Oh, Cairo

Returning from Cairo, Egypt is like waking up from some hot, hazy dream. These first few days after spring break I fall asleep each night as though I’m drugged. My skin feels like papyrus, my eyes are always heavy. There is a residual kiss of the city on my forearm — dark brown tendrils, an exploding sunflower fading from the touch of water and soap. Some kind of spell — an experience that cannot be easily shed, thick and sticky as it is — made from the concoction of heat, civilization, dust, camels, kofta, sand, golden brown mummies, and the blue Nile lingers and weighs.

Day 6

We are at Khan el-Khalili, a labyrinthine bazaar. We wind through alleyways drawn with shadows and glitter, under the fraying canopies and corrugated metal roofs overhead, and past the heaps of gleaming silverware by our feet and gilded lanterns by our faces. There are pyramids as small as the size of my palm, papyrus that lies in sorry stacks, and sequined dresses and ‘I ❤ Egypt’ T-shirts fluttering in the breeze.

The guide points out the famous El Fishawy Café — Perhaps the most famous café of the Arab world, he says. Lazy, hooded eyes stare at me through the veil of vapors from the shishas. I watch myself — slightly tanner, wearing a white “H” hat, eyes shining from under the visor — in the giant mirrors that decorate the exterior of the café on both sides of the alley. This was where the Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz wrote frequently (also apparently the setting of Midaq Alley). I picture myself writing here for a moment, surrounded by battered mirror frames, bubbling water pipes, and fresh glasses of mint tea. The promise is so great that I can almost taste it, like apricots with tobacco on my tongue. The thought dissipates when we emerge from under the archway, the swirls of smoke behind us.

We are showered in sunlight. It’s like walking through a living vignette.

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Day 4

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We have lunch on a terrace overlooking the expansive lush greenery of the Al-Azhar Park — now an urban oasis full of fountains, boulevards, and greenery, where it used to be a sea of garbage and rubble. Before lunch, when we are walking up a slope, Professor Asani says a name as though I should recognize it.

Aga Khan? I repeat, bewildered.

He’s the current Imam, believed to be a direct descendant of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, Professor Asani tells me. Still alive. The park is his gift to Cairo.

After lunch, we get onto golf carts. They zoom down the smoothly-paved concourse and the park roads running alongside the 12th-century Ayyubid wall (which used to wall off the old city dumpster, i.e. in the Park’s previous reincarnation), before gliding out of the vehicle gates —

We are down a congested alleyway, lined with workrooms, construction sites, teetering shacks, and breathtaking medieval architecture. We hop off twice to see the mosques, both still in different stages of restoration by the Aga Khan Cultural Services. The mosques stand like epitaphs amidst the biographies of poverty. The reality is that the beautiful park is in the middle of slums — one of Cairo’s poorest districts.

Later, when the carts retrace the path back to the park, the children wave at us from the windows that look over the wall.

Do they come here often? I ask the professor.

Yes, they do. There is another entrance, not the main entrance, but it’s much closer to the Darb al-Ahmar (the slums). It’s very convenient, he tells me.

I think of ruddy cheeks and grimy hands frolicking in the grass. It almost seems perfect, but somehow it’s not.

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DAY 3

The bus is winding through the streets of Old Cairo. We are on our way to the American University in Cairo. Outside the glass, the downtown colonial-style buildings recede. Wide bridges soar over open bazaar squares full of umbrellas that sprout like mushrooms. Amidst the colorful stalls is the Al Hussein Mosque with its towering minarets. That too disappears from view. Soon, I see an endless sea of half-constructed buildings baking under the sun. Receding past us are floors without roofs, rooms without walls, windows without sills — abandoned brick and mortar Lego lands. There is the sky on the other end, dotted by rippling clotheslines of clean colors amidst the rubble. Someone is climbing from one room to another, grasping jutting concrete, in full view. I glimpse their lives, half-enclosed, in mid-sentence. After a while, the view seems perennial. 

But, a swerve, a turn, and we are down another road. There are now swaying palms, multiple cars parked before gated mansions — Victorian, Versailles, Mediterranean, Greek Revival, Art Deco, you name it, they have it. The roads are eerily empty. In the last few minutes before we pull up in front of a very American-looking campus, the bus passes Dunkin’ Donuts, H&M, and strip malls with familiar logos.

If the mansions weren’t clear enough of a sign, these malls are. We are in ‘New Cairo’ — Egypt’s new capital, still in construction and yet to be named.

DAY 1

I am strangely awake despite the exhaustion of flying fifteen hours the previous day, the jet lag of having slept only 2 hours this morning before waking up at 6:45AM, and the sheer heat from my baffling choice of dressing in all-black, long-sleeve.

