The saddest part about going on a trip: having to come home

Once upon a time, we used to take multiple trips a year and plan the majority of them out at the beginning of the year so that we always had something to look forward to. There was always a “next trip” on the calendar to greatly anticipate in between the mundane and usual of the everyday with work and nonsensical daily news and politics of the world. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic came crashing down upon us, changing all of our lives in ways we’d never seen in our lifetime. All trips got cancelled. We had no idea when we’d never travel to see a new place.

When boarding the plane yesterday to come back home, all I could think about was: when are we going on another trip? When will we be able to travel freely again? Where will we be going? Where can we actually safely go….?

It’s not that I don’t like home: I obviously love New York, as I’ve willingly lived here the last 13 years. It’s more the idea of having to go back to the daily grind of work, work, and work. And with this trip going home, we’re going to be moving, so we’ll not only have to go back to work, but also start packing up our apartment for our move upstairs. Even though it’s only one floor up, a lot of packing and trips between stairs will need to be done, and who looks forward to moving… ever?

Vietnamese food in the South

I’m pretty annoyed to admit this: there are more authentic Vietnamese bakeries and restaurants all over Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana than there are in New York. Chris noted that other than our trip to Vietnam, we’ve eaten the most Vietnamese food on this trip than on any other trip. We had Vietamese food once in Oklahoma, multiple times in Houston (small bites, full meals, and snacks), and then twice here in New Orleans. Our very last meal this morning before heading to the airport to go home was at Dong Phuong, a famous bakery-restaurant about 25 minutes outside of the main New Orleans downtown area. They have a bakery section that is quite famous not just for their banh mi and Vietnamese baked treats, but also their seasonal king cakes (they’re reputed to be the BEST in New Orleans if you come around Mardi Gras in March!!), and they sell their perfect baguettes in oversized bags of 2, or even in 8s and 10s! Attached to the bakery is a restaurant with a good amount of indoor seating, and next to the restaurant is likely their bakery and cooking operations, which based on the building, is quite extensive and long!

We picked up a special pate/cold cuts banh mi, two types of banh bao (Vietnamese steamed buns), a Vietnamese iced coffee, a jackfruit smoothie with tapioca balls, taro and coconut cream sticky rice, and a slice of cassava-coconut cake. I LOVED ALL OF IT. The banh mi was spectacular, with huge, thick cuts of all the usual Vietnamese sliced meats, a delicious and creamy pate, thickly sliced cucumber, and enough pickled daikon and carrot to balance all the meaty flavors. And the bread was just perfect: super crisp on the outside and light and airy on the inside. I could have easily sat there and eaten five of those sandwiches by myself. While I’m used to the meats and vegetables being sliced thinner, I actually enjoyed the thicker cuts this time as a novelty.

The banh bao were delicious, though Chris thought they were just fine. I don’t get many opportunities to eat Vietnamese style bao, so I try to get them when I see them. The filling is always made differently than the Chinese ones, and you can just tell they taste Vietnamese. Sometimes, it’s because of their liberal use of white pepper. Other times, they have just a hint of fish sauce flavor. And the way the meat tends to be minced is a bit finer, too.

I grew up eating different Vietnamese tapioca and rice-based coconut desserts, so this taro one definitely hit the spot: it even had nice little chunks of creamy taro. Taro and coconut cream paired can never go wrong. The drinks we got also hit the spot: the iced coffee was SUPER potent; I could only have a few sips, otherwise I’d have been wired the rest of the day. The jackfruit smoothie was nice and fruity, and the tapioca balls were soft and chewy, with a hint of honey flavor to them.

I enjoyed the cassava cake at the airport a few hours later, and while it wasn’t as tasty as the version I make, it would serve as a good substitute for when I don’t want to bake a whole cassava cake or bake at all. Love this spot. As we ate our treats outside the bakery before heading to the airport, I watched avidly as the workers rolled over endless hot and toasty baguettes on carts while hungry patrons queued up and waited for their endless orders. So many cars just kept pulling into the parking lot to get their Vietnamese food fix; it’s a good thing their parking lot is so big! I enviously watched one guy leave the bakery with two huge bags of goodies, likely multiple banh mi orders and an entire bag of JUST baguette. He’s a smart dude, I thought. I would totally do that if I lived here!!

