Thursday, December 30, 2004

2004 In Review

Another year has passed by, so it's time to reflect, and time to make plans for the new year.

What did 2004 mean to me? It certainly wasn't a particularly good year. Globally, the situation in Iraq went from bad to worse with US losing control day by day; hundreds died in the Madrid train bombing; Japan and the US both experienced record numbers of typhoons/hurricanes and suffered severe damage; WTO predicted a bird-flu pandemic; a major earthquake hit northern Japan, leaving tens of thousands seeking shelter in school gyms. To top it all off, during the Christmas holiday season, a disastrous tsunami hit southern Asia, resulting in death tolls in the 100,000 range and rising.

On the personal front, although given more and more responsibilities at work, I have come to realize undeniably that I am not and will never be interested in what I am doing now as a profession. However, without knowing what I want to do, or what will make me feel happy and fulfilled, I am reluctant to let go of the one safety net - my job, and also the lifestyle that my paycheck allows me to lead . I suppose I should be thankful that Jason, Libby and I are all healthy, and we can all count on each other. I am grateful for that, but can you blame me for wanting a purpose in life, for wanting to find my true calling? My dad has always said that you need to look at your job as means to an end, it provides you with the financial basis you need to do what you truly enjoy. Maybe in reality it's true in most people's cases. But is it too much of a luxury to want to love what you do for a living?

Speaking of my dad, 2004 is definitely a bad year for him. He went from a highly energetic person who loves his job as a senior software developer to being bed-ridden, unable to work, and for a short while, not even able to carry out simple daily activities such as feeding himself. Countless tests and doctor visits later, the true cause of his mysterious illness is still not found. He now sees a accupuncturist twice a week and a powder mix of six venomous insects seemed to have put him on the right track to recovery. I hope 2005 will be a better year for him and he can make a full recovery.

So what's my new year's resolution for 2005?
1. I will try my very best to go to the gym three times a week.
2. I will try to be less wound-up and learn to relax once in a while
3. I will be more patient and not get irritated when Japanese drivers do stupid things to piss me off
4. I will play with Libby until she's had enough no matter how tired I am when I get home or how rushed I am to get dinner started
5. If 2005 is the year we leave Japan, we will take a driving trip to Hokkaido before leaving
6. I will plan at least one dinner party for eight people so our effort to haul back our dining table from Shanghai is not completely wasted7. And we will visit Tibet!

America the Great

So I've been back for more than a week now and since I was away for so long, I am experiencing a reverse culture shock. Here's a short list of things I find good and bad:

Good: the big-assed SUV Washington Flyer taxi that swallowed up our two suitcases without a blink

Bad: Pre-Christmas shopping madness with full parking lots and long lines at the checkout

Good: Post-Christmas sales at discounts you won't believe

Bad: Having the hardest time finding things in your size, when wasitlines are too big even on some size 0, but pant legs are too long because at 5'5" you are a dwarf

Good: Self-esteem is up when you compare yourself to the overweight American mass and think that maybe you can slack off on gym

Bad: Checkout clerks are so slow it's like watching them in slow-motion (I miss Japanese cashier's efficiencies)
Good: The self checkout at the supermarket that lets you scan and pay without the help of a cashier
Bad: Sales people who greet you and expect to be greeted back. Why am I obligated to answer the question, "How you're doing?" every time I step inside a store. Why can't they just be like the Japanese sales people, and simply bow and say welcome?

Good: Fountain sodas tastes much better than the ones you get in Asian countries

Bad: Portions are so big in restaurants that you share an appetizer and a main with your girlfriend and still have to remind yourself not to gorge

Good: Being able to buy produce at 1/6 the Tokyo price

Bad: Twenty-four isles of floor to ceiling grocery shelves, not one bottle of clam juice

Good: Wide roads, cheap gasoline, and cops ticket idiots who park on the road and block traffic

Bad: Having to drive extra carefully because without congestion, you might actually go over the speed limit and get ticketed

Good: Carrying only $50 in my wallet because everything can be paid in visa

Bad: Make it almost everything, because Neiman Marcus only takes AMEX and their own charge card. Whatever happened to "Visa: All it takes" or "'There are some things money can't buy, for everything else there is MasterCard"???