Our local guide Yashar’s voice booms from the front of the bus through a mic, as we pull up at the Pyramids of Giza. He tells us three ‘must-knows’:

  1. Egyptians are very friendly (the type of friendly that entails inviting you to their house so that they can learn English or insisting, as I would later witness at Khan el-Khalili, that I have waited my whole life for you — said to a group of us by a vendor).
  2. ‘Free’ means ‘you need to pay.’
  3. You need a little baksheesh (tips) for everything.

The bus roars with laughter.

With these three things in mind, it was easy to ignore the vendors trying to sell scarves, guidebooks, and bookmarks with hieroglyphs at Giza.

At Saqqara (where the oldest complete stone building complex known in history was built — Djoser’s Step Pyramid — in the 27th century BC by his vizier, Imhotep, who happens to be the title character of The Mummy!!!), a few hours later, I try to find the public bathroom. It takes me fifteen minutes wandering through the parked tour buses before I find a desolate-looking sign at the edge of some steps leading steeply downwards.

When I reach the bottom, there is a man cleaning the entrance. I am about to walk right past him when he rubs his thumb, index, and middle fingers together in front of my face. Behold, the universal sign for baksheesh.

I groan internally, as my wallet is locked in the bus. We stare at each other for a brief moment before I wordlessly turn to go. But he stops me and graciously lets me through. In a few seconds, I emerge again.

No toilet paper, I tell him.

He shrugs and it occurs to me he might not understand English but then he unlocks a cabinet to hand me a roll.

Shukran, I say.

He stretches out a hand. I shake it.

Kiss hand? he asks. When I widen my eyes and says no, he smiles and shrugs again.

OK, he says.

It’s both the strangest and most effusive public bathroom encounter I’ve ever had. The truth in our guide’s words resound.

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***

Religion is a multi-sensory experience.

Professor Ali Asani tells us this at least three times each day on the trip.

The sentence seems to be intuitively right, but I only begin to grasp it when the days wore on.

Cairo is full of sounds. Different cadences of the Adhaan (the Muslim Call to Prayer) play from minarets, a few seconds apart. They cloak you for a few solid moments, so viscous that your mind goes blank. Then, the shroud lifts and life resumes.

In Cairo, you see the soundscape mattering as much as the landscape does (recitations of the Quran! Sufi music! the Adhaan!). Symbols and space cannot do without one another.

There is something quite wondrous and unexpected about the ambiguity between the Prophet and the Poet; perhaps, both one and the same. The divine that is embedded within the text of the Quran is one that is not only read but also listened to.

When the Quran is so much of an oral and a visual text, stylized and recited, what does it mean to read?

There’s a quote by a Persian poet, Saadi of Shiraz, which Professor Asani shared with us:

Every leaf of the tree becomes a page of the sacred scripture once the soul learns how to read. 

The book of nature — the scripture that is all around us. It’s a beautiful thought.

The Prophet once said, the professor tells me gently when we are standing in the desert under the unimpeded glare of the sun, that God is beautiful and He loves beauty.

What about the violence and ugliness in the name of God’s beauty? I ask.

That’s not religion. That happens when religion becomes increasingly secularized, he says.

Immediately, it sounds oxymoronic. But, as he explains, I understand. Religion used to be about the transcendent. Yet, now it’s about politics — to govern people, to create wars, to carve territory, and to kill enemies.

The religion I witnessed on the streets of Cairo and in its astounding mosques is not that religion that we hear of so often in the media — wrapped up tightly in the political lexicon of coups and democracies, the numbing statistics of casualties, or the heated debates over accessories in the West. There has always been a visceral fear, fanned by one side, seeded by another. But, in Cairo, Islam may be chaotic, Islam may seem contradictory, but it’s really just about grasping transcendence in the seemingly ordinary moments of transience, of beauty, of listening.

Interning in Venture Capital in China

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Before I get swept up in the semester, let me close the chapter of winter break. I’m writing down my internship thoughts in the polar chill of Cambridge, MA. January has ended. Everything’s days and continents away.

Did you do anything meaningful over the break other than drink bubble tea?

Yes!! (Doing meaningful things and drinking bubble tea are not mutually exclusive, after all.) I went to Beijing during the last two weeks of break for an internship at Northern Light Venture Capital (NLVC).

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Interns + Michael – Harry

What on earth is venture capital??

To be really honest, I had a pretty vague idea before going. But, here’s the textbook definition:

Venture capital is a type of financing provided to private, early-stage companies deemed to have high growth potential by investors in exchange for equity, or partial ownership of the company.

Here’s what I now think after two weeks: although VC is about returns, it can also be about creating social good through innovative (perhaps, disruptive) ideas that improve lives and efficiency. When you have lots of money, you can mold the future. You will also want to be richer. So you become a Limited Partner (LP) at a firm with knowledgeable people to invest your money in startups with lots of potential (which also happen to be hungry for capital). VC is a risky asset class. But, high risk, high returns. In some sense, it’s a win-win.

Why did you want to do a VC internship in China?

