30

Birthday cake1

This month, I will turn 30.

Even though some of my peers dread the enormity of this number, my journey to turn 30 feels like a victory. I learned so much about myself and the way I see the world — shaped by a decade of internal struggles for self-acceptance and forgiveness to the external challenges that come with exploring careers, owning a home, and getting married. It was a decade of turbulent growth, and I am grateful for it.

In honor of my milestone year, I wanted to reflect on the major lessons of my 20s and to celebrate a better, wiser version of myself. Thank you to my husband, family, friends, mentors, students, and admired writers and artists for showing me the way. I dedicate this entry to you.

1.Dream big, and start small.
2.Perfection is not ambition and happiness.
3.There is no one path to success.
4.Forgive my parents. They did their best.
5.Forgive myself. I did my best.
6.I am enough.
7.Allow those whom I love to choose their own lives.
8.People show love differently.
9.We all are climbing our own mountain.
10.Ask for what I need.
11.True listening is an act of love.
12.Give support more than advice.
13.Ask big questions.
14.It doesn’t have to make sense to feel right.
15.Jump and have faith.
16.I can change my mind.
17.I can choose to change.
18.Thinking positively is a practice.
19.I can’t prepare for everything.
20.Failure has been my biggest teacher.
21.Be humble about how much I still have to learn and grow.
22.It’s okay to still dream about who I want to become.
23.My health involves my mind, body, and spirit.
24.Write from a real place, even if it’s messy.
25.Be brave enough to say “thank you”,“I’m sorry”, “I don’t know,” and “I love you.”
26.Practice gratitude everyday.
27.Life is not a race; it is a marathon. We can finish strong together.
28.Be both a map-maker and a traveller.
29.The world can be good.
30.Begin with love.

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Deciding how to eat and live | In Defense of Food

Healthy Eating

Last year, I was truly unhealthy in mind and body. It was a rough, emotional period, and I lacked the motivation to eat well and live well. I stopped caring about certain activities that used to matter. I stopped writing (for awhile). I stopped exercise, cooking, and physical activity. Toward December, I was ready to put an end to the many “stops.” Dear Sugar once said that the way out of a hole is to climb out. So I dug deep and began the hard work inside to begin the steady climb.

By the new year, I vowed to pay more attention to my health and diet. I signed up for a gym membership with my husband. Slowly, I began to incorporate a healthy habit of exercising three times a week. I also started to plan out some of my meals more in advance, including a daily, hearty breakfast of toast, almond butter, and a protein smoothie. I cooked large meals to have leftovers to bring as lunch for work the following day. I wanted to limit the number of times my husband and I went out to eat at restaurants or buy take-out food, which can get expensive.

I also read a book that changed my entire perspective about healthy living. I read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. He starts with the conundrums of our time: How is it that a health-obsessed nation such as ours is one of the highest in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates? Why are magazines, books, diet fads, and celebrity culture saturated with information on healthy living and yet we still don’t know the right answers?  It seems that the entire, confusing industry of healthy living has been defined and dictated by a select few –nutritionists, the food industry, medical professionals, and journalists. Pollan’s book shows that we as a society have greatly overcomplicated and disconnected ourselves from the root issue of health –eating whole, natural foods that our families and culture have cultivated and cooked for generations. He distills healthy eating down to a simple food philosophy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

At first I thought the reasoning Pollan proposes seemed far too simplistic. On a common sense level, I assume most folks know that eating vegetables and fruit is good for the body. People even know that diet and exercise are suggested. Why is there such a huge disparity in our country? As I read, I start to see the dots connect.  Our culture’s response to food, health, and diet are constantly in conflict. Our culture’s priority on convenience and fast-paced lifestyle puts a high value on fast foods, restaurants, and processed food items. With the evolution of our working families and booming economy, it was a prime time to industrialize food en masse.

We cook less at home and have less control over what we put in in our food; we are letting the food industry decide what to create for us to eat. To maximize profits, they are constantly tinkering with new ways to give us the greatest amount of artificial and cheap flavors and textures for the lowest cost. And we keep buying it.

While we do eat fruits and vegetables, we also eat plenty of other “food-like substances” such as processed breads, sugar bowls of cereal, yogurt, and oatmeal for breakfast, and snacks with an astonishingly high shelf life. We eat “light” versions of things in the hope that we are making healthy choices, and we don’t realize that foods with health claims are cleverly packaged and contain greater amounts of processed, artificial ingredients to maintain flavor and texture.

