Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I found cheap bagels a couple weeks ago. I think bagels must be a relatively new thing in Asia. I remember visiting korea as a kid; the only thing one of my aunts would ask for was 1 pack of bagels, which she would freeze and savor over a couple months. It was too bad we couldn't bring over cream cheese, she said she would dream about it.
When my grandmother came to stay with us for a couple months, she was very disconcerted about the bread with the hole in it. She looked at it like it was deformed, I suppose since she's so frugal she could reuse the same piece of aluminum foil for years. I told her the bread was supposed to be like that. "You pay for a hole in your bread?" and she shook her head, upset that we would let ourselves be cheated this way. We also took her to a dunkin donuts - which only led to more head shaking.

But bagels remind me most of the woman I worked for in college. I was her "personal assistant". The quotations make it sound shady, but I only mean it in that personal assistant doesn't really seem to fully cover my responsibilities. She hired me my first week in New York, the official job description was something like "letter writer", although the small print would have said 'laundry deliverer, personal shopper, courier, housekeeper.' I qualified for two reasons, good handwriting and naivety. Good handwriting because I wrote letters for her, and naivety because I never questioned anything she asked of me.

She was a single lady in her 60s living the wealthy life in New York, she was concerned with upkeep and playing the dating field.
The first time I'd ever heard of the concept of bikini waxing was from her. She wanted me to book her an appointment, "Brazilian" she said. "And ask them what Swarovski crystal designs they have.. or maybe well ask them if it interferes if I decide to go for a bit of a runway instead."

On my notepad, I'd written "Brazil? Swar crystal? being on a runway?" I thought she meant interfering with airplane travel.
It was a fun and instructive phone conversation.

She was on a very strict eating plan, which involved a detailed grocery itinerary. Diet Chocolate soda cans from a shop on the lower east side, vegan muffins from Avenue B, a 'small' portion of tasti delite in a 'large' cup. (I suppose that's psychological). I once came home with a medium size portion of tasti delite in the large cup because a worker had tried to be generous with me. I thought it was a nice gesture too, but apparently I had brought chaos into her day's food plan.
"What am I supposed to do? My GAWD what am I supposed to do? What can I possibly do?!"
thinking: "um... just don't eat all of it?" such a genius solution deserves a raise.

The lady had very specific directions that were also extremely vague. She would have made an excellent politician. Every day was a scavenger hunt, the shopping list she would leave on the desk for me would have descriptions like

"rice cereal puff, green and pink label, a bunny or a small child's face on it."
"lean cuisine meal - 135 calories, beef or lamb label with cream? fusilli?"
"currant jam french or italian brand, purple sticker label, picture of seeded fruit."
"salad dressing. swirly with seeds in it."

And every other week or so, she would buy a dozen bagels. I would get them fresh from a shop in the east village, these huge bagels the size of a face. When I got to her home I would carefully scrape out the filling with a sharp grapefruit spoon until all that was left was the rind. And on the counter when I left would be stack of autopsied bagels.

Of all the things, that was the thing I felt was so bizarre.

At the beginning I'd attempt to eat the inside part because I hated leaving it to waste, but it seemed kind of demeaning, and I couldn't ever finish 12 bagel fillings.

My grandmother would have shaken her head.

Monday, March 28, 2011

always summer

One of my students is a very clever girl, a rare thing I've realized. She's 10 years old and applying for boarding school. She manages to sit patiently through 2 hour lessons of mapping sentence grammar and gravely talk about world issues like the death penalty, environment, Libya, the problems of poverty, the middle east conflict.

Most of the time she gives very nuanced answers, but I can tell that there are times when steadfast childlike logic takes over. "Why can't we just tell them to stop fighting" was one. "Why can't we just split the land in half? Right in the middle." It's almost painful for me to have to respond with a counter argument, so that she has to consider the "worldly realities" when she has such pure answers already.

I know that increasingly simple answers are considered naive, and it's true that people with steadfast conviction and stubborn faith sometimes frighten me, but in a child, it is a lovely thing.
Anyway last lesson I asked her to write about a childhood memory, as a kind of break from essays about war and poverty. I thought like most girls she'd write about going to an amusement park, or her favorite birthday party. I asked her to read it aloud, and I soon realized she was writing about the last day with her dog.