I wanted to immerse myself in China’s unique startup ecosystem. As a storyteller by heart, I’m intrigued by China’s burgeoning “content entrepreneurship” amidst its media revolution (from Wechat public accounts to Zhihu to Ximalaya FM podcasts to online fiction publishing).

I’m also fascinated by the media sector, which might be disrupted by new formats of how we experience content (augmented reality, livecasts) and communicate with one another (what’s after the mobile phone?). How the real and the virtual will merge in content consumption is a ripe area of growth.

In learning first-hand about NLVC’s portfolio companies, and how people who have one foot in the future and one in the present conceive of these possibilities, I sought to draw insights for my own career. My mantra is: Do something different every break!

What did you do?

We met with investment and legal professionals, visited start-ups (ranging from autonomous vehicles to data analytics to fashion to e-sports to teleradiology to AI+ entertainment), and sat in on New Horizon VC’s in-house team meetings in different sectors (TMT, Healthcare, and Risk Control & Portfolio Management).

What did you learn?

Here are some unexpected takeaways and nuggets of information:

  • You can only truly understand ‘consumer demand’ when you are in the field. Example: It’s really easy to be idealistic at a place like Harvard that online education is going to be the next big thing and to take the thirst for knowledge for granted. But, beyond a certain point, is knowledge really value-adding to most people’s lives? From the investor’s perspective, the future of pay-for-knowledge startups (知识付费) is extremely uncertain.
  • What’s the next big thing after PC/Mobile? The traditional keyboard/touchpad model might be rendered utterly obsolete. Here’s speculation from a VC professional we met —  perhaps, mobile phones might be separated into different devices according to function, e.g. watch, augmented reality glasses, fitness devices, or even soft screens (which is totally new to me).
  • Sometimes, the best indicator of how far a startup can go is the founder.
  • The big challenge for autonomous vehicles is one of generalization (beyond particularization — an operational design domain, and localization after data collection).
  • Many technologies seemingly far away from our lives are actually already all around us. The commercialization of autonomous vehicles is upon us — from airports to valet parking. AI is being used in product placements on variety shows that I’ve watched — many of the products and advertisements on Singer (歌手) were augmented!
  • In China, Wechat mini-programs are very crucial to many startups’ creative strategies.
  • For many e-commerce startups, the focus is now on a streamlining of the offline and the online retail experience. This concept of ‘new retail‘ can engage online data to make the physical consumer experience individually tailored. Here’s a read of Alibaba’s pivot.
  • What’s important to a startup? Ideas, leadership, funds, timing. An oft-overlooked aspect is the importance of a talented team who will leave their high-paying jobs to join you to develop your start-up idea at the drop of a hat and will stick with you and stand by you even in times of hardship. That’s what really takes to make a sustainable startup.
  • Augmented/virtual reality sports matches! Imagine The Hunger Games in the virtual realm. Kind of like Ready Player One. Maybe a good story idea.
  • While a typical EM (emerging market) crisis, as triggered by withdrawal of foreign currency, is unlikely in China due to its low external debts, one can only be cautiously optimistic about how the Chinese government will rebalance as the market undergoes structural reforms. While smooth rebalancing is currently the most probable medium-term outcome, the second most likely outlook is that China may encounter Japan-style stagnation (without its wealth).

Ultimately, I learned that it’s very hard to be the number one in any field. But, this internship has really taught me to think in terms of intersections — if you can become the top 10% of multiple fields, there may be a niche intersection where you can make an irreplaceable and maximized impact to the world.

That’s so cool! How can I get to know more about VC, entrepreneurship, and China?

Here are some interesting articles shared by everyone in the internship:

Some career guidance from wiser people I met:

I read so much. How about some photos?

A snapshot of some happy moments. Most of the time, I was so busy that I didn’t have time to take pictures.

Exhibit A: I tried a Rachel Zoe jumpsuit at the offline experience store of 女神派 Ms. Paris, a designer clothing rental platform — a Chinese version of Rent the Runway. Of the four main pillars of human life — clothes, food, accommodation, and travel (衣食住行) — the sharing economy is finally starting to take off for clothes (after Airbnb, Uber/Lyft/Didi, bike-sharing, etc.).

Exhibit B: I’m sitting on a gaming chair at e-sports startup, 9eplay.

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Exhibit C: Harry and I met with our Harvard & Singapore senior, Zara! She is currently working in venture capital at GGV Capital’s Beijing office — fun fact: aside from being a blogger, she also co-hosts 996, a bi-weekly English podcast featuring the movers and shakers in China’s tech industry. Writers put themselves out there, she said, that’s how opportunity comes knocking. 她说:“肯定会迷茫,但是专注于把眼前的事情做到极致。” Really inspired. ❤

Exhibit D: My internship roommate, Olivia!!! We are at some door in the Forbidden Palace’s Imperial Garden. 

Coming up next: shopping week, figuring out classes, and crazy little things.