We are expected to read confusing nutritional labels because the discourse of food revolves around invisible nutrients, not foods we can easily recognize. We are told to eat a diet rich in proteins, fiber, good fats, and Vitamins A – Z, which the food industry exploits by enhancing and labeling their products with those nutrients. The language of nutrients remains confusing so that average consumers can’t decipher them and must rely on information from food industry experts, scientists, and nutritionists. Instead of eating a diverse diet of meats, vegetables, and fruits, we pick and choose based on the current fad nutritional diet such as low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar, etc.

We are also eating excessively. We mindlessly eat when we are distracted –usually in front of a television, in a hurry, or grab onto whatever is front of us. In a culture of more, portion sizes are larger and cheap, super size options are the norm. We also stop paying attention to when we are satisfied and when we are full. We stop listening to our bodies.

In the Information Age, with countless articles and videos on proper work-outs, diets, labels, and new X factor nutritional ingredients, we become paralyzed with the inundation of information. We see extreme reality shows and celebrity diets and think that being healthy is too difficult without a personal trainer like Jillian Michaels or a food program like Jenny Craig. As we shop at larger convenience stores, we become further disconnected from the food we consume — including the knowledge of our foods’ origins and growers. We become passive recipients to our health and nutrition because of fear, uncertainty, and a lack of knowledge. When I see how complicated and contradictory our culture’s answer to the health problems is, I can understand why so many people are defeated. I was the same way. If only we realized how much control we truly had –that we already possessed many of the resources that we need to live healthier and better.

Pollan ends the book with a message of hope and empowerment. We can be the ones to change the tide and demand a new way of eating and living. We can vote with our forks and choose an alternative to the default stream of fast, convenient, and unhealthy eating. We can make small, everyday choices on what we buy and support. We can decide how we want to eat and live, and how we want our families and communities to eat and live. There is a better way out of the hole.

I liked that Pollan’s book is not about the latest trends or exact set of rules. It is not a diet to follow, a list of bad foods versus good foods, the latest gadget to buy, or even that I should never eat at a restaurant again. Much of what our society looks for is a quick-fix solution to our health concerns: this over-simplified and immediate-gratification approach is part of the problem. Pollan’s goal is to provide guidelines and a new philosophy of eating –eat everything in moderation, cook more, learn about where your food comes from and who grew it, eat slower, savor the food, eat a diverse range of natural whole foods, and eat enjoyably. This is not a revolutionary philosophy. Many cultures in the world already eat this way. We used to at one time, but have forgotten how.

After Pollan’s book, I started to read a few other books and resources throughout these past months such as Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat, Marion Nestle’s What to Eat, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, Cooking Light magazine, and Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks website. I educated myself on the consequences of a diet based on processed foods, the difference between real food and food-like products, the industry and supermarket’s subtle, powerful influences on persuasive selling tactics, and an array of other healthy, delicious alternatives that exist. Hungry and inspired, I am ready to eat healthier. The possibilities are hopeful and fruitful.

Healthy Eating

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Road Trip with CiCi

roadside in Sonoma

Last month, I retired my old car and bought a new one.

A brand new gleaming white 2013 Honda with the scent of installed buttery, black leather. She’s quite pretty. She’s also technologically savvy –equipped with bluetooth capability, eco drive button, and a rear camera for those awkward reversals. This new baby is a huge upgrade from my former car, a glamorous makeover from its humble predecessor. I’m not used to it.

Letting go of my previous car, a 1999 black Honda Civic affectionately named CiCi, felt like the end of an era. If a person is approaching 30 (like moi), the last ten years of one’s life warrants being called an era. My car definitely showed its battle scars from a long life lived. My ’99 had two nearly identical scratches on either side of its front bumper from two separate parking incidents in the same damned garage, a visor that no longer stayed put and would occasionally bop the driver on the head, a faded Civic marking on the back from where the car label fell off, and a disintegrating parking sticker in the back windshield from an apartment complex back during my undergraduate college years. She was a beauty weathered by age and experience. She was certainly eye-catching to the various carjackers throughout the years who had unsuccessfully attempted to steal her (at least four times) and to the occasional admirers who randomly inquired if I would be willing to sell her.

She was my companion on many road trips and milestones throughout my teens and twenties. She was the first car I inherited when I got my driver’s license –a moment I reverently prepared for by burning five mixed CDs for my driving ambiance and by promptly calling my best friend. “Hey, what are you doing? Let’s go hang out at the mall. [dramatic pause] I’ll come pick you up.”