New Orleans

The last time I visited New Orleans, it was in March 2011 with a group of my friend’s friends. There were eight of us, and we were in Nola to celebrate Mardi Gras, clearly a huge festivity of nudity, endless alcohol and dance, and too many beads that will get sticky and trashed by the end of your visit. A friend had planned the entire trip, so I just went along with whatever restaurants and activities were laid out. I had a lot of fun on that trip, perhaps even a bit too much fun. That trip, in retrospect, was like the marker of the beginning of the end of my then long-term relationship with someone I nearly got engaged to. I had so much fun on that trip that I started wondering why I was with someone who… frankly, really wasn’t that exciting or adventurous, and was relatively conservative and clingy.

Outside of Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras, I tend to have a pretty unpopular opinion: I’m really not that excited by New Orleans overall as a city. The French Quarter is extremely touristy; as we walked the streets last night, all I could smell was a lovely combination of stale alcohol, human urine, and garbage. The food is good, but if one does her research, she will immediately find out that the best creole/cajun food is really to be had in Lafayette, Louisiana. There is good cajun/creole/seafood, and there is also pretty good Vietnamese food (the overall options do pale in comparison to Houston, though, and even Oklahoma City), and while the architecture is pretty, if you aren’t going there for a festival or to party, I’m generally not that interested in New Orleans. You can do ghost tours in other cities in the South, like Savannah. You can get the food elsewhere. There’s great history there, but isn’t there interesting history everywhere?

One thing I will note about the beginning of our time in New Orleans that I enjoyed: pretty much all the businesses we visited during our first two days were Black-owned. A LOT of businesses in New Orleans are Black or minority owned (in some cities, you actually need to do research and try hard to seek these out), so it made me happy to at least have coffee or dine in at shops and restaurants that were owned by POCs.

The amusement and joy that is Buc-ee’s in Texas

I had seen signs for Buc-ee’s while on a few roads and interstates during our time in Houston and San Antonio, and I was wondering what it was. I quickly did a search for it and found out that it’s pretty much on the top of the list of every Texan’s favorite places to go to while traveling the interstates and on road trips. Buc-ee’s, in its simplest description, is a chain of (VERY LARGE!) convenience stores and gas stations that has a near-cult-like following. It has locations in Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, and oftentimes when you read about people talking about Buc-ee’s, when people leave these states and live elsewhere, Buc-ee’s is one of the biggest things they get nostalgic for. We visited one en route to San Antoniio for our day trip yesterday, and I finally understood what the big fuss was.

First, Buc-ee’s has an iconic mascot: Buc-ee’s the beaver. His face and cute little body grace pretty much all of their labeling and branded products. He is definitely a memorable character. As soon as you walk into a Buc-ee’s, the mass, insane variety of products confronts you: endless sections of gummies, jams, chips, “veggie” chips, snacks of all varieties, sodas, all neatly organized and labeled with huge signs. In addition to that, they have huge sections of fresh food: a bakery section with the supposed Texan must-eat dessert/breakfast item, kolaches, an entire case of endless types of freshly made beef and turkey jerky, and get this: YOU CAN GET FAST FOOD HERE IN THE FORM OF BARBECUE. That’s right: you can get a plate of burnt tips, ribs, a BBQ pulled pork sandwich, even BRISKET here! I was completely floored when I saw those signs. Everything else seemed understandable, but as soon as I saw the BBQ signs and the huge lines forming for them, I totally got it.

Buc-ee’s is definitely more memorable, but the love and fanfare for it reminded me of how obsessed people who live in the southeast region of the US always feel about Publix Supermarkets and their famous “Pub subs,” or Publix submarine sandwiches. I will be honest: they are pretty darn good. The quality of their bread is very good, and they use Boar’s Head lunch meats. Mmmmm.

An Independence Day full of “traditional foods”

For most of our years together, Chris and I have enjoyed celebrating Independence Day here in the U.S. by getting the hell out of this country and exploring a beautiful land elsewhere. Last year, we were miserably stuck in New York because of the still-raging COVID-19, but this year, we spent it exploring Houston, and when I say “exploring,” I really mean exploring all the delicious, multicultural food that makes Houston so colorful to me.

We started the day with a drive to Bellaire Blvd, which is known for having miles and miles of endless Vietnamese businesses ranging from medical, dental, and legal practices to of course, endless Vietnamese markets, bakeries, and restaurants. Chris found us a spot that was the epitome of every delicious Vietnamese bakery in San Jose and Westminster, California: it had an endless array of Vietnamese desserts (che), banh mi and drinks, and Central Vietnamese snacks laboriously steamed and wrapped in banana leaves such as banh bot loc (tapioca dumplings filled with shrimp), banh beo (disc-shaped steamed rice dumplings topped with scallion oil and shredded dried shrimp), and banh it tran (one of my all-time favorite snacks growing up that my mom would purchase in Vietnamese bakeries: boiled glutinous rice balls stuffed with mashed mung beans, minced pork and shrimp, topped with shredded shrimp, fried shallots, and scallion oil). When I walked in, I felt literally paralyzed by all the options we had. I had no idea where to even start because I really wanted at least one of everything.

