All our money is spent on food now

With all the refunds being issued back for purchases on theater tickets and even flights, it’s almost like we’re spending money on nothing now other than food. Our grocery runs have been the biggest they’ve ever been. In the past, I was so used to making a quick stop by Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods en route home for just a handful of items whenever I needed them. Now, I’m thinking about food that we’re going to eat tonight, tomorrow, in a week, and even weeks from now, just so that we have it in stock and that I don’t have to think about it… and so that I don’t have to queue up in yet another long line for groceries the way I did last week when I waited over 40 minutes just to enter Trader Joe’s. While it was nice to shop in a nearly empty Trader Joe’s on the Upper West Side given that they are limiting the number of people entering for social distancing reasons, it was also quite eerie and surreal.

Chris is so used to having barista made coffee at work when he’s not doing work travel, so now we’re spending a lot more on fancy coffee beans than ever before. I used to rely on my office for things like bananas, morning yogurt, or even oat/cow milk for my morning tea, and now I have to buy more of all of that now. We led such frou-frou, privileged lives before in our white-tower tech companies that we never really thought much about all the “savings” we got by working at these places. And don’t even get me started on kitchen/bathroom supplies like toilet paper and paper towels. When you only use one toilet for all your bathroom runs… that toilet paper really goes much quicker than you’d think. I’ve been getting better at not using kitchen paper towels and instead relying on cloth towels, but with toilet paper, there’s really no other alternative, is there?

We’re also eating more at home, which means we are running the dishwasher more, which means more dishwasher tablets need to be purchased. And with always being home and being on high alert for the virus, we’re washing our hands even more than before, which means we need more soap. The cycle never seems to end during a pandemic of all the things you use more of that you need that you never really thought much about before.

Darkness came early

The sky was black at around 4pm today. I’d never seen people in my office trickle out so quickly. It was as though we were all under the same depressed spell, and by 5pm, nearly every single person was out of the office. When I left at around 5:15, it was as though I was the one who “stayed late.”

Even when people tell you they love autumn and winter (and I do, too, for all the cooking, baking, holidays, autumn foliage, etc.), as much as they love it, they just want to get the heck home and away from the office much earlier than they normally do.

Alone in the most populous country in the world

When I’ve spoken with people who have traveled around China, most often say that Beijing is not one of their favorite places. Whether that is related to the food, the constant feeling of the government watching you everywhere given that it is China’s capital, to the sense of arrogance one can encounter from Beijingers, it seems to generally be agreed upon.

So, I wasn’t that surprised when we arrived, and I immediately felt irritated not only by the level of heat and humidity, but also by the constant stream of cabbies who either tried to lie and tell me that their meter wasn’t working and that they’d have to offer me a fixed fare, or they’d tell me that they’d only take me if I’d pay them 100 yuan (for a ride that probably shouldn’t cost more than 15-20). It was never like this in Shanghai, in 2006 or a few days ago. It was absolutely nothing like this in Chengdu or Leshan. So this was just infuriating. I would yell at them and tell them I wouldn’t accept it, that they were trying to cheat me and that they were con men. I’d then walk away in a huff. Chris, more aggressively, would yell at them, leave their cab doors open, and even kick their cars (to which they seemed genuinely frightened. I mean, he’s a brown man in a yellow country, after all… and they can never quite predict what the brown man would do, right?).

So, it was a welcome break to spend half a day with Zhang Feng, our driver, who took us to Huanghuacheng, or the “yellow flower” section of the Great Wall, about 90 minutes outside of Beijing. I’d read previously that this section of the Great Wall had previously been closed to the public, but two years ago, they’d opened it back up. It is not maintained and restored at all, and the section where you actually enter is technically on private land that is owned by some local people, who Feng paid via WeChat (seems sketchy, but I’m okay with that… but if you think about it, this is private land for a public landmark… what…?!). I asked him how much the admission was that these people were charging, and I think he said it was only 30 yuan, which is crazy to me.

Zhang was a bit relieved when he found out that I could speak some Chinese. I knew when I booked this that the company I was interfacing with had run out of English guides, but given I was desperate to a) go to a section of the wall that would be less crowded and more unpreserved and b) not do a big group tour, I told the person I was corresponding with that a driver who speaks limited English would be fine… since that was all that was available. If he was just our driver, he could just be that. And if he would be willing to chat, I could always translate to Chris. And through chatting with Feng, I realized “limited” English really just meant that he could say hello, goodbye, and thank you. But he was smart in that he used his mobile device’s translation app when he wanted to convey things he couldn’t do with language. In the end it was fine because it meant I could practice my Chinese and work on my listening skills. He was extremely chatty, asking about everything from our trip to what the U.S. was like to my family, even asking me when I was planning to have kids (I expected this when I told him how old I was. Chinese people don’t seem to think any topic is off limits, especially when they are talking to people of their “own kind”).