I took her with me to college, memorizing the windy stretches along the route to UC Davis and anticipating when I’d need to gun the accelerator during the steep upward hills. She was the first car I had when I met my then-boyfriend J, who would later become my husband. We drove it on our dates to Sacramento, to the fairground, and to stand in line at the popular buffet sushi spot –a treat for all college students on a scraping budget. As my birthday gift, J and a friend, had “borrowed” my car and installed it with a shiny, sleek mp3 car deck. I finally had an MP3 player of my own –no more measly 15 track songs on one CD! Now I could fit entire albums on one disc! In a pre-iPod world, this was mind-boggling. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. It would get stolen three months later. Only to have my second deck stolen about two years later. So far, the third one has been a charm. I’ve learned a few car-savvy lessons along the way: a brake lock works wonders.

She was the car I took when I drove to Los Angeles for the first time, taking along my two younger brothers who would see me off for graduate school. As a small car, she thrived on weaving in and out of Los Angeles traffic on the I-10, though she did start to break down a bit more often. Tired and old as she was, she still carried me home to the Bay Area where I started a new career and eventually got married. While I was busy transitioning from a teen to a young adult to a full-fledged adult, my car noisily struggled to keep up. At some point in the middle of last year, J began to mention the prospect of buying a new car. I pretended not to hear him –in denial of what was inevitable.

I suppose it’s bittersweet that the next car I owned would be one that I purchased together with my husband. I felt like I was betraying my ’99 CiCi as I started the process of car shopping and hunting around dealerships. As much as I could appreciate nice-looking cars, I never saw myself driving a luxurious one. I had never thought about driving any other car period. I assumed that I would always have the same car, and run it to the ground. I much preferred a practical car –a loyal car. And right then, I felt like the opposite of loyal.

“How about a Prius?” J suggested. “The Prius-C looks cute for you. Great mileage, and it’s compact.”

“A PRIUS?” I scoffed. “That dinosaur egg? It’s pretentious and annoying.”

“Fine. A Passat? A Corolla? A Civic Hybrid? A Honda Fit?” he countered. Too foreign-sounding. Too boring. Too expensive. Too boxy. I had different excuses to combat each car.

After several months of hemming and hawing on my end, he declared that by the middle of March, I will decide on my top three cars. End of story. He was no longer amused by my sentimentality (or stubbornness). When I shared with him my choices, he assured me that once I went and started test driving cars, I would feel better about the decision. That I might find something I liked. That I would be okay with moving on.

Of course, he was right.

During the last week of March, and after much haggling and expert game-playing on J’s end, I drove home in my new car. Later that weekend, we took the car out to test its legs on a mini-road trip to Napa. It was a fun and romantic trip, and I slowly realized that it would be the first of many trips that we would share in our new car. New trip, new memories. It will likely be the car that will carry our first family. The smell of leather is still fresh, the odometer is clocked at a clean slate, and the stories in the car are still untold and waiting to fill the space. It’s a road trip that I’m finally ready to take.

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Prima Donnas and Barbecue Shrimp | New Orleans

New Orleans

Last month, I hopped on a plane and spent a festive weekend in New Orleans with 11 other girls for a bachelorette party.

It wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.

As my friend D’s Matron of Honor, which meant I was also the default trip organizer, I was both excited and antsy about planning for such a large group in the heart of the south.  Given that our weekend trip was sandwiched in between Superbowl Sunday and Mardi Gras, there were plenty of events and activities to fill our days and appetites.
New Orleans

Strolling through the streets in an evening Haunted French Quarter Walking Tour was one of the best ways to start our trip.  It was on a Thursday, so while the rest of the city was uptown enjoying the start of the Carnival parades, our group followed an elder man named Frank through the darkened and quiet streets of the usually vibrant neighborhood.  Mardi Gras feathers, garland, and masks – colorful and festive during the daytime – cast eerie shadows along the building balconies as Frank recounted tragic, historical stories of the spirits “unresolved issues.”  These spirits ranged from unrequited loves, tormented slaves and owners in the 19th century, a notorious pirate named Jean Lafitte, and nuns who guarded the church during the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

New Orleans locals and workers loved telling stories.  We visited restaurants and bars that were built in the 1800s, each containing its own history beyond the brick walls, iron-wrought gates, and antique chandeliers.  Our first night, we stopped by Lafitte’s Black Smith Shop, which was built in 1722 and arguably the oldest bar in America.  Dining at the Court of Two Sisters for their popular brunch buffet, our waiter regaled us with the background of the sisters – two aristocratic Creole women named Emma and Bertha who used the court’s patio as a specialized boutique and shop in the early 1900s.