Great: Getting free wireless connection in the kitchen!

Friday, December 17, 2004

Lazy Woman’s Solution to Christmas Cards

This year, I am too lazy to even send out e-cards. I am wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year on my blog. I know it’s a little impersonal, but believe me each and everyone of you is on my mind when I send you my season’s greetings.

Anyway, I am off to go home tomorrow and will stay for two and a half weeks. My turducken is scheduled to arrive before Christmas and I will let you all know how it goes. If any of you will be in the DC area between Dec 19 and Jan 4 and want to catch up, email me!

Technical Matters

Only recently after browsing through some other people's blogs did I realize the lack of extra features on my blog template. Essential things such as Links is prominantly missing. So I decided to upgrade my template.

Searching blog's add-ons yielded free downloads of web counters and message boards. In an effort to create a fully-loaded blog, I decided to install them. The webcounter never worked for some reason, but the message board seems ok.

Next step was to add some links, but again, blog's suggested code didn't work. So I went to my friend Hsin-li's blog and stole her source code. Now I have a very short link section, yippy!

I also want to categorize my blog entries, divide up my profile to include Jason and Libby, so on and so forth. So many things to do but so little time!

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Demise of the Rosemary

It has always been my dream to have a luscious herb garden so I can pluck whatever is needed for dinner right from it, instead of paying exorbitant prices for a big bunch, from which I will only use one sprig, and let the rest wilt in my fridge. In the past, I have made numerous attempts to cultivate a little corner of scent and flavor in my humble little yard. There were the times when I took home pots of parsley from the grocery store, only to have them die before I ever got to use them. There was also that time when I got so excited upon finding mini-hockey puck like packed soil cakes pre-seeded with herbs in Tokyu Hands that I bought one of every variety. As soon as I got home, I took out little containers, filled them up with water, and floated my little soil cakes in them. They quickly soaked up the water and expanded, and within a week, I had baby hair like sprouts coming out of all of them. Yeay! My dream was finally about to come true! However, in the heat of the excitement, I had forgotten about our 10-day trip to the Maldives coming up in less than a week. I duly potted all the herbs before we left for the trip, but they did not survive the ten days without any water, even though I placed soaked towels under the pots. Since then, there had also been other store bought herb plants, mainly basil and parsley, but none lived long enough to grow to a size suitable for using. The plants sold in stores are so small that if I plucked the 3 leaves from the basil plant, I’d have nothing left but a stub. Why do they all have to be so fragile?

Enters the rosemary. The first time I noticed how sturdy they are were on our trip to Marrakech. The boutique hotel where we stayed was owned by a French woman and her American ethno-herbologist husband. During the years that they operated the hotel, he had covered the landscape with organic herbs and indigenous vegetables, with rosemary bushes everywhere. It was so abundant that we had a big sprig on our pillow every night and it’s featured prominently in the daily display of fresh wild flowers in our room.

Although I am a big fan of rosemary, it never occurred to me to grow my own. Why, I don’t need to! I have been picking it from that shopping center five minutes from my apartment. It’s a little open space surrounded by shops and restaurants, and rosemary bushes. Whenever I needed rosemary, I went there to pick the freshest. I did have to be careful and only pick those growing in high places, as you see, it’s also a popular place for people to walk their dogs and I didn’t want to find out how doggie-pee would smell on rosemary. Still, it would be nice to have my own stash so I wouldn’t have to suffer the suspicious looks on passer-bys' faces while I loot the rosemary bushes.

As luck would have it, the very next time I needed rosemary and went to pick it at the shopping center, I discovered rosemary plants on sale at the flower shop in the plaza. I gladly shelled out $10 for a plant that measured about 40cm in height and two smaller ones 10cm tall each. The big plant was very healthy looking and had so many leaves that I immediately used some for a rosemary bread. I then placed the plants in a sunny spot in my yard and watered them diligently every week. All things were going well and images of rosemary scented chocolate fondue and lamb chops in rosemary marinade danced in my head. Then I went on a business trip for five days, and entrusted the care of the rosemary to Jason. This is what I found when I came back.

Not a single live needle on the entire plant! How could it be? How can it die in just five days?! How is it that it can survive Marrakech’s desert climate but only lived for two short months in my yard? Jason denies any wrongdoing or negligence and suggested I collect the dried up needles for future use. But I don’t need dry rosemary! I have two bottles already. What I want is those plump, firm needles that leave a strong fragrance on your fingers for hours!

Luckily, the two smaller plants survived and are now sprouting new branches. My little rosemary plants, now the future of the herb garden lies in your hands (branches). If I have success with you, I shall give you some friends next spring. If you fail, I will have no choice but to go back to my rosemary-stealing ways.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Confession of a Procrastinator

I always say I work well with deadlines, but the truth is that without a deadline, I will keep on putting off doing something FOREVER. It’s one of my fatal flaws, I know, but recently, when I least expected it, it actually worked in my advantage.

A couple of months ago (September to be exact) my stupid Cartier Tank watch broke down again. This time also after a plane ride (this had happened before but being the procrastinator that I am, I put off having it checked). I was in Singapore for a wedding (Hi Imelda!) and after I came back my three-thousand-dollar-piece-of-crap (TTDPOC) stopped ticking again! It took me another month to send it in to the Cartier boutique in Shibuya because it is just so darn far (one stop on the subway) and I just didn’t have the time (I pass by Shibuya every week for my kimono lesson and sometimes go there on weekends too). Two weeks later, the boutique called back to tell me that they found the problem, and brace yourself for this: the TTDPOC had stopped because it was affected by magnetic forces. Dumbfounded, I asked where could the magnetic forces possibly be coming from? I went to Singapore, not to the center of the earth! The salesperson proceeded to tell me with a straight face (I imagined he had a straight face on at the other end of the line) that it could be a number of household appliances, such as microwaves, cellular phones, even PCs. So I am supposed to take off my watch when I make a phone call now? Ridiculous! But the best part is yet to come. They want $350 dollars to repair it. Do they realize for that amount of money you can buy a pretty nice watch? Flabbergasted, I told him to hold off the repair and let me think about it. And I took my time thinking.

This is not the first time the TTDPOC had broken down. It happened a year ago too, and I spent over $100 to have it fully checked and serviced. Now barely one year had passed and it’s on strike again? After “thinking” about it (procrasnating) for about a month, I decided that the TTDPOC is really a bottomless pit for me to throw money at. I am convinced that it’s a flawed piece to start with and there is no guarantee that it won’t break down again the next time I take a flight. I made up my mind to make a complaint to Cartier and wrote to my friend who works for the Cartier group and got some names.

It took me another couple of weeks to call the boutique and tell them that I decided not to fix the TTDPOC and asked for it back, along with all the service records. The girl on the phone seemed concerned that I wanted service records and said it would take another four days to get the watch back from the service center. Why would it take four days, you procrastinator! However, I was in no mood to bicker, plus what use do I have for the TTDPOC even if I got it back? So I decided to be big about it and let it go, but told her to call me once the TTDPOC returns to the boutique. I then went on my business trip to Shanghai.

After coming back to Narita airport, while waiting for my luggage to come out, I turned on my phone and found a message on it. It was from Cartier, the same guy who told me about the mysterious magnetic force fields that surround us. He blabbered on and apologized for quite a while before getting to the point: by the time I told them I didn’t want the TTDPOC repaired, the service center had already done it; since it’s their mistake, they are not going to charge me for it. Hmmm, how about that! Maybe I had always known that sometimes it pays to be patient (lazy) and waiting for the perfect time to do something (procrastinating) can have its rewards.

It has been a week since I got the message but I still haven’t found the time to go pick up my now functioning Tank watch. This time I gave myself a deadline: Friday, December 17th, just in time to test it the next day on our flight home.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Shanghai Night

I have always considered Shanghai my hometown, even though I only lived there for 11 years. But those were the most impressionable years and the fond memories are permanently etched in my mind. The food is hard to beat too so we trudge back to Shanghai every year, but the trips are always very rushed. A normal trip itinerary looks something like this:
Day 1 – arrival at 9pm, dinner with in-laws
Day 2 – send clothes to tailor to be repaired; get eyes checked for new prescriptions; lunch at grandmother’s place; visit DVD shops; dinner; get hair washed
Day 3 – pick up altered clothes; leave on a trip to somewhere else in China
Day X – return to Shanghai; pick up new glasses; last visit to DVD shop; dinner with in-laws; hair wash again if time allows; pack
Day X+1 – 8am leave for airport

As such, I never have any time to visit the new landmarks or do any sightseeing. You might think it strange that a person who grew up in Shanghai would have the urge to go sightseeing, but Shanghai is changing so rapidly that in the last 15 years since I left, the landscape has gone through a total transformation. I can no longer recognize even the street that I grew up on, let alone name the dozens of new skyscrapers that jump into your vision field everywhere you turn. Lucky for me, a recent business trip to Shanghai gave me the opportunity to do some touristy things.

It was my company’s annual Asian regional regulatory affairs conference, a.k.a. free trip to an exotic location. Granted, Shanghai is not exotic to me, but I welcomed the chance to go for some great food and shopping, on company time. After the first day of meeting, which lasted from 8:30am to 6:30pm, our Shanghai office arranged a night sightseeing tour after dinner.

A tour bus with an English-speaking guide picked us up at our hotel and took us to the Oriental Pearl, Shanghai’s multi-functional TV tower complete with three observational decks. At 468m, it is the tallest tower in Asia and the third tallest in the world.

Looking at the Oriental Pearl from its base

The tower sits on the east bank of the Huangpu river across from the bund (waitan in Chinese), the financial district of Shanghai’s colonial era. From the tower, the old customs house with the trademark clock and various bank headquarters can be seen across the river.

View of the bund

I found that the best spot to take pictures is actually the lowest deck. It is not enclosed in glass like the two upper decks so there is no problem with glare, and the open design provides some very much needed fresh air. It is from this deck that I took the following photos of my favorite skyscraper in Shanghai, the Jin Mao Da Sha, which houses the Grand Hyatt Hotel on its upper floors. It looks infinitely better at night, and always reminds me of Gotham city.

Jin Mao building

Another angle

In the Spotlight

Last week, after coming back from a business trip, I went into to look for something to cook, and what do I see on the top page but a picture submitted by yours-truly. On closer look, I discovered that my photo gallery has been featured on the “What’s New” section!, my cooking bible, featured moi on their front page!

“I would like to thank for giving me this chance to showcase my food pictures. It is such an honor just to have my username mentioned. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people whom I have subjected to my cooking. Thank you for being my guinea pigs! Most of all, I thank my husband, whose uncompromising taste buds and vehement objection to eating the same thing every week inspired me to be the best cook I can be…… (blah blah blah blah blah)

But alas, fame is so short-lived (one week). By the time you read this blog, the link to my photo gallery has already been removed. However, you can still look at the photos by going to the following page:

Monday, December 13, 2004

Walnut Sourdough?

Ok, that's it, my sourdough starter officially went on a strike. This loaf of so-called walnut sourdough was not only not sour, it even tasted a little sweet. What does it take to have a sour tasting bread?

But if you overlook the fact that it's supposed to be a sourdough, the taste is not bad.

Living with Shouji

I woke up on Saturday to this pretty view. This is the floor length window in our bedroom, with a paper screen (shouji in Japanese) on the inside. On most days, when I get up, it is still pretty dark outside, so this was nice for me: sleeping in and getting a visual treat. It is moments like this that makes me thankful for not having curtains, and forget about the annoying fact that these paper screens are screaming, "poke a hole in me!" We have six shouji in our three bedrooms and after two and half years of living there, not one of them is intact. Libby, Jason and our cleaning lady all did their fair share in putting holes of various sizes into the shouji.

Although unsightly, some serve very useful purposes. Take for example, the one that Libby created one night when she got super excited about some birds chirping ceaselessly in the tree (our very first hole, and after that it was like a dam had been broken). It is exactly her nose-height and the perfect size for her to peek out into the yard. So now, instead of asking me to open up the shouji, she just sits there with her nose through the hole and observes. Works for me!

The functionality of others are less obvious, like the one made by the cleaning lady while vacuuming, or the one where Jason put his thumb through trying to close the shouji. Those I will repair, some day, by pasting flower shaped patches onto them. I first saw them at a temple in Kyoto. Sakura and plum shaped paper patches were scattered on all the paper screens and looked really artistic. It took me a while to realize that they were not for aesthetic purposes alone and serve double duty as band-aids. You can always count on the Japanese (and Balinese) people to think of ways to make every detail look pretty.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Japanese Exaggeration Part II

I went shopping for food after lunch today in preparation for the teleconference I have this evening. It will last until 8pm and I didn’t want to be hungry and grumpy by the time it’s done so I planned myself an afternoon snack. I thought if I can’t overlook the fact that some idiot decided to have a teleconference on a Friday night, and right before my business trip to China too, leaving me with no time to have dinner with Jason, I could at least comfort myself with food.

After careful consideration, I plucked from the myriad of puddings and yogurt a hazelnut chocolate pudding touted to be “shifuku no dessert” (a dessert that will enable the eater to achieve the highest level of happiness). That alone should’ve tipped the alarm off in my head, but I love everything hazelnut so I happily picked up the tiny container with “flavorful and thick creamy chocolate” written across it.

Well, I just ate that “happiness inducing” dessert, and let me tell you I am not happy. Aside from the fact that it essentially tasted like Jello, I can’t believe I paid almost $2 for a 3 ounce little tub!

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Upside-down Libby

One of Jason’s favorite pastimes is to think of different ways to torture our sweet Libby. This shows the newest torture technique that Jason has come up with. (And you wonder why I don't want kids?)

Libby, being the sweet-natured dog that she is, is totally defenseless against such roughhousing. It took her years to realize that it can’t be a good thing when daddy approaches her with a. laundry basket; b. thick magazine; c. sofa cushion; d. a big grin on his face. She’ll try to run away while sweeping her tail from side to side wildly as if to say, “Daddy, please let me go.” If I am in sight, she’ll cast sideway glances my way, “Mommy help!”

But because of Libby’s unwillingness to throw a big fuss in order to defend herself, Jason always wins. Then Libby will have this resigned look on her face and remains motionless for the remainder of the torture session as if by doing that time can somehow pass quicker.

Of course I am also guilty of taking the picture instead of rescuing my baby from Jaosn's clutches.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Big Deal about the Gingko Trees

There is a famous Gingko Boulevard near my house. It is a big deal every autumn when the leaves turn golden and people from all over the country come to see the less than 500m of street, which is closed for foot traffic only on weekends. People “Oooh” and “Aaaah” over how beautiful the sunrays play off the leaves so they appear almost transparent; kids pick up bunches of fan-shaped leaves from the ground; old ladies collect gingko nuts that have fallen off the tree; and everyone is toting a camera.

Since this is our third year living in the area, Jason has long lost interest in this crowded event so I went alone with Libby last Sunday. While most people crowded on the four-lane street, I know that the best colors are found on the sidewalks, where the trees have more even colors and the pavement is painted yellow by fallen leaves.

Although I do enjoy the colors and am thankful that I live so close to an autumn-color landmark so I don’t have to fight traffic just to see some gingko tree turn yellow, it never fails to amaze me how exaggerating some of the Japanese can be. Every year, I can always overhear someone gushing, “Nihon de umarete yokatta!” (It’s so great to have been born in Japan) I rolled my eyes the first time I heard it and I still do it every time I hear it uttered. That said, I do appreciate the nice gingko trees and will probably miss it when I leave Japan.