2017, abundance, adulthood, appreciation, cooking, food

How a Japanese Chef Taught Me That I Am What I Don’t Eat

I grew up in a household where wasting food was unacceptable—not just in theory, but in practice. One of our (many) dining table rules was that you couldn’t get up out of your chair until all the food on your plate had vanished (and not because you had snuck it into our dog’s mouth). My mom, the gatekeeper to the kitchen sink, was the enforcer of this rule.

The good news is that my mom is a fabulous cook. She takes into account dietary restrictions, preferences, and irrationals. There’s no reason you wouldn’t want to finish eating her food, except for when you took too much to begin with—when your eyes were bigger than your stomach. And in those instances, you paid for it.

This rule wasn’t restricted to members of our household; instead, it was applied to anyone dining in our home. More often than not, our neighbor would join us for dinner. My mom had convinced him that his spoon would start singing when he had finished everything on his plate. I distinctly remember one summer evening when, staring at his reflection in the stainless steel plate he had licked clean, my neighbor held up his spoon to his ear. “Do you hear it?” he asked, “Because I do. Listen.”

Not all of my friends were willing participants, though. At some point during my childhood, I learned that many of my friends were actually scared to come over for meals. Some waited until my mom was temporarily distracted so they could quickly send their unwanted food down the garbage disposal. Others told their parents they didn’t want to come over at all. “Don’t make me go over there! Aunty makes you finish everything your plate,” was the line.

In these instances, I was embarrassed to be her daughter. Still, I followed her rule because it was a rule. It became a habit. Until college.

Eighteen years after dining under my mom’s supervision, I, suddenly found myself planted in a culture of food wastage. I noted how many people—mostly women—would consistently waste a bit of their meal. I don’t know their reality, but I perceived it to be a signal of health and moderation. A way of communicating, “This is how I stay healthy.” It made me feel like if I ate everything on my plate, it would signal that I was unhealthy. Or worse, that I would become as such.

And so, two thousand miles from my mom’s dining table, I started wasting food to fit in. Unlike my childhood dinner table where there were repercussions to wasting, now, the repercussion, in the form of perceived social judgment, came with choosing not to waste. The wastage continued into my adult life especially in social and professional group dinners where every single person ordered plates to share. Now it was less about body image, and more about carelessness and abused privilege. When I cooked for myself, I finished what was on my plate, but often found myself throwing out food that I had forgotten about or gotten bored of.

Soon, I didn’t even realize I was doing it.

Earlier this year, I visited Tokyo. One of my most memorable meals was at Frey’s, which yes, was a pizza place, but was also some of the best pizza I’ve ever had (I have been to Italy). The restaurant seated maybe twenty people, and I was at the counter, being served by the chef. Before ordering my pizza, I ordered a salad. It was pretty basic, and I ate most of it. There were leaves left behind, though. Enough time had passed where it was clear that I was ready for my next course. Yet, nobody came to take my order. I made eye contact with the chef several times, completely befuddled as to why he hadn’t approached me. Finally, someone dining next to me, recognized the situation. “He’s waiting for you to finish your salad,” she told me gently. “Oh! Of course,” I said.

At that moment, I was embarrassed not to be the daughter my mom had raised me to be. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I hadn’t finished my salad. I had just moved on to my next desire. But the chef read it differently. To him it said, “I don’t like your food.” It also said, “I am ungrateful for what I have.” If I had been too full to eat anymore, I wouldn’t have needed a pizza.

This experience opened my eyes to a good childhood habit I had wasted away in my journey to adulthood. My mom’s rule wasn’t just a rule, but an important value. She was teaching us to take only what we need.

So, I made a change. Now, I make it a point to finish whatever is on my plate or in my to-go box—and save leftovers when I can. When I prepare my lunch and dinner for the week, I am more deliberate about what, and how much, I make. If I think I’m going to get bored of it, I figure out a way to make it unboring. Or, I suck it up and look forward to the next week. If I mess up a recipe, I get creative with the failure. Neither my process nor I am perfect, and I will not choose  to overeat when I can put my plate back in the fridge to finish later. Still, it has raised my awareness of what I can afford and also what our climate affords me. Of the real meaning behind my mom’s rule.

I constantly remind myself now—and I only wish I could go back and tell my college self—that eating smart isn’t about portioning your plate. It’s about portioning what you put on your plate in the first place.

