Thursday, August 7, 2008

My writing challenge--every moment of my life.

I've liked to read ever since I could. Words and books hold a beautiful essence where I feel like I sometimes experience a truer reality than the one I live in. Literature captivates my mind, heart and soul, and I undoubtedly become a better person every time I read a novel, even a bad one.

When I was little, it was obvious to all the adults in my world that I loved to read and write. Some even suggested I become a reporter when I grow up but I shied away from that idea. Reporters dealt with news and facts, and talked to strangers constantly. I didn't like any of those things when I was little. I never thought years later, I would actually develop a passion for it all.

Within my first few days at journalism school in the beginning of my university career, I quickly learned I never knew how to write before. And quite frankly, I'm still not entirely sure if I do now. It's too early to tell but I think the thing is with writing is it's always too early to tell. But I've been given a foundation for this skill to make it into my own--at least when it comes to non-fiction and to reporting the news.

Because here's the challenge I face today. Inside, I have a constant urgency to write. I very rarely have a solid idea of what I want to write about, but I just know I'm always looking for that perfect sentence, that everlasting phrase, that transcendent moment of knowing I can create a deep feeling through these funny-looking but recognizable symbols we call letters. And while I love journalism and how it allows me to engage with the world in ways many people never get to experience, I will always revere fictional stories as the higher art form.

After learning I never knew how to write before the age of 18, I now know to write fiction is an entirely new branch of ability on its own. In journalism, when you write scenes, you are taught to observe and then proceed to expose the details of everything you saw, heard, touched, smelled and tasted. In novels, scenes are definitely extracted from the realities you are familiar with but there is so much more available than that because the imagination can stretch on forever.

So how do I contain that imagination? How do I mould it into a shape that makes sense to a reader? It's one thing to have an idea, but to have a structure and style that showcases the idea vividly is serious, stressful work. Reading makes me a better person but sometimes writing makes me feel like a lesser one. And I do it anyway... Because what you love doesn't always have to feel right.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sisterly Love (Part 2 of 2)

The dining room is narrow and long, in the shades of ebony-coloured woods and deep blood reds, and large windows to let the light of the world inside.

My sister Marie, her husband Georges and I sit at a table in the far corner. Privacy with a view.
"OK. Everyone figure out what they want," says Georges, hands splayed on the table at both sides of the menu. "I call the octopus... Ooo, and the bison looks good." The way Georges talks can instantly lighten the mood, even though for probably 80 per cent of the time, he doesn't mean to. His voice goes through different pitches; his eyes bulge; his smile goes corner to corner; and he does a sharp inhale of breath to indicate excitement. It's odd sometimes to think at this point, I've known Georges for half my life now.

"Tell me the real story about how you guys met," I ask them.
"What's there to tell?" says Marie in her usual brisk tone. "It's not like a movie, you know?" She gives me her Duh! look.
"I know it's not like a movie," I shoot back. "But I still want to know."
"I will tell the story," replies Georges.

It goes like this: Marie and Georges were in first-year engineering at the University of Toronto. They had class together and noticed each other, but didn't say anything until Marie "happened" to be sitting in front of Georges in a lecture, and she turned around and introduced herself.

"Tell her about the only friend you had," Marie interjects.
I die laughing: "You had one friend? So basically the story goes, Marie was cool and had lots of friends. And you had no friends till you met Marie." It's been over ten years since they met, and some things never change. I know Marie is like how her and Georges describe the story: happy, sociable, confident, smart, loud. Trademark signs of her personality. Her husband, on the other hand, is a little more shy, quiet and takes some time to get warmed up. I forget this about him often enough because once he does warm up, he is one of the best people you could ever meet in your life.

We sip on a California Merlot that is intoxicating for other reasons than just its alcohol content. There is a balance of sweet, spicy and dry--kind of like us. Nothing extraordinary occurred from that meal. No life-revealing moment. No terrific or terrificly bad news. But there was something about the night that made me pause and reflect on a relationship with a sister for over 21 years, and a person who has become a brother within 10.

There are many more years to come of ordinary dinners, naps in each other's houses, fights about the same old things, laughter over jokes only we understand, and a growing up where ties of family bond will forever bind you. The love of a sister, a brother, a family is sufficiently extraordinary enough.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Falling out of the sky

The weight, heat and pressure is crushing me from all sides. I'm on my knees, crouched over with five other people in a tiny plane. I'm carrying a parachute that feels much heavier than my own 111 pounds. I can barely lift myself up to look through the window and see 3,500 feet below. Suddenly, a rush of air whizzes through as Olga, our jump-master, opens the door. All my nerves vanish and a wide smile is plastered across my face. I am giddy with sheer delight.

I carefully watch each jumper ahead of me, climb out and hang on to the strut -- the bar that connects from the wing to the body of the plane. I think happily to myself, "That's going to be me in a few minutes." My friend Alex goes before me. After he lets go and Olga watches him for a few minutes, she shouts to me over the roaring 90 mph winds, "He did a perfect arch!" Now it's my turn.