NOLA

As I stood in line for the Cajun shrimp, I struck up a conversation with a woman in a pink and black beaded corset dress with skulls, her hair adorned with a nest of wild pink feathers.  She was part of the Prima Donna parade later that afternoon and it was an annual tradition for the other Donnas to eat brunch at the Court of Two Sisters.

“Where does everyone get their costumes?  They’re lovely,” I said.  Next to her, I spied one of her friend’s in a blue and green tutu with fish swimming on our beaded bodice.  Her lashes are bright blue, and I imagine her as a Mardi Gras mermaid who looked with interest at the King’s Cake dessert platter.

“Oh, we gather together and have bead and outfit parties every week just to decorate!” she giggled.

New Orleans

On our way out, we caught the Prima Donna parade –marching band and official banner – and waved our hands to collect their souvenirs.  Among them are bright colored thongs, pink and purple beads, bracelets with crowns, and bare-breasted rings.  It started to feel like Mardi Gras.

NOLA

New Orleans

With colorful parade floats and crowds that block the streets from all over the city, we spent most of our days and evenings walking through the French Quarter – less than 10 minutes away from our hotel.  When we weren’t wrestling our way through the bead-crazed thick of Bourbon Street en route to popular bars such as Channing Tatum’s Saints and Sinners and Cat’s Meow, we were shopping or eating.

NOLA

New Orleans

New Orleans

NOLA

New Orleans

We caught a late night snack at Café Du Monde for their powdered beignets and chickory coffee.  In the daytime, we spent a few hours browsing the French Market‘s endless tables of fancy hats, cheap masks, jewelry, and souvenir trinkets.  At the other end of the market, there are food stalls that sell yummy snack items like freshly shucked oysters, fried crawdaddies, and fried pickles.

When we had dinner at Mr. B’s Bistro, I finally understood the fuss and hype over their famous barbecue shrimp dish.  As the rest of the girls conspired with each other over the menu (Do you want to share?  Maybe an appetizer and an entree?  I’m not too hungry).  Granted, it was 5:30 PM and we were stuffed from fried pickles.  My friend D pushed her menu aside.  “I’m having a barbecue shrimp plate all to myself,” she declared.

I stifled a laugh when the wait staff came around to tie a delicate tissue bib around our necks.  The restaurant was surprisingly fancy; was this necessary?  The dish came out – a jumble of succulent shrimp covered in a rich and subtly sweet sauce – and as soon as we took a bite, nobody laughed or said a word.  We were all too busy eating – our fingers and mouths biting, slurping, and peeling all at once.  It was the best shrimp dish I ever ate.  When the last shrimp was devoured, my table mates and I continued to ravage the sauce with table bread.  I almost protested when they finally hauled the plate away.  At one point during dinner, a girl friend and I looked at each other and grinned messy, sauce-sticky smiles.  We originally were going to split the shrimp plate, but decided at the last minute to bite the bullet and order separately.  A wise decision.

On our last full day in New Orleans, we wanted to venture outside the French Quarter and into the Garden District.  It was an adventure just to leave the area.  Parades were starting in one end of town and wrapping up at another part of the city, which meant that most of the main roads were blocked off.  People were gearing up to catch the much anticipated Endymion parade, which featured the royal court and an endless stream of marching bands.  It was nearly impossible to reserve a taxi or flag one down – much less two to fit our crew of 11.  “Drive out of the French Quarter?  Sorry, no.”  We lucked out and found a nice gentleman who volunteered to take one half of the group, and return back for the other half.  That’s the sort of hospitality we found throughout our trip in New Orleans. 

New Orleans

New Orleans

We had our final brunch at Commander’s Palace, another excellent dining experience that involved wearing golden crowns, pastel rooms with chandeliers, a jazz group serenading “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”, dressed up wait staff who quietly set down plates in unison, and rich, decadent food such as eggs poached in cream, incredibly tender braised beef on top of buttery cajun grits, and warm bread pudding served with whiskey sauce.  The restaurant was built in 1880 and only closed temporarily to undergo renovations following Hurricane Katrina and Isaac.  Apparently, U.S. presidents make it a point to dine here.  This meal provided a glamorized snapshot of the New Orleans culinary experience – service that is hospitable and warm, indulgent flavors of sweet and savory meals, and a bit of history served up with a little liquor.

New Orleans

New Orleans

It feels oddly nostalgic for me to walk through the city – like I’ve been here before or someplace like it.  The French Quarter district of New Orleans feels like a blend of FranceSpain, and – oddly – a surreal Disneyland Main Street.  It’s no surprise that the Creole people have cultural roots in a mixture of French and Spanish.  I see the European influence in the street architecture, the elegant doorways and balconies, the tiled street signs on the floors and walls, the open air markets, parade of musicians, and bursts of purple, green, and yellow decorations adorned on buildings.  It was a slice of old European charm in America.  This historically rich and vibrant city was the perfect backdrop for my friend’s milestone celebration.  Needless to say, the bulk of our group’s accumulated Mardi Gras beads remained sheepishly behind.