So he took us to this section of the wall, which is also known as being the only section of the 13,000+ mile-long wall that has a body of water. The wall stretches from Gansu province in the west all the way to Liaoning in the east — if you take a look at a map of the wall laid out over China — that’s pretty darn long. It was a bit ominous given that we could see that an entire section had broken off. He kept yelling from afar not to get too close to the break-off point at the end, otherwise we’d literally fall into the lake. And it was even more ominous given that it was grey and raining, so it was extremely wet and slippery everywhere. In many sections of the wall, there are no steps; it’s just a steep incline that you’re supposed to navigate on your own. Going up is fine… coming down might be a concern. With the slippery surfaces, many times, we were forced to use our hands to actually climb up. I understand why now, the description on their website suggested that anyone who is elderly or pregnant not visit this section.

The greatest part of coming here, though, was that there was almost no one there. At most, we probably saw 16-20 other people total, but most of the time, we were together for a few minutes in passing, and they’d leave. The rain eventually stopped, and given the heat and humidity, the bricks from the wall started slowly but surely drying up, so when it was time for us to climb back down, it wasn’t so bad. We kept looking out into this endlessly long wall and fortress that would keep going and going, and see absolutely no one. It was the eeriest feeling standing along the wall and looking out to see no one. There were many moments when I didn’t take any photos and just kept looking out into the mountains and the zigzagging wall, wondering… how strange it is to literally be standing in the most populous country on earth… in what feels like its most deserted area, all by ourselves. We’re alone here, and no one else is here. It almost felt like an echo in my head. It was a very strange feeling, but so peaceful and calm. I smiled to myself. This is really amazing.

Feng was extremely enthusiastic and took endless photos of us in all different angles. He got worried about my photo quality, especially when I was wearing the poncho he gave me to stay dry. “That won’t look good in your photos at home when you frame them and show them to family and friends!” he kept saying. And as we passed through for him to pay the locals our entrance fare, the women fussed over Chris, insisting he either use an umbrella or buy a poncho, otherwise he’d catch a cold and get really sick. Chris was unamused by the mothering.

This was Chris’s second time visiting the Great Wall, and he said that the last section he visited definitely had far more people, and this was an altogether very different experience from his first time.

It felt so strange to be at a tiny section of the Great Wall today, something that was put into production beginning in the seventh century; it’s hard to even fathom anything still standing from them. I was standing on the longest man-made construction in the world, of all time. How crazy, I kept thinking. And it’s far more beautiful in person than I’d imagined from the photos I’d seen before. It’s so famous, something that everyone knows and recognizes, yet not everyone actually goes to see. But then if you think about it, given how long it is, no one ever really goes to see the very beginning or the very end of the wall; the majority of the people who come to see it are like us, visiting from Beijing and doing a half-day or day trip there. I would really love to see what this wall is like at the ends, whether it is in Gansu or in Liaoning.

Conclusions about the workplace

It’s been nearly 11 years that I’ve been working full time, and in that 11 years, these are the conclusions I’ve come to:

  1. HR is pretty useless when it actually comes to making employees feel heard, appreciated, or like their opinions and feelings matter. They do not exist to protect you; they exist to protect the company, its reputation, and its senior leadership.
  2. White men still have all the power.
  3. Discrimination and bias are nearly impossible to prove.
  4. Even when you work at a company that is, by industry standards, “progressive,” you still realize that there’s an impossibly long way to go and that there’s really no use in comparing yourself to the lowest of the low in life. You won’t feel better.
  5. When recruiters, internal or external, say they are looking for a diverse set of candidates who are truly “culture adds,” they’re definitely lying unless they are actually financially incentivized to do exactly that. And we know none of them are.
  6. As I meet younger and younger people who are just getting out of school and into the workforce, I cannot help but notice how entitled they are to demand salaries that are $100-200K+ just a year or two out of college. Entitlement seems to be a common of those younger than me. But… did people who were in their 30s think that of me when I was at that age…?
  7. Doing your job and doing it well isn’t enough. You have to play the political game to get ahead. That means sucking up in some cases, and in others, socializing with colleagues and higher-ups you wouldn’t otherwise care to be around.
  8. Just because you are kind and friendly and helpful does not mean everyone at work will like you. In fact, there will always be someone out there who secretly, or not so secretly, doesn’t like you, and will make sure you find out some way, somehow.
  9. When your manager tells you that she wants to hear your opinions, she really doesn’t mean that. What she really means is… she wants you to package in a certain way that sounds good to her ears. In other words, don’t be a complainer. Figure out how to do to that, and you will get along just swell.
  10. What you might consider “common sense” in the workplace really is not so “common.” Sad, isn’t it?

Soreness

I’ve been back into a rigorous workout routine for the last five weeks now. It’s been an adjustment for me given that I got pretty sick twice in the last two months, and with the travel of December/early January, my body was out of wack when it came to waking up early and doing my usual morning workouts. It’s been harder for me to wake up early, but I’ve been pushing myself to exercise at least five times a week. I’m sore in a different way almost every single day, but at least I know it’s a good soreness, as in, I know I’m working my muscles and burning fat, as opposed to soreness that may be from an injury pain.