I shuffle over to the right to be in front of Olga. "This is going to be amazing!" she yells, getting me pumped up. "Are you ready to jump?"
"Ready!" I yell back.
"OK. Hold on to the door and climb out!"

I put my foot out, aiming for the wheel of the plane, but the wind forces it to the side unexpectedly so that it's just dangling outside. They didn't simulate this when we practiced on the ground, I think to myself. But I adjust myself and start the climb out. Right foot, left foot over, hands on strut, shuffle hands up, shuffle hands up, shuffle hands up, step on to nothing and hang on.

Olga leans on the strut. "Are you ready to jump?" I nod my head. "OK. Look up! ... Let go!" In the training class, the instructor told us to keep eye contact with the plane as we're falling, count six seconds and to arch our backs as much as possible with hips sticking way out in front of us. I remember none of this. All I feel is euphoria enter my body as blue sky and sunlight whirl around me. Then fluorescent yellow and orange flash open above. Now I am floating gently in the air with square green patches of Alberta prairie below.

I thought being on top of the world was the most amazing feeling in the world. I was wrong. It's being above it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sisterly Love (Part 1 of 2)

In downtown Toronto, it's a strolling 20-minute walk from Richmond and John to Yonge and Wellington. The heels of my red pumps clack on the sidewalk, and my ivory white dress bounces lightly in the cool crisp air. My sister Marie and her husband Georges are next to me, lazily hand-in-hand. "That's it!" my brother-in-law exclaims. "You two go without me and I'm going home." It's our typical bickering. Marie and I fight. Marie and Georges fight. Georges and I fight. I don't think we ever take one another too seriously though. Yelling just seems to make life more interesting.

Marie, nine years my senior, always used to say, "One day, when we're older, we'll be on the same level and can talk with one another. It won't matter that we're so far apart in age." I always believed her. Even at 10-years-old, it made sense to me. As the night progresses, it hits me we've transitioned into that phase now. And we've been in that phase for awhile, but it still gives me a small thrill whenever she asks for my opinion or advice. I feel proud to have someone I look up to see me as a person for guidance and learning.

The letters "CIEN" appear in the distance. "I see it! It's Lucien!" I squeal in childish delight. It's where we're eating fine-dining for the first time together.

I attribute a lot of who I am to Marie. She's influenced me in innumerable ways. One of her biggest influences is probably my love for food. She introduced me to the magazine Toronto Life when I was about 16. And that's when I started to learn about the city's culinary scene. A year-and-a-half ago, I started to actually indulge in fine dining. I put my money woes aside and decided I should treat myself to a nice meal, something that gives me deep, deep pleasure. I don't care that much for clothes or concerts or cars or computers, so it only makes sense that my wily hobby is cuisine.

At the same time I started to collect the experiences of Thuet, Scaramouche, North 44 and more, my sister and her husband (also a food aficionado) were scaling back their luxury budget in place of their newborn son. They claimed they had to live vicariously through me even though my sister had still gone to Globe Bistro, Tutti Matti, Canoe and Jamie Kennedy's Wine Bar. So it was just Georges who was losing out.

That is probably why Georges recently proposed the idea that him, Marie and I start trying out new restaurants once a month. Once a month is a little too rich for me--and them--so we've adjusted it to once about every three months. And so here we are at Lucien, one of Toronto Life's top ten new restaurants of 2008.

"Your sister's going crazy," Georges remarks to Marie. I'm easily excitable. I don't know if it's them or me, but even though they've both given me my love for food, I think it may have developed differently from theirs.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The beauty of what's real.

It's a clichéd image. A long stretch of golden sand, deep blue ocean water, a bright sky and a hot sun overhead, the sound of the waves crashing up against the shore, and an endless amount of time to sit, relax and soak it all in. This is my trip to Mexico to a deluxe five-star all-inclusive resort. This is something many Canadians get to enjoy. Time away from the office, school, snow, cold, city streets, boring surburbia, everyday life. Instead of thinking it as a cliché, I imagine it to be a beautiful dream where the weather is perfect every day, you can eat and drink as much as you like, and you don't have to worry about any problems.

I spent six of seven days in that fantasy world. And it was the perfect get-away I needed. But on a morning of one of those seven days, I stepped into reality. I visited a small Mexican town centered in the tourist development area of Huatulco where I was staying.

The cab ride into town is about seven minutes long and costs $2.50 CDN. Split amongst three riders, I owe $0.83. The roads have sharp curves because they follow the land of the mountains. It is relaxing to feel the wind blow across my face and watch the scenery pass by in a car that looks like it was made 20 years ago.

