Archive for the 'Being American' Category

Bumrungrad, 8th Wonder of the World

Look closely—that security guard is SMILING

I’ve got a new travel activity to recommend to all Americans: getting a friggin medical check-up at friggin Bumrungrad.

Okay, so maybe not all Americans, just those who aren’t Congressmen or insanely wealthy. But for the rest of yous, the 99%ers—you need to get on this. It’s more mind-blowing than Machu Picchu, more culturally enlightening than the Vatican, steeped in more WTF-age than riding reliable, affordable public transit in fill-in-the-blank Western European city, when you begin to realize what’s actually possible in the world and how your Americanness has caused you settle.

Behold Bumrungrad: 8th Wonder of the World.

Bumrungrad Hospital is a big glittery hospital in Bangkok and the first place most Southeast Asian expats with medical insurance hope to get whisked off to in the event of one of those horrible, limb-mangling accidents that seem to come along with living in this part of the world. It’s the stuff of expat folklore: gleaming facilities, attentive doctors, phalanxes of nurses, fucking fresh-cut flowers in your private hospital room and on-site Starbucks.

Friends had recommended going there for a comprehensive health screening, the Big Mac of annual physicals, and seeing as though I both worked like a motherfuck this summer and hadn’t had an annual physical in like four annuals, I decided to treat myself. I booked a Regular health check-up package, though with a liver function panel, chest X-ray, stool exam AND a PAP, there was nothing really “regular” about it. For shits and giggles and an extra $30, I tacked on a thyroid level test, another thing I’m supposed to do every year but hadn’t in several.

It was my first morning in Bangkok. After Malaysia, I was more prepared for the plunge-into-wealth-and-consumerism that trips to the developed world now entail. I sat outside a money exchange house, waiting for it to open (it was only 7:30; did Bangkok not get the memo about the Asian world opening up shop at 6am?), before giving up and grabbing a motorbike across town. We weaved through the law-abiding, lane-driving, car-ridden traffic (ah) and the air felt cold and dry (ah) and I thought, Shit, I must really be living somewhere intense if Bangkok feels like a mellow, comfortable city.

After twenty minutes of high-rises and stoplights people actually stopped at, we pulled up in front of what looked like a 4-star hotel—valets and mirrored pillars and pruned shrubbery. I giggled.

I rode an elevator up to the Welcome Center, where a man pressed his palms together and bowed while another man whisked a big rolley chair out and seated me behind this massive desk, the Bangkok skyline stretching out in the floor-to-ceiling windows behind. I felt like a millionaire about to open a bank account. The man behind the desk asked me a few stock questions, clicked my photo, asked me to please wait just a quick moment while they printed my health card. He returned in about two minutes, apologizing graciously for the delay.

Yes, that’s a koi fish pond.

Things got more ridiculous when I rode the elevator up to the next floor, where smooth-voiced receptionists confirmed my information, directed me to the cashier (who accepted US dollars), and whisked me back to start my blood work. What was happening? Why wasn’t I being ignored? Where were the surly receptionists with mile-long fingernails who couldn’t tell me how much my co-pay was? Where were the screaming children and tired single moms and the junkie freaking out and the random bleeding dude who wasn’t bleeding bad enough to be triaged and so was whimpering mournfully like a dog in the corner?

It reminded me of the first time I went to a non-Oakland-public-school and had an actual PE class. Like, with equipment and uniforms and planned units on specific sports and activities I was expected to partipate in. Wasn’t PE sit-on-the-bench-and-kick-it hour? I’d been confused but intrigued by this sudden plunge into functionality. Like, was this how the rest of the world acted?

I had the same kind of thoughts in Bumrungrad. Why wasn’t I waiting? Why was I at all moments being accompanied by someone, some smiling nurse who was answering my questions and efficiently-but-not-hurriedly directing me this way and that?

After I finished my blood work, the nurse handed me a juice box, “You can finish your fast now.” How nice, I thought. I’ve been fasting for 12 hours, so yeah, I could really go for a juice, thank you.

But the real kicker came when she led me to the next room where there was no shit a breakfast buffet. Like, bananas and yogurt and sweet buns and coffee and tea and more juice and a choice of whole or skimmed milk. I stocked up. I stocked up like a fucking white trash kid who’d snuck into Sizzler. I’d like to blame it on the fasting but that’s bullshit—in moments like these, our true natures emerge, and there I was balancing two bowls, a steaming cup of coffee and another juice box.

