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Currently reading Elaine Lui’s Listen to the Squawking Chicken

elaine-lui-listen-to-the-squawking-chickenI will say upfront that I don’t follow Lainey Gossip. My general, uninformed impression, lumping Lainey Lui with all other entertainment reporters spilling celebrity gossip as if it were newsworthy, is that they are brazen and usually nothing short of annoying. In the “Whose City is Better” game I am not playing with my sister – who clearly doesn’t like Lainey Lui – she’s happy to point out Lainey Lui is from Vancouver. Actually – but I bit my tongue – Lainey Lui originally comes from and has now returned to Toronto. And somewhere along the line, I read that on her blog, she refers to her mother as the “Squawking Chicken.” Well, isn’t that just full of shock value and disrespectful?!

Yet, I am definitely intrigued by Lainey Lui. As a blogger, who doesn’t dream of getting to blog for a living? To have a glamourous job including going to movie award ceremonies and attending the after-parties? And now Lainey is a co-host on The Social, Canada’s answer to The View. Just five years older than I am and Cantonese-Canadian, I got the feeling I would understand where Lainey comes from. So, when I learned she was publishing a memoir (sort of), I put a hold on a copy from the library. Despite the gaudy title, Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When Mother knows best, what’s a daughter to do?

First thing, I learned that Squawking Chicken (SC) is not some rude nickname Lui gave her mother on her blog for giggles. It is a nickname Lui’s mother’s childhood counterparts gave her because she is unabashedly loud, but she coopted it to describe her inner strength and ability stand up for herself. The SC doesn’t give herself (too many) airs that she is a regal or mythical creature like a dragon or phoenix. A chicken is a common and lowly creature with no beauty. I can’t find the character for “Tsiahng Gai” which is what they called her but I think I’ve heard my mum use the word “tsiahng” before and it goes beyond “loud and shrill” and means more like “coarse, gaudy and vulgar.” Which is an example of just how colourful the Cantonese language is. :D

Lui and the SC’s life stories are revealed in a series of 10 essays each with a theme or lesson and powered by three or four anecdotes. Amidst the essays, we learn about the SC’s journey to date – from the unappreciated daughter of gambling addicts in Yuen Long (just outside Hong Kong) to a successful entrepreneur in Hong Kong to the harsh reality of being an immigrant in Canada and parenting her only child, Lui. We learn about the SC’s values. It is – as I often say – the kind of non-memoir I want to write: disjointed but gets the point across within a chapter. Lui writes with a similar voice to how I’ve heard her speak on television – direct, hilarious and colloquial. It is refreshing but I think panned by critics.

Reviewers, for lack of a comparison, mentioned Amy Tan (Joy Luck Club and other mother-daughter stories) and Amy Chua (of Tiger Mother fame) to describe Lui’s story. Neither describes it correctly. It is a story about a mother and a daughter but the SC’s story has gruesome with real-world details and it is far from a perfect, happily conciliatory Asian Hallmark ending. Lui’s mother is not an elegant and eloquent Tiger Mother like Amy Chua who tries to frame her demands in a selfless-looking manner. Instead, the SC speaks to the lowest common denominator and Lui is not, like Chua, advocating the SC kind of parenting.

I saw that ratings for the book were not good and I resisted from reading any reviews until I finished the book myself and formed my own opinion. It was panned for not having development, a conclusion and for being written in a style suited for a blog and not a book. Which is exactly why Lui had the disclaimer that it’s not a memoir! We are so accustomed to reading novels and memoirs with profound lessons and sweeping aphorisms like it is appropriate and necessary to have a tidy mid-life conclusion. The SC and Lui are alive and kicking and so the essay-style book essentially leaves off after a round number (10) of themed essays. After all and all, things are good the way they are in the Lui family.

As usual, there are parts – a lot of them – when I felt like I was reading about my own life. What I look for is the parts that especially hit home, that reveal something I thought only I could reveal. Like Lui’s relationship with Bobby that was so blinded by teenage love and rebellion it hurt me to read it because I could understand it. The lesson SC could articulate was better than my mother ever could (who basically only yelled at me for being so stupid and told me to concentrate on school):

“”He won’t love you for very long, you know? He won’t love you because right now, you’re not worth loving.”…
I was officially less-than.
And I was judged to be less-than, not by my own mother, but by someone else’s. It’s the shame that endures, you know? The shame lasts so much longer than the heartbreak.”

These days, I feel surrounded by squawking about feng shui. Seriously. My mother isn’t particularly adamant about it and I want to think I’m above all of the voodoo-hooey, but the in-laws are more circumspect, especially since major life events are taking place, like weddings and home-purchasing. I have heard of the same belief Lui has about not buying a house with a staircase aimed at the doorway and I will notice it in houses I visit. Lui would not buy a house with this feature and I might not either. (Funny anecdote: my wealthy aunt was warned not to buy a house because the staircase pointed at the door which signifies a conduit for money to go out the door but she liked the house and is a modern woman and said, “Let it then!”) These days, I’m being pressured on all sides about the mirror-closet door at the foot of the bed in the master bedroom. I heard about it in Joy Luck Club (movie) and when Lui mentioned it, well, now I’m convinced to do something about it!

One topic that I would not have expected to ever read in print was the exposition of the SC’s definition of and crusade against “low classy”:

“Low Classy is the term the Squawking Chicken uses to describe coarse behaviour. Leg jiggling is a coarse motion. There is no elegance in leg jiggling. There is no refinement. On the few occasions I jiggled my leg as a child, Ma would slap me on the thigh, stare me down with the death eyes, and scold me, loudly, of course: “That’s so Low Classy. I don’t care if you’re the Queen, if you’re jiggling your leg you may as well be a degenerate on the street corner.”

Omigosh, that is exactly what my mother is like. She notices and despises and points out leg jiggling and admonished me when I was young and dared to do it. Mum also sees people in terms of “have class” and “low class” and raised me that way, too. It was just hilarious to see how my mother has that in common with SC – it might be a Hong Kong thing. Another funny thing is how Lui and I see our mothers as hypocrites telling us not to be “low classy” but exhibiting it themselves – bad habits creep in as ladies age and they become more “Chinese” (I feel it happening to me too). We saw it when we were young and our middle-age mothers are a touch uncouth. Hah! (My mother, of course, would look at this comparison superficially and deem that they are absolutely not alike. The SC is “so low class” and “tsiahng” because she plays mahjong so much while mum is a cerebral and educated businesswoman. Lack of empathy much? As Lui displayed, the SC is severely lacking in empathy.

The part that reminded me most of the Amy Chua’s parenting, of course, was about the shaming SC did of Lui. When Lui pulled a stunt that willful children would, the SC drove home the lesson with public shaming, to her close and wider social circle. It almost seems prescient of the SC, as if she knew Lui would become a public figure – but the logic applies to anyone who wants to freak out a child to be intelligent and sensible and mindful always.

“Ma was preparing me for future criticism: “My criticism of you always comes from a place of love. But as you get older, your critics won’t love you. They will criticize you to hurt you. I’m preparing you for criticism that comes from your enemies.”… Ma was constantly pre-shaming me, humiliating me in advance, making me afraid of the shame so that I’d never be foolish enough to earn it.”

The dark and ugly truth touched me the most. The SC – like a real mother not touched-up in a glossy memoir – is deeply flawed and not unconditionally giving. She didn’t transform into a magnanimous martyr upon motherhood and is lacking in empathy and wouldn’t ever know how to articulate her intentions nicely. In a girl’s formative years, it is really difficult to have this kind of parent. It’s difficult even to stop seeing the streak of selfishness in this kind of parent.

“I realized then that the tragedy wasn’t Bobby leaving me. The deepest cut was that my experience with Bobby led me to realize the Squawking Chicken’s greatest fear: I had become her. And worse still, I didn’t have to. Ma gave me every opportunity to avoid being powerless so that I would never be at the mercy of a man. And I had voluntarily put myself at the mercy of a man the way she seemed to always find herself at the mercy of them. This force of a woman, with the most indomitable spirit I have ever known, a phoenix seemingly undefeatable, didn’t want me to be like her at all.
Nothing is more humbling than to know your mother’s darkest truth. The Squawking Chicken’s darkest truth was that her wanting me to be more-than was based on her belief that she was the one who was less-than. It’s up to me to prove that she isn’t. That started by loving smarter. For both of us.”

That really hit the nail on the head for me.

Unless there is a gross misrepresentation, Lui’s exposé-style (sort of) memoir is exactly what she needed to write for her mother – the belligerent, the Squawking Chicken, with as many victories as losses, who protects herself by not hiding things and wouldn’t mind the exposé so long as it is true. I love how the SC puts it:

“Every tiger has a roar. You are my roar. Now don’t be so stupid. Otherwise you are just wasting my roar.”

My fabulously glamourous Saturday night

This past weekend, I had the great honour and privilege to be a guest at the wedding ceremony and reception of Joseph Fung and Michelle Tam. Of the 1,200 guests at the evening gala at the “new” Vancouver Convention Centre West, I cannot imagine how many are business associates of the father of the groom, Thomas Fung, founder of the Fairchild Group. We were guests by being related to the bride. :)

I wondered how much media coverage the event would receive but you know what? A great deal of it would just escape me because it is in Chinese. I have tried to search Ming Pao and didn’t turn up anything the next day or today. I did see The Globe and Mail article which was light on details. So, here is the inside scoop.

Being part of the bride’s family, our festivities started really early at the bride’s family house with door games played by the groom and his groomsmen followed by a tea ceremony for the bride’s family. A private ceremony for over 100 guests took place at the groom’s family home in Vancouver. It was an outdoor ceremony and although it sprinkled then rain changing to gusts blowing the precipitation sideways, all of this was anticipated and we were nicely sheltered under tent and parasols. I believe, but did not attend, that a tea ceremony for the groom’s family was then conducted inside the groom’s family house.

At the behest of the mother of the bride, we were at the convention center – my favourite venue in the city – rather early, ahead of the cocktail reception. The entire west half of the main floor including two ballrooms, the atrium area and outdoor terrace were (including where Digital Orca stands) was reserved for us for the evening. The entrance to the atrium was lined with green hedges that flanked a gate with “M” and “J” spelled in pink flowers. Fabulous.

Inside the “garden”, chefs from Culinary Team Canada prepared thousands of servings of a dozen different hors d’oeuvres.

To not hover impolitely, we wandered around, starting with checking out the decadently decorated ballroom. On alternating tables, tall vases displayed floral arrangements dripping with white orchids and glass beads or hydrangea and orchid flowerballs. The wedding party (14 in total) would sit at a long head table with their back to the floor to ceiling windows overlooking Burrard Inlet and North Vancouver. Two dance floors were laid out and a second long table was right next to the center dance floor where the couple’s parents and other elders would be seated. Party favours included both macaron and truffles from Aimé Patisserie. There were two stages, one for the jazz band that would play throughout dinner and another for the vocal band that would sing a whole range of songs to dance to.

A large portion of the west terrace adjacent to the convention center was closed off for the private use of the gala guests, an area usually overrun with tourists. It was splendid to hang out on the terrace in peace, have a drink at several small table-clothed tables along the windows with beautiful Chiavari style (I had to look it up) ghost chairs.

And then, after a tasteful amount of time after the cocktail reception began, we descended upon the serving tables, me bent on trying each of the one dozen different dishes and restricting myself to one sample (no seconds for me). Who knew that a small amount of Arctic char with crispy skin and balanced with smoky lentils and turnip puree would be so satisfying? My other favourite was the pear and brie empanada with the usual divine combination of pear, brie, walnut and (thyme) honey with the added wonderfully crumbly savoury “empanada” pastry with shortbread consistency.

 

 

 

 

Our emcees for the evening were Clement Tang of Fairchild Television and Deborah Moore of Fairchild Radio. Fairchild, as I know it best, is an all-Chinese channel that our parents – and especially our grandparents – would subscribe to and play all day long; we second gen’ers don’t shell out $25 per month and stick to the English-language channels. And if I had to commute, I would listen to Fairchild Radio… In any case, the brand is very familiar to us and – as Wikipedia told me – the group encompasses more than I thought, including a chain of bakeries and a Chinese mall in Richmond.

Seriously, the rest of the evening doesn’t even properly registered, I was overstimulated by being so impressed. A dozen or so young ballerinas from the Goh Ballet Academy performed to lead in the entrance of the wedding party. Later in the evening, several couples from Grupo America performed a tango followed by (I’m guessing) a salsa number. It was a mind-boggling meld between a gala and a wedding with the usual wedding element like speeches, kissing/games, toasts, cake cutting and slide shows. But the business associates far, far outnumbered personal guests.

The food was delicious and while it started late, I didn’t feel as if it was long we were waiting for it. I did not grasp the meaning of “Mini wedding cake” on the menu until the time we were anticipating dessert – it was adorable!

After dinner, we were invited to watch the same-day edit of the wedding (events from earlier in the day the majority of the guests did not attend) which had the quality of an artistic and moving short film and then to turn our attention to the window for a “surprise”. The family knew already what to expect so our table eagerly lined the windows and got a front row view of “private” fireworks that were also for the rest of the city to enjoy. Gee, that’s all!

韋恩

I don’t know why I didn’t ask sooner given Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has been premier and in the news since February 2013. Mum pretty much watches and reads news in Chinese exclusively but she doesn’t care too much about day-to-day politics. However, Wynne’s recent win in the provincial election makes her Ontarios first elected female premier and Mum finally put two-and-two together and asked me, “Did you know the Ontario premier–” I cut in, “Has my name?! Yes!! What are they calling her in Chinese??”

Mum is utterly perplexed because 韋恩 (simplified: 韦恩) is pronounced “wei yun” in Cantonese and its Pinyin is “wéi’ēn”. Besides the fact they say a one syllable name in English in two syllables in Chinese, it doesn’t sound the least bit like the way Mum calls me: “ween”. (Yeah, secret’s out with that one.) That’s because:

  1. The Chinese language doesn’t handle one-syllable names so well. More common examples include 约翰 for John and 保罗 for Paul. The latter always just makes me think of “bolo” meaning pineapple. There are too many similar sounding words in Chinese that translating the name to one syllable, it would get lost in conversation and have no context. You hear two characters that don’t string together as a compound you know and you sit up and realize it’s a proper noun.
  2. As much as Chinese people love (love love) to name their daughters auspicious names like “Winnie”, “win” doesn’t have an exact match amongst Chinese characters. In fact, I wonder if my mum and other Chinese mum’s called Winnies “ween-ie”…? I’m going on a trip with two “Winnies” later this week. This is a question to pose to them for sure.

韋恩, broken down, means “tanned leather / kindness, favour, grace”. 韋 is also the surname Wei, I believe. Mum wondered why they didn’t use something like my Chinese name, 慧. It would sound the same in Cantonese “wei yun” and would mean “wisdom / grace” but the Pinyin changes to “huì ēn” which is less of a match.

Oh, if you throw 韋恩 into Google Translate or Nciku, it kicks out “Wayne”, my least favourite name!! (However, the crazy part is that these days, I feel some “ownership” over it.)

The premier of Ontario is 韋恩 and I am 慧恩. :)

Our May trip to California: dining perspective

Boy, it has been a busy week. Yesterday, I remarked to NPY that we were traveling just a week before. While I got out my overall trip recap, the food posts are still outstanding. I’m getting around to this one because it’s shorter than the food post that I’m also drafting for the other blog. :P

Wong Lee Bakery [Yelp]

On our first full day in San Francisco, I dragged NPY to the storefront of Golden Gate Bakery and we could tell from the street corner of its block that it was closed. And I swear it’s the same sign I saw last year in April. NPY thought the bakery was closed for good because when you peer in between the gate and through the hazy front door, it looks like display cases are askew – not like they were just closed for the day.

It turns out that the bakery is run by two elderly ladies who apparently don’t need to open every day and they will take long vacations even during high season. There is even a website you can check, Is the Golden Gate Bakery open today? to save yourself the trip. So I will check ahead of time next time and roll-forward this To-do item!

So we continued to wander around Chinatown and hit jackpot on Jackson Street at Wong Lee Bakery. There was a small line which was processed quickly and gave us time to decide what we wanted to order. It was great to have the mix of dim sum and bakery and we could get a cold drink to boot!

On the first day, we ordered sticky rice bun, an egg tart and one of their “Grand Opening Special” cold milk tea bubble tea for $0.99. I was wary that “sticky rice bun” came in a bulky and filling doughy bun but it was really just a thin dumpling skin which is the best sticky rice-exterior ratio. The egg tart was okay and the tea was great value.

On the second day, we looked for a different spot to try and walked along Grant to no avail. We ended up back on Jackson Street and across the street from Wong Lee at a take out dim sum join. I ordered a zongzi and perhaps because I asked for it for takeaway and unwrapped, she stuck me with a cold one. While it was filling and pretty tasty, NPY wanted something else so we went across the street and were back at Wong Lee. From what I can remember, we got another egg tart, a couple of buns and $0.99 milk tea.

By the third day, we thought we would make it a streak and I went straight to Wong Lee to load up before our long road trip to Los Angeles. We finally tried their dim sum properly with an assortment of siu mai, shrimp dumplings, daikon cake and a savoury chicken bun. And a $0.99 milk tea. It was all decent and I really enjoyed the chicken bun which was chockful of ingredients and a half of a hard-boiled egg.

 

 

The House

Last year, I visited San Francisco solo for several days and stayed at my cousin’s place and overlapped with her just one evening. She and her husband took me out to The House and had a splendid dinner. Thereafter, when I talked to someone, it seemed like the place to go and people who also visited that summer (it certainly helps when a friend spends a few months there and gives you a reason to visit) were all going to The House. It made it easy to pick a restaurant during our three-day stay as NPY had not yet gone to The House.

I was late to make a reservation for the first night we were in town and the next evening was Mother’s Day. But it worked out in that we passed by the restaurant on our way back to the hotel after a day of walking around (so many hills!), left our name and then returned after freshening up an hour later. We got a two-top by the window and could watch the people walking by.

With three diners, we tried at least seven dishes dishes. With just the two of us, and with us having snacked/eaten all day long, we were limited to three. Time to choose wisely!

Funny enough, I ended up ordering the fried salmon roll again. It is delicious and filling and good value. Because I knew it would be a winner with carbs and a juicy steak, I ordered the warm wasabi noodles with angus flatiron steak. the noodles, as I had been warned on Yelp, were short on strong wasabi flavour. And since it would be a turn from what I had tried before and rave reviews, I ordered the Kurobota pork chop with pomegranate currant sauce. I’m ever so happy to have pork chop with something other than apple sauce. NPY thought it tasted Chinese and I put my finger on it when I finally identified as tasting like cha siu (roasted pork) glaze. Which is delicious. NPY concluded it The House is less fusion and more Americanized (but tasty) Asian food.

   

Plentea [Yelp]

We stayed in the Hilton San Francisco Financial District (thank you Air Miles and mum generously donating them for our use) on Kearny Street so we were walking on it and explored in the evening. Two restaurants that intrigued us are Ramen Underground (but we were always full from dinner already) and Plentea. The first time we passed by during the day, there was a queue out the door for Plentea. When we passed by later in the evening, there was a sign on the door they were closed because they ran out of bubble tea. The same thing happened the second evening where they ran out of bubble tea and were closed by 10 p.m. I joked that we should try to have bubble tea for breakfast to get to try it.

On our last evening, a Monday night, they were still open when we went in on the evening and I was so happy. Then we saw the prices and decided only to order one drink. We were full, anyways. Why is it so pricey, a basic bubble tea starting at $5.

While we waited for a long time for our drink as only one staff was trained to make the green tea matcha smoothie and he was busy re-doing a drink for what appeared to me to be a fussy customer, I saw on a blackboard the offer for a discount if you bring back your bottle.

You mean we can keep the branded milk bottle? We looked surreptitiously around and it does appear so. Well, then it is a better price in that case. Interesting business model.

 

Yummy Bakery and Cafe [Yelp]

We kept walking by this bakery on Jackson Street on our way to and from Wong Lee and on our last morning I supplemented our larger order with Wong Lee (eight hours of driving ahead!!) with a visit to Yummy Bakery. I picked up a mocha bun because it is novel but it wasn’t so great in execution. And when I saw a bun fashioned into a crab like Boudin sourdough is and it was filled with NPY’s favourite, red bean paste, I had to get it. It was so cute and it was better than the mocha bun.

BCD Tofu House

The last time I was in LA, I did not have the savvy to visit Koreatown for food. But since then, I have watched K-Town Cowboys (lol) and enjoyed several dinners in Koreatown in New York (and many more in Toronto) – it’s a good bet.

A day before we went to BCD Tofu House, we drove through Koreatown en route to somewhere else and I was hugely impressed – it went on forever. The next day, we were back and located BCD Tofu on a less cluttered part of the strip.

The Koreatown location of BCD Tofu (for there are many) is open 24 hours a day and the dining room is one big and clean room furnished with a dark wood interior. It was entirely different from my imaginings of a cramped dive.

We had plenty of choices for tofu soup options and NPY and I happily ordered one each. I got vegetable toppings and medium spicy. NPY got a soy bean paste – which is unheard of in our parts for tofu soup – with no spice. The banchan were plentiful and we were pleased to see the whole fried fish we each got.

I wonder if BCD has different pricing in the late night because I was surprised each tofu soup was not dirt cheap. After the plenty and variety of the banchan was factored in, I certainly am not complaining about value. But it’s not Toronto with Canadian prices and super value!

Palms Thai Restaurant

One more re-visit for LA was to go to Palms Thai. You can tell that when I last visited LA and it was with my sister, she was visiting some lists of cheap-but-well-rated LA restaurants. Palms was among them (so was Diddy Riese and C&O Trattoria). It was the restaurant I planned for when we would be in Hollywood, to keep our costs under control and get in an Asian (i.e., rice was present) meal.

I ordered our “staple” assortment including a red curry (chicken), pad thai and steamed rice. I ordered a large steam rice which is highly unusual but it was really cheap! Oh, and a Thai iced tea because I was bugging NPY all week starting in San Francisco to get Thai iced tea. Best to get it where it would be made best!

The rice and curry arrived in giant bowls by comparison to most Thai restaurants I’ve been to. There was plenty of rice for three servings each. The curry was lighter on flavour than I would like and super simple on ingredients – just chicken, red pepper and green pepper. Nonetheless, it hit the spot after a week of traveling and eating out all week. The pad thai came later. Bean sprouts took up half the plate but there was enough to be sure. It was heavy on the tomato flavour and not spicy in the least. I loved how they offered as the “meat” both steamed and fried tofu and the big chunks of tofu that was present when I ordered steamed.

Currently reading Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl

Bich Minh Nguyen - Pioneer GirlI learned about Bich Minh Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl: A Novel from an Asian American Lit Fans blog post. I didn’t have to read further than two sentences into the synopsis – a newly minted PhD can’t put her credentials to use and moves back in with her mother who runs a restaurant. It’s my story! (Sort of.) I placed a hold at the library for it right away. It is a pretty timely read, too, having been published only in February 2014 and arrived at the library in March.

********

Pioneer Girl started just as promised introducing Lee Lien, newly returned to her family’s house, unable to get her first job after attaining her PhD in English Literature. Instantly, the never-ending restaurant routine sets in and family life is oppressive. The family has had a string of restaurants in towns near Chicago and their current one is in Franklin, closer to St. Louis than Chicago – sleepy Midwest America.

“I’d seen girls like me before. Sullen daughters, stringy-haired and oily-faced, wearing stained aprons and shuffling around their parents’ restaurants, all hope lost for lives of their own. They were like a modern-day version of the docile spinster daughters who had always terrified me in the books of my childhood.”

Lee’s older brother, Sam, returns after being absent for a year and the family is complete to Lee’s mother’s undisguised delight. But he has a purpose, which is to get the money he believes his mother has been receiving since his father’s death twenty years before from a family friend who is somehow responsible. When he couldn’t get his hands on this money he heard about, he leaves again although Lee – ever thrown into a peace-maker role – urges him to stay for the family.

“He took a moment to answer. ‘If I don’t go now, I might never go.’ I understood that, more than I could admit.”

Lee’s mother is stoic, proud and doted on the son while being hard on Lee and this is revealed in examples throughout the novel. The mother-daughter relationship is stunted. As such, when Sam leaves – as he is eager to constantly do so – it wounds her but she will not speak about it. It deepens her own fear she cannot leave which I definitely felt when I returned to Halifax after a few years in college. The truly sad part hits me when Lee acknowledges the futile hope of her mother in the face of the non-responding son.

“Even after he left and she refused to speak about him, I knew she harbored hope… For me, away in grad school in Wisconsin, one month turned easily into another, and Sam’s being gone didn’t disrupt, really, what I’d already gotten used to. But surely for my mother every unreturned text, every phone call that wasn’t his, must have felt like punishment or revenge.”

In their youth, Sam and Lee were close as siblings with a common history, common workplace in the restaurant and a common “enemy” in their mother.

“We called her a total immigrant, made fun of her accent–whatever got a laugh. We’d sell her out in a second if it would make anyone understand that we, Sam and I, were different.”

But when he started to escape the house and family, it wasn’t known when they would hear from him again. It’s so wild, because that is how I feel with my sister at present. We’ve been held together for years by our family, my angst and issues, even when I was away for five years. But it it getting onto 10 years now and I don’t know where it all stands now. “We aren’t close,” I learned she told our cousin.

“I didn’t know when I would see Sam again, or talk to him, and I didn’t ask. He was already far away. The way we’d talked to each other as siblings, growing up in the same apartments, eating the same sugary cereals, hoping we wouldn’t smell of buffet grease as we rode the bus to school, could not hold.”

Then, there is Lee’s quest. She recently made the connection between her grandfather’s stories of a woman name Rose who frequented his cafe in Vietnam and left behind a pin and the pin described in the Little House on the Prairie books that Almanzo gave to Laura. In trying to determine if she really is holding a piece of Little House history Lee finds evidence that Rose, Laura and Almanzo’s only child, may have given up a son for adoption and the Ingalls Wilder line survives but under a different name.

Nguyen drawls parallels between the pioneers of the nineteenth century, continually pushing westward and never staying anywhere for long with Lee’s immigrant family that has operated more than half a dozen restaurants in suburbs of Illinois. I wondered if the Lien family would have been more rooted if the father had not died when the children were young. There is also a parallel between Rose and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lee and her mother. The older generation moved around out of necessity for the survival of the family but the younger fled from the nest for independence. Also, Rose and Laura were tied together writing the Little House books yet there were creative differences and disagreements. Lee and her mother (and the rest of the family) are tied together by the restaurant but they badly want to be separate. Rose and Laura and Lee and her mother and I and my mother need each other.

This rings particularly true for me–the east coast of Canada in the 80s was similarly uniformly white like the small towns in Illinois. Lee’s brother ends up in San Francisco and with the connections Lee has and makes to the city, you wonder if she will end up there, too. My “happy ending” was going west and arriving in Vancouver (although I would have been just fine in Toronto which is more populous and diverse and exciting).

“I’d been in San Francisco only once before, visiting when Amy was at Stanford, and had then too been unreasonably surprised by the number of Asian people populating the streets. Though I already knew that would be so, it was still startling to see them moving around in a way that seemed oblivious, like they never had to worry about being stared at.”

I love how Nguyen articulated exactly how I feel as a transplant to a city with a large Chinese population. We’re all Asian-American but our experiences were so different with people like Lee and me keenly aware of fellow Chinese-American and when they are present; meanwhile, San Franciscans and Vancouverites take it for granted the Asian presence around them and would notice if they were absent.

“It was an argument I’d heard all my life, an argument I’d had with myself. Why would anyone in the Midwest, especially a nonwhite person, want to stay there? How could life not be better out West, in California? … Sam too would become one of the Asian Americans who made up more than a quarter of this city, … would inspire a visitor like me to marvel at how many driven, successful, capable Asian lived here, and how happy and easy their lives must be.”

and,

‘”I do like how faraway this place feels,” I said. “You know–California, italicized. The dream and all that. I can see why people feel like they can start over here.”‘

Another aspect that tickles my fancy is how Nguyen/Lee are obsessed with an American classic like Little House, just as I was with Anne of Green Gables series and a lot of other L.M. Montgomery writing. Yet, we never saw ourselves, our ethnicity in those novels. PEI was far removed from foreign workers, I suppose, but the American transcontinental railroad had definitely reached the Midwest. We wanted to be a part of the story and in the case of Lee’s family, there were parts that mirror the Ingalls family in their neverending moving about. So it was satisfying for Lee to play a part in the Ingalls Wilder story that I so wanted it to be a memoir and not a work of fiction.

#Top3000中文chars

The learning idea I alluded to in my previous post is outlined in the following. I’ve always been a fan of “Word of the Day” and can really get sucked into the idea of learning a little every day. If I know it the word, I move on. If I don’t, Word of the Day succinctly reminds me of what I don’t know and I can learn. One word a day is highly manageable!

Yesterday, I started to test out the idea and it’s as good a time as any to “go live” and get this started! I will be tweeting at this blog’s Twitter account (@CatchStarGirl) two “Word of the Day” from the list of 3,000 most common characters. I will annotate each Tweet with pronunciation and definition.

Here is the format of each tweet where an underscore (_) denotes a space character:

Word of the day
Form: Traditional-form(Simplified-form, if applicable)_
Characters: 2 or 5

Pronunciation
Form: Pinyin/Cantonese_
Characters: maximum 10 (usually maximum four for each of Pinyin and Cantonese, occasionally five)

Hashtag
Form: _#Top3000中文chars
Characters: always 16

Identifier
Form: _#ID
Characters: maximum 7, e.g., _#1,234
Note: to track which word we are up to!

Description
Form: free
Characters: usually up to 102 characters
Note: descriptions include definition (denoted by “def:”), common or fun usage or link to a dictionary if I can’t define certain ones; if multiple definitions exist, I might only post one or two of them, particularly the way I know the word; if I know the word already, I won’t look it up for confirmation

Post frequency: twice daily, at 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM Eastern time – I wanted to post at 8:08 but Hootsuite won’t let me schedule posts that way.

I hope to have fun and brush up with this exercise and meet other people who want to learn Chinese!

Short URL for this blog post: http://ow.ly/w5tWm

Learning Chinese 學中文

What got me started/reminded again about this life-long goal is when my friend @FrankLam tweeted about ChineseCubes. In the sea of new ways to learn that most difficult language to learn, ChineseCubes is more “hands-on” and could be revolutionary… or not. I wondered how many of the 40 characters in that set I knew already…

The latest learning site that captured my fleeting interest was introduced via an interview on SinoplicegotCharacters. I couldn’t figure out what was so special about her lessons, concluding it was pretty normal methods once you got beyond her pretty infographic.

In a nutshell, this is my Chinese education:

  • Mum’s hand-made flashcards on textured stock paper and cut with pinking shears. The primary education, of course, was from her speaking exclusively Cantonese to me because her English is never as good – her Chinese is pretty proper as she doesn’t swear and tries to avoid vernacular/low-class (jook) speech.
  • One summer I spent in Hong Kong, Mum hired a proper Beijing Mandarin speaking tutor for me. I was a delinquent student – would you believe that? – and she believed in corporal punishment.
  • Another summer I spent in Hong Kong, Mum sent me to math classes. Come to think of it, I wasn’t learning Chinese since I would have been several grades behind my age. I was also sent to calligraphy and watercolour classes, also not language-focused.
  • There was one summer (my memory begins to fail me now so I’ll say it was after the 11th grade) where my Chinese identity turned on and I spent the summer cramming Chinese vocabulary, totally voluntarily.
  • In the late 1990s, I was in university and amongst Chinese classmates for the first time and had access to Chinese malls where I would amass a collection of 200 CDs and Chinese radio. I listened to HK Pop almost exclusively and endeavoured to learn songs although I would never, ever sing in front of people.
  • Back when access was much more open, in the mid-2000s, I listened to the ChinesePod dialogues. The only one that stuck is the one one that means “I’m not telling you!”
  • For one semester some time in the late 2000s, I took a Mandarin for Cantonese Speakers course at Langara, because I know I didn’t need to start from the very beginning with either speaking Mandarin or reading characters. I’m a proud Cantonese speaker and wanted to surrounded myself with the like – but my classmates were all immigrants from Hong Kong and while I got stuck halfway through the course, it’s like a lightbulb switched on and they were suddenly fluent. Frustrating.

I read somewhere that during the Cultural Revolution (or perhaps it was the subsequent reform period), an educational regime was created in China to rapidly bring about basic literacy. The program entailed learning something like 3,000 characters in three months and then the student can read a newspaper. I’ve always wanted to know that I knew those 3,000 characters for certain. Whether I would actually put my knowledge into practice was another story…

So, I’ve had this idea on the back-burner for a couple of years and all will be revealed in the following post.

Currently reading John Jung’s Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants

john jung sweet and sour life in chinese family restaurantsI purchased the Kindle edition of John Jung’s Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants, as far as I can remember, a couple of years ago. While it isn’t difficult at all to read, I would get sidetracked and only got about a quarter of the way through before putting it down for over a year.

While this is a topic that is important to me, other books and novels of interest to me will never cease to come to my attention so I had to make a concerted effort to put other reading on pause while I finally finished this book.

When I was younger, I did not want to admit to my family background, that I was a “restaurant kid”. It was drilled into me that my parents come from a higher “class” in Hong Kong than the other restaurant-operating folks in Halifax who came to Canada straight from a village with grade school education and – since no one will check – claim high school matriculation. But as my parents chose to immigrate and found difficulty securing jobs in their fields, working in a restaurant was an “easy” option. Over twenty years ago, when I was 12 years old, my parents opened their own restaurant and by doing so, could finally make themselves proud. That, in a nutshell, is my story.

Being a “restaurant kid” is a sort of demographic since so many Chinese people open restaurants. I don’t find in Asian-American literature – except for Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Cafe and Kim Wong Keltner’s I Want Candy – that this demographic is well represented. Being a restaurant kid gets into your very fabric but it makes for a poor community because everyone desperately wants out. These days, I am proud to be a restaurant kid because it is inspiring to me how my parents literally tough it out every day, into their sunset years.

This is the book I wanted to write (but from more of a food point of view but not exactly like Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles either).  John Jung is a retired professor of psychology. Just reading his Life After Retirement bio, I realize how similar our Chinese-American/Canadian paths have been. He grew up a “laundry kid” in Macon, Georgia where his family was the only Chinese in town (I grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the eastern end of Canada) and then he moved to San Francisco where there are plenty of Chinese but he still didn’t fit in with San Francisco Chinese who lived with so many Chinese all their lives (ditto, I moved to “Hongcouver”/Vancouver, British Columbia). I love how John Jung has the ability to pursue his interest during his retirement and I hope to do that as well.

John Jung’s first published work was a memoir of his family life and was followed by an in-depth book about Chinese laundries. His third book focused on Chinese grocers in Mississippi in a time of racial segregation. To round out the work on occupations available to Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, he published Sweet and Sour in 2010.

In the preface, in the first sentence, Jung writes, “the focus of this book is not on Chinese food.” It is a sociological study of the Chinese restaurant, how it was a major entrepreneurial option for immigrants and how it introduced an initially strictly American-food eating public to other cuisine. It is about the families as well because strictly quoting statistics of numbers of restaurants is dry. And because progress in Canada mirrored that in the United States in so many ways, Jung gave nods and provided Canadian examples.

There is one chapter consisting of in-depth interviews or essays with people in restaurant families. In their own words, the children of restauranteurs describe their family histories and their world growing up in a kitchen or dining room, surrounded by family and restaurant folk. In their stories, I saw my own history and my parents’ as well, even though my parents opened their restaurant and I was born about 10 years later than Jung’s interview subjects. I read a passage to NPY who thought it was my writing and about my father.

It’s true – Jung writes about the family Chinese restaurant as an ode because it’s all changing now. Formerly small towns with just one Chinese family and restaurants evolved into small cities. Nearly everyone has tried Chinese food and the public has moved and the current fascination in small cities seems to be Thai food. In the Internet age, everything changes.

None of the restaurants described were as new as my parents’ restaurant, established in the early 1990s. By my age, Chinese women had been arriving the in the Americas for generations, broke out of traditional gender roles and pitched in equally in the kitchen. People don’t so often live above their restaurant – we didn’t.

You hear that behind every great man, there’s a great woman. Sometimes the woman is leader of the family. More often than the case studies or examples and interviews would suggest, often people who start in the restaurant business are not suited to run a restaurant. In the 80s and 90s, there is a lot of competition as the number of family Chinese restaurants per capita skyrockets. What about price wars? What about unethical practices? It’s not all rosy but that is also not part of the scope of Sweet and Sour.

I was so mad at my parents for making us a stereotype. What I realized reading the interviews is that our family had the unique privilege to work together for years. We spent time together in a truly special way, in the pressure cooker that is the kitchen. It’s small consolation right now when they continue to be tied to the restaurant and I see them just once or twice a year.

Literally, a Studio Ghibli marathon

In the past two years, I’ve noticed, diarized but then did not attend Studio Ghibli retrospectives in Toronto (Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli) and Vancouver (Castles in the Sky: The Return of Studio Ghibli). Their advertisements and the like that landed in my email reminded me that there is a big and growing body of work that I have 100% missed out on. I have only watch about 25% of Ponyo, can you believe that?

Over the years, in order to get more done, I’ve really stopped watching the television screen. I play the shows I follow in the background. Setting aside 45 to 50 minutes to sit with NPY to watch something takes a lot of patience from me (until the show just sucks me in). There is one scenario when I have nothing but time, working on my computer or playing on my phone is not an option, and all I do is stare straight forward: when I do my runs on a treadmill. With minimum half-hour runs at least a couple times a week, I figure it won’t take that long to get through most of the Studio Ghibli canon.

The initial fun lies in selecting the movies (not all… yet) and which sequence to watch them. I wanted to start from the beginning and watch the most famous movies (that I’ve heard of) so I’m watching these ones first:

Castle in the Sky (1986)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Spirited Away (2001)
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Ponyo (2008)

Then I checked out lists rating the films and added two more, also to be viewed in chronological order:

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Porco Rosso (1992)
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

So, that’s my viewing fodder for the next while and I’m so excited (to run and) to immerse myself in this world!

Modern Asian food dinners round-up: PiDGiN, Broken Rice and ShuRaku

It just so happened that in the past few weeks, I have been able to try a few places that have been on my wishlist for a little while. So I save all of my pictures for this big post. I feel completely unqualified to really review the dishes we had so this is largely a post of photos and that speaks more than words, doesn’t it? I’ve been so excited to try these three places like you wouldn’t know.

PiDGiN

When Su-lin came back to Vancouver for a visit last year and posted about PiDGiN, I finally took notice and just couldn’t get the restaurant off of my mind. PiDGiN participated in Dineout and while the six-course menu was undoubtably good, I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed to what they chose for me. We wanted to make sure that we could try what we heard was really good.

Modern menus with abbreviated descriptions of the food. Put your faith in their hands.

 

In time for the Olympics and all that controversy surrounding it, PiDGiN concocted a special cocktail they named Putin’s Pride and thumbs its nose in the direction of Sochi. The limited edition cocktail is made with Mount Gay Rum, Cointreau, pineapple syrup and coconut water. Note how the unflavoured ice cubes are a rainbow of colours. You get the point and you get an idea of the kind of humour PiDGiN has.

This sounded so much better than I found it to be – humpback shrimp toast. I would much appreciate if the menu were to reveal that the shrimp was raw because a cooked shrimp toast sounded so nice. Shimp on sushi menus is actually often cooked and raw shrimp tastes so … pasty. My cousin found the toast to be stale and I just had a difficult time enjoying it.

The raw scallops were labeled as such on the menu and a seafood served raw that I am much more accustomed to. In addition, there was in a curry oil drizzle. The crunchy and fresh daikon and apple garnish was nice and refreshing, not that the curry oil was heavy. The scallops were silky and part way divine.

Things were getting better and better with vitello tonnato – cubed tuna and seared veal. The yellow paste is a fried egg emulsion and I made sure to drag each piece of meat to through it to have tasty “sauce.”

Then came the foie gras rice bowl that Su-lin said was a well-balanced dish when it was all stirred together. I forgot the stirred-together tidbit and left the wasabi off to the side. My cousin’s friend said the foie gras rice bowl was the best thing to ever enter his mouth. Well, weren’t we looking forward to it?

It was delicious but not the best thing ever. The foie gras cubes were fatty and gloriously cooked and unagi glaze makes it nice and comforting Asian fare. Chestnut pieces were velvety and a luxurious and filling accompaniment and the braised daikon was complementing in flavour but added a vegetable and juicy component. It’s a really cool combination.

Vadouvan spiced lamb belly. I’ve never had this cut of lamb before and the spices and smokiness attenuated the otherwise really “lamb-y” taste that the belly would have. So it was just really nice and tender.

Once upon a time (recently), PiDGiN had this awesome sounding milk chocolate Ovaltine mousse with orange blossom yogurt and honeycomb. I would have ordered that too in the blink of an eye. But it was no longer on the menu and between the three choices, I went with the safest one. The neighbour table got meringue with coulis and it looked more special. But a matcha opera cake is not bad and really easily shareable, a better portion and easy to linger over.

Broken Rice

Broken Rice is not somewhere I would have heard of but BIL and his gf went a few months ago and after her description, it made it onto my wishlist. It was the strategic place to suggest for a triple date with friends – just beyond the Vancouver-Burnaby boundary, it’s almost in the middle between the three of us living on south False Creek, Coquitlam and south Vancouver area.

Salad rolls aren’t exactly my thing but they are a refreshing start. The ingredients and thus the smell and taste of the rolls were fresh. The peanut sauce was thick. We ordered the shrimp salad roll and the Phnom Penh Roll, both ended up being salad rolls. I think the intention was to order spring rolls with the “blistered skin” but we’d get a taste of it later.

Duck confit sliders – the server was nice to accommodate the six of us by cutting the three sliders in half and I took a smaller half with less confit. That’s okay, I could still taste it and it was richly braised. The fresh and tender steamed bun was the winner.

So I’ve learned that at a Vietnamese place, to try their wings-here named Uncle Hing’s Chicken Wings! For my standards, they were a little mini but also a nice taste of wings. To accommodate everyone’s tastes, I asked for it to be tossed in the garlic butter sauce.

The Sizzling Saigon Crepe is an impressive display and it turns out it is presented as a lettuce wrap dish. That’s a pile of romaine, green leaf lettuce and sprigs of basil for you to choose from. It’s a thick crepe with tumeric and coconut flavour. Although a lot of fillings are listed in the crepe, it struck me as primarily bean sprouts (which were cooked and actually pleasant to me) and miniature shrimp. I enjoyed the crepe on its own without lettuce but with a dash of the nuoc mam sauce.

A house vermicelli with chicken skewer and pork brochette and the “blistered skin” spring roll – a staple on Vietnamese restaurant menus and each component was good quality.

To share largely between me and NPY but also with others, I ordered the pork belly and anise, a clay pot dish and it was beautifully presented if not earth-shattering in novelty. It was more than a decent amount of pork belly elegantly tied in a bundle with kelp. The broken rice that was served with it was marvellous at soaking up the braising liquid.

The wonderous part was how each of the three couples ordered the curry chicken ballotine dish. It sounded splendidly novel and it was a special dish with the stuff chicken (with chicken), panko broken rice balls and root vegetable chip garnishes.

While the idea of Vietnamese coffee ice cream sounded good, it didn’t seem like a great value so I ordered black eyed peas, their Vietnamese rice pudding with black eyed peas and coconut cream. It looked … well, you just have to turn off your Western aesthetics when you ordered an Asian dessert. To suit Asian palates, dessert will never be too sweet and there was each a touch of saltiness. It was definitely a segue from the savoury dishes of dinner to the light sweetness (and kind of healthy taste) to dessert!

ShuRaku Sake Bar & Bistro

To round out this modern Asian mini-tour and to get some sustenance before going to a concert across the street at Vogue Theatre-Pentatonix!-I lined up dinner at ShuRaku. I’ve been to ShuRaku for lunch twice and really looked forward to dinner and trying items off the dinner menu. I even did my “research” in advance and wrote my choices on a yellow sticky note, which I didn’t think to photograph. Happily, it all pretty much went according to plan.

So the thing that happened was I had a 6:15 reservation through Open Table and NPY told me he was leaving work at 6. I went back to update my reservation to 6:30 and saw that if I made a 6:00 reservation, I would get 1,000 points (versus 100 points) for dining. So, I was there at 6 and waited and looked stood up for over half an hour. After about half an hour, to get things moving, I tried to order two items that would not suffer from cooling down. They were out of Eggplant Poppers but I could order the Roulette Roll.

The Roulette Roll was selected because it has everything we like – chopped scallop, toro and avocado. The crisp lotus root chip and black seaweed soy sauce was a nice touch.

When I went to Hapa Izakaya in Toronto, I tried “sea foie gras” for the first time, an item off their daily menu/sheet. I wanted NPY to try it, too, but of course it was a little different. Hapa’s was smoked and sliced very thin, presented inside a upside-down stemless martini glass that clouded up from the smoking process. ShuRaku’s were steamed and thicker cut tasting more dense. It was still a great deal lighter than beef/pork liver and tasted indulgent.

Since I couldn’t get Eggplant Popper, my back-up dish was the Spicy Salmon Tartar. What a fun dish! A lotus root chip was a garnish so that NPY and I could be even at two a piece and it was held up with soba noodle sticks. I mixed the spicy wild sockeye salmon with the raw quail egg, pine nuts and avocado. The tempura seaweed squares were perfect delivery vehicles for the salmon tartar that was not too spicy.

ShuRaku has to “Age” dishes, shrimp or tuna that has been wrapped in seaweed and flash-fried. I deliberated and went with tuna, Tuna Isobe Age. It melted so easily such that I thought it had been chopped. Maybe I overdid it with the mushy textures since this followed negitoro, chopped scallop and salmon tartare.

Then we waited for a really long time for Hitsuma-bushi, which is highly recommended. I let NPY have most of the only rice dish of the meal. We were instructed to have half of the unagi rice dry then to pour the dashi sotck in and have “soup rice”. It was a fun dish and worth the wait.