But this weekend marks the first two full consecutive days when I will not be doing any exercise other than walking. I think my body is in need of this two-day rest period. Everyone needs a rest after a lot of hard work.

Everyone is grumpy

It’s been a long and tiring last few weeks at work. A handful of colleagues have left, some voluntarily, others less so. Some new processes have been put in place. A new layer of management has been put into place. It’s been a period where everyone seems to have something to complain and be mad about.

“Feels like almost everyone is grumpy,” a colleague said to me today.

“What do you mean?” I responded.

“Just seems like pretty much everyone in this office is frustrated by something from what I can tell,” he said back to me.

Yeah, that’s probably true. Most of us in this office do our jobs and do it well. When you’re in a remote office, you have to work twice as hard and advocate for yourself three times as much before anyone really cares about anything you do. And that’s been wearing thin on a lot of us lately. Sometimes, you don’t want to constantly yell and advocate for yourself; sometimes, you just want to be noticed for good work you are doing and have someone else call it out for you to the “powers that be” and get you recognition.

In the corporate world, though, even in late-stage tech startups like my own, that can be like pulling teeth. This is the life of being at a pre-IPO technology company.

Bon voyage to a colleague

Tonight, our office hosted a happy hour to bid farewell to a colleague of ours, who is leaving to start a new job at another tech company. To be honest, the majority of us are not going to miss him; he was an HR nightmare with the inappropriate jokes and comments he’d openly make, and what was worse was that he had zero shame and felt like he was being victimized for getting called out for what he perceived to be “normal” conversation and behavior. I heard he was good at his job, so from a competence standpoint, I never doubted him, but from a peer-to-peer standpoint, I really did not care for him at all.

But, hey, any reason for the company to host a happy hour and get us free food and drinks is fine by most of us. Our office manager was told that we actually didn’t spend that much of our “social events” budget last year, so this happy hour is on the company. What better way to get people together than with free food and booze?

Why does the weekend feel so short

“How was your weekend?”

This is the usual question you get every Monday when you go into the office. Everyone has a long laundry list of things they need to achieve and get done for the week. And this question, as generic and as cliche and routinely repeated as it is, is so annoying, even when I myself often ask it.

The way I usually want to answer this question is…. “too short.” Two days off in a week is too short when you have errands to run, an apartment to clean, laundry to do, countertops to dust and disinfect. The amount of time actually spent “relaxing” on my own is so little. Sometimes, you have weeks when even socializing feels like work. And this was one of those weeks.

I want what Adam Grant advocates for: a four-day work week. That would be quite glorious, and I think we’d all feel more fulfilled and as though we were more productive.

electronics playground

This afternoon, I went to B&H in search and research of a new camera after selling my Canon Rebel T3i a few weeks ago. My goal is to find a mirrorless camera that, by definition, is lighter and less bulky than a digital single-lens reflex, but offers better photo quality and more modern features that my dated 2012 camera did not offer. Look at all these things I can consider now: Mirrorless! HD video! 4K video (WHAT?)! An electronic viewfinder! Wi-Fi built in! The options are endless, which can be a bit of a danger since I’m a camera novice, and these days, I’m really over fiddling with aperture and thinking about F-stop, and just want to shoot on no-flash or automatic. The fussiness just wasn’t for me in the end, even though I wanted it to be.

I spent some time playing around with mirrorless cameras from Canon, Panasonic, and Sony. My loyalty in the back of my mind is still with Canon since I’ve had almost all Canon cameras since 2004, when my brother first got me my very first point-and-shoot digital camera. But the Canon mirrorless does not offer an electronic view finder; it’s got its touch-and-view screen only. I’m so used to using a viewfinder that I wonder if that may end up being a deal breaker for me. But you can flip the screen fully around! And you cannot do that with the Sony or the Panasonic screens.. which only tilt half-way, and I’m not even sure what the value of that tilt is in real life when traveling or shooting food/cooking.

B&H truly was an electronics playground full of geeks who knew 100 times more about cameras than I did. Many conversations I overheard were for serious amateur photographers and even professional photographers who owned cameras that were in excess of $5,000, no lens! I definitely felt like a novice in there, though. People really knew what they were talking about in depth.

Sushi Nakazawa

Our indulgent dining continued tonight, as tonight was the last night my friend would be in town. She’s flying back to San Francisco tomorrow. She was extremely generous with us and insisted on treating us to have the omakase at Sushi Nakazawa, a very popular and hard to reserve restaurant where the chef was actually an apprentice of the famed Jiro of Tokyo. While the food and service were excellent and notable, it was a bit annoying that a) they said they usually do not allow men not wearing long pants to dine there (Chris was wearing long shorts that exposed half his calves), b) they served Chris’s sake in a stemmed wine glass (“because we are here in America,” the white server said with a smile), and c) why were absolutely none of the servers Japanese at all? The only Japanese staff we saw were the sushi chefs at the counter.