After scarfing down my breakfast, I got poked and podded by an OB-GYN who talked like a female version of the oh-sexy-girlfriend exchange student from Sixteen Candles (“vagina feel very gooooood“) and instructed me to do twenty Kegel exercises per day (“very good for the woooooman“). By the time they led to the next room, where they gave a key to a locker in which there was a little linen suit and slippers, I was semi-hysterical with giggles, in that way that trashy people who suddenly find themselves in un-trashy environments are. I used to work in a fine-dining restaurant that attracted a lot of these types and I was only mildly embarrassed to feel that same shit-eating grin stretching across my own face—only mildly because I was so damn happy.

So after the chest x-ray I went back to the breakfast buffet room to wait for my test results. As in, the test results that would be ready in ten minutes as opposed to FOUR FUCKING DAYS, if I called this automated number and successfully navigated the maze of prompts that seemed to lead in a tail-eating circle. I poured myself another cup of coffee and surveyed all the other patients—wealthy Asians with milky skin, wealthy Middle Easterners with scarves and iPhones, wealthy Westerners with blue jeans and bemused expressions. And me.

I started humming—“Blood checked, stool checked, everything checked, Oh you fancy huh? You fancy huh?”

Like any proper World Wonder, Bumrungrad is a testament to what the human will and intellect can execute when properly harnessed. It opens your mind, expands the possibilities, takes your breath away then checks to see that the breath is recovered in a healthy and age-appropriate interval.

But I’m no fool—this was health care for the 1%, which I happen to be a part of in Thailand. Maybe health care is this good in the States, if you’re like the President or Bill Gates. But still, it’s a fucking experience to step on to the other side, to feel what things could be like—to feel fancy, huh?

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Glitter and Consumerism in KL


Let’s just say that my mind is blown.

Back in November, when I landed in Phnom Penh, there was a sale on Air Asia. I looked into my crystal ball and determined that come April—Cambodia’s hottest month and when the biggest holiday of the year shuts down virtually everything for a week—I’d be ready for a vacation to the developed world. So I booked tickets to Kuala Lumpur.

I really can’t remember the last time I was so excited for a trip. Riding the tuk-tuk to the airport, I was literally vibrating (I’d also had a ton of coffee). The idea of a city with sidewalks, a Metro and Western fucking shopping malls was as exotic to me as… well, Cambodia is to some people.

One of the incredible things about living in a developed country for me is how quickly things become normal, how quickly you adapt to your surroundings. I really don’t feel like Phnom Penh is that ramshackle; when I return from a trip the provinces, in fact, Phnom Penh feels like the glittery big city.

Are we starting to see where this is going? Are we starting to see how wildly impressed one would be any Monorials and overpasses, by international chains and consumerism, by diversity and hipsters, air-conditioned walkways and traffic lights people actually obey?

I am not in any way ashamed to admit that I spent my first day in Kuala Lumpur completely inside shopping malls. I didn’t sweat all day, and it was glorious. I rode glass elevators and ate Krispy Kreme donuts and reconfirmed that I really just don’t like Starbucks coffee. I heard “Pumped Up Kids” inside a Forever 21; I heard Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros in a Topshop. I passed women in burkas and women in booty shorts, both clutching Coach bags. I ate in a motherfucking food court: I had sushi and Turkish coffee and some kinda weird Taiwanese shaved ice that was really not that awesome. I tried on pants that fit me and bras that fit me, that weren’t three-inches thick with padding.

I bought some nice-ass work clothes and paid for them on a credit card and signed my name and got one of those itemized receipts with the credit card digits blocked out with little stars.

I was dazzled, and utterly unashamed by how dazzled I was.

There was a time when I would have been mega critical of the malls of KL. I would have deemed them inauthentic, not real cultural experiences. Well, they aren’t—everything is imported, corporate, packaged, temperature controlled. And that’s what’s so amazing—how inauthentic they are.

Cause you know what I’ve realized? In Cambodia, my most “authentic” “local” “cultural” experiences have been really uncomfortable. I’ve been hot and confused and unable to communicate and unsure of how to bathe myself and mildly-to-extremely sick to my stomach. Which isn’t to say that they haven’t been important, valuable experiences, just that they haven’t been easy. Not like, say, a corporate shopping mall.

