesn’t say much unless he’s talking about himself.

“But when it’s not COVID-19, you’re always so busy running around that you never make time to talk to us!”

“You barely share anything with us! We have no idea what you are normally up to!”

“What’s wrong with a family catch-up every two weeks?”

“That’s not that much to ask! Other families are talking every week!”

I didn’t really want to say anything or put in my own opinion about this until Chris’s brother insisted that every other family on the face of this planet was talking every week. Well, that’s just flat out not true, and to make a generalization like that is just plain stupid and not backed by any hard data at all other than one’s own circle of friends/family. When I brought this up, his brother’s comeback was, “My circle is bigger than yours, so it’s more representative!”

Ummmm, no. That’s not how data studies work. Just because you have a circle of influence and observe something about that group, regardless of its size, does NOT mean it is representative of the whole freaking world. That’s short-sighted and wreaks of “the world revolves around me, my experience, and my opinion.” This is actually the fallacy that most people fall into when they have some strongly held belief, including “I don’t see color,” “racism doesn’t exist,” “people would happily discuss race openly,” or “people in general aren’t sexist.” Because they do not perceive it or witness it, they then believe that said idea is not true.

I’m more amused by a statement like this because it’s not the first time Chris’s brother has tried to point out, “I have more friends than you, therefore…” It’s one of those things that he is clearly so proud about that he feels a need to constantly remind everyone, but on the flip side, it is likely something he is severely insecure about, as well. Why would I say this? Somehow, these types of statements do not include all the times he’s whined and whinged about his friends getting girlfriends or having babies and ignoring him, forgetting his birthday, or not committing to hanging out with him once quarantine had ended in Australia, yet publicly posting on social media that they were hanging out with other friends. Sure, you might have a lot of friends… but how good are they, really?

So the conclusion here is: no, not every family on earth is chatting every week. And no, the world does not revolve around you.

Family video hangouts every two weeks

Since the COVID-19 quarantine has begun, Chris and I have been participating in a family hangout with his parents and brother every two weeks on Thursday night. It’s been fun to see them and to hear all the usual Jacob family banter about travel (or lack thereof), airline status, wine, and food, and this time around, we played and of course, inevitably experienced the Jacob brother competitiveness. It made me think about my own family and how a) we’d never want to do a video chat unless it was to focus on my cousins’ children, and b) no one would ever be up for playing a game of anything other than passive aggression.

The one time a cousin called me during this period, it was his wife who rang me for FaceTime so that I could chat with his young son, who wanted to see my bedroom and the view from our kitchen. Sadly, the call just made me feel odd and out of place, as I realize that I have very little functional relationship with any of my cousins, other than my dad’s younger sister’s son.

All three of my cousins seem deficit to me in some way. That sounds pretty arrogant and judgmental of me, but it’s how I feel about them, which has evolved over the last 34+ years. My oldest cousin is a mama’s boy, void of understanding anything that has any real depth. As my mother so crassly put it, “when he has sex with his wife, he reports back to his mother on it.” She partly said that out of jealousy because she’s mad I don’t share details about anything with her, but that’s another story. He loves to show off money and status, and the second you try to question his family’s decisions on anything, he becomes extremely defensive instead of receptive to feedback in the slightest. Thus, we can’t have any real conversation about anything that isn’t superficial.

My second cousin and I have never had much of a relationship. Since I was young, he was constantly condescending and flippant with Ed and me. He had no personality, no interests, nothing that made him even remotely interesting. It would have been more interesting to have a conversation with a rock. He’s also one of the cheapest people I know. When he started dating his now wife, he tried to be more personable around me when she was around, but I knew it was all an act to make it seem like he was a family kind of guy. When they married and had kids, he predictably dropped off the face of the earth, rarely acknowledging any of our family members, even his own brothers and mom, because his wife controls every aspect of his life, even when he wants to take a call from his own brother. He has no say, no opinion, and lives to obey his wife. That’s exactly the kind of man I’m sure many women would love to be with, but holy crap, grow some balls and speak up for yourself.

