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.

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accountability, adulthood, camping, friendship, trust, truth

I Was Almost Suspended, But Instead I Learned An Unforgettable Life Lesson

I was seated one seat diagonally behind Jonathan that day. I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a Monday. Nineteen years ago.

He reached into his backpack and then pulled his hand out, his fist clenched around something.

Click.

Now there was something silver protruding from the fist. He turned around and held it up. We made eye contact.

“I forgot I had this in my backpack,” he said without prompting, “I went camping this weekend.”

He turned back around and I went back to my in-class assignment. It was rare that Jonathan seemed to notice—let alone speak to—me when I wasn’t with one of my best friends, the girl he had a crush on.

Later that week, I was called into the principal’s office. I had been there a number of times previously, usually to help with admin work and once to bond with my principal about our matching Halloween costumes (we were both Dorothy that year).

I skipped in, but my gait became far less chipper at the sight of my principal’s face.

“Take a seat,” she said, “We’ve got something very serious to discuss.”

We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

“Jonathan and James have been suspended,” she stopped. I was confused. Not because they had been suspended (they had a knack for getting themselves into trouble). But because she was informing me. Why? If we were gossiping the least she could have done was offered me some tea.

“Do you know why?” She asked after a long pause.

“No.”

“Are you sure? Jonathan showed you something this week.”

The knife.

“Oh, the pocket knife?” I asked, still trying to piece together my presence in that room.

“As you know, we have a zero-tolerance policy with weapons. Why didn’t you tell anyone he had it at school?”

“He told me he accidentally left it in his backpack. He went camping last weekend.” I honestly didn’t think twice about the pocket knife, but even if I had, I still wouldn’t have told anyone. I had been let in to Jonathan’s circle, and he was one of the popular kids. I couldn’t gamble this high honor away.

“Zero-tolerance means it doesn’t matter why. What if he injured someone or himself? How would you have felt? You could have helped prevent that. The fact that you knew and didn’t tell anyone means I could suspend you too.” My eyes welled with tears. I wished Jonathan had never spoken to me in the first place. I wondered how my name had come up to our principal. “I’m not going to, but today I hope you learn a very important lesson: When you see something, and you don’t say something, you too are guilty.”

That day, I learned what it means to be a not-so-incident bystander.

Eight years later, in my AP Psychology class, I learned the story of Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year old woman who was murdered to death outside her New York apartment in the 1960’s. Just under forty people witnessed the event without calling for help. This apathy was later coined the bystander effect. People are less likely to help someone in need when there are others present. To give people the benefit of the doubt, everyone thinks or hopes that someone else will help.

This is humankind’s most depraved quality.

Recently, I was inspired by two women who broke away from the bystanders. One, a friend of my mom, and the other, a mentor of a colleague. Both could have safely remained silent. But they took action by stepping away from their respective groups to bring positive change. In doing so, they did not care what others would say or think; they did not take or push blame; they did not ignore all the intricacies of the situation; they didn’t try to protect themselves or anyone else; they did not seek martyrdom. Instead, they spotted the metaphorical pocket knife, sensed its potential for harm, and did what they believed was right. My involvement was to witness the end result: My mom’s faith and friendship restored, my colleague’s renewed feelings of respect, support, and appreciation. In stepping up, my mom’s friend and the mentor broke silence. Silence that, as I learned in my principal’s cramped office so long ago, can sometimes be more damaging than an illicit act itself.

Unlike my fourth grade self, I no longer consider what it means to be well-liked by a group. These recent displays by strong women have reminded me of the power not in being popular, but in following our inner compass even when it detracts from the majority. Their acts demonstrated what it truly means to gain and maintain trust. To build strong relationships. To be true to others—and to yourself.

Each of us is equipped with an inner truth. This is our most powerful weapon. Use it to cut away the brush and forge the path that you believe in.

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2017, academia, activism, college, mentorship, undocumented citizens, validation

How A High Schooler Changed The Way I Lead My Life

Last June, I met one of the most courageous activists I’ve ever known. In the weeks and months that followed, we got together frequently and learned about one another on a deep level. Our conversations taught me about a world I knew nothing about and forced me to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions about myself and my surroundings. This person who rocked my world wasn’t a colleague, a partner, or a friend. She was a seventeen-year-old student, Sofia*, with whom I spent eight months preparing college applications. We specifically focused on her essays.

No matter how long ago you applied to college, if you applied to college, you remember your essay. Not because you hated writing it. Not because it was stressful to write. But because your essay was one of the first deeply personal pieces of writing you created and shared. It forced you to look deep within and to be vulnerable.

I remember mine.

And I remember sitting frozen in my chair, watching my college counselor read my essay for the first time. I saw her as the key to my future. I was desperate for her validation and could think only about catering my life—my story—to appease her. She finished reading and looked up at me. “It’s a meaningful story,” she said. She proceeded to provide me with a few suggestions. But is the essay good or bad? Will my story get me into my desired colleges? I needed to know. Her comments did not steer me one way or another.

Sofia, my student, was something else. In addition to juggling traditional high school experiences like a heavy workload and a new boyfriend, Sofia was a rare breed of female wrestler, tirelessly training to stay within her weight class; a responsible daughter, supporting her single mom by cleaning houses; and a community activist, leading peaceful resistances against social injustices toward ethnic minorities and undocumented citizens like herself.

As we brainstormed her essays and discussed drafts, I started to see that Sofia was a young woman very unlike my high school self. She never asked me whether her essays were good or bad. That didn’t matter to her. Instead, she told me about the points she wanted to highlight, the emotions she wanted to express, and the messages she wanted to deliver.