We’re obsessed in the West with authenticity. Travelers are always looking to get off the beaten path, away from the tourist circuit. We scour Yelp to find the best local restaurants. And remember that Lana del Rey thing? People were so pissed off because she tricked us—we thought for a minute, you know, with a shitty youtube video, that she might be “real” and not some music executive’s wet dream of indie.

Maybe those are anecdotal, but I kinda don’t think so. Living the last 5 months in a developing country, the majority of what I buy and what I do is non-corporate—I buy produce at the market, top-up cards at roadside stalls, bottles of water from mini-markets set up in a family’s living room. I guess that’s pretty authentic, when you think about it.

But still. I was so fucking excited to be in a shopping mall I couldn’t take it.

Cause it’s in you, you know? Consumerism such a deeply rooted part of American culture, such a deeply rooted part of myself, that I’m often not aware it’s there. You’re constantly interacting with it—even if you shop at local mom-and-pops and go out of your way to support small businesses, you’re still interacting in opposition to it. You’ve been marketed towards since you were a toddler; you’re a unit of consumption and you consume. In one way or another.

Until you move to Cambodia. And you can’t. Because, aside from KFC and a Mango, there’s just not the option. And you don’t miss it. Or you don’t think you miss it. Until you land in KL and you wander through the pristine malls, floors glittering and piped-in music playing, with stars in your fucking eyes cause it’s so goddamn impressive.

But, now the third day, something else has happened—I’ve begun to get sick to my stomach. That’s probably because I’ve been stuffing my face with every thing I pass that catches my eye, because who knows when I’ll get another chance. It’s like a sleeping beast has been unleashed—the problem being that I’m now indigestive and constipated and gross-feeling.

Which is metaphor of course for consumerism. Not that I’ve even been buying much stuff, other than some work clothes, but just that I’ve been around it, been in it, so startling and dazzling. And so soulless. All the manufactured identities you’re supposed to buy in to; all air-brushed models; all the feelings of not having, of not being good/thin/rich/beautiful/cool enough; all the subtle alienation—the inoffensive, comfortable, sparkling clean wanting-more-ness.

All the bras that fit me.

All my favorite make-up.

All the brands I like.

Which I guess is just to say—man, you don’t realize how complex and conflicted a relationship you have with consumerism until you’re out of it and then you’re plunged back into it. And you don’t really know a place until you leave. Cambodia was becoming so normal to me; I was forgetting what made it special, different, fuck-up and amazing and and exactly where I’m supposed to be right now.

A Christmas Miracle: Cambodian Yankee Doo Rag and Why Giving Is Better Than Receiving

So, remember that photo in the last post of the baby in a doo rag? Well, thanks to technology, a keen sense of irony and a friend willing to tote a shopping bag of presents back to the States of me, this was able to happen:

This is my youngest nephew Ethan, back in San Francisco, sporting the latest in Cambodian infant fashion. The photo appeared in my Inbox this morning. It was a nice Christmas treat, seeing as though the previous day’s attempt the Skype into Christmas Eve was foiled by a faulty wifi connection.

But how, you may wonder, did this fine piece of headwear reach young Ethan? The more savvy among you will know that Cambodia has a woeful postal system—as in, there basically isn’t one. There’s no mailmen; I’ve been told all the city’s PO Boxes are currently full; even so, you frequently receive other people’s letters in your PO Box, and vice versa; and, fun tidbit, private postal companies will only track packages until they reach Cambodia—at which point parcels enter a literal black hole and arrive 2 months later, at a rate of 50/50. While sending packages tends to be more successful than receiving them, you’ve still gotta go through a private company like DHL or UPS, whose rates for letters begin at $50.

So much finagling was done to bring Ethan this small slice of patriotism. Let’s retrace the journey together:

1. Meet up with a friend earlier this month at a “Christmas Village Craft Sale”—because it sounds like a hoot and what else are you up to on a Sunday afternoon? Pursue the array of shiny shit glittering under the pulse of epileptic lighting and mention, somewhat wistfully, how easy it’d be to buy presents for your nieces in a country where the pervading cultural aesthetic is akin to a 6-year-old girl’s brain on amphetamines. Your friend, who’s traveling to the States to spend Christmas with her boyfriend’s family, spontaneously offers to take a load of gifts with her and ship them from Seattle. Accept before she can change her mind.