Lots of love,

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From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely

My From A Foodie posts on this blog are too few for my liking. Read the first installment from my two months in Japan: From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit. 🍙

I ushered in 2019 in Taipei with my parents — the three of us were there on family vacation for nine joyful, tummy-filled days.

Taipei is a place where the best foods are found in the street-side stalls with no air-conditioning, or nestled in an obscure alley, or at its thronging night markets (which I didn’t thoroughly experience because we were dieting as a family -__-). The meals we had at the hotel or in upscale restaurants were all less satisfactory than the intimate hole-in-the-wall eateries, overflowing with customers by word of mouth.

For fellow bubble tea lovers, I’ve highlighted all the bubble tea I tried at various places with a pink flower. 🌸 A new milestone has finally emerged in my study of the art of bubble tea-drinking. I finally figured out the difference between pearls (珍珠) and boba (波霸). I would like to share this important category distinction with all of you:

Pearls (珍珠): small
Boba (波霸): big

Ta-da!

Shilin 士林

Breakfast 早餐

Since we stayed at The Grand Hotel near the Jiantan and Yuanshan stations, and considering how hungry my parents were when we headed out of the hotel at 11am every day, we mostly had breakfast nearby. There was an abundance of options though! I did my research well under the limitations of proximity.

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  • Man Jia Ziang 满佳香

A nook in the alleys that come to life by nighttime. By day, all the Shilin Night Market stalls were closed or kept, but this all-day breakfast store was bustling. Order the warm milk tea with fresh milk and their egg pancakes with fillings ranging from tuna to steak to hash brown. Also, order the fried dumplings and scallion pancakes! Prices are incredibly down-to-earth.

  • Fong Sheng Hao 丰盛号

Called one of Taipei’s top 10 must-eat breakfasts, it pairs charcoal-grilled toast with milk tea. Both my dad and I ordered the classic meat, egg, and cheese toast while my mom got hers with spicy meat. Easy to eat and oh so delicious when downed with milk tea.

  • Lin‘s Chinese Pizza 林家葱油饼

A stall right outside the Shilin station. Always a long queue. We had this three times throughout the trip since it was located close to our hotel. Many combinations for your picking. My favorite is the original with chili and cheese. My mom likes hers with egg. My dad likes his with pickles.

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市

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  • Hot-Star Large Fried Chicken 豪大大鸡排

Bigger than my face. No picture to show because I was so hungry that I ate it without first taking a photo. Not any different (other than atmosphere-wise) from the branches it has opened in Singapore. But here’s a picture of me posing with happiness above.

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  • Smoothie House 思慕昔

We were too full to try this CNN-endorsed dessert at its original store at Yong Kang Street (read below: because we dined at Kao Chi), so we tried it at the one at Shilin instead. We got the Super Fruits Mix Mango Snowflake Iced with Sorbet, which was just okay. And that’s disappointing. 😦 At least it looked pretty.

  • GomanMango

Better than Smoothie House! Not too sweet, not too sour. As it happens with all good food encountered at the peak of hunger, I forgot to take a photo.

  • 🌸 TP Tea 茶汤会 🌸

Tieguanyin latte is quite good. Would have been better without pearls! Middle of the pack in Taipei but still better than any bubble tea I’ve had in the U.S. T_T I’m going to be impossible to satisfy. Argh.

Ximen 西门町

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  • 🌸 Tiger Sugar 老虎堂 🌸

OMG. The first time I’ve had brown sugar with my milk and it was LIFE-CHANGING. Unlike at other places, the sugar level, amount of ice, or toppings aren’t customizable here. Everything is perfectly balanced!!! They know what they are doing, trust me.

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  • Ay Chung Rice Noodles 阿宗面线

This feels more like a tourist experience than a tasting experience. Not because the noodles weren’t good, but because of the crowd that gathers on the curb collectively slurping from their paper containers.

Tamsui 淡水

  • 🌸 Bubble Lee 李圆圆 🌸

Best boba!!! The chewiness, the subtle sweetness, the heat that dissipates in the milk and on the tip of my tongue.

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  • Mochi99 麻吉奶奶鲜奶麻薯

Delicious. The mochi made from fresh milk leaves it with a creamier aftertaste. I ordered the classic peanut flavor. Mixing it in the peanut powder was really fun (could have been a messy affair).

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  • Kakigori 朝日夫妇

The line for sit-in was too long, but there were only limited flavors for takeaway. I chose the pineapple and dragonfruit flavor and it looked so cute! A bit too cold by the sea though. I was sniffling halfway through this.

Taipei Main Station 台北总站

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  • Zheng Pork Knuckle 郑记猪脚饭

We arrived right before the lunch hour crush. Best pork knuckles I’ve ever had (aside from my mom’s). My parents were initially quite put off by the sparse surroundings, but they were won over by the taste. The different types of pickles offset the heaviness of the pork skin (good for your skin!). A simple bowl of greatness. Right as we sat down to eat, a line of fifteen people formed at the counter. Phew.