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Old + New Habits | San Diego

December in San Diego

Ever since J recommended the book The Power of Habit, I started noticing my personal habits – particularly the habits that creep up while on vacation. During our December trip to San Diego, I noticed the following:

My need to consume more than three meals per day, including an unusually high number of fried, salty food, caffeine, and alcohol. “But when’s the next time I’ll EVER come back to this restaurant again? We have to order the bacon-wrapped corndogs and bacon ice cream sandwich.”

Over-planning my day so that my brain and body gives out by the end of it
Never factoring in driving, parking, or traffic time in between destinations.
Being grumpy when unexpected things happen during my picture-perfect vacation – like traffic. And rain. And only having one blazer when I should have brought a coat.
My desire for escapism. And disappointment when reality hits me again.

San Diego

Of course, I don’t think I’m the only person who experiences such things. It made me curious to see why I would expect certain things to occur only on vacation and daily habits (such as working out, eating right) tend to drop to the side. Why do our behaviors and expectations change so dramatically when we’re on vacation? Comedian Jim Gaffigan refers to this as a false sense of entitlement when we are on vacation, that we feel we deserve to spoil ourselves silly in fancy hotel rooms, come to expect the free little chocolates on our pillows, and blow money on nice restaurants all day long. “How about we eat first then go get something to eat after?” he says.

And eat a lot…we did.

After we arrived at the modern Hotel Indigo, we drove into San Diego’s popular Gaslamp District to have dinner at Cafe Sevilla. From the large intricate glass chandelier to the vintage European poster collage to the hanging bull heads, it was like being transported to a surreal version of Spain. The live guitarist band, crowds, and delicious tapas of ceviche, potatoes bravas, and shrimp ajillo brought back wonderful memories of our honeymoon.

San Diego

Since we had a rental car, we also drove into the Los Angeles Little Tokyo area to have lunch at our favorite Japanese ramen joint Daikokuya. Unfortunately about 50 other people had the same idea, which prompted a nearly two hour wait for the exceedingly popular, tiny restaurant. However, as soon as we were seated at the counter area and the large bowls of steaming, creamy broth and fresh noodles were set in front of us, we hungrily dove in and proclaimed that it was just as good as we had remembered back in our college days.

December in San Diego

My best friend and her husband drove from the LA area to stay with us for a day in San Diego. We see each other about once or twice a year, so it was a treat to spend a full day and a half exploring the city’s eats, sights, and nightlife together with our husbands. We had brunch at the Cottage Inn in La Jolla, where we clinked tangerine mimosa glasses and I savored my polenta eggs benedict. We strolled around Balboa Park and chatted about our new jobs, our current favorite TV shows, and comparing life with a dog to life with a baby – all with the backdrop of the massive, gorgeous museum architecture.

San Diego

San Diego

We crammed our evening with a delicious melt-in-your-mouth sushi dinner at Hane Sushi, shared an incredibly moist passionfruit cake and ultra-sweet salted caramel ice cream at Extraordinary Desserts, a bottle of Pinot Noir at the hidden and lively Vyn de Syrah lounge, and ended the night with greasy, hot slices of pizza.

December in San Diego

December in San Diego

December in San Diego

That next day before my friends left, we had a lunch at Craft and Commerce – a cool gastropub that had no problem serving  strong daytime cocktails, bacon wrapped spicy corn dog appetizers, and bacon bits in an ice cream sandwich. It was one of the best meals I recalled on the trip. And it also curbed my hunger for a long, long time.

San Diego

San Diego

San Diego

We spent the next few days of our trip on Coronado Island, where we stayed at the luxurious Loews Coronado Bay Resort. This was a good idea, since we could retreat from the hectic pace of driving through downtown San Diego and freeway traffic. The mornings and afternoons rejuvenating. Strolling through the expansive hotel lobby and quietly sitting by the large window panes or poolside cabana to read felt like a treat I don’t normally indulge in while traveling.

December in San Diego

I also loved stepping outside to view the waterfront and look across at the city skyline, as if I could wave across to downtown San Diego like a friend standing off in the distance. During my quiet mornings, I finished reading The Power of Habit, and I had some fresh ideas for what I wanted to work on developing in 2013.  I wasn’t ready for my winter break to end, but I was more than ready to go back home.

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