2. Run around town finding small, light-weight gifts for people. For grown-ups, get boring, tasteful grown-up stuff, such as a krama scarf and a selection of Kampot peppers. For the kids, embrace the tacky: an Angry Birds t-shirt, glittery headbands, pink poofy hair clips. For the older kids—being your sister, and 18-year-old nephew—get ironic shit: t-shirts with nonsensical English words and an Apple logo, a cassette tape of Khmer pop, a bling kit (fake cellphone and gold chains used as offerings at altars). Chuckle to yourself, and consider the fact that you might be having more fun buying these presents than anyone could possibly have receiving them.

3. Wrapping: What’s cooler than gifts wrapped in newspaper? Gifts wrapped in Khmer newspaper. Khmer looks really cool, all squiggly and swirly; buy a stack of old papers at the market for 12 cents. Remember, once you get home and start wrapping, how much Cambodian newspapers like to publish pictures of dead bodies—motorbike accidents and murder victims. While perhaps the 18-year-old would find this culturally interesting, you figure this is not what a 2- or 6-year-old wants to see on Christmas morning. Carefully cut these photos out.

4. Hand off presents to Bel. Thank her profusely.

5. KEEP IT A SECRET! Holiday surprises are fun, and what’s more of a surprise than getting gifts from your daughter/sister/aunt from the anti-postal nethers of Southeast Asia? Well, a lot of things, but it’s still pretty cool. So do not mention any of this during your weekly Skype date with your parents.

6. Get up Christmas morning, which is Christmas Eve in California, and hurriedly make coffee and get on the computer and wait to connect to your family. The video will be out again, which is a major bummer, and you’ll spend 20 minutes trying to connect through FB video chat and iChat and AIM, but none of it will go through. Realize how much you were looking forward to seeing everyone. Cry.

But before you get off, your mom will tell you how a mysterious package arrived that morning. It had no return address, but they could see from the stamps that it was from Washington. They don’t know anyone in Washington. So they opened the package to try and figure out who it was supposed to go to—maybe it was sent to their address by accident—and they saw a bunch of little gifts, and they saw a card, and they thought—“Well, we’d better open the card to see who these are for.”

“And then we read the card, and it was from you!”

Smile. Your mom will say it was highlight of her day.

Then the connection will cut out.

So when you wake up the next morning, after a Christmas spent nursing another stomach flu, and see a pic of little smiley Ethan in his Cambodian Yankee chic, it’ll be pretty fucking sweet. It’ll be the highlight of your Christmas, and you’ll cry a little again—not because you feel far from home, like last time, but because you feel a little closer.

Pizza and Love in Milan: Le Grand Fooding Milano 2011

The way to a man’s Italian’s French hipster’s anyone’s heart is through food. Especially pizza.

This is the main lesson I came away with from a weekend spent at Le Grand Fooding Milano. The others included: Italians don’t know what aioli is; there’s really no such thing as “Italian” food, and Northern Italians are shocked and somewhat scandalized by white pizza; Nespresso isn’t bad; there is perhaps no one more effortlessly chic and hip and fucking nice as a French foodie; as such, I will never be a Le Fooding girl; and it’s pretty easy to crash a food festival (and sneak into a Sheraton) as long as you work hard and smile a lot. And know the right people.

I spent the last weekend in Milan, at a three-day food event put on by the French culinary guide/movement/cultural phenomenon Le Fooding. While not terribly well-known in the States, they’ve been around 10 years in France, stirring shit up and throwing parties and breaking rules and basically being the anti-Michelin Guide.

The theme of Milan’s festival was international chefs cooking Italian food versus Italian chefs cooking Italian food, and, being one of the better-known Neapolitan-style pizza restaurants in the US, Pizzaiolo (where I waited tables for the past year and a half) was invited to attend. My co-workers/chefs Jed Cote and Jason Loeb were flown across the globe, put up in a Sheraton, given a pizza oven and prep kitchen and about 100kg of squid, and sent to represent us.

And, since I was in Italy, I decided, you know, what the fuck—I’m going too.

So I showed up with my backpack and messenger bag and hoodie and crashed the party.

Represent!

Well, it wasn’t crashing exactly. We just figured that if I showed up to the San Pelegrino prep kitchen with Jason and Jed in the morning, hung out and sliced tomatoes and picked herbs and shit, and if I rolled with them to the event, just acted like I was supposed to be there, you know, that it’d all work out.