My third cousin on my dad’s side is probably the most childish, the most like a child in a nearly 47-year-old body. He is awkward, cowardly, and cannot speak up for himself or stand up for anything he really believes in. He lacks a voice and any strong will for anything. He hates the world, hates the U.S., hates all white people, especially white men, and says they are the reason he hasn’t been as successful as he could have been in life. He constantly complains, refuses to take any responsibility for what he could have done differently, and says he and his “kind” (as in, Asian American men in the U.S.) have it harder than any other group other than black women. He used to call me so often during my college years that my friends would say he was like a jealous boyfriend. Now that we live in a world where texting is the primary form of communication, he texts me randomly, “white trash,” “I hate white people,” “all white people should die,” among other hateful things (I mute his texts). Because I’m sure that doing all this makes him feel so much better about himself and his life circumstances.

The more I have thought about it, while there is something to respect about everyone in my family, overall, I don’t find any of them particularly good or likable people. My aunt is likely the one who truly means the best, but she’s so blinded by her beliefs and also, her lack of depth, that she’s impossible to have a real conversation with. All of this sounds horrible and maybe exposes my own arrogance, but I can’t really help it. Once, my therapist from years ago asked me, “Do you like your parents as people? Like, if they were not your parents and you just met them and interacted with them, would you genuinely believe they are good people?” I didn’t hesitate for a second. No, I responded. I would not want to be friends with them or have anything to do with them. We don’t have the same interests, the same values. We definitely do NOT have the same way of looking at the world.

That’s why you have friends and other families that become yours. You can find those other people you can bond with, can see eye to eye with, and genuinely respect all around.

In times of crisis, he reappears

I haven’t seen Ed in a dream in a long while. I figure that he is likely preoccupied with other things in the other world he is currently living in, so when he actually does come back, I wonder if there’s a reason for it. Maybe he’s aware of the current situation that the world is going through here with the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe he realizes that his parents and I aren’t really speaking right now. Regardless, it was comforting for a second to see him in my dream last night… even though the situation in the dream was bleak.

We were standing together in the stairwell of our parents’ house, and Ed was complaining about all the racism against Asian Americans that he’d been reading about in light of the Coronavirus. He said he was scared to go outside because he didn’t want to encounter racial slurs, or even worse, get beaten up or killed just for being an Asian in America during a time of what President Dipshit likes to call the “Chinese virus.” A neighbor across the street had given him dirty looks every time Ed had left the house this last week, so Ed said he wanted to take it into his own hands and confront the guy.

“I don’t think anything good will come of it,” I lightly said to him. “Just let him be and do your own thing.”

Ed was insistent. He said we had to confront racism and help people understand that we are all the same, just human beings.

He went over to the neighbor’s front door and rang the doorbell. I stood from the front of our house and watched. The neighbor opened the door, saw Ed, and grimaced. Out of nowhere, he pulls out a huge chef’s knife and stabs Ed in his calf. From across the street, I could see blood squirting everywhere. I screamed and ran over.

So, no, it was not a comforting dream in the slightest, but well… at least I got to see him and interact with him for a short time?

Three generations of Chinese Americans in the U.S.

Most of my family history is not really that known to me. My parents rarely discuss their childhoods with me, except for little bits here and there (the general themes are that of poverty, not enough food, cockroaches, lack of education, and lack of parenting). My grandparents on my mom’s side died before I was born. My grandpa on my dad’s side died 12 years before I was born, and my maternal grandma was the only one I knew, but she passed when I was nine years old. What I did not learn until my college years is that my dad was not the only person in my family to serve in wars representing the U.S. (for those of you who do not know my basic family history, my dad served in the Vietnam War — or what the Vietnamese more correctly call the American War — and this was how he met my mom in Central Vietnam); his dad, Alfred B. Wong, also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, stationed in Okinawa, just years before my dad was born. Two generations of my family have served in wars that the U.S. was involved in. And now 75 years after WWII has ended, many of these Chinese Americans are being recognized as Chinese American World War II Congressional Gold Medal recipients. I’m sure that by now, the vast majority of those who served have now passed, so their families have applied for the recognition. The real gold medals will be put on display this year at the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C., but one replica will be given to each family who applies to have their family member who served recognized. My uncle, my dad’s younger brother, applied for my grandpa’s recognition with the appropriate documents to prove of his service, and it looks like regional ceremonies will be held across the nation to recognize these families for those who cannot make it to the main ceremony in D.C.