In the end, I ended up getting a chicken banh mi, an iced coffee, and an banh gio (a steamed rice tamale stuffed with minced shiitake mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, pork, and a quail egg). It was a bit early, so I decided we didn’t have enough room to get dessert even though I really wanted some che and pandan tofu. THIS PLACE MAKES THEIR OWN FRESH TOFU. Fresh tofu is one of my biggest loves; few things top freshly made, hot, steamy tofu for me. The food was all delicious from here, but I still really wanted to try their dessert.

For lunch, we went to an Indian spot and had some delicious lamb biryani, saag paneer, and a steamed salmon spiced and wrapped in a banana leaf. The portions everywhere we went were huge; we had so much food leftover.

And for dinner, we ended our 4th of July at an Ethiopian spot in a somewhat residential neighborhood: we shared a huge platter of different Ethiopian lentils, vegetables, and meat stews. Next to South Asian lentils, Ethiopian lentils, especially the split peas, are one of my very favorite bean preparations. But what stood out to me the most was the injera itself: the server asked if we wanted injera or teff injera. I was a bit confused because I always assumed *all* injera had teff, the Ethiopian grain that gave the injera bread its distinct sour taste. The server explained that injera did have teff, but teff injera had even more teff, and therefore was more authentic and expensive to make, so it would incur an upcharge. We chose the teff injera, and I had zero regrets: it was a deep, dark brown color, far darker than the tan-colored injeras I’d previously had. And it had such a rich, sour, distinct flavor. I was obsessed with this bread and just wanted to eat more of it. That entire meal was ridiculously good.

Vietnamese, Indian, and Ethiopian food – just what the founding fathers would have approved of to celebrate the Fourth of July!

Black Wall Street

When I was young and exposed to dolls, TV, and the media, what I perceived to be normal was that the dolls I had were all White, except one doll that had stiff limbs I couldn’t move very easily, wearing a cheongsam/qipao/traditional Chinese dress. The people on TV and throughout the media were White. There were “Black tv shows” and “White tv shows.” There wasn’t much in between. If I wanted to see anyone who looked like me, I had to watch my grandma’s Cantonese soap operas. But they all spoke Cantonese or some variation of Chinese; they didn’t speak the American English that I mainly spoke. Without even realizing it then, my exposure to the world was very segregated. There was a Black world and a White world. A world that included people like me didn’t exist on TV or in newspapers.. unless you included Jackie Chan in martial arts movies or fully token Chinese stories like that depicted in the movie The Joy Luck Club.

I wish I had read books that taught me about history as it really was, not how white-washed this country wanted to make it for me. I wish I had read children’s stories of kids who made friends with people of different backgrounds or sexual orientation to normalize it more. I wish I had read stories about topics such as Black Wall Street, which I now see kids’ books being written and illustrated about. In fact, how sad: I didn’t learn about Black Wall Street until last year. I vaguely heard about the Tulsa Race Massacres in school, but it was such a vague reference; it was never made a focal point in learning. It didn’t tie to the concept of “Black Wall Street” and that there was once a very wealthy, culturally rich area called Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that people considered an economic and cultural mecca of its time…. until a white mob decided to burn these buildings to the ground and kill every black person in sight then. We visited this area today in Tulsa. It’s hard to imagine this entire area up in flames. It just gave me chills thinking about it.

No reparations have been paid for the damage done to that area of Tulsa. Many members of our government ignore that that even happened or that it holds any significance to this day. But that’s the problem with this country: people, especially those in power, who ignore our past and do not realize that not understanding and acknowledging our history is only to the detriment of our current and future generations. We never move forward unless we reconcile with the past and learn from the past. And that’s a really sad thing in a country full of people who are willfully ignorant to the past, who just say “that was then; this is now,” or “Slavery was in the past; get over it.” You hear that a lot today: “get over it,” “forget about it” “look forward.” About four years ago, a German colleague from Germany told me that in school, they constantly had it beat into their heads that Germany “fucked up big time” with Nazism and that they could never forget what they perpetrated against Jews, against the elderly, the disabled, the non-Whites in Germany; somehow, that concept doesn’t resonate here with slavery, Jim Crow laws, and ongoing systemic racism as a result of all that crap. Instead, we’re supposed to teach kids that the U.S. is perfect, the country everyone else wants to be — truly exceptional.