2017, appreciation, doctors, empathy, injury, personal connection

Why The World Needs More People Like My Surgeon

I was ten years old when I made my first career decision. “I don’t want to be a doctor,” I told my parents one night at dinner. Both entertained and disappointed (they are Indian parents, after all), they asked me why. “Do you know doctors have to look at people’s pee? That’s gross! No way!” During a visit to the doctor earlier that day, I peed in a cup for the first time. Nuh-uh. No thanks.

Though I always respected (and slightly feared) my doctors, it is only recently that I could truly appreciate their impact on my well-being.

ACL as drawn by my surgeon

I met my orthopedic surgeon last summer after twisting my knee playing soccer. In our second meeting, he delivered the devastating news that I had torn my ACL and medial meniscus and would need surgery. “And, I have to warn you,” he added, “this is going to be a long journey. You’re young, healthy, and diligent so I’m not worried, but I just want to make sure I set your expectations.” The surgery went well, and I went in for a check-up every month following. “You’re my superstar patient!” he told me at the five-month mark.

But at month six, things didn’t look so super. Though I was diligent with physical therapy, I was regressing in my recovery—unable to fully bend or straighten my knee—and in significant pain. My surgeon diagnosed my condition as a cyclops lesion (localized anterior anthrofibrosis), a rare complication of ACL surgery. “It looks like you could use some help in the surgical setting,” he said.

At my request, we followed up on his diagnosis with a MRI. That evening, my surgeon called me as I was entering the subway. As his words entered my brain, I found myself walking backwards until I hit a wall, where I lowered myself to the ground. In addition to the cyclops lesion he predicted, “the MRI also shows edema—swelling—around your ACL. For whatever reason, the graft is unhappy.” The MRI report said my ACL was torn again. This was a difficult pill to swallow when I still wasn’t fully recovered from the initial tear.

“This is highly unlikely,” my surgeon insisted. MRIs tend to overstate matters of the ACL. “But unfortunately, we aren’t going to have the whole story until we’re actually in there.”

“So…How do we move forward?” In our expensive, complicated, and stressful world of healthcare, his response blew me away.

“I will do whatever is best for your knee.”

What followed was a week of sleepless nights and stress-filled days. And maybe an email or two to my surgeon from his “worrier patient.” I couldn’t eat or focus.

In the minutes before the surgery, my surgeon came to talk to me. “We’re completely prepared for any situation. We have an Achilles tendon if you need something bigger, a hamstring if we need something smaller, and regardless, when you wake up, everything will be taken care of.” In that vulnerable pre-operative moment, this white-coated professional who uses words like “edema” suddenly felt like a dependable friend. Someone I could unequivocally trust.

As a walker, runner, dancer, and soccer-player, my knee is my life.

What felt like minutes later (thank you anesthetics), I was waking up in the recovery room. My surgeon entered. “Things are looking good now,” he said. “You’ll be back to physical therapy in no time.” I had so many questions. He knew I would. “I also got some good photos and videos during the process,” he said with a smile. “That will help you understand what was going on and we can talk more about it when I see you later this week.”

Watching the videos for the first time, I couldn’t believe the care my surgeon had taken to ensure that I felt informed and confident about my knee health. “Doctors don’t usually do this,” my physical therapist told me. I’ve watched the videos almost every day since (sometimes forcing reluctant parties to join me).

My favorite snippet from the videos. It’s not gross I promise!

Each time, I am struck by my surgeon’s empathy throughout this journey. His way of connecting with me at a human level. Though he has seen hundreds of cases like mine, he recognizes the uniqueness of this situation from my point of view. He feels the toll my injury, treatment, and recovery have taken on my life over the past year, and continually goes out of his way to lessen the emotional and physical strain where possible. He never lets me believe that I am “just another patient.”

No, I will never be a doctor, but my surgeon inspires me to be a better human — to constantly remind myself that everyone I interact with is another person, with emotions, needs, and expectations. To be someone that others can trust and depend on, as a friend and as a colleague.

The world needs more people like that.

appreciation, experiences, habit, health, San Francisco, time

How to Make the Most of Your Time, Most of The Time

“5 weeks? Where are you going to go?”

“5 weeks? Oh yeah, definitely travel.”

“5 weeks? Aren’t you going anywhere?”