What makes me sad, though, about this recognition, is that I do not think anyone in my family has really, deeply thought about what any of this actually means for our family or for any other family of color who has served in any war representing the United States. I was not born early enough to see or know my grandpa, but what I do know of him is that like pretty much ALL immigrants who come to a country where they knew no one and had no money, he worked extremely hard to get the little he could to support his family and then, his family’s families. What would he feel if he were still alive today, knowing that his second eldest son served in the Vietnam War (which he did live to see), that his grandchildren somehow continued to get discriminated against in this country he actually fought for, simply because of the color of their skin, the shade of their hair, the shape of their eyes? Is this the “reward” that his family and people who look like us should get after two generations of service, after decades of hard work to assimilate into a country that will see us as perpetual foreigners? How would he react today, knowing this country is under a leader who believes immigrants like himself do not deserve to be here, that they leech off the system and just expect handouts? It doesn’t matter if you have served and risked your life for your country: people here do not appreciate you more. People generically say things like “support our troops.” That is all a superficial mask: what the majority of these people genuinely mean is, “support our (white) troops.” This was found time and time again across pretty much every major war when people of color, from Asian to African American, have fought for this country. Cabbies wouldn’t even take them back home from the airport when they finished their services abroad.

And what is arguably worse: that my grandpa’s youngest son, who is trying to claim recognition for his dad’s service in WWII, is actually xenophobic against Chinese immigrants who looked just like him and his wife, my uncle’s parents, has actively accosted and harassed these immigrants at the border, and now wants to avoid all “Asian restaurants and establishments” or Chinatowns and the like because he does not trust that they do not have the Coronavirus? What is worse — racism against another kind, or racism against your own kind?

Rest in peace, Grandpa. It’s probably best that you did not live to see this day.

Chinese taro root cake and grandma memories

When I moved out on my own after college, I was pretty frugal and didn’t buy much of anything. But what I did do was do ample research on Chinese cookbooks that were actually authentically Chinese, and I found one that was quite close to what I remembered my grandma made when I was growing up. And once I found them, I bought them and spent lots of time reviewing them. Taro root cake is one of my grandma’s specialties, and one that I always loved eating every Chinese New Year. When I started making it as an adult, I could actually hear her voice scolding me in the back of my head as I was measuring certain ingredients out, chopping others, and likely being too generous with some of the very expensive dried shrimp and scallop fillings. She never measured anything; the closest thing she’d use to “measure” was a rice bowl for things like rice flour or water. Other than that, it was all in her head. I don’t think I will ever be that way in the kitchen. Even if I do not stick with a recipe, I’m still measuring things out, even approximately, according to what I remember.

Every time I have made it, whether it’s been around Chinese new year, for friends’ gatherings, or even the one time I made it for my parents in their kitchen, I always remember my grandma fondly. The entire process is labor intensive, time intensive, but the end result always makes me so happy and feeling so accomplished. Part of it is because I think it helps me remember my grandma, and the other part of it is as though I feel like by making it, I’m keeping her memory alive. She left us no written letter, recipes, notes, anything… so all the dishes I like to make that she made are all from what I believe are as close to what she made based on recipes I have found, whether they are from cookbooks or on Cantonese food blogs. In addition, I know virtually not a single person who makes this from scratch, so it’s also a mini win in my head that I know I’m the only person I know who can and will make this. Store-bought versions and those on dim sum carts just pale in comparison to the homemade ones.

The one part of making this that gets me the most excited is when you combine all the filling ingredients with the steamed taro in the pan. That’s the moment you can see all the parts coming together to make this one delicious, rich, decadent savory cake. It is truly bliss.

Greater Clements and life parallels

On Saturday afternoon, we went to see the show Greater Clements at the Lincoln Center. The show is about the fictional town of Greater Clements and what looks to be its eventual demise: the town is literally in the midst of voting on a proposition that would dissolve Greater Clements as a town completely. This is partly in reaction to wealthy “coastal elites” from California moving into massive mansions that are going up in the area, who have brought a culture that is unrecognizable in this small mining town in the middle of Idaho. The mine that the town centered around is dead now, though — fully blocked off and illegal to enter. Maggie runs a mining tour and museum that she is planning to shut down, and her unstable and mercurial son Joe comes back from a stint in Alaska, still unpredictable and terrifying both his mother and the locals who have known him all his life. Then, out of nowhere, an old teen love of Maggie comes into the picture and offers to take her away to start a new life hours away… but he’s been diagnosed with cancer. It’s complicated, strange, and a bit hard to swallow all these random tangents this story goes off on. It’s a story that seems to have underlying themes of the American Dream, mostly failed, the new taking over the old, and resistance to change and changing times.

What struck me the most about the play, which I frankly thought was a bit long, was Joe and the performance of the actor who played him. He has a dark past, having attacked someone and nearly destroying his life at an earlier age. He is described by his mother as having the intelligence and social skills of someone only 15-years old despite being 27 years old, and it’s clear that he suffers from an unmentioned mental illness, which seems to have had little treatment. It made me ache to see his monologue talking to his mother, where all he did was try to make her one ashtray after the next in his ceramics/pottery class after seeing how happy she was at the first one. After he had created what seemed like over a dozen for her, his mom responded that this was enough and said he needed to stop; in other words, what was wrong with him? And it suddenly hit him that no matter what he did, no matter what strides in self improvement he made and worked so hard on, he could only achieve so much and be recognized so much, and frankly, it would never be enough to build the perception that he was no longer “weird.” Perception is his reality: everyone thinks he’s “weird” or psychotic, and that would stick with him forever regardless of what actions he did to change it.

It’s clear he cares so much, loves so much, and wants so much to be better, to get better and be the best version of himself, but he realizes he falls short against his mother’s and society’s expectations. It was heartbreaking for me to see the parallels between Joe and Ed. In many ways, Ed was like this: he was cognizant he wanted to be better, to do the best he could. But sometimes, he tried too hard like the way Joe did with too many ash trays. Sometimes, his acts of generosity were just perceived as strange, excessive, even scary. Sometimes, his ways of helping were just overbearing. But he just wanted to be loved and accepted, and somehow, the world could not give that to him. That’s like with Joe in this play. They both have mental illnesses; they both have done things in their past that they weren’t proud of or that scarred their reputations. They both have parents that never fully recognized them and loved them the way they needed to be loved. Their parents perceived them as failures that they are embarrassed of. It was like a painful reminder of the short life my brother lived that has now ended.

Family dynamics

Speaking of confrontation, Chris’s brother confronted him about some things he was upset about during our car ride to the airport for our side New Year’s trip to Indonesia. Needless to say, it was an animated conversation en route to the airport, but what needed to be said was said, and some lingering issues were resolved. Yep, that’s what I call adults being adults and seeking resolution. More people need to do this. Seriously. 