Yes, we are quite exceptional… truly exceptional in our denial of racism and our past and its connection to the present.

Oklahoma City bombing

I was only nine years old when the Oklahoma City bombing occurred in April 1995. I don’t think I started paying attention to the news in great detail until I was at least a sophomore in high school, but I always knew when the worst and most awful events happened because my dad could be heard every morning in the kitchen, loudly talking over his freshly brewed coffee about the latest shooting, car jacking, bombing he was reading in the San Francisco Chronicle — really, anything that was bad and criminal, my dad could be heard with his blaring voice as I woke up for yet another day of school. He always thought he spoke at a regular volume, but anyone who is remotely “normal” would know my dad has a loud voice, where even his whisper is likely louder than your regular speaking voice volume.

At the time, the Oklahoma City bombing, perpetrated mainly by one white American psychotic loser, with the assistance of another white American psychotic idiot, was the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. until the 9/11 attacks. 168 people died, including many children in the day care center at the federal building, and over 680 people were left injured, many missing limbs and left permanently blind or deaf. An entire memorial and museum has been built at the site of the bombing that we visited yesterday afternoon after our Oklahoma barbecue experience; even the church across the street built a “Jesus wept” statue, in which Jesus is turning away in horror and anguish from the memorial site.

Going through the memorial site and the museum was a depressing experience, a reminder of exactly how blind about half of this country is to the dangers that we’re really facing. I felt mostly fury the entire time — against our media, idiot citizens who are blind to the truth, certain family members who think people of color and people coming in illegally from Mexico or Central Ameriac are the *real* problem. While half of this country believes that this country’s greatest threat is at the southern border, with “illegals” entering this country and supposedly stealing our country’s resources, the real truth is that one of the greatest threats to our safety and well being is homegrown white American terrorism, as exhibited during the January 6 riots at the Capitol; it’s already been reported multiple times by the FBI. And this is almost always tied to one huge concept that many people deny could possibly be true: white supremacy. We all know the only reason those people weren’t shot and killed or blown to pieces was because the vast majority of those people were white. If they were black or brown, the police wouldn’t have hesitated to kill them all in a single blow. Timothy McVeigh, the main perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, has since served as a model and a “martyr” to many aspiring domestic terrorists, as many websites, online and offline groups have formed who look to him as their inspiration for blowing up this country, for uniting against the U.S. government and eliminating all non-White people from our society.

In some ways, with a memorial and museum being built to honor the victims of this awful bombing, this site has potentially glorified Timothy McVeigh even more and made him an even bigger aspirational figure to white supremacists everywhere here. How depressing.

46th state

Today, we visited my 46th state and Chris’s 47th state — Oklahoma! When I’ve shared with friends and colleagues that Oklahoma would be the first stop on our southern travel itinerary, most asked “Why?” or wondered “huh?” when it came to how this was part of our plan. Since visiting Arkansas in 2010 to visit my friend who was living there, and during that trip, doing a day trip to Memphis, Tennessee, my desire was sparked to see every U.S. state and every presidential library. I’m getting closer and closer to that goal; now, I’ve just got Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska left. Chris has already seen Indiana since he used to go there for work all the time, so he is one state ahead of me.

What few people are aware of regarding Oklahoma — well, a lot of things, but the first things that come to mind: 1) it has a relatively large Vietnamese population, and it arguably has more homely Vietnamese restaurants and bakeries than New York City; in fact, I would say it DEFINITELY has the types of bakeries and shops you’d be more likely to see in Westminster or San Jose, California, than in New York, where you can get Vietnamese baked snacks, pastries, and even freshly made Vietnamese candies and cookies. I don’t even think New York has a Vietnamese bakery period, unless you count the handful of subpar banh mi shops. And 2) Oklahoma has its own barbecue culture. While certain areas of the U.S. such as Texas or Kansas or the Carolinas are well known for their barbecue culture, Oklahoma is quite under the radar. The way that people tend to characterize the Oklahoma style is a cross between Texas and Kansas City: The way the meats are prepared and smoked is like Texas, while the sauces are more tomato-y like in Kansas City. I’m not a huge barbecue sauce fan, so I stick with the meats as they are. As a friend of ours says, “You don’t eat barbecue for the sauce. You eat it for the meat. If you want the sauce, then just eat the sauce!”