Jiufen & Shifen 九份、十份

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  • A Mei Tea House 阿妹茶楼

The tea house that inspired Hayao Miyazaki. The building behind Yubaba’s Bathhouse in Spirited Away, a film that terrified me in my childhood and still moves me to tears with its heart, its touch of innocence, and its ethical complexity. The stairs leading to the tea house was so crowded that we moved about a step every half a minute. At 8pm, the teahouse was all lit up with red lanterns and thrumming with a flurry of voices, clinging of teacups, and waiters in black and white patiently demonstrating the traditional art of tea-making. A set includes four tiny bites — sesame and peanut crackers, one green bean cake, two sugared plums, and one mochi — and a pot of tea that can be refilled by the kettle bubbling beside the table. Ask for the top floor window seat if you can.

  • 🌸 Hanlin Tea Room 翰林茶馆 🌸

Love the white bubbles.

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  • 🌸 Xing Fu Tang 幸福堂 🌸

As good as Tiger Sugar! The ceremony of preparing the drink is more aesthetic — the server lights up the surface of the cup with a flame.

Yong Kang Street 永康街

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  • Kao Chi 高记

I’m going to say this three times: better than Din Tai Fung. Better than Din Tai Fung. Better than Din Tai Fung. Every dish we ordered was a pleasing aesthetic and gustatory experience. Must-orders include: the beef cubes (melt-in-your-mouth tender) and the Shen Jian Bao (pan-fried Pork Buns) served in a hot pan.

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  • 🌸 Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea-house 春水堂 🌸

The world’s original bubble tea!!! Its hot drinks — sesame milk tea, ginger milk tea, and milk tea with bubbles — are so good on a rainy, cold day. We ended up here by accident after touring the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. The original, iced milk tea with pearls is also quite stellar, but nothing innovative.

Others 小吃

Pineapple Tarts & Nougat 凤梨酥、牛轧糖

  • Chia Te 佳德

BEST PINEAPPLE TART OF MY LIFE. I recommend the pineapple tart with egg yolk most. It was melt-in-your-mouth kind of heavenly bliss.

***

Read this on a hungry day! Hee hee. Or as I currently am, sniffling and eating porridge in a hotel room in Beijing, but with a Happy Lemon strawberry milk tea within my reach. All delivered by Meituan. God Bless China.

Lots of love,

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Sky Lanterns & New Year Resolutions

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Get off the old train, step onto the platform, merging into the stream of bobbing heads flowing along at the speed of a sweating snail.

Squeeze past the human gantry, craning my neck for a look at the sky behind the canopy roof. See the miniature sky in the phone screens held up by the multiple raised hands, the real blue expanse split up, obscured, and obstructed from view by the sheer size of the crowd. There are many gasps of wonder around me. The path reaches the edge of the platform and now widens —

As the crowd cascades left and right, the sky unfurls before me. Baby blue. Rolls of clouds like crinkled leather. Suddenly, from behind a corrugated roof, a lantern rising. From between buildings on two sides of the track, a gap of light. Another lantern-like bird or bird-like lantern. A third. The sky dotted by lanterns rising, faint streams of smoke trailing, embers behind the paper.

Choose a lantern from a catalog of auspicious blessings. Watch it pinned up by worn, quick hands. Pick up a brush and dip it into an ink-splattered bucket.

Scrawl. Scribble. Signature. An imprint of wishes, prayers, and dreams by a railroad. Set against a sky full of lanterns, like the old, wise eyes of clouds watching from up above.

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There’s something reassuring about ritualized actions — writing prayers on paper, letting the lantern rise, watch it soar up and beyond until it’s a tiny dot. It will eventually land somewhere, wedged on a rooftop, fluttering in the mountains, resting on a rock. Yet, at least from what I can witness, its symbolism leaves me full of hope. Apart from the wishes I’ve released up into the sky, penned on all four sides of the sky lantern, I feel compelled to write down my 2019 resolutions after a break of two years (I used to religiously write all my resolutions down on a piece of drawing block and pin it up on my desk).

Some small things:

New Year Resolutions

养生 Health 🍵

  • Eat wisely. Lose another 3 kilograms, which I inevitably gained in Taipei and Singapore. T_T
  • Sleep early before 12:30AM daily. My mom scoffingly informed me of this phrase she read online — “用着最好的护肤品,熬着最晚的夜!” — which is me personified: slathering layers of skincare products on my face while staying up late.

On a side note, I’m bringing jasmine tea leaves(茉莉花茶), chrysanthemum packets(夏桑菊), and my beloved Chia Te pineapple tarts (THE BEST I’VE EVER EATEN) to campus. Guess which is not going to be helpful for my first resolution.

To be really honest, I can understand my parents’ strict standards for my weight. To them, it represents how much self-discipline I have. If it is within my ability to be healthier and to look more attractive, compromising that reeks of laziness and unchecked desire.

责任 Responsibility 🐝

  • Be punctual. Be punctual. Be punctual. I would like to apologize here to everyone who has ever waited for me. New year, new me!
  • Be better at responding to text messages.
  • Every year, this resolution remains the same: time management. Only when I can manage my time well enough to accommodate for emergencies will I have the room in my life for unexpected opportunities and adventures. ❤
  • Full attendance for all classes this year (even if I’m feeling unwell). On the first day of 2019, my dad did a ceremony where he paid my tuition fees for the spring semester. I’m immensely grateful for the freedom my parents have given me to experiment, to choose, and to figure out my dreams at my own pace. I’m going to remember that on the mornings when I can’t get out of bed.

情感 Relationships 👨‍👩‍👧

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跟爸爸妈妈在一起的时光是最快乐的。可是,快乐的时光总是那么的短暂啊。小时候,我觉得好女儿志在四方,向往着成为一个矫健的雄鹰,飞过天南地北,头也不回、勇往直前地闯天下。长大后才愈加发现,家是我最眷恋的港湾。似乎,暮然回首,那一场又一场考试,各式各样的申请,就是为了将我推上离您们越来越远的道路,一瞬间会很想哭。很多人都说父母子女一场就是一段渐行渐远的缘分,可是我坚信我们是例外。感谢您们让我明白成长虽艰难且不可避免,但依旧是奇妙、幸福的。所以,我就算舍不得您们也还是要长大呀。希望2019年第一次的道别我可以坚强,不要再流泪了。

  • To not cry when my parents are sending me off at the airport. Be stronger. Farewells are meant for teaching us how to better reunite.
  • Be a kinder, more peaceful person to friends and also to strangers. Be more considerate to those who love me. Often, we are careless to those who care for us the most. I would like to be less selfish and to get into the habit of thinking from the perspectives of others — make that into a first instinct!
  • Have more faith when God makes me wait. Let me see waiting as an opportunity to build my faith and to understand that there is a reason — 我想,有时候,上帝赐予我的礼物会有意晚一点递到我手中。也许,上帝只是为了更精心地绑一个蝴蝶结,让 ‘等待’ 抚平我的焦躁,好让我有一双更善于识别美好的眼睛。Thank you, Father. ❤

 

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May all your dreams & resolutions come true in 2019 too! 🌠🌠🌠

Lots of love,

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From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit

Although my two months in Japan were ostensibly for Summer School (note the emphasis on my liberal arts education), with the overarching agenda of weight loss (refer to my birthday post: From 20-year-old Me, With Love), it was in truth spent on eating, diligent planning of where to eat, and lovingly documenting every piece of food that went into my stomach. It was a glorious two months in a land that worshipped food as much as I did. I present to you the best food I’ve eaten—sadly, not an inexhaustible list and very much narrow in scope as I don’t eat raw fish (no sushi/sashimi etc.! I hear your cry of ‘travesty!!!’)—in Japan, with most of the places in Kyoto (which was where I was predominantly located). Some brief thoughts on the shokunin spirit at the end.

Dessert

Tokyo

  • Asakusa Suzukien Nanaya Gelato

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Eaten on my first full day in Japan, this was the unforeseen beginning of my two-month-long obsession with matcha ice cream. Located on a street behind the famous Sensōji Temple, this shop is famous for having the richest matcha gelato in the world (see the round blob below). It was overwhelmingly bitter (considering the fact that I have a huge sweet tooth) and I immediately wished that I had gone for one of the lower levels instead of the highest out of the seven levels of matcha. Instead, I took over my dad’s Hojicha (roasted green tea) and level 1 matcha gelato cup—it was heavenly.

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  • Dominique Ansel Bakery Omotesando Store

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Tucked in an alleyway behind Omotesando, the zelkova tree-lined avenue leading to Meiji Shrine, this bakery is slick, modern, with incredibly photogenic pastries. While everything looks pretty, the best of the bunch is the Tokyo-exclusive Paris-Tokyo Matcha Passionfruit Cake (top left), which tastes as good as it looks—it’s a spin on the classic Paris-Brest with passionfruit curd and matcha ganache. Other innovations include the Frozen S’mores which are burned before you as they are being served.

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Osaka

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Japan

Butterbeer is a must-have! With a sweet, creamy layer of foam above the carbonated, bubbly drink (non-alcoholic), it tasted like an interesting mix of foam milk soda and butterscotch macchiato. The amber color (resembling beer) is beautiful, the mug is a souvenir to keep, and the taste is smooth. It also magically cured my motion sickness after the Final Fantasy XR Ride with the virtual reality headset.

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  • World’s Second Best Freshly Baked Melonpan Ice Dotonbori

Located in Dōtonbori, Osaka’s over-the-top food/entertainment/shopping district, the name of the food truck caught my eye: why proclaim itself as the world’s second best? (And, honestly, who’s the first??) The melon-pan was still warm and crispy, with a subtle sweetness, which lightened the richness of the vanilla ice cream. It was a larger, fatter version of Singapore’s iconic ice cream sandwich, and no less delicious. More points for the experience (rarely did I see melon-pan sold with ice cream throughout the rest of the trip) than for the actual taste.