And it did, and it’s a good thing it did, cause it turned out to be one of those races to the finish, getting the pizza dough right, and cutting the squid, and plating and serving all the slices at the party. More than just a freeloader, I ended up being really useful. And having a rocking good time.

In all its glory

We were there making one of our signature pies (and one of my favorites)—a squid, cherry tomato and aioli pizza. Simple, makes the most of our Northern Cali goodness—abundant, sustainable squid supplies, bomb cherry tomatoes in the summer. We were contracted to pump out 50 pizzas, enough to feed the 300 guests each night, in the hour and a half before they went into the dining room for the seated dinner featuring four dishes from four different chefs.

Hella squid

We spent the mornings prepping, and one of the things I wasn’t expecting was how different the ingredients and facilities would be. Of course, the very premise of the event brings up issues of authenticity, of what happens to a cuisine when you take it from its home and drag it across the planet like… a spaghetti noodle (thus the name). But I didn’t anticipate how the location change would affect our own pizza. Jed and Jason brought their own yeast and used the same OO flour we use at the restaurant, but the squid was larger in Milan, and the tomatoes were more like small Romas instead of Sungolds and Sweet 100s, and less acidic and sweet. We also had a smaller mixer that required 4 batches to make our usual one; we also transported the dough to the event in a trash bag (classy). The pie didn’t end up tasting exactly how it does at home, and I guess that’s part of the point—that locality is crucial, defining, and that when foods travel, they change.

Trash bag dough!

At the event space, which took “industrial chic” to new levels, I hung out while the boys got the fire cranking and set up. It was some truly awesome people-watching. All the Le Fooding people were young and impossibly chic in that particularly Parisian way, cardigans and scarves (the boys) and little boots and tights and drape-y tops (girls), and a look we dubbed “the urban equestrian.” In my younger, less settled incarnations, I would have spent the time comparing myself to them and ultimately feeling shitty about myself. But now it was just comical—“Do we even grow girls like that in North America?” I asked my friends, and they shook their heads so fact I thought they might fall off.

Le Fooding girls

It was kinda like the squid and the tomatoes.

There were also tons of Italian crew setting up, working on the lights and such—they were less chic, more working class, in their cargo pants. Then there were the security guards and the phalanx of confused-looking 18-year-old assistant cooks/mignonnes, and the caterers—and everyone chain-smoking, chain-smoking, like it was their job. (One of the girls at the arancini stand was smoking while she set up the deep fryer…)

The people attending the event were a different breed—mostly middle-class, middle-aged Italians, with a sprinkling of hip folks and a whole slew of media. While the boys cooked, I plated slices, and talked to folks.

“Pizza di Oakland,” I heard people mutter.

“Pizza di Aukland?”

“No, America. Near to San Francisco.”

“Ah, pizza di Oakland! This is how you do pizza in California?”

“Well, this is how we do pizza.” And a wink and smile.

But the real test was the reception, which we seemed to win. People were only supposed to get one slice, but, as per our stuff-everyone philosophy, we’d prepped enough for 20 or so extra pies. So I got the catch people’s eyes as they tentatively looked over, tried not to hover, and I got to smile and motion for them to eat another. And another. Kill em with kindness, but also with food.

At 8:30, the Le Fooding kids ran a little bell and herded everyone into the dining room. Which is when the real fun started. Technically, we were done. But while the important chefs scurried around with their mignonnes, plating 300 dishes, and a crew of young caterers lined up, wearing all black with fucking headlamps on, like it were a Vegas show—we got to do what we love best, which is love on people.

It’s part of the whole Pizzaiolo philosophy (and the reason I loved working their so much)—to love the shit out of people, through food. So we started cranking out the pies. First some of our neighbors: the arancini girls and the Mumm champagne kids, and the guys at the next pizza oven, from Pizza East in London. Then a couple for the security guards and the people working the front door. How about the two gender-ambiguous Filipino cleaners? Of course! The endlessly hungry-eyed mignonnes—sure! Hey you, founder and director of this big-deal culinary movement—you get enough squid? How bout you, firefighter? You cold, Pelegrino girl?—come huddle by the pizza oven for a few minutes.

Cause that’s what it’s really all about, right? That’s why we call it breaking bread, why we mark important events by gathering for meals, why every fucking culture in the world comes together for food. It’s about love and building relationships and making friends, not cause it’s gonna get you something or somewhere or even a reciprocal drink/dish/whatever, but because that’s what we do—that’s what cooks get into the business to do, and what I, it turns out, love most about the industry: the simple act of feeding people.

And that’s what I think, after three days, that Le Fooding is all about to. I’d scoured the internet for English-language articles about them, and the main thing I’d read from the big American food critics is that they didn’t understand what Le Fooding wanted, or what they were trying to do (reminds you of Occupy Wall Street a bit, huh?). But after the weekend, after seeing how intensely we broed down and how food enabled all that, became a kind of edible language, when real language failed—it’s not that hard for me to understand what they want. They want that: love.

By the third day, we knew everyone—everyone stopping by to say hello or waving as they passed—and we partied late into the night on Saturday, dancing and smoking and exchanging hugs and email addresses. And it came out, you know, that I wasn’t a chef and that I’d just kinda showed up, but there was so much love no one gave a shit—they gave me those French double cheek kisses and wished me well in Cambodia.

And it’s a shame to be leaving the restaurant industry after such a weekend. But, as Jed said, “Way to go out on top.”

And with a lot of fucking love. And a belly full of pizza, which I’ll miss almost as much as the love.

Loved these two!

Notes on a Visit to Occupy Wall Street

Here’s something really New York for you: the people most excited about Occupy Wall Street aren’t in New York.

Again and again, the conversation went like this:

“Yo, you been down to that Wall Street shit?” (I don’t really talk like that, I’m just pretending.)

“No. I’ve been meaning to.” Or: “I went past once.” Or even: “Aw, I heard about that. What’s it all about?”

It seems like the rest of the country is stoked, excited, curious, enlivened—reposting photos and quips and words of encouragement, a newsfeed cluttered with that shit. But here in New York, it seems to have fallen into the static of the city—one more thing to negotiate, maneuver around, one more cultural phenomenon in a city of never-ending, never-sleeping cultural phenomena.

But I’m not a New Yorker, so I had to go down there. Check it out, see it for myself.

It was busy and crowded and loud at Zuccotti Park, in the shadow of the new World Trade Center—but not that much more than a normal street, at least not for how much virtual buzz I’d been hearing.

The park was surrounded by people stoically holding signs, standing still for the passerbys and the cameras and the statement it all made. It was a pretty even split between the protesters and passerbys—a mix of locals and tourists, curious expressions and viewfinders, everyone stopping to read signs and snap photos. I even saw a few Asian tourists posing for photos with the protesters.

I moved around the periphery, then headed into the center of the square. The encampments had been cut with makeshift streets, pathways where people buzzed around. An internet station and a free kitchen had been set up (dispensing, of course, pizza). Tables with leaflets and fliers stood before volunteers who answered questions and otherwise engaged with folks passing by.

Amidst the revolutionary fervor, there was also a distinct, well, Telegraph Avenue vibe. For those not from the Bay, this basically means young gutterpunky white kids with backdreads, bandanas, and a herd of mangy sniffing dogs, most often seen clumped together with sleeping bags, spare-changing. I think these were the kids critics were referring to when they critiqued the movement as being all unemployed, dirty hippie kids.

Or that they were entitled middle-class kids. To be fair, there was a decent mix of people. (“I haven’t been arrested for civil disobedience in 35 years!” I heard one man gleefully exclaim.) But the majority of the protesters appeared to fall into that category, at least to me. Which makes sense. I mean, who was it that started the Vietnam War protests? Who was it that was out there marching for women’s suffrage? Educated, middle-class young people with the leisure time to protest are usually the group with which change starts.

And yes—there yoga mats and Tibetan prayer flags and a band that included a bango and a stand-up bass. So there was a lot one could get snarky about. And I did decide that it was no coincidence that Occupy Wall Street cropped up a week or so after Burning Man.

But, really, that stuff aside, it struck me as really cool that people were out there, actually talking. Apathy is the poison of the MTV generation, my generation, so even if there isn’t a totally clear agenda or consensus on why they’re even there, it’s a start, and I guess that’s the most important part.

But more than the protesters themselves, it was cool to see the passerbys. People lingered, read signs, made comments, engaged. Which is so incredibly rare to see in this country. Occupy Wall Street was inspired by the events of Tahrir Square, but I also couldn’t help but think about recent protests in Chile or Israel (didn’t hear much about those, did you?). Somewhere along the line, we Americans have learned not to protest, and when we do, the backlash is incredible. Just look at the media reaction to the protests.

So the fact that there were people out there, who wandered down just to check it out, was really exciting. Sure there were frustratingly ill-informed debates going on, but shit, at least people were talking—as if every person that came by would take a little piece of something with them, a thought or impression or just the idea that we could try to do something a little different.

Because that’s the thing about New York—even if the majority of the city doesn’t make it down to Occupy Wall Street, even if it gets lost in the frenetic buzz of life there, of sidewalks and subway cars and trying to keep your fucking head above water—even if it’s just a small percentage that comes by, that small percentage ends up still being a pretty decent size. And it’s still there, and it’s still doing something, changing something, if only the way we think. And it’s a start.

This dude: most definitely not an entitled college student

Headcheese, Chicken Feet and “You Are What You Eat”: How Travel’s Beaten the Squeamish Eater Out of Me

Jeffery was taking a machete to the disembodied pig’s head when I walked into work.

The other boys stood around watching. They looked up when they heard the door, grinned sheepishly at me. “Headcheese,” Colin said by way of explanation. “Sorry.”

I looked at the knives, the smeared aprons, the hunks of pig scattered about the wooden cutting board, and shrugged. “I think Southeast Asia has cured me of any squeamishness towards meat,” I laughed.

Food culture, it can be said, is a microcosm of culture. Traveling around, I’ve discovered that a society eats and its attitudes towards eating can be simultaneously one of the most telling and easily accessible aspects of a culture. In this way, eating in a foreign country is both a lofty, anthropological glimpse into the psyche of a culture, and a visceral adventure that often sends one dashing to the nearest squat toilet.

Case in point: there’s a certain semi-green queasy look Westerners wear when walking through a Southeast Asian street market. The plucked bodies hanging limply from hooks; the still-alive fish flopping out of their plastic tubs; the women waving fans at the flies that settle on heads, hooves, chunks of body; the smell of raw meat blooming in the humidity like irony mold—it’s all so utterly unlike the shrink-wrapped FDA-approved supermarket culture of the Western world.

And I’m not gonna lie: I was a bit unnerved at first. The literal rawness of market culture in Southeast Asia is jarring. Watching a teeny little woman crouch down in her pajama suit and hack off a chicken head seems brutal, surreal. Ordering a bowl of soup and seeing a chicken foot poke out of the translucent tangle of rice noodles is startling. And not at all appetizing.

Yes, I eat meat, your Westerness seems to say. But I don’t want to think about the fact that I eat meat. I don’t want to be confronted with the reality that I’m eating another living being.

When I was London a few years back, there was a big stir about Marcus the Lamb. It was being discussed on the talk radio station that played through my friend’s basement flat while we brewed morning coffee.

The story was this: as a lesson in the breeding and rearing of livestock, a primary school had adopted a lamb. The kids named the lamb Marcus, and did cute things like bottle feed him. Six months later, it was time for the lesson to culminate: Marcus was to be slaughtered. A shitstorm ensued.

Parents freaked, animal rights activists threatened, the headmistress was branded a murderer and some of the pupils were reported to develop stress-related insomnia. To their credit, the school officials remained firm: this was the point of the lesson—teaching urban children where their food comes from—and they weren’t going to cancel the lesson. A national debate raged, centering, it seemed, on the extent to which the urban, Western world has become disassociated from its food.

I considered this all as I chewed my toast in the gray London light. I’d been a non-vegan/vegetarian for a little over a year. During my 12 year run as a non-meat-eater, I’d maintained that meat eaters should know and acknowledge the reality of meat consumption. I wasn’t one of those PETA people plastering horror-movie pictures of slaughterhouses around town, but I’d always thought—Fuck, you eat the shit; you should be able to handle a head or a hoof or something.

And I had to hold myself to that when I started eating meat again at age 25. If I was gonna do it, I reasoned, I was gonna do all of it. I wasn’t going to hide from the fact of it, and I wasn’t going to be wasteful. Living in the Bay Area and working in the restaurant industry, it’s easy to make mindful, informed decisions about where one’s food is from, to nestle in the cozy, bedtime-story feeling a Cruelty Free label provides.

Way of advertising a butcher in Morocco. Flickr photo.

But then there’s the Southeast Asian food market. Or the goat head stew in a Moroccan medina. Or cabeza tacos in Mexico (or the Fruitvale, whatever). And by being confronted with heads and eyeballs and recognizable anatomy that doesn’t seem so different from our own, you’re also confronted with your Americanness, your Westerness.