Even though I enjoy coming to Australia to explore the country and see Chris’s family and friends, there’s certainly a point I reach when it gets to be a bit exhausting for me. This would be normal for anyone to get tired of hearing the bickering and bantering that tends to happen with siblings and parents who have obviously known each other all their lives. In my family when Chris is around, it’s more passive aggression than any real bickering or yelling for the most part; my parents always attempt (but usually fail) to try to act “normal” when Chris is around, but Chris can see through it and all the things they say and do that seep out without their even being aware of it. But in Chris’s family, it’s constant debates over everything such as local Australian politics (how similar is the current ruling party to Trump?), whether British royalty should still exist, or whether a photo should be submitted for the family Photo of the Year contest because someone in it is topless. It’s just the way they talk and banter. On the bright side, at least it’s meaningful conversation about important world topics (well, not the topless photo one). These conversations can get a little too colorful and loud at times. This is why I don’t really mind having distance from family on either side; it actually gives us some breathing room. 

Southern Hemisphere Christmas and the downfall of the Silky Smooth Pumpkin Pie

Dear Southern Hemisphere,

Thank you for welcoming me to have Christmas down under (and in South Africa) over the last seven years. I am very grateful for your generosity in hosting me and allowing me to fully experience and immerse myself in a summer Christmas. It has been a true, refreshing delight to see Santas on surf boards and beaches, cars decked out in tinsel, reindeer antlers, and Rudolph red noses, as well as people wearing shorts and T-shirts on Christmas Day whilst barbecuing. Warm weather, “White Sand Christmas” in place of “White Christmas” on my Spotify playlist? Yes, please. “I rather be freezing cold than basking in warmth,” said no one ever.

However, I have a confession, or rather, a complaint to make. In the Northern Hemisphere, I have never really had a problem making pumpkin pie, or most desserts, for that matter. There, I bake in Fahrenheit. I have access to a cold-ish kitchen in the winter time (pro tip: cold kitchen = best pie crusts and anything that has buttery, flaky layers). I have all the necessary tools and guides at my disposal to make my ideal silky smooth pumpkin pie. Here, year after year, things seem to go wrong. Year 1, I discovered that canned pumpkin is not a thing down under. Therefore, there was no pumpkin pie. Then, year 2 and 3, I attempted an all-butter crust for pumpkin pie, and the pie dough was gooey and lumpy. The crust “bled” butter, shrunk, burnt in some places and were raw in others — all the common mistakes of a pie making novice, much to my embarrassment. One year, I had to throw the entire crust out. Southern Hemisphere, why do you fail me? Why can’t you allow me to show my pie crust making skills down here? Now, Chris’s family thinks I just cannot make pie in different environments. On a report card or performance report, they would comment, “Incapable of adapting to change or new environments.” Today, the pie crust was so hard at the rim that we had rip and peel it off the pie pan and discard it. At least the bottom was edible. The part I did try to eat felt like plastic in my mouth, which I immediately spit out.

Then, with the pumpkin custard, we have another issue (because of course, the problems noted above were not enough). The adjustment from Fahrenheit to Centigrade is not exact. 350 degrees Fahrenheit is technically 176.67 Celsius, but there’s no setting that is that exact on a centigrade oven, so you either have to choose: 170 or 180 C? Do you round up or down? I round down, which seems to be the conservative approach. And what ends up happening? The custard doesn’t set in the middle; it never sets in the middle and instead of pumpkin custard, we reveal pumpkin MILK coming out of the oven with pumpkin custard at the edges. WHY?

And for the second round of custard, I round up. What happens? The custard CRACKS, meaning that it has been overbaked. Sure, the custard has set, and it’s no liquidy mess, but it’s no longer pretty to look at. It’s like a reject pie from the pie shop.

So, I’m admitting this now: I have given up on making pumpkin pie, or any pie for that matter, while I am down here. From now on, I will stick with cookies, custards (well, who even knows about that!), and potentially cakes. The battle is over, and you have won. I can’t stand the wasted time and ingredients, so I defer to you. I hope you have a great Christmas knowing you have defeated my pie making down under.