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Kyoto

  • Kyo Cafe 

This cafe is operated by KYOBAUM, a famous brand of baumkuchen (a layered sponge cake, resembling a tree with concentric rings). The matcha and vanilla soft serve rests on several small, chewy pieces of baumkuchen (made with Uji green tea and soy milk). The sprinkled powder on top is a nice finishing touch. If you’re shopping along Shijo Avenue in Gion and need a pick-me-up, go for this different spin on soft serve.

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  • Gelato Pique Cafe Bio Concept

Since I was passing through Kyoto Station every day on my commute to school, I spent a lot of time exploring all the underground (and overhead) malls connected to the sprawling transportation hub. This newly opened cafe in the basement of the CUBE caught my eye due to its bright, minimalistic interior. I ordered a Rouge Smoothie and an assorted gelato set (I chose chocolate, matcha, and pistachio), which was surprisingly good with its granola bits and a butter cookie. It lasted me for more than an hour on my Kindle, reading Yuko Ogasawara’s Office Ladies and Salaried Men. ^_^

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  • Sir Thomas Lipton

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My absolute favorite dessert place. ❤ The white peach tart (pictured above) was love at first bite. I went back three more times—twice with friends and one last time by myself—to eat it. Everything else on the menu, from matcha tiramisu to matcha kakigōri (shaved ice) to hibiscus black milk tea was delectable. The pot of tea, however, was not a standout.

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  • Arashiyama Obuu

What a blessing on any swelteringly hot, sticky day. My friend and I ventured into Arashiyama (with its famous bamboo forests, scenic railways, and picturesque temples) on a 40 degree Celcius afternoon—the whole time, we were immersed in an inescapable outdoor sauna. After lining up for half an hour, we got seats by the counter facing the Togetsukyo Bridge. This was the only time I tried a Hojicha parfait throughout this trip. The slightly bitter, roasted taste of the ice cream perfectly complemented the doses of matcha.

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The tea room of this breathtakingly gorgeous museum (an architectural feat nestled in the mountains) offers a tasty Anmitsu. With natural sunlight streaming through the glass ceilings and metal beams, both this space and the food are meant to present a harmonious blend of natural beauty, architecture, art and food—this museum’s object, after all, is to use art (in its broadest sense) to bring about a religious experience. Founded by the Shinji Shumeikai religious organization, even the culinary experience of the museum’s restaurants adheres to its philosophy. This dessert item utilizes ingredients produced by the Shumei Natural Agriculture approach, free of any additives such as fertilizers and agrochemicals. The azuki beans are boiled to a soft texture while the round balls made of mochi rice flour are chewy and the matcha ice cream cold and soothing. Almost a transformative experience, but not quite yet.

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  • Ito Kyuemon Uji Honten

My host family brought me to this traditional tea-maker shop, now famous for its parfaits. Absolute matcha heaven! Although everyone at the table ordered a parfait, I really couldn’t help but order the matcha cheesecake option with the Hojicha jelly (because it looked so pretty on the menu). The chilled Hojicha jelly was bouncy and slightly bitter even after honey is poured, but it lightened the palate between bites of a rich, creamy cheesecake. I happily bought several boxes of matcha goods—sandwich cookies, chocolate, and warabimochi—from the shop before we left.

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  • Saryo Suisen

Best parfait. With matcha waffle roll, dorayaki (red bean pancake), azuki paste, dango (sweet dumplings), mochi, cookie, baumkuchen, and jelly decorating the matcha soft serve, eating this parfait was like unearthing a seemingly bottomless treasure chest. I choose to disregard the number of calories contained in this beauty.

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Okonomiyaki

Tokyo 

  1. Asakusa Okonomiyaki Sometaro

Delicious beyond words. Definitely make a trip here if you’re in Asakusa. This Japanese-style savory pancake is called okonomiyaki (literally ‘grill as you like’), with flour, eggs, tempura scraps (tenkasu), cabbage and some form of protein. The final pancake is topped with a variety of condiments like okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, dried seaweed, and dried bonito flakes. Seated on tatami mats around an iron griddle on the tabletop, everything is do-it-yourself (we also asked the friendly staff to help us flip the pancake). The rustic interior is charming.

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Unagi

Nagoya

  1. Atsuta Horaiken Main Restaurant

THE BEST UNADON I’VE EATEN IN MY LIFE. Nagoya’s hitsumabashi (hitsu = ‘wooden rice bowl’ and mabushi = ‘to scatter’) style entails eating the unagi in four steps: as it is; garnished with the served condiments such as spring onions, nori seaweed, pickles and wasabi (I gave wasabi a pass); mixed with lightly-flavored broth or tea; and lastly, whichever of the three ways one prefers. It was such an interesting way to eat unagi, apportioning the eel out of the bowl, but then I gave up halfway through since the second way was so delicious. Also, I recommend ordering the Umaki (omelet-wrapped eel) as a starter.