The town is small but densely populated with stores, markets, restaurants and bars. No building is taller than two stories and all storefronts are brightly painted in pastels. In the center is a huge park with stone benches, a fountain, and blossoming trees and bushes. The sky is overcast and the morning air is starting to thicken with humidity. My companions and I wander through a mall first. It always surprises me to see Westernized commercialization in developing countries. The mall is white and beige and spectacularly clean. They have stores selling Guess-like clothing at Guess-like prices, Adidas shoes, Puma gear, and novelty souvenir shops where a magnet costs more than the total cab fare. But the convenience store is ridiculously cheap.
"I got this bottle of grapefruit juice and pack of gum for 85 cents!" says Kashlee, a fellow Canadian travelling on her own, who my friend Danielle and I met at the resort. "Are you ready to go to the markets in town?" she asks.

The market isn't what I imagined. In a whole square block, I enter these large open doorways into dark and narrow aisles, jam-packed with stalls selling more things than I could have imagined. We come across so many different trinkets--wooden toy motorcycles, black stone animal statues, beaded jewellery, ceramic plates--all handcrafted and traditional to the Mexican culture. Old women and young children are at every corner, waiting to sell you these tourist goodies. And along the perimeter are produce, meat and fish stands. A large bowl of prawns stare up at me with a thousand black beady-little eyes. The scent of fresh mangoes somehow manage to permeate the air. We see a young woman carving the sweet fruit into a tropical flower-like shape, held on a stick so you can eat without getting your hands sticky.

Back on the streets, the sidewalks are busy but not crowded. We wander off to a more residential area. Little cocoa-skinned girls don puffy, laced, pattern-stitched dresses. On one road, a boy cries his head off while an older lady stands in the doorway, watching him steadily. There is only a hard void-like expression on her face. The sounds of the place are rhythmic Spanish music, fast-talking speech in a language I don't understand, cars and bikes puttering along, kids yelling, and our footsteps hitting the pavement.

"There isn't really anything left to see," remarks Kashlee. We've walked the entire town in about an hour. Much of the time was spent idling in shops. Danielle also isn't feeling well so we decide to head back to the resort. I don't really want to leave. The allure of the town is so powerful. It's the authenticity, the rough life, the fact that people live and don't have the luxury of lounging on what is really their beautiful beaches all day long. "I can see why you would want to live here now," I tell Kashlee. She's been raving about Mexico since the moment we met her. I didn't understand the appeal until now.

The trip into town is real life for me. And as much as I enjoy losing myself to fantasy, I love to be engaged by the world. I love to know what the real experience of real people are. I don't need the sugar-coated, glossed-over version the vacation brochures try to sell. There is an emptiness in that dreamworld that could never sustain and fulfill me.

I loved lying on the beach for six of seven days. It was that one morning when I visited the real world that will stick with me forever. The real world isn't a cliché, but it is more timeless and beautiful than any picture-perfect beach.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I taste home.

It needs to be established upfront that I'm Chinese. I'm not exactly sure what I mean by this though. I was born and raised in Toronto. I've never visited China and I don't have any close relatives who live there. My parents and their siblings were born in Calcutta, India. They were part of a Chinese diaspora who speak a different dialect, Hakka. But my father never calls himself "Indian" the way I call myself "Canadian." It doesn't matter that he lived there till he was 21, the age I am now. It doesn't matter that he can understand and speak Hindi. It doesn't matter that he half-seriously claims he's going to retire there. It doesn't matter that some of the best dishes he cooks are distinctly Indian. He's Chinese, and that's final.

My father is the indisputable cook of our household. I grew up on his food. He came home from nine hours of manual labour at a nails and screws factory, and made dinner for his wife and four kids for what felt like every day of my childhood, and for most of my adolescence. As far as I was concerned, he could cook everything from seafood stir-fries to yan-yan (meatball) soup to spaghetti to stewed beef. But above and beyond everything else, he could cook Indian food. Curries, homemade bahnas (a thicker, doughier and greasier version of a tortilla), biryani, tandoori, masala ahloo (potato in Hindi). He did it all and I loved every last bite. So when it comes to food, what resonates the most for me is not the clean, delicate tastes of Chinese cooking. Bold, aromatic Indian flavours bring me home.

Last Sunday, one of my closest girlfriends from high school said she wanted to take me out to eat for my 21st birthday. Coincidentally, Toronto Life came out with its "Best New Restaurants" issue the same week. And an even luckier coincidence, Amaya, a new Indian restaurant at Bayview and Eglinton, was listed as one of the top ten. I read James Chatto's review on the place a few months earlier and this was a reminder that I still needed to try it out. Stephanie never really had Indian food before. I felt Amaya was going to be the best place to start.

I instantly like the place as soon as I walk through the door. It's a small, casual space that comfortably fits about 40 people. The tones of the decor remind me of the warmth of beef curry--golden yellows and chestnut browns, accented with clean white linen tablecloths and hints of red lighting. On the walls are huge, framed photographs of India, astonishing in its cultural quietness of two men pushing a boat in Goa, women harvesting food, children scattered in streets. A tall, brown-skinned gentleman dressed in black kindly hangