Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Guilt of a Long-Distance Daughter

There's a passage from Jhumpa Lahiri's book, Unaccustomed Earth, that resonated with me so deeply, I had to put down the book for a second because my breath caught in my throat. In one of the vignettes, a daughter describes her mother's homecoming to her grandparents' house in India, which she had left soon after getting married: "My grandparents had already lived in a state of mild mourning since 1962, when my parents were married. Occasionally my mother would return to them, first from Boston and then Bombay, like Persephone in the myth, temporarily filling up and brightening the rooms, scattering her creams and powders on the dressing table, sipping tea from cups she'd known since she was a girl, sleeping in the room where she'd been small."

And that, is precisely how I feel about the years I've spent abroad in England - or, even much earlier than that - when I moved to Massachusetts for college; years that have been sprinkled here and there with trips back to my childhood home where I wear the same pajamas I wore when I was seventeen, throw on my college sweatshirt, make my desk and downstairs bathroom a mess with all my new purchases and skincare products, and eat ice cream in front of the TV - like I never left.

My childhood room remains undisturbed; my parents did not undertake a renovation project and turn it into a study or sewing room or workspace, as other parents do. My high school artwork, a piece that won first place in the art fair, hangs above my bed - a now laughable manifesto of a clinically depressed teen who had a penchant for acrylics on canvas. The bead curtain still remains hanging from the doorway, tinkling every time I brush past it and a reminder for my mom or dad (who pass through to place mail on my desk over the year) of me constantly rushing in and out of that room - a teenager with too many after school activities and an active social life.

"Why don't you take that damn thing down?" asked John when he came over to visit for the second time. I didn't look up from the magazine I was reading. "Because it wards off bad dreams," I said, without thinking. "I took it down once and had nightmares for a week."

Last year, I turned 30. I looked across the chasm of my twenties and stood before it, open-mouthed at all that I had/had not achieved during the time I lived abroad. What did I spend my twenties doing? What was I doing here instead of there?

I go home once a year and my parents grow older each time. I notice more grey in my father's short, spiky cropped cut - the same cut he's had since college. Soon, it will be completely white, and I will cry. He works too hard. At the brink of retirement but still starting work at 7:00 a.m. every day. He limps a little when he walks and I ask him, alarmed, what's going on. "Bah," he says, waving his hand. "It's just my knee. Sometimes it gets really bad." I look away so that he doesn't see the tears pricking my eyes.

I glance up at the dinner table to watch my mom stirring a Chinese soup over the stove - a soup that she has gently talked me through making every time, assuring me in Cantonese that it is "very easy, you can even get the ingredients at Tesco for this one" - and one that I will probably never attempt. Her shoulders are slumped a bit further and she seems to have shrunk even more than her original 5'3" frame. I think of the mother who deftly parallel parked on a hill three times a week, every week, for ballet lessons. Keys in one hand, my toddler brother's hand in the other, and mine hanging on to her pocket or a belt loop as we crossed the busy Tacoma road. A sob rises in my chest but I suppress it.

"I can relate," says a friend from the south of England. "It depresses me to see my parents age. I wish I saw them more often. It worries me to see them getting old." She sighs and I am angry. "Yeah," I say, sympathetically, but my fingers have curled into fists without me knowing. 'You're a short train ride away,' I think to myself. 'You go home every month to visit them. You can see them more often if you'd like.'

It is guilt, coupled with sadness, that moves me to make up for the lack of my presence by showering my parents with gifts whenever I return home. "You know, Gar showed me this beautiful French knife he had at the office the other day," my dad said on FaceTime. "I don't know what it's called, but it has a bee engraved on the handle. Really beautiful." I Googled the knife and found Laguiole online, purchasing a cheese and butter knife set for him several days later. It arrived yesterday in a beautiful wooden box, which I added to the pile of gifts I had set aside for them when I travel back in a couple of weeks' time.

But we all know that gifts do not make up for lost time. Am I a deadbeat daughter? An absent sister? Reaping the benefits of my upbringing yet not bothering to show up when it matters the most? I think back carefully through the memories of my past - did my parents not prepare me for this? For getting the hell out of our small town and chasing new adventures? I worked so hard in high school - churning through calculus equations, titrating solutions in chemistry, attending after school AP Exam study sessions - because I wanted to leave.

Sometimes my parents appear in my dreams and they look sad, disappointed. "I wanted you to fly away, but not this far away," they say forlornly, as I turn away from airport security. Always there. That chasm between my 30th birthday and my 20s is the line of people at airport security inching forward, taking me a step further away each time.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Weekend in the Country

Happy Tuesday. How has your week been so far? Last week, I was struggling with a really bad cold. I felt pooped by the time the weekend rolled around and we were off to Leicestershire to attend a garden party but all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball in my bed back in London and sleep, sleep, sleep.

Fortunately, the sun was shining at John's childhood home and I fell asleep there in the grass for the rest of the afternoon while the backs of my legs got a slight hint of color (thankfully brown, not red!).

That morning, John and I had viewed a house we'll never get in London, and we spent the afternoon talking about house prices with his dad, who suggested we move to Market Harborough, where we could probably afford a small mansion and commute into London. Lying there in the grass? I definitely considered it.

I mean, there's this:

(Yes, that really happened - I took that photo on a bus just a few weeks ago when I was on my way to orchestra rehearsal in St. John's Wood)

And then, there's this:

Which one would you choose? I'm not sure I could ever give up the city life. My dream would be to have a London flat we "survived in" during the week (in Maida Vale, if we're dreaming) and a big, gorgeous weekend house in the country we'd get to by jumping into a car on Friday nights straight after work. I don't mind where. Leicestershire is plenty nice enough for me.

After wiping the drool off my cheek that afternoon, we got dressed and zoomed through miles and miles of beautiful countryside to attend our friend's family garden party, which was more like a fancy sit-down dinner in their huge field of a backyard (literally, a field) with balefuls of hay and a fire pit. We talked to our friend's mom, who lives in Denmark, and she remarked how much she loved the English countryside, and how there's no other landscape like it.

We totally agreed.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Life Hack: The Breville Active-Blend Smoothie Maker

I woke up with a sore throat this morning and hope that - at the worst - it's just the beginning of a minor cold and not tonsillitis. I had tonsillitis a few years back during a trip home to the US and the only thing that would soothe my extremely swollen throat was a Jamba Juice smoothie.

Since then, I love getting Jamba Juices whenever I'm back in the States! Ice cold, thick, and delicious, they're just so damn good on a hot summer's day - even John's into them now! The so-called "smoothies" in the UK just don't cut it ... either they don't use fresh fruit or they arrive luke-warm/room temperature and super yogurt-y, which makes me gag.

I've bought blenders in the past and smoothie recipe books with good intentions, but the blenders were a mess to clean, the handles would break off within a few weeks, and they took up too much space in a small kitchen like the ones we have in London.

So, my ears perked up when I saw someone using this Blend-Active Blender by Breville (we also have a Breville kettle - it's ah-mazing). Apparently, you could blend in a sports bottle and simply remove the blades and replace with a leak-proof cap when you were ready to go. To be honest? It sounded a little too good to be true. But, at only £24, I was tempted and now ... well, I'm in love with it.

I've had it for two weeks and use it on most mornings - it takes probably exactly 5 minutes to grab all the ingredients out of my freezer (frozen chunks of mango or berries, plus ice, and some juice) and chop up a banana into the bottle. Then, I can just carry the bottle with me on the bus and drink it on my way to the stop or, if I'm feeling a little chilly, stash it in my bag later for work. I also downloaded the Jamba Juice recipes, which I found online, and while they might not be the healthiest to have every day, they're really nice as an occasional treat (hint: sorbet is the secret ingredient!).

My favorite smoothie so far is mango, orange, and banana, but for an indulgent dessert, I've made a berry, banana, and raspberry sorbet blend below:

The things I love about this blender:

- It's sturdy: the base has little suction-y feet that keeps in place on your countertop
- It's SO easy to clean! You can just quickly rinse the blades with warm soapy water and leave it to the side to dry. When I get to work and I'm finished with my bottle, I fill it with warm soapy water, give it a few shakes and rinse before stashing it back in my bag again.
- It takes up hardly any space. The base is so small, you can push it to one side of your kitchen work top and it's as inconspicuous as a bottle of wine.
- It blends ice. Granted, you shouldn't put too much in, but I typically use 5-6 pieces of crushed ice and it's worked fine.

I'm going to start making some green smoothies soon, so if you have any favorite smoothie recipes, please pass them my way!

p.s. This is not a sponsored post!

Friday, June 13, 2014

An Easy, One-Pan Burrito Bowl Recipe

Do you ever use Pinterest for recipes? I know lots of people who do, but I browse Pinterest mainly for ... clothes. And other pretty things. Definitely not food. I was busy pinning for one of the companies I freelance for the other day, when I came across this ingenious one-pan burrito bowl recipe from the blog, No. 2 Pencil.

I made it tonight and ... it was surprisingly good! I have such little confidence in my cooking abilities, but always end up surprising myself when I actually follow a recipe and make something that tastes good. Not restaurant quality, mind you, but just ... tasty.

This is such an easy recipe and you'll have a much easier time sourcing the ingredients if you're in the US, rather than here (for example, I couldn't find canned black beans for my online Tesco delivery order, but I've been told that they're available at my local Tesco - I know you can prepare them, but it takes time, which is something I don't have much of!).

I made a few tweaks that I thought I'd share with you in case you decide to make this one evening too: I substituted black beans with red kidney beans instead (since I happened to have some in the cupboard) and I absolutely love fresh coriander in my Mexican-inspired food, so I chopped up a handful and dropped it in at the end.

I loved this recipe and will definitely try it again! What's your favorite go-to recipe for a weeknight or for when you're feeling tired?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Foxes in London

A few months ago, I was walking home from the pub with John and saw what looked like a dog trotting between parked cars - except furrier, with a long bushy tail and pointy ears. It was a fox. And it was acting cool as f**k. As we got closer, it glanced nonchalantly at us and was like, "Oh hai", before disappearing into someone's front yard.

I squinted. "Is that ...? Was that ...? I mean, just all casual?" I said to John. "Yup," he replied."They're getting bolder by the day."

People would be surprised to know that there are plenty of urban foxes in London. When we lived in Maida Vale, there was a huge, private communal garden that stretched nearly the length of the street which our flat backed onto. Foxes would have speed dating sessions in this garden, then decide to get down and dirty in the wee hours of the morning. I know, right? Like, GET A ROOM. You know, instead of outside my window. I'd be woken in the middle of the night with a sound similar to a high-pitched woman's screaming, before realizing that it was a pair of foxes acting out the lyrics to a Rihanna song.

Anyway, I woke up this morning and headed for the bathroom. I left the window open overnight because it's been so hot in London lately. First, I noticed the turf had been overturned. My first thought was that someone had decided to some late night yard work in our garden. Highly unlikely, but I wouldn't rule out that 0.5% chance of possibility.

Bewildered, I brushed my teeth and looked again. This time, there was a fox standing boldly and staring defiantly at me.

"You little ..." I started, just as my Dad used to say when we were little after unwittingly stepping on a rogue Lego piece in the middle of the night.

But oh no. In an act that I can only describe as "challenging", this fox decided to curl up next to the hole it dug up, as if to say, "What. WHAT?"

Look at those eyes. Just look at them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Evgeny Kissin In Recital @ Barbican Centre

Last night, I went to the most amazing recital at the Barbican - in fact, it was so electrifying, I couldn't sleep for about an hour after I got home! I sat on my bed listening to Chopin Etudes and Mazurkas (quietly, of cousre!) until nearly 1 in the morning.

The most exciting aspect of it all? I saw Evgeny Kissin in recital - a pianist whose interpretations of Chopin Nocturnes and Etudes had a huge influence on my playing when I was in high school. I've waited a long time to see him perform and there he was last night, on stage in front of me. I couldn't believe it.

I also couldn't believe how I managed to get tickets just in the nick of time: my co-worker Caroline and I were having a conversation about our favorite pianists, when I mentioned Kissin's name (actually, I had forgotten his name, squeezed my eyes shut in concentration and said to Caroline: "Not Ashkenazy, but Russian. You know. Crazy hair."). "Ooh! That's who I'm going to see tonight at the Barbican!" she said, after we both figured out I meant Kissin. I kind of half-screamed, then bought a ticket right then and there (randomly, we ended up sitting next to each other even though she bought her tickets ages ago and I had no idea where she was sitting - how crazy is that?!).

When I booked my ticket, there were still plenty of seats left. But after we arrived, they began to rapidly fill.

The first half of the program was the Schubert sonata in D Major - not one I knew at all, but it has some really pretty chorale-type sections. At four movements long, it lasted nearly 45 minutes, but he played with such proficiency and musicality, the audience was enraptured. Of course, the magical last moment (you know, the moment when the pianist lifts his hands away from the keyboard after the very last movement and there's a stunned silence as his hands pause mid-air) was ruined by a rogue clapper - that guy who claps first because he wants EVERYONE to know that HE knows the piece is over. I nearly beaned him in the head with my program.

The second half, however, was what I really went for: Scriabin. He played a sonata (No. 2 in G-sharp minor) as well as a selection of the Etudes from Opus 8 which were incredibly technically difficult and heart-wrenching. Kissin's ability to play the softest notes, yet allow them to sound all the way back of the concert hall (though the Barbican has terrific acoustics) was just magical.

After the final Scriabin etude, the applause was nearly deafening. After three curtain calls, he returned to the stage and announced, "Bach" and proceeded to play a beautiful sicilienne. After that, the audience still demanded more, so he returned with another Scriabin etude (to which someone in the audience actually hissed, "YESSSSS" very loudly - probably accompanied by a fist pump).

But the best encore was saved for last (yes, a third one!), when he played the much loved Chopin Polonaise Op. 53 in A-flat with absolute perfection and an unbelievable amount of gusto that one would have expected for the main performance.

This time, we were on our feet before his fingers barely reached the last note. Truly spectacular and unforgettable.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Dinner @ Granger & Co., Clerkenwell

My best friend from home, Sophia, travels a lot. As an artist, published author (her memoir, published by HarperCollins, was reviewed by the NYTimes here), filmmaker, and sometimes lecturer (yes - see below), she's constantly on the go. Sometimes I see her, sometimes I don't. But whenever I do, I soak up every minute of her presence because she reminds me so much - among other things - of home.

We grew up in Small Town, USA together and she sat behind me in pre-algebra. Our school was massively underfunded and classes were outsourced to "portables" - little blue shacks with ramps that housed some desks, an overhead projector, and one very wary teacher. Every morning of my 7th grade year, in second period, the lights would switch off and I'd settle down in my seat by the window to learn about simultaneous equations, the quadratic formula, and y = mx + b, which I learned and compartmentalized in my 13-year-old brain both quickly and methodically.

The girl who sat behind me wore black Converse tennis shoes and severe, bleached bell-bottom jeans that she sometimes drew on (is that right, Safi? Or am I making this up?). Her hair, parted in the middle, nearly covered half her face. She also stared out the window and talked to herself. I ignored her because I thought she was crazy.

"How was school?" my mom asked after my first day. "Good," I said. "A really weird girl sits behind me in pre-algebra."

But somehow, we became friends. Really good friends. We gathered at the local library and talked about our dream of escaping "this place" - this shitty, hellhole of Small Town in the Puget Sound, which refused to accept our brown and yellow skin or "foreign" last names and mocked us, abusive. We listened to teachers mispronounce these names over, and over, and over, and over again. We stopped at red lights behind pick-up trucks, our headlights glaring at the confederate flag bumper stickers and "NOBAMA" plastered to the side. We shopped at Value Village - a second-hand clothing store that played classics from the 60s and 70s and rummaged through the racks on 99 cent Mondays.

We traded notebooks with photos of Damon Albarn and Liam Gallagher hastily pasted inside. I mused about typical, nonsensical teenage things like clothes and bands I liked. Sophia, the more sophisticated of the two of us, made line drawings and scrawled notes about cult films and directors she admired. Flipping through one of these old notebooks last summer, however, it was clear that a common thread ran throughout: "I want to move to London," we wrote to each other."I want to live in England."

I wonder what would have happened if someone walked into that darkened portable and showed our futures to us in a crystal ball.

Fast forward sixteen years later, and we find ourselves having dinner at the newly opened Granger & Co. in Clerkenwell - an Australian restaurant whose namesake, Bill Granger, has the celebrity chef following in Australia akin to that of Jamie Oliver's. Sophia is wearing a gorgeous, pleated black Whistles skirt and her hair is very much not in her face. She looks beautiful, as she always has and as I always try to tell her - though it comes out sounding insincere even when I mean it so much.

The restaurant is huge: filled with large windows, big mirrors, warm lights, and minimalist decor (the bathroom is one of my favorite parts - pink tiled with old-fashioned sinks and Aesop products). The menu, comprised of small plates, big plates, and a section called "bowls and grains" (think: pappardelle, veal & pork ragu or prawn, chilli and rocket linguine) is both inventive and impressive. I had a difficult time deciding between the crab, chorizo, and house kim chee fried brown rice or the tea smoked salmon, green tea noodles, samphire, daikon with soy mirin dressing.

In the end, we both choose the salmon dish and share grilled asparagus with yuzu pepper creme fraiche to start.

For dessert, I order the Dutch pancake with ice cream, coconut, and kaya curd (a childhood favorite of mine that's reminiscent of summers spent in Hong Kong eating 2-inch thick slices of white toast slathered in butter and kaya spread) which is so sickly yet delicious, it makes my stomach feel like it's about to burst.

Sophia orders the prosecco and elderflower jelly with berries and I film her shaking her plate so that the gelatin quivers - making me shake with raucous laughter and causing the table of Americans next to us to give us some serious side-eye. I don't care because when I'm with Sophia, as it is with my closest friends back home, I lose all sense of self-consciousness.

I talk a mile a minute about everyone and everything - no topic of conversation left untouched. We see each other so infrequently that I save up everything I've been meaning to or wanting to tell her: observations, gossip, personal anecdotes, complaints, internet trends, and fashion. Then I ask her question upon question: "Where are you going? What are you doing? Who will you be with?" She tells me. Her next talk will be at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver B.C., where she - alongside William Gibson and Michael Stipe (yes, him) - will be discussing the future of art. You see?

As we descend to the pink-tiled bathroom once again before leaving the restaurant, I clap my hand on her shoulder and say, "What do you think those girls in pre-algebra would say if we walked up to them now and told them that this would be their life in fifteen years or so?"

"Oh god," says Sophia. "Our acne-ridden selves? We'd be like, 'Whaaaat?'" she says, making a high-pitched, drawn-out sound while scrunching her face up in confusion.

I laugh so hard.
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