But people are amazingly adaptable, and after a couple weeks you normalize your surroundings. You don’t look twice at the rows of raw meat, and you even acknowledge that while eating a fertilized duck egg is a mind-fuck—a bit like eating an abortion—it is goddamn delicious.

And then you come home and wonder what the fuck everyone is riled up about. Yeah, it’s headcheese, made from head meat, you think, What’s the big deal? Or you wait on a dude who sends back the whole shrimp on his plate cause the little head and eyeballs “Just ain’t cool.” And you think, Really, buddy? You’re a grown man; that’s just a lil ole head. But you laugh and shrug and say, “No problem,” cause you know that that’s just the culture he’s coming from. And it’s your job to make him happy, not to judge what kind of food he’s comfortable eating.

To say that Westerners, especially Americans, have become disassociated from our food is an understatement. (“Where does ketchup come from?” a friend asked her inner-city students once. “The store!”) You think of the old adage “You are what you eat,” and you wonder what the hell that means for us. It can’t, you reason, be anything good.

If you can tell a lot about a person by how they eat, what does a society’s food culture say about them? They say, for instance, that girls from alcoholic homes are exponentially more likely to develop eating disorders. If you extend that on a societal level, it’s a fascinating if unsettling picture of a national psyche. The ability of Americans, for instance, to feed themselves nourishing food in a way that’s free of drama and control and fad diets seems to have shattered, gotten lost somewhere; I think that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, mass-produced foods we eat are a part of that.

We in the West, and especially the States, don’t know what the fuck we’re eating—or are so far removed from it we flip out at the potential of exposing our children to the age-old reality of meat eating. (For the record, it was the students themselves that voted to slaughter Marcus the Lamb. But one has to ask: would such a lesson ever even happen in the US? Assuming, of course, a school even had to funding for such a lesson…)

Growing up, my mom was convinced that the demise of the family dinner was inextricably linked to the break-down of the American family. She thus insisted that we all sit down, no matter how much homework we had, for a nightly family meal. This was, as you can imagine, infuriating for a moody teenager; I’d scowl at my plate until eventually someone would say something funny and we’d all sit and laugh and linger for an hour.

I’m grateful for that now, in the same way I’m grateful to have traveled to five different continents and gotten the squeamishness beaten out of me. There are some things I still won’t eat—shark fin soup, which is just plain wasteful; or that monkey-brain stew they make in China by pouring boiling water into a live monkey’s recently cracked skull—that’s just plain cruel. I don’t think I’m a particularly enlightened eater, nor do I think I’m gonna change the world by shopping at farmers markets.

I just think that I’ve gotten a bit more realistic, had a bit of my own barriers broken down. At least to the point that walking in on the making of headcheese doesn’t cause me to look twice.

Okay, so maybe I played with the eyeballs...

10 Thoughts on Being Back in the US

1. Riding in my dad’s truck, MLK:
“So what does it feel like to be back?”
Look out the window, lines of lanes and sidewalk. “Everything feels really sterile. And clean.”
“Sterile and clean? Not usually words associated with Oakland.”
Laugh. “Yeah, I guess not.”

Empty

2. Running around the lake, joggers in sweat clothes:
Everyone looks really healthy here—big and robust, cheeks flushed.

3. Whole Foods, walk around for an hour, confused—pick up food, put it back down:
How do you shop in a grocery store? Everything looks plastic.

4. Winter-like storm, long pants and a jacket:
Everyone else may be annoyed, but I’m tickled to death.

5. Waiting to make left turn, watching the cars:
The US feels like a video game, some kind of old-school Atari: little boxes moving through space. The object of the game is to stay between the lines, stay in the lanes, walk on the sidewalk, put trash in the bin…

6. Rapture billboards:
Why?

7. Waiting to meet Nhu and Jacobo outside Bette’s Cafe, watching family:
“But I’m huuuun-greee.”
“Well, we have to wait.”
“But I don’t wa-nnnna.”
American children are allowed to be really obnoxious.

8. Wine meeting for work, varietal characteristics and spit buckets:
This is my job. This is silly.

9. Drive to meeting, park; drive to yoga, park; drive to cafe, park:
My life feels like a video game. I’m not sure what the object is.

10. Waiting at stoplight. Car beside me: bass bumping, boy leaning out of the open window, shirt half-off, arms raised, dancing:
There is nothing, nothing in the world like African-American culture.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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