Put another way, getting my buy-in (or that of a college admissions counselor), was not crucial to Sofia. She was too busy continuing to live her story. She wasn’t doing this for me. This came with a price: Sofia and my meetings were inconsistent. We sprinted to the finish line with her essays, sometimes barely making a deadline.

Eventually, I stopped hearing from Sofia altogether. In one of her last communications with me in February, she told me nothing about her college or scholarship application statuses. Instead, she provided an update about an initiative she had been leading all year—a resolution promoting the support and safety of undocumented students, to be presented to and adopted by the Board of Education.

Btw yesterday the resolution was presented to committees. There was a big rally, about 100 people showed up to show support and it was very powerful.

Although I hadn’t heard from her in a while, she had been busy writing her story. I was impressed. Proud. Inspired.

During the months that followed, I occasionally wondered whether Sofia had been accepted to college, and more frequently wondered how her story was evolving.

Yesterday, I saw our mentorship coordinator, who pulled me aside. “I talked to Sofia today,” she said. Sofia had gotten into one of her top choice schools, one she and I had spent many hours focusing on. “She feels guilty she never reached out. She says you are the reason she got in.”

Walking home, I asked myself a question I hadn’t asked myself in a while.

“Why do I do all that I do?”

For validation? Did it matter that Sofia had not directly recognized me for my help? I admitted to myself that no, it didn’t matter. Not because I don’t care about Sofia, but because I, many years since graduating high school, no longer need that metaphorical nod from my college counselor. I am grateful to have been part of Sofia’s story. I am thankful that she found my help meaningful. My personal narrative is better because of her.

In life, it’s so easy to lose ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, to our need for validation. Validation from friends, a partner, family, a boss, or social networks. But Sofia taught me that my story—each of our stories—is so much bigger than that.

I have to write my story for me, and no one else.

Yesterday, the page turned again. I met my new student for this upcoming school year. And I can’t wait to see how our stories will intersect.

*Name changed to protect privacy

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http://www.patrickvale.co.uk/Projects/NYC-Midtown-line-drawing
2017, art, tradeoffs, wants vs needs, writing

How I Let My Ego Steal My Craft—And Why I’m Stealing it Back

“Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start there.” – Cheryl Strayed

Until my brother was born, I was the only child and grandchild in my family, which came with an abundance of attention and adoration. I was three when he came along, and immediately found myself needing to compete for the spotlight. One day as I was pondering my increasingly impossible mission, I was bouncing around near our brick fireplace. I took a misstep, stubbed my right pinky toe, and started bleeding. I was suddenly surrounded by parents and grandparents offering me treats and ointments and band-aids. And in that moment, I found an answer.

Going forward, I started covering my arms and legs with loud, colorful band-aids—even though there was never a colorful injury under them. “Oh no! What happened?” I remember my grandpa asking as he scooped me up after spotting a band-aid under my elbow.

I am not proud of it, but it did the deed.

Several weeks ago, after a minor knee surgery, I went in for a check-up with my surgeon. Though most people didn’t notice anything wrong before the surgery (or any change afterwards), I—obviously—did. There were no colorful band-aids, but my knee wasn’t yet fully healed. I still had to work on my ability to fully extend and bend it. “This is your new project,” my surgeon told me as I left his office. Every day since, I’ve put endless amounts of time and effort into my recovery, sometimes with the most nuanced of isolation exercises. The definition of a personal project, my endeavor is one from which only I find a thrill, one from which only I feel a benefit. And there’s something really special about that.

At some point in my pursuit of becoming a writer, I started to pressure myself into producing work for the sole enjoyment of others, be it in the form of my personal book and blog, or in the form of my professional and freelance work. I carved out time not because I wanted to write, but because I needed to write. In some ways, there was nothing wrong with this. It’s nice for your writing to be read. But in other ways, everything was wrong with this.

Sometimes I would spend an entire day or days constructing meandering strings of words and paragraphs. Ones that made me feel something, but could never stand to entertain. Ones that made me reflect, that made me grow, that made my heart sing—and sometimes sob. But at the end of these long days, I would feel nothing but fury and embarrassment. With nothing to “show” for my time, I considered my day a wasted one. “I should have done something else today,” I would think to myself as I pulled open the covers and slid into bed. And so, I stopped writing for writing’s sake. I stopped writing for myself.

For the past week, artist Patrick Vale has been painting a mural at the entrance of my office. On Wednesday, he spent some time talking to my studio about his work. In addition to all his public work, he gave us a glimpse of his personal sketchbooks. His most recent sketchbook includes sketches of people he sees on the train. “I’m trying to get better at drawing people,” he explained, “and seeing them for only two minutes on the train gives you no time to mess up.”

His sketchbooks struck me. The quality of work was certainly notable, but that wasn’t what got me. I was more struck by the fact that these works were ones that he simply created—and kept—for himself. (“No one has really seen this stuff.”) They were not for anyone else. They were meant to allow him to self-reflect. To grow. To learn. To fail. They were not meant for him to demonstrate his “artist-ness” to the world.

His talk inspired me to bring back to my craft what I accidentally achieved through rehabilitating my knee: a sense of personal exploration, growth, and strengthening. For me. One that is almost more beautiful in its lack of universal applicability and shareability.

Thanks to overwhelming avenues for oversharing (avenues whose traps I’m often lured into both online and in person), self-expression can become increasingly frustrating and worse, inauthentic. Our personal projects become projections unto other people.

The real deal gets covered up by a band-aid screaming for attention.

These past few weeks, and this past week in particular have reminded me about the importance of what lies hidden underneath. The ugly scar. The struck-out sentence. That is art.

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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.

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