It was a simple story about the dog she'd grown up with, one of two puppies that their family had adopted, one for her and one for her sister. Yellow Labradors with "gold fur the color of the sun's smile in summer" she said. Her dog had to be put down because of cancer, and she wrote that they'd had a picnic and a tea party so that "her dog wouldn't know what was going on", and that they'd taken one last family photograph in the mountains before they took the dog to the vet.

I had managed to hold it together, until the end when I rather unprofessionally started crying. "I used to worry and wonder whether there's a dog heaven. But I don't wonder anymore, because I can see her running there. It's always summer, and she looks so happy... I know that she's waiting for me like she always did."


The past year has opened up so much more of Hong Kong to me, it's like I've seen a completely different city. I've even gained more confidence in Cantonese.

The extent is still limited to pointing at things and saying "This!", and handing over the correct amount of money without taking several minutes to translate in my head. But I think it's mostly that the intimidation and fear has lessened. I have learned to buy baskets of dimsum from a sidewalk shop (shumai fish dumplings are only $14hk for a kilo.. which converts to $2US for a half pound? 10 ounces? something cheap), socks from the lady screaming into a loudspeaker (socks don't just sell themselves!), get bus money from the recycling men who pay for paper and metal by the kilo.

small steps.

After all this time my lack of cantonese ability has made me realize that I probably should have listened to everyone's advice and just began with mandarin. It only took me 2 years to accept this.

My mandarin teacher is a very jolly looking lady. She has a way of speaking that makes it sound like she's laughing at the same time. She also has a habit of smacking my arm when I don't answer correctly, or shaking my shoulder when I'm not speaking loudly enough for her. I'm never sure whether I should be afraid or laughing.

We sit at the coffee shop, loudly gesturing at each other. She likes to act out things, rather than explain them. And because I'm confused I mirror them back at her.
I'm sure we look like we're half-mad, especially because of the occasional smacking. But I've given up being self-conscious and any attempt at dignity. I'm trying to learn a language don't judge.

From the beginning, she has never taught me in English, so most of the time the lesson is her rattling something in mandarin and me saying "sorry shenme? what?" and then her smacking me and pointing her middle finger at my head, as in "Use your brain" until I finally figure it out.
Violent charades.

I'd made the point of telling her at the first lesson that I wanted hardcore teaching, tough love, none of this "Ni Hao" "Ni Hao" for an hour. I want tough! I'd said.
She looked skeptical, saying that Chinese education tough and American tough is different.

Apparently so.


I've been attempting to walk more ever since I was inspired / guilted by an article about a 90 year old man who runs the New york marathon each year... when he crosses the finish line, he celebrates by downing shots of scotch.

I was walking home from work the other day when I saw three women. They looked like the type of women my mother would go to church with. Frosted hair and manicured nails, color coordinated outfits from Talbots and Ann Taylor, and bags made of fabric patchwork.
For a moment I wondered if I was seeing projections, some mental flicker. But no there they were at the corner of Western district, the three of them huddled over a map, standing in front of a dried fish stall and next to a counter where a man was solemnly chopping the hooves off a pig's leg. They flinched each time he slammed his cleaver.

They were trying to look like they weren't lost, but unfortunately it was dinner rush hour, and they stood out, a solitary still island jostled by the waves of people pushing to catch a bus home.

I asked them where they were trying to go. And they turned to me, blankly relieved. They wanted to go see the light show they said. They were going to take the ferry to the pier, to see the lights from the harbor.
"I was so worried we'd" one of them said, her voice lowering to a whisper, "wandered into the wrong part of town.."
Wrong part of town? "Um.."
"You know like we'd accidentally crossed into the ghetto."
She giggled as she gestured around her. The man with the pig feet was still cleaving grimly and glaring at us.

I laughed too, couldn't help it. The ghetto? I guess she hadn't noticed my grocery bags.
"No this is not the ghetto... " Far from it lady... look at the cities in the U.S. "No this is a real nice area." Real nice area? my English. "Actually I live here. It's residential. Kind of like the suburbs. A real nice area." I repeated. Not really like the suburbs at all, but I didn't know what else to compare it to.