We went to a spot that is quite popular and well known called Clark Crew BBQ, and it definitely impressed, not just for the quality of the meats, but also for the serving sizes of the vegetable sides we got. We started with an appetizer many Yelpers raved about, which I’ve never seen at a BBQ spot before: deviled eggs! And I’m so happy I ordered these: the deviled eggs had just the right level of creaminess and savoriness, all balanced by a small crispy piece of bacon on top, plus a slice of pickle on the bottom — a very well rounded bite! Then, we had brisket, ribs, and chopped pork, all of which were lip-smackingly delicious. The two sides we got were the coleslaw and the grilled broccoli — the portions were HUGE! The coleslaw wasn’t swimming in mayo, thankfully, and had a good level of crunch and sourness — it was likely the best coleslaw I’ve ever had anywhere that wasn’t homemade. And the grilled broccoli, which also got rave reviews, really was super tasty: grilled to perfection with bits of char, this broccoli very likely was grilled on the same grates that the meat was cooked on. Chris insisted that the broccoli had a meaty flavor, so it was no wonder so many people insisted that this was a must-order. How often do you go to a barbecue place where they tell you that a VEGETABLE is a must-eat?! Lastly, the cornbread was a bit too much on the sweet side, so that was the one tiny downside of the meal. But overall, we loved our experience at Clark Crew BBQ and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Oklahoma City. We also loved that the portion sizes for the meat weren’t so overwhelming. While we did have some leftovers, it was mostly our sides, and lucky us, as we have both a microwave and a fridge at our hotel.

Global Entry and TSE Pre-Check

My Global Entry status expired earlier this year, and given we had no idea when we would get vaccinated at the beginning of the year to be safe enough to get on a plane, I didn’t jump to renew it before the expiry date. When we finally did become fully vaccinated in May, Chris scheduled my Global Entry interview (part of the application process, even with renewals, unfortunately), but there were long waits and the earliest we could get was the last week of June. The plus side is that I didn’t need to go to the airport to do the interview in person, and instead, I was able to do a Zoom interview with a Customs Border Patrol officer. I did this on Sunday, and it lasted about 10 minutes with the usual routine questions (verify identity, employment, previous countries traveled to, etc.). The officer said I was approved, and it would go into effect immediately. I asked him if it would be as immediate as applying to my domestic flight this Thursday, and he said yes.

So I checked into my flight this morning, and when the AA app generated my boarding passes, the TSA pre-check symbol did not appear. Red flag. I thought he said this was immediately in effect? I double checked my TSA pre-check number, checked the website to ensure I was definitely re-approved. Everything looked good. So I called AA and asked them to check for me. After 15 minutes on hold after verifying my full name (no name changes, right?), date of birth, and Global Entry number, they got me back on the line and asked me to delete the current boarding passes and regenerate them after refreshing the app. Phew — thankfully this worked, and my TSE pre-check was reinstated. I would have been really pissed if I had gotten this interview done and was approved, and somehow there was a “waiting period” for it actually go into effect.

The experience of going through a regular non-priority, non-pre-check line in May was NOT fun. Chris kept making fun of me and calling me a pleb because he was able to get his Global Entry renewed in time for that trip. I never want to go through that again. Who wants to voluntarily take off their shoes and separate all their electronics and toiletry bag…?!

Pistachioland in New Mexico

One of the quirkiest things I found while doing research for our New Mexico trip was the discovery of Pistachioland, which is located in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I wasn’t sure this would be en route to any place we’d be going to, but we happened upon it while on a highway yesterday, and I knew we had to stop in for at least 20 minutes. Pistachioland is known for having the world’s largest pistachio statue; this may not be a particularly difficult feat, as I’m not sure anyone else in the world attempted to outdo this… It also is a piece of land that grows tons and tons of pistachios and sells pistachios in every possible flavor you can imagine, along with other pistachio products.

While there, we not only took our customary pistachio statue photos, but we also did some taste tests of the pistachios on offer. Of course, Chris chose the red chili pistachios to purchase. We were actually shocked that tastings were even possible since we’re technically still living in a pandemic. The shop was being pretty liberal, though, and they had signs saying that if we were fully vaccinated, we didn’t even need to wear our masks. In fact, a lot of shops around New Mexico had signs like this. We also got a Pistachioland magnet to add to our travel magnet board and tried out their pistachio almond ice cream. Unfortunately, it was how I imagined it: artificially colored bright green with very little actual pistachio flavor. Americans really do not show enough love for pistachios the way South Asia, the Middle East, and Italy do.

Pistachios are my favorite nut, so it was exciting to be able to say I’ve been here, though I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit.