Wednesday, May 11, 2011

White Person Moment

After brunch, I biked to Starbucks and then found myself wandering through Whole Foods—ibook in tow tucked securely in my messenger bag, aluminum water bottle hanging by a carabiner. I picked up a vegan, raw, organic kale salad sprinkled with Chia seeds for dinner and sampled a gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free mini cupcake that tasted like crap (but they were selling it for a lot of money, so it must be healthy).

It wasn’t until I hit the refrigerated juice section and reached for the POM that it happened. A giant tear of joy rolled down my cheek to my Toms. I realized I had finally become what I had aspired to be—“Stuff White People Like”. To celebrate, I also picked up some Fancy French cheese and a bottle of eco-friendly wine. I can’t pronounce the name of either one, but a white person in the store recommended them so I bet they’re pretty good (and they were selling it for a lot of money, so it must be healthy).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Life Entertained

Avatar has earned over $2.5 Billion worldwide. Before I rant on, I’ll admit that Avatar was friggin’ cool—visually, theoretically, conceptually; I echo the praise of critics and “Avatards”. By the way, whoever came up with “Avatards” to describe overenthusiastic movie fans is a genius! You should have an avatar-you that’s sold in Toys “R” Us nationwide; I bet Trekkies would even buy it. Aside from mr. cheap bastard renting 3D glasses, I had few problems with the movie. Seriously, out of $2.5 Billion you couldn’t manage to provide glasses that were—get ready for the shock of your life—MADE IN CHINA? Once Avatar is out of theaters, what happens to the thousands of used glasses? I suppose they could be donated to a worthy cause as a tax write off, but I’m pretty sure Hatians are more in need of food, water, and shelter than they are of seeing Alice in Wonderland and Johnny Depp reprise his role as creepy man (once again turning a charming children’s tale into a week of horrific nightmares). Okay, I’ve said my peace. Avatar was all that and a bag of chips, but Hollywood could have been more generous with the accoutrement so I could have spent my $3.50 on a bag of chips.

Avatar was the iceberg tip of a bigger issue that I got to thinking about post 3D spectacles. Figures vary, but America spends between a gazillion to googabazillion on entertainment annually, which in the words of Edward Lewis is an “obscene” amount of money. The reality TV, iTunes junkie in me doesn’t blink an eye because I enjoy being entertained. On the other hand, the beauty pageant contestant in me that longs for world peace screams, “What’s it all for???!!!!” $2.5 BILLION? Avatar conveyed messages of environmental stewardship and peace—are any of its proceeds going towards these causes? How many people could be fed/clothed/vaccinated/sheltered with that money? Could we stop wars? Reduce national/world debt? Find a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s? End sex trafficking and slavery? Bring aid to countries that need medical attention and clean water? What if every dollar spent on entertainment was matched with a charitable contribution?

I’m being idealistic, but hear me out. As I walked out of Avatar I had this familiar feeling—the same one I get after listening to a favorite song on itunes or witnessing Broadway’s latest sensation. It’s the high of being entertained and then feeling ecstatic about the world that I live in. And then the worry sets in as I wonder, has life gotten so depressing that I rely on entertainment to remind me that the world is awesome and humanity, despite our flaws, is still amazing? Do we enjoy the arts purely for entertainment’s sake, or have we lost an inherent hope and belief in ourselves and our world that we need to be reminded that good still exists? Does our survival depend on constant entertainment?

Apparently Avatar was only the beginning and we should expect sequels, which will no doubt cost more and gross more. By the last installment we will probably be renting virtual headsets for the bargain price of $19.99 (on top of an inflated movie ticket price of $25). I’m hoping by that time my dreams of winning a beauty pageant are realized, my faith in society has improved, and I won’t feel a need to see the movie; because let’s face it, $19.99 buys many bags of chips, and if I feel like it I may even give a bag to the homeless and hungry guy waving the sign on the corner.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tipped Off

King County in Washington State has a 10% sales tax. Nationwide, etiquette suggest tips of 15-20% of the bill, although recently I’ve experienced a trend that pushes closer to 20%; anything less and you’re a cheap bastard. This means that if I want to eat out in Seattle and still hold my head high, this cheap bastard needs to budget 30% over the stated price on the menu.

I feel like the true spirit of leaving a gratuity has been lost. You eat out, you tip. You use the bathroom, you wipe your ass. In my mind, tipping a server is a nod to the quality of service. So why do I feel that some individuals out there expect a tip no matter what; as if they can provide crap service and still be entitled to a pat on the back. As someone who has worked in the service industry for many years, I know good service. I also know that service is part of the job. Good service, great service, even excellent service should not to be considered extraordinary measures—check your job description!

Yes there are exceptions to the rule. In Colorado, servers are paid well below minimum wage (around $2.30???) because it is expected that the majority of their salary comes from tips. If you are aware of this system in the state or county that you live in, than I believe tips do become more obligatory than gratuitous. The servers are in no way held to a less standard, but I may find a different way to express my dissatisfaction than leaving a small tip (unless you really piss me off).

Last thoughts (Confessions of an angry tipper)…

  • If we add 20% to a bill for outstanding service, why don’t we subtract for substandard service?
  • For the most part I don’t tip at coffee shops, bakeries, and take-out joints. Monkeys can serve coffee and probably do the foam better than some baristas out there, and they would be happy with a banana after their shift. You want a tip for getting my drip just right? The next time you see a banana in your tip jar, you’ll know who it’s from.
  • Chinese restaurants (and a selection of other ethnic and hole-in-the-wall restaurants) are the exception to all restaurant rules. Food is outstanding, but they aren’t known for great service, cleanliness, or ambiance. Despite the pitfalls, my generosity comes out at these eateries where the lack of atmosphere is more than made up by character and heart (and FOOD!). I also look at the employees and think, “This lady probably has kids at home and is working night and day to make ends meet. She’s way more deserving than the kid at Romano’s Macaroni Grill who spends his nights off playing PS3 and texting votes to the latest VH1 Celeb Reality poll.” Unfair judgment? Perhaps, but stereotypes exist for a reason, and just because you work at the Mac Grill doesn’t mean you can’t make my dining experience an orgasmic one. The rat at Chuck E. Cheese can, why can’t you?

Personally, I’m down with the European system of tipping where no one tips. Servers don’t expect tips, and diners never feel obligated to leave tips. Service professionals in Europe know the expectations of their job and they do it graciously and willingly. In America it sometimes feels like pulling teeth to get people to do their job? Do your job and I will gladly conform to the societal norm. And when I’m in Seattle with 30% hanging over my head, I will be the one ordering a glass of your finest tap water and a refill on the free bread basket with extra butter.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Blog Iceberg

Apparently I don’t know how to blog; good thing I never said I did. Today was the first time I opened up my blog in at least a year, and had actually forgotten how to get to it. Thank heavens for facebook (my official record-keeping system for all things sacred and holy) because it had a link to my blog so through my page I was able to navigate to my (other) page. Actually, it was my sister who first told me I didn’t know how to blog. Aside from the fact that most bloggers blog more than once a decade (actually, I did it 10 times over the last decade, which averages to once a year…boo-yah!), I’ve been told that it’s supposed to be more stream of consciousness, excerpts, and blurbs; not essays that have been proofread seven times over and sent to a copy editor. Oh, I get it…I’m writing a blog, not a dissertation.

Before I go any further in defending my blog-style, let’s review my first entry where the purpose of the blog was revealed.

“A word about this blog… Don’t like it? I don’t care. This isn’t for you; it’s for me…It’s my expression and a very cathartic one at that…Of course I hope despite my selfish intentions you will laugh occasionally and maybe you’ll gain some perspective that you didn’t have before. Maybe I’ll gain some perspective like blogs are stupid and a complete waste of time, thereby making this my first AND last entry. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted."

We all know that wasn’t my last entry, but it certainly wasn’t the tip of the iceberg either. Five months after that was written the iceberg just up and disappeared. Anyways, here it is in 2010 and I’m going to try my best to get back on the blogging bandwagon. Enough said, you’ve been forewarned.

So I guess I’ll see you in 2011?

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Flavor of Layers

In the culinary world, layering flavors in just the right way is considered a talent and a skill. Flavors should be balanced, bold but not overpowering, complimentary, and appealing. This is especially true for dishes that take hours to cook like 24-hour braised short ribs; classic beef bourguignon or coq au vain; and slow-smoked ribs. The best chefs in the world have the technical skill as well as the artistry when it comes to layering flavors. A mish-mashed pot of leftovers can become a symphony of high notes, low notes, background chords, and spicy percussion when married in just the right way.

I have a flavor theory that goes beyond the contents of the pot, straight to the pot itself. Your ingredients can be good and your flavors spot on, but I believe that a well seasoned pot can be a dish’s crowning glory. I think about this every time I’m at my Popo’s house with her cast iron pots that sit on the stove day in and day out, always with a thin layer of oil from the previous use, and the larger-than-life pots that are dented and discolored and these days only used for Chinese specialties like joong and jai. Food never tastes as good as it does at Popo’s house, whether it’s leftovers that have been reheated, or a simple breakfast of canned corned beef hash fried with frozen corn, oyster sauce, and a cracked egg. Maybe it’s the cook? Perhaps; Popo does have 84 years under her belt which is more than 3 times what I have. However, I also know that my food taste better when cooked at Popo’s house in her pots and pans, and my dad’s oxtail stew tastes better out of an old, heavy cast-iron dutch oven than it does out of an electric crock pot.

On a side note, my first cooking lessons with Popo consisted of:
“It only needs about this much…” (as she showed me on her pinky)
“About 4 times of shoyu around the pan…”
“A couple spoonfuls…not too much”
“I just measure the water with my finger” (duh)
“Always put one pinch of sugar”
This leads me to believe that I will never attain her level of cookery because the quality of her food is largely related to an inherent instinct, something woven in her DNA, than the ingredients themselves or anything a book could teach you (so much for my $20,000 culinary education).

Maybe her pots and pans are like a fine brandy- they get better with age. Or is it magic? How else can dishes come out so perfect without measuring and the “just right” be judged by sight, smell, sound, and feel? Or maybe, just maybe, each time something is cooked, another layer of flavor is added to the pot or pan itself, and that is how a pan becomes “well seasoned”. This means after 60 years of use, you not only get a taste of the dish in front of you, but every delicious morsel that came before it. Talk about depth of flavor… And what if in addition to the layers and layers of flavor, you were also tasting the years of love, sacrifice, heart, personality, good intentions, hope, and physical blood, sweat, and tears that went into putting food on the table. I’m talking about food that goes beyond pleasing the palate and pierces the soul. This is the stuff that makes your mouth water and your insides warm. This is how Remy won over Anton Ego in Ratatouille.

Well I’m no Remy, and I am certainly not Popo. I do hope though that over the next 50 years, as my pots age, so will my competency as a chef. Maybe then, by the time I’m 84 the contents of what I’m cooking will finally be worthy of the vessel they are being cooked in, and the layers of my life will be apparent in the flavors that I layer. That reminds me, I need to buy some pots, or at least put a claim on my inheritance.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Why I Resolve

What’s your New Year’s Resolution? I’ve decided that there is a critical question is missing in follow up to response.

“Why are you resolving to…?”

I’m more interested in the WHY than the WHAT. It is the “why” that establishes the seriousness of the resolution and determines its success. It is the “why” that sheds light on how I can support you in your endeavor and gives me a glimpse into your soul. It is the “why” that gives meaning and purpose to my resolutions. It doesn’t matter what your “what” is; if you don’t have a good “why” to back it up, plan on failing very early on in the year. Here are my whys

I resolve to dress my age (or at least my age as I would like it to be projected) and throw out any ill-fitting clothes and fashion faux pas. I still have a dresser in my room that at around 10 or 11 years of age my mom wrote on one drawer “At Home Only” and on another drawer “Going Out Okay”. So as you can see, I’ve been unable to dress myself appropriately for a very long time. I admit I have no style, I am not fashion-minded, and I often watch “What Not To Wear” and think to myself, “What’s wrong with wearing pajamas to the grocery store?”. Recently a friend gave me a gift card to a very trendy store and said I should go get some “fun” clothes because I don’t need to dress so “serious” all the time. Maybe I need to redo my drawers to read “Fun Allowed” and “Serious Occasions”?

I resolve to watch the news more and occasionally read the newspaper. I call my sister and brother-in-law the “Bad News Bears” because they are constantly watching the news and giving me updates about the various murders, hostages, killings, and violent crimes that are happening in the country and the world. I on the other hand try to avoid the news as much as possible because I enjoy being blissfully ignorant. No news is good news and good news makes me a more peaceful person. However, I am beginning to realize that as a citizen of the planet, it may in my duty to know what is happening in the world- good and bad. How can you begin to make changes if you are unaware of what needs to be changed and celebrate progress if you are unaware that any has been made?

I resolve to make myself available. This was my 2008 resolution, but I’ve decided to carry it into 2009 because it is applicable in every aspect of my life. Available to employment opportunities; travel and adventures; surprise relationships and unexpected friendships; new foods and cultural exchanges; spiritual awakenings and guidance from God; and personal growth. I don’t want my life to be a closed system…too easy to combust upon itself. Instead, I resolve to live a life that is open to the new and unfamiliar, although it maybe uncomfortable and scary, with the hope that new passages will lead me to THE greater, however that might be defined.

I resolve to live with less and give more. 2008 was a year of movement and as a result, I was forced to live with less STUFF; most of the time my “life” had to fit in a 50# suitcase and two carry-ons. I learned that I don’t need much. Sure it sucked and at times was a horrible inconvenience to not have my favorite things within useful distance, but I survived. I also got to witness first hand in China people who lived very simply in situations that could be labeled as “poverty” or “destitution”, but to them was just life. And then there were those who really were wanting. I passed them by- on the sidewalk, in front of a store, and even face to face- with the judgment and skepticism that I always do. Are they telling the truth? Are they responsible? Are they good people? The real truth is that I can afford to give of my money, time, talents, compassion, and convictions. The real truth is that I have too much stuff and I don’t need half of it. You can’t take it to heaven…

I resolve to read the Bible more. I’ve never gotten through a manual of any sort (TV, Cell Phone, Computer, etc…) and unfortunately, the Bible gets tossed in with the rest. I met some very intelligent and scientific students in China who were given Bibles. I could imagine them going line by line through each book as though they were reading an anatomy textbook. I could see them studying fervently, asking questions, and trying desperately to interpret and understand the principles and promises. They were curious and inquisitive, but more importantly, they were disciplined. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I haven’t seriously cracked open my bible in years, and sometimes even the Bible stories that I knew as a child seem to slip from my memory. I constantly ask myself what this life is all about and question how I will ever navigate through it, and yet I still ignore the one thing that could provide some clues…duh.

Finally, I resolve to pray and dialogue with God. The problems that exist in the world overwhelm me. I am slow to get involved (if I get involved at all) in part because the problems that the world struggles with- economic, political, social, religious, health, emotional, environmental- are so great that I don’t know where to start and I’m not sure that my mediocre efforts could actually make a difference. Excuse? Perhaps. But I’ve also come to the conclusion (as obvious as it may have been) that since I can’t solve the world’s pain and injustices, the only thing left for me to do is fall on my knees and pray, pray, pray. Pray for intercession; pray for grace; pray for God’s will; pray for salvation; pray for justice and peace; and pray for forgiveness. Sometimes all you can do is bow your head and then trust that God hears you and be patient while waiting for His plans to unfold.

My wish for this year is that our “whats” would be propelled by our “whys”. We need to remember the meaning behind our good intentions and let that be our fuel for the year. Your resolution might be stellar, but if you forget why you resolved it in the first place, consider it a lost cause.

Happy New Year! Cheers to the why.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sports Enthusiast

NOTE: $1 USD = ¥7 RMB

The following is a true story, that takes place in China, of one woman’s mission to get a deal and one shopper owner’s quest to NOT give a deal. Do not try this in America as it may result in embarrassment and possible arrest.

WOMAN: How much is this purse?
SHOP OWNER: How much you give?
WOMAN: You tell me how much you want.
SHOP OWNER: Okay, okay, okay. For you best price because you are first customer of the day. I give you good deal- no one else get this deal. Usually it
¥600 but for you only ¥350.
WOMAN (laughing): No, no, no. Too expensive.
SHOP OWNER: Okay you tell me how much. What your best price?
¥50??? You joking! I tell you give me best price, no joke price. Okay, I give you best price beautiful lady…¥300. This best price.
WOMAN: That’s okay- I don’t really need it.
SHOP OWNER: Okay wait, I give you good price because we friends.
WOMAN: No, seriously, I don’t need it. That’s okay.
SHOP OWNER: Wait, wait, wait- you give me best price. More than
¥50. ¥50 I lose money. Serious price. No joking.
WOMAN: Maybe
¥60? Only 10 more? Here is best price- ¥150. Serious- I lose money. No lower.
¥70. That’s my final price because I really don’t need it and I don’t want to waste your time.
¥70? Okay, ¥100. Final price. You want?
WOMAN: No. Sorry- I can’t go higher than
¥70. That’s okay. (Walks away).
SHOP OWNER (Shouting): Okay wait…
¥90!... ¥80!
WOMAN (Shouting back):
¥70- no more than ¥70!
¥75- only 5 more!
¥73!...okay, okay, okay…your price. Come back, come back.
WOMAN: Xie Xie!

Did I really just bargain over 42¢? Yup…and I’m proud of it! It’s taken me 27 years, but I finally found a sport that I excel in. It doesn’t involve balls, running, or special shoes; it is open to all ages, races, shapes, sizes, and gender (although females tend to excel more than males); and when played properly, you can win every time. In bargain shopping there are some basic rules and a few techniques that will increase the odds in your favor, but the game is easy to learn and many become addicted after only a few rounds.

Rule #1: Go Low or Go Home. Your first move sets the pace for the entire game. Aim to pay no more than 30% of the asking price for most items, meaning the first price you lay down should be between 10-20% of asking to allow you some wiggle room. Shop owners expect you to make a counter offer so do not be afraid to offend with a seemingly ridiculous low-ball proposal. Keep in mind that sellers will not sell an item at a loss, and your objective is to figure out just how low they will go.

Rule #2: Don’t Go Out of Bounds. You are playing to see how low a seller will go, and they are playing to see how high you will go. Prior to stepping into the arena, have a price ceiling in mind and then stick to it. Sellers will also try to get you to buy everything under the sun so be specific about what you are looking for. If you are only in the market for a wallet, only look at wallets. It is easy to get suckered into buying more than you intended because the deals are so good (and often you will be promised a better deal if you buy more). However, if you only wanted a wallet and end up walking out with the full series of “Alf” on DVD, Hannah Montana boxers, and an I-Pod that only reads in Chinese, the seller has won. Trust me; no one looks good in HM underwear.

Rule #3: Play the Field. In large bargain centers, every third stall is selling the same thing whether it is Paul Frank bras, Gucci shoe laces, DVDs and MP3 accessories, or Louis Vuitton magnets. Visit different vendors to test the waters and figure out price points. If two or three sellers let you walk away from a sale, you know your price may be too low and you might consider going up a few cents at the next guy (and only a few cents…let’s not go crazy here). Shopping around will also give you a chance to compare the quality of goods. Merchandise is not created equal and everything should be thoroughly inspected and tested prior to closing a deal.

Rule #4: Know Your Opponents. Maybe the sellers are having an off day or maybe they hit the jackpot with some poor, inexperienced sap the day before, but you will run into sellers who aren’t interested in playing the game. You will know the non-players because they will be unwilling to bargain, they won’t try to become your new best friend, and they may even ignore you all together. These are lame duck sellers and if you choose to engage, you will most likely not get a good bargain because it takes two to deal. The best people to play with are those that will run after you, yell to you from across the way, grab your shirt, and even bike after you in your rickshaw (the latter of which I scored my Mao watch from). It’s a little like the dating game in this regard, because you need to be aware from early on that if “He’s (or she’s) Just Not That Into You” it’s time to walk away.

Rule #5: Everyone and Everything’s a Fake. Bargain shopping is like poker- you need a face for it and you need to learn how to bluff. Walking away, making sad faces, and acting indifferent are all part of the game; techniques that will drive the price down. You may say “I don’t really want it” even though on the inside you’re peeing your pants over how perfect it is, and they will ask for
¥500 even though they bought it for ¥30 and are willing to take ¥75. As for the goods, “technically”, knock-offs are banned from being sold so you should “technically” not find them in an markets, and if you do run across any faux products you should “technically” not buy them. I say, what happens in China stays in China, unless that Prada bag unknowingly happens to find its way into your suitcase and you get the shock of your life upon your return.

Rule #6: Know Your Limit. Around the seventh hour I begin to fade and break down. Bargain shopping is a physical and mental game that requires stamina and vigilance. Do not let sellers take advantage of you in a weary state and do not allow the opponent see you crumble under the stress. The best athletes in the world know that when you are not at the top of your game it is important to walk away, because playing below par can be more detrimental than not playing at all. After a few hours of going back and forth with sellers, you may find yourself becoming soft and conceding too early in the deal. At this point it is essential that you cease all activity and either call a time out to rejuvenate or pack up for the day and reconvene at another time.

I’ll admit that I have pondered the ethics of the bargaining game and the values it encourages. Is it wrong to fight to save
¥5 RMB (71¢) especially when I know that the seller is much more underprivileged than I am? Am I taking advantage of the game and my opponents, or am I actually doing them a favor by supporting the economy? Is it a waste of time to spend the entire day cooped up in a crowded shopping plaza instead of exploring one of the oldest and most influential countries in the world? Will my quality of life really decline if I don’t buy those Dolce & Gabbana socks? I can’t answer a lot of these questions. Well, maybe I can and I just don’t want to. What I can tell you is that the Chinese are arguably some of the best business people in the world. Wheeling and dealing is in their nature, and if they can make a buck they would sell you the clothes off their back (literally). Maybe I’m just a product of my DNA; genetically inclined and naturally gifted at bargain shopping. If that is the case (which I like to believe it is) I don’t feel as bad for pocketing the 71¢ because if I didn’t do it, the other guy would; and besides that, a true sports enthusiast never gives up a point without a fight.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Aloha, Soap, & Guava

In this entry I have to give a shout out to Hawaiian Airlines. I'm not playing favorites, because I usually book flights based on price and price alone, but I have to admit that there is something very special about flying on Hawaiian, especially when returning to the islands. The seats are still cramped; the food is nothing special (a 7-11 spam musubi would be better); and they have as many fees as the other guys, but there are some unique touches that make them distinctly Hawaiian and why I continue to fly the friendly skies.

1. "Aloha" & "Mahalo". At 6 am in Seattle when I'm still half asleep and lugging 100# of baggage (that I will beg to not be charged for), it's nice to be greeted by the friendly Samoan guy at the check out counter. Hearing it again at the gate and then about a dozen times throughout the ride makes me smile because I know that I'm that much closer to home.

2. I hate going to the bathroom on a long flight, but washing your hands with the coconut soap on a Hawaiian flight makes it all worthwhile. It doesn't completely mask the smell of the lavatory as you near the 5 hours mark, but it certainly doesn't hurt and I consider it a little gift of aloha that you can take back to your seat. I can’t speak for everyone, but my seatmate certainly seemed to enjoy it when I waved my hands in front of her face and forced her to smell it.

3. Guava juice is a must on any Hawaiian flight. Whether it’s those 4 oz. containers you get on the interisland flights or the Hawaiian Sun that is available on longer trips this is your first taste of the islands. In fact, you would be better off skipping the turkey sandwich and pesto pasta that they offer (and try to pass off as local favorites?) and just drink Guava juice.

There's little speech that is given on most flights landing in Hawaii, especially on flights from the mainland. It goes something like, "If you're visiting the islands, we hope you have a pleasant stay. If you are returning after being away, WELCOME HOME”. Okay, perhaps the soap and the guava juice don't make the trip. Seriously…as if sugar water and artificial fragrances could ever beat coming home! Still, there is something about all the little touches that make the flight special- check-in agents with flowers in their hair, Na Leo and Willie K playing while I board, flight attendants that speak pidgin- and make me feel at home 5 hours and 38 minutes earlier than expected.


Let’s review some of my favorite Chinese traditions…

1) Hawking a loogey. If throat clearing was an Olympic sport, the Chinese would take gold. In fact, I’m pretty sure at this past Olympics officials witnessed the skill and fervor with which the Chinese approach the activity and are considering it for 2012. Clearing your throat and spitting is a national pastime. It crosses all social, economic, religious, ethnic, gender, education, age, and political barriers and is not bound by any rules regarding time, place, or frequency. Stand on a street corner in China and you will hear the “aaahhhhgggccccchhhkkkk….ppppttt” (sorry, my pin yin is not that good) more times than your heart beats.

2) Honking your horn. There are four rules when driving in China. 1) Bigger and faster vehicles have the right of way. 2) Reversing and coming to a complete stop is never necessary. 3) As long as you can fit, lanes and lines are irrelevant. 4) Pedestrians never have the right of way. Whereas honking your horn in America is often seen as rude and unnecessary, horn honking in China is a life vest for drivers and pedestrians alike. It is a communication tool used to tell unknowing elderly pedestrians and bicyclist that you will be careening around the corner; opposing traffic that you will be crossing the solid yellow line and are ready to win a chicken fight if necessary; and small children that you will be creating an extra lane on the sidewalk so they had better find somewhere else to walk. It is obnoxious at first, but eventually the blaring horns become their own symphony. Hearing horn after horn reminds you that the city is alive, and thankfully, so are you.

3) Squatting. No, this isn’t just a potty pose. In America we stand or sit and in China they squat. Eating, playing games, waiting for the bus, cleaning vegetables, washing clothes, talking with friends, picking your teeth/nose/ears, and people watching are all appropriate activities for squatting. You will see it on side streets in traditional hutongs as well as main streets in bustling Shanghai. Is it a tradition derived from the art of tai chi or just a habit formed out of necessity? I don’t know. I do know that everyone does it and eventually, if you can’t beat ‘em you must join ‘em.

Cultural norms are funny, because although you may think that “normal” is standardized across the board, it is actually very subjective. Traveling forces you to reconsider what normal is. You realize that your view is small and abnormalities as you see them aren’t that abnormal after all. In fact, after a little time away you may (and probably should) begin to wonder if perhaps the only abnormal thing in life is you. After a month in China, the things that made me flinch and cringe at the beginning of my journey became just another hum-drum whatever. They were commonplace; no double-takes, raised brows, or “what the…?”. “Normal” is just a state of mind, and if you are unable to get over your small-minded expectations of what should be, you will end up with a big, annoying headache. Stop living in what should be and get on board with what actually is. If you can’t get over yourself long enough to laugh at the world (yours, mine, and ours) with the rest of us, you might as well crawl back into the box you came out of weird-o.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

$4 A Day

I am a self-proclaimed Food Network junkie. Some people like to window shop for things that they don't need and can't afford; I like to watch people cook excess amounts of food that I don't need and eat at restaurants that I can't afford. If you're familiar with FoodTV, you probably know the show “$40-a-Day”, where Ms. EVOO herself, Rachel Ray, shows you how to eat 3 meals on only $40 a know, for the budget traveler.

EXCUSE ME? Since when did $40 become "budget travelling"? I hate to say it Rach, but in the real world your meals take 60-90 minutes to complete, and eating for $40 a day when you are on a budget is a luxury. Take it from a real budget traveler (and lifer); if I had a TV show it would be called “$4-a-Day” and this is how it would go...

BREAKFAST: If you believe in 3-square meals a day, you will have to stretch your pennies a little further than those of us who sleep until noon and only fill up twice a day. If you must eat breakfast, go to a grocery store. A box of 6 granola bars will cost you around $2 (~$0.33/bar), and if it helps, you can cut the bar into 4 pieces to give the illusion of plenty.

LUNCH: Lunch needs to be very strategic and is all about "Location, Location, Location". Because dinner tends to be the most expensive meal, you will want to save most of your money for later in the day and be very innovative at lunch. Here are my top picks for the budget diner (in no particular order):

1) COSTCO- The majority of Costco's red & white checked sampling tables roll out between 11:30am-1:30pm. Once you enter it is essential to come across as a serious consumer. The sample wardens have a sixth sense for “vultures” and when they sense an imposter they tend to be stingier with the product. On that note, make it appoint to strike up a friendly conversation with the demonstrators- ask questions; lay on the compliments (“You work that microwave with such ease…this is delicious!”); and of course, always load whatever they are selling into your cart (you can always put it back later). Costco does attract a lot of rug rats (a.k.a., children). They are your main competition, because the consolation prizes for being dragged unwillingly to Costco, when they would rather be idle in front of a virtual game console, are promises of treats and tasty morsels. Stand your ground and do not let any tiny grabbers take what is yours. On the way out, it is acceptable to stop by the food vendors and grab a fountain drink for $0.55. Stay there long enough to finish your beverage and fill up again before getting in your car; you may even consider saving the cup for your next visit.

2) WHOLE FOODS- Whole Foods is a horrible place to shop on a budget, but is a $4-a-Day dream because they leave samples out all day. And on days when the “buffet” is lacking, you still have the produce and cheese departments that will be happy to cut into just about anything so you can experience the full flavor of what others will buy. WF also usually has coffee samples, so you may consider morning visits to get your day started right. For those of you who are picky eaters, WF provides calendars of their special tasting events so you can pick and choose when you want to show up. And finally, WF bumps up their samples (quality and quantity) around major holidays and events; my favorites are Super Bowl weekend, Thanksgiving, and Easter.

3) GREAT HARVEST BREAD COMPANY- If you like bread, stop at GHBC where the options are plentiful and the sample slices are thick. It is tougher to fill up at GHBC because the stores are small and going incognito isn’t always an option (unlike Costco and WF where you can do 2-3 laps), but it is nice to have a full slice of bread to munch on instead of having to go back a dozen times for 1 cm. cubes of dried out crumbs like you do at other stores.

4) FARMER’S MARKET- The downside of farmer’s markets is that are not always convenient. They happen on certain days, some are seasonal, and they often rotate locations. However, when you find a good farmer’s market, the payoff can be huge. Farmer’s markets are great because they have a variety of goods (produce, meat, cheese, pastries, coffee, prepared foods, etc…), and they also offer a lot of organic products for the environmentalist out there. For those of you who are nutrition minded, this is the best place to get your “5-a-Day”. I will warn you that competition at these markets is fierce as they tend to attract all types of people. The upper echelon who wouldn’t be caught dead bulk shopping at Costco, will show up at the farmer’s market to sample local, award winning spring, grass fed, bottled burbed goat’s cheese, cave aged in imported lotus leaves; and raw, vegan, 15-grain, organic, soy-cheese blitzes with a flax-cocoa nib-raspberry chutney.

DINNER: If you’ve followed the game plan, by dinner you should have about $3. This is when you hit the 99 cent value menus at your favorite fast food. It isn’t the most nutritious choice, but when you’re broke and working late (because you took an extended lunch break to hit up Costco, Whole Foods, and GHBC), it’s there and it’s cheap. Feeding a family of 5 is easy, because at $3 a person you have $15, which right now will get you 2 medium-2 topping pizzas, 5 burgers with small fries, or a bucket of fried chicken. There is something to say about the connection between low incomes, affordability and availability of health foods, and obesity, but we’ll save that rant for another day. Instead let’s talk about dessert at Baskin n’ Robbins, which has 31 flavors that need to be tested for quality control purposes.

Of course, if you really want to eat cheap, move to China! You’ll live like a king (or queen) or pennies a day. The best part about it is that since you will inevitably contract some sort of virus that will have you visiting the squatty potty on the hour, you can eat whatever you want and never put on a pound! Now that’s what I call a real bargain.