She looked slightly surprised, still unconvinced, like she wanted to say something, but she only said thank you.
As I watched them walk away, I wondered what it was that she saw. Perhaps it was just after seeing the chemical shine that is downtown central, the decapitated pigs and ducks hung by their long necks was a shock. The rows and rows of mysterious looking dried things set out on the sidewalk, the laundry flapping outside the windows of what seem like grimy buildings, the men with rolled up sleeves pushing carts of trash, the flickering lights of chinese lettering, the bamboo scaffolding with men sitting on it, while shoveling rice and chopped goose into their mouths.

I suppose I understood why they were confused. It's the panic of seeing any new place, it's hard to see past the foreignness. I remember the first time I saw New York, it was orientation week at NYU. I came out of 4th street station, duffel bag in hand, and all I could see were the rows of 6th avenue sex shops and the court where guys played pick up basketball, while people cheered and rattled the chain link fence. There was a small area of benches were people were sleeping and a man sweating in a huge coat was screaming into a megaphone and passing out pamphlets. And I thought oh no... what have I done.

Of course a year later, I was living behind those 6th avenue sex shops, and realized that what seemed like dark mysterious streets were actually expensive oyster bars and underground wine clubs. And the basketball court, a place for talent agents to scout new talent.

With more time, they would have noticed that within the rows of what seem like carelessly dried seafood, a fistful of dried maggot-like things is the cost of a small diamond, and a few dried phallic shaped sea cucumbers is worth more than a fabric pattern bag. They would have heard that the high humidity is what makes the buildings look rusted. And underneath they would have seen the buildings shine in pastel paint, robin's egg blue, mint green, and vivid orange.

As I walked the rest of the way home, I remembered riding the ferry by myself in the first year, whenever the dust and chemical clouds seemed to be suffocating and too dark. And I would watch the way dancing lights shone through the fog, like seeing the faint rainbows in spilled oil.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


The past weeks, I've moved on from self-help books back to fantasy. I guess I'd had enough of drawing mind maps and reading about list making and circular sleep cycles and mice.. Instead moved on to sci-fi vampires (the passage!), dragon eggs and war of the roses.
"nerd!" says the crowd

Someone recommended Game of Thrones to me - I can't remember who.. but I wish I could thank them, so good I finished it in a day.

I've been reading books on my phone, which is probably burning my eyes from the inside, but it's so addicting, and even better causes it's not embarrassing to carry. I used to read a book while I walked, but it looked pretentious and seemed to invite people to knock into me. Now I just look busy. I know that I should be spending my energy reading the law - but I guess reading pages and pages on debating the official procedures of how to "summon" someone (just summon them?) or "deliver a letter" (just deliver it to them?) isn't very compelling.

I finally taught my dog to shake hands. Maybe not that momentous, but after two weeks of bribing and begging - and finally to resigning myself that maybe my girl just wasn't the future Lassie ":shrug: who needs smarts anyway, my love for you is unconditional... Ahh please just shake hands!" she finally did it. sigh so proud.

sometimes I feel like I'm in that scene in the matrix, where neo is surrounded by numbers and code - except that while he reaches out with a hand in a cool keanu way, my life is like code fragments pouring down on me.
Dates are wrong, my timing is wrong or off by weeks. I prepped for an exam that was apparently a week later, I went to class and when I got there campus was closed (I was 2 days early), I tried to watch the super bowl, but miscalculated the time difference, then did the same thing with the oscars. I don't know what's wrong with me.

I have one very coherent memory about numbers from when I was a kid. We'd just learned the time tables in school, up to the 8s. 1x2 is 2. 2x2 is 4 blahblah - kind of an annoying chant that I was cheerfully chanting in the car on the way back home. To me it seemed more like a poem of sounds, rather than numbers. We pulled up to the garage, and my father, always the mathematician asked me what 8x12 was. I told him we'd only learned up to the 8s, 8x8. And he said that if I understood the concept of numbers I should be able to figure it out. And that I couldn't leave the car until I'd figured it out - and then he went inside, shut the car doors and locked the garage. My kindergartener brother stayed with me in the dark, and tried helpfully to count with his fingers and toes.

I think this was supposed to be my father's Gausss-like experiment - Gauss, the mathematician who as a child was forced to add all the numbers from 1-100 as a punishment, but then did it in like 5 minutes to the amazement of his teachers. He'd figured out some theorem.
Obviously I was not Gauss. or a prodigy. I didn't understand the concept of numbers. It took so long my father lost track of the fact that we were inside, because eventually he came looking for us, and asked us what we were doing in the car.

I'm still not sure what 8x12 is. hah