Ali Wong’s take on why to date/marry someone who is from your own culture

In her book Dear Girls, Ali Wong strongly advises her daughters to marry someone from her own culture. A number of reasons are cited, but the ones that I would immediately get: You don’t have to explain things that you find second nature, whether it’s your customs, your language, your foods… YOUR FOODS. This is a big one. One of the worst things she’s experienced when dating white men is their reaction to different foods that she adores at dim sum on the weekends. “YOU ACTUALLY EAT CHICKEN FEET?” or “HOW CAN YOU EAT THAT?” These comments are not just ignorant, but they are outright offensive. Like Anthony Bourdain once said, “Don’t yuck my yum.” Because that statement is fully rooted in ignorance, bigotry, and whether you are aware of it or not, racism. She also notes that once, she took a white guy she was dating to a Korean restaurant, and he kept exclaiming over and over how much he loves kimchi when it was brought to the table with a number of other banchan dishes. This is one of the stupidest things she’s encountered. “Kimchi is a staple in the Korean kitchen,” she said. “A white guy exclaiming about how much he loves kimchi is like an Asian person going to a white person’s house, seeing white bread on the table, and exclaiming how much he loves white bread!” This was dead on true.

I don’t necessarily think I’ve made a very “different” decision being with Chris; he’s Indian Asian, and so he understands a lot about Asian culture in general: no shoes in the house, respect for parents/bringing them a gift the first time he meets them, food (because he’s not an idiot). While he has a strong preference for food from the Asian continent over any other region of the world, there are still many, many things I love and identify as “comfort food” that he will never quite love as much as me. This includes: noodle soup (pho, wonton noodle soup) — forget it. He will have a spoonful or two and then go back to his rice dish; then there’s things like Chinese seitan/kao fu — he’ll eat it, but he doesn’t get why I love this strangely textured sweet, savory, meatless blob. He doesn’t love East Asian desserts the way I do unless they have mango or coconut. He happily devours pretty much all things that have meat in them, and once there’s rice, he’s all over it. And for sure, one thing he happily eats is any Asian vegetable (other than bitter melon). I thought about this last night when I went out with a white guy friend, and he said he really did not like the water spinach/morning glory/kong qing cai. I glared at him — that’s one of my all time-favorite Asian vegetables!

One of my biggest fears once I reached adulthood was to marry someone who would tokenize me or had an Asian fetish, who would in front of me tell me that he loved me, but then tell his Asian colleague at work “to go back to where he came from” (yes, I know someone this has happened to). Yes, this is targeted specifically at white people. So, maybe it’s a bit of reverse racism, but I never had a desire to date or marry anyone who was white because of this. You never really know, do you? I don’t really have to think about this when I am with someone else who is Asian, so that’s the way I think about this.

3.5 year gap

Tonight, I met up with my cousin, his wife, and their two young children, ages 3.5 and 5, for dinner in Hermosa Beach. The last time I saw my cousin was at my wedding over 3.5 years ago; the last time I saw his wife was about two months before that when she was about to pop to give birth to number 2. Their lives have changed quite a bit since then. Hopefully, it won’t be another 3.5 years before we see each other again.

My cousin and his wife seem to be doing pretty well; they seem quite content in their life, which is completely devoid of his mom, who is my aunt, my dad’s younger sister. No one in the family keeps in much contact with her because she’s always been an extreme drama queen, and he told me tonight that he had zero contact with her.

My mom knew I was going to see my cousin this evening, so she suggested I tell him to reconcile with her. I see no reason to intervene and suggest that with someone who is so toxic. If a person cannot find her own faults and admit them to her only child, then in my opinion, she’s not really worth being in touch with. She’d enrich none of their lives. She’d only create more problems and more anxiety for everyone. And my cousin’s fear is that she will not only have a negative impact on his children, her grandchildren, but that his kids will see their grandmother’s negative effect on their dad and be ill effected by it.

Being estranged from your family is hard to say the least. Everyone judges you negatively about it and blames you. But I genuinely think my cousin did the right thing both for himself and his wife, but also for their two kids.