I recently left my product management role at a tech startup. When I started two years ago, the need for my role was desperate, and I was asked to join almost immediately after receiving the offer. I was excited to do so and what followed was a non-stop, twenty-one month sprint (Figuratively. Literally our sprints were each two weeks.). While I learned and grew immeasurably, I knew that when I finally did part ways with the company, I would need some time to recuperate. Continue reading

appreciation, art, DIY, painting, yellow

And it was all Yellow

Sophomore year of high school, I took a semester-long Asian History elective. If I had to be completely honest, I’d say that I don’t remember much of what I learned during the course. I do, however, remember (in impressive detail, might I add) the artwork that adorned the walls of our classroom. Maybe because I have a photographic memory, but more likely because I spent most lectures daydreaming while staring at the walls. Of particular interest, was a poster of this Rothko, which hung on the back wall.

Now let’s get a few things out in the open: I neither understood nor appreciated this piece of “art.” Now sure, I like yellow and blue as much as the next guy, but I simply couldn’t fathom how a canvas with splotches of primary colors could be considered art. It made me resent Rothko (and all other famous people) for being able to spit on a canvas with paint, get away with it, and worse, be dubbed prodigal.

One morning, I had arrived to class a bit early (okay fine, I regularly got to class early) and our teacher had not yet arrived. We were using another teacher’s classroom for the elective, and he happened to be taking care of some stuff at his desk. Not yet aware that silence is golden, I struck up a conversation with him. “That’s such a random piece of artwork,” I said casually, pointing to the Rothko. He looked up. “What do you mean?” “I don’t know. I just always wonder how it could be so famous. I last held a paintbrush in elementary school and I could paint that.” (How much do I sound like a stereotypical unappreciative art critic?! Yeah, I wasn’t even trying.)

Long story short, the teacher did not appreciate my commentary. “Excuse me? Have you ever realized the outpouring of energy created by this painting? Just stare at it for a moment. The balance of the uplifting yellow and the calming blue is genius. It’s not something that just anyone can paint.” I had found his reaction to be sufficiently startling, and responded by staring at the poster and feigning a new found energy (see Paragraph 2).

I had never been more happy to see my Asian History teacher walk through the door.

Fast forward nine years. This morning, in an effort to decorate my room, I decided I needed to introduce some artwork to the walls. For no reason but the fact that we have some unused blank canvases and acrylics lying around, I went the D-I-Y route. To keep it as simple as possible, I planned to paint three of the canvases yellow and the fourth as teal accent. I set aside twenty minutes for this activity. All I need to do is slap some paint on these canvases and brush over them until they’re completely covered, I thought to myself as I set up my “studio” in the laundry room.

Well, it turns out that painting something yellow is fraught with opportunity to fail. Because yellow is such a light color, it’s really difficult for an amateur to hide her brushstrokes. For the same reason, it also requires oodles of patience and an extremely steady hand (neither of which I have) to apply the yellow evenly over the entirety of the canvas. Then, there’s the edges of the canvas. I wanted them to be yellow as well, since I don’t plan on framing said “artwork.” I had no idea how to hold the canvas so as to paint the edges without covering my hands in paint. So I have paint all over my hands (Let’s just say that I’m no Ro-thko).

I ended up with some nicely painted canvases, but it certainly took more than brushing a few squirts of acrylics across a canvas. And somewhere along the way I gained a pretty deep appreciation for Rothko.

It’s so easy, as many cognitive biases and illusions will explain, to write off (or in my case, paint off) the work of others, especially when we don’t understand the effort or skill that went into it. In an increasingly D-I-Y world where anyone can create a beautifully filtered photograph or a professional-looking website, it’s too easy to discount art made for art’s sake. To incorrectly believe that we can do anything and everything just because someone has done it before. This is absolutely not to say that we shouldn’t try our hand at new skills and forms of art (and I use art in the loosest sense of the word), but in the cases where we have no interest in taking it up ourselves, we’re only harming ourselves by resisting and downplaying the beauty that surrounds us.

What I failed to understand back in high school is that while we don’t necessarily need to like everything we see be it paintings, products, or the like, it’s our duty as fellow humans to at least appreciate the effort that went into it. It’s that appreciation that energizes us to get the best possible out of the world around us, and even better, to give the best possible to the world. It’s that appreciation that should fill the canvas that is our world.