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Tempura

Nara

  • Tendon Makino

Golden, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth kind of buttery goodness. The huge bowl includes a generous assortment of tempura—conger eel, shrimp, egg with a soft center, green pepper, enoki mushrooms, seaweed, squid, and scallops all coated in a thick batter—overflowing above the rice (a second smaller bowl is used as a lid to keep the tempura from falling off). The order is done on the spot, so everything is fresh and piping hot. Incredibly, despite how unhealthy this looks, there was no oily aftertaste. Honestly, the best tendon I’ve had.

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Kyoto

  • Yoshikawa Tempura

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Compared to the tendon at Makino, this restaurant offers tempura almost as an artisanal experience—the batter is light, each item barely dipped into a cauldron of oil by the skilled chef before it is expertly placed onto the plate before my eyes. Consuming each item in the nine-course meal—two prawns, one fish and six vegetables—was a savor of the ingredient, the natural flavor brought out by the tempura coating. The different kinds of salt, dipping sauce and the slice of lemon also offered diverse ways to experiment with taste. So, so delicate.

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Wagyu

Kyoto

  • Hafuu Honten

I regretted going for the teriyaki sauce option, but it did not detract that much from the quality of the beef. I ordered the fillet steak medium to well-done, and it still retained its juicy texture, which was impressive. Slightly overrated as one of the best places for wagyu beef in Kyoto, but I can imagine how much better the steak would have been without the teriyaki sauce.

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  • Teppanyaki Gozanbo

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In terms of overall atmosphere, my best meal in Japan. On the fifteenth floor of Hotel Granvia, the restaurant had a gorgeous view of the mountains, the Kyoto Tower, and the city skyline. The chef prepares the meal from scratch before you—from preparing the raw ingredient to the final plate presentation. The eight-course meal hit all the right notes—particular highlights were the teppan-grilled fish with Manganji pepper puree and the dessert (coconut ice cream with passionfruit puree).

The beef cubes literally melted in my mouth. I used to read descriptions like this and immediately label them as hyperbole, but the beef actually did melt in the literal sense of the word! It was buttery, fatty in all the right amounts, freshly seared, and absolutely heavenly when dabbed with salt and eaten with garlic chips. Typing this right now at 10PM makes me so incredibly hungry. 😓 This is the kind of meal that compels you to close your eyes to etch the taste in your mind.

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Takoyaki

Osaka

  • Takoyaki Juhachiban Dotonbori

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Best Takoyaki I’ve eaten. Due to the constant line before the stall and the huge volume of orders, everything is made on the spot with a flurry of hands at almost inhuman speed. With crispy tempura scraps in the flour-based batter, the crunch in my mouth as I tried to eat each ball without burning my mouth was a great respite.

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***

Throughout all of these culinary experiences, as I traveled from Tokyo to Nagoya to Osaka to Kyoto, what struck me most was the level of devotion and diligence that goes into the craft of cooking—from roadside stalls to rustic inns to air-conditioned cafes to modern restaurants. What I deeply admire is not only the exquisite precision of its artisanal chefs or the decades spent specializing in a single category of food by generations in a family, but also the smiling salesperson painstakingly wrapping up my cake with an ice pack, the scruffy boy making Takoyaki in the hot sun with a tireless smile on his face, and the many other anonymous faces that deeply moved me with their immense sense of pride in feeding my stomach and delighting my palate.

The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.

— Tasio Odate

I was at first surprised and then intrigued by this shokunin spirit that surfaced in the most mundane of interactions and at places where I least expected to find craftsmanship (to put it bluntly). This assiduous focus on the smallest, most trivial of details and a relentless pursuit of perfection while cooking the same dish, preparing the same takeaway box, or even doing the same singular action at the grill over and over again moves me. I can’t begin to fathom what drives their dedication to this ‘craft’—or what many might not even perceive to be a craft—when I find myself faltering in persisting in a habit after mere days. There’s something special about each of these meals that I’ve eaten in Japan that has moved me beyond its sensory aspects. From my perspective, each of these meals is a singular life experience. Yet, for them, I am but only one customer in a sea of consumers who have come and gone. But, somehow, driven by perhaps what Odate calls a spiritual and material obligation, they hold themselves up to an invisible bar that cannot be found on such a wide scale in any other country I’ve been to.

I think that’s what lies at the heart of Japan for me this summer, beyond its cuisine, the earthquake and the flooding, the heat, its shrines and temples, its quaint alleyways and wooden buildings, its punctuality and the efficient transportation system. Amongst its people, are millions of dedicated shokunin, who are unnamed but not unnoticed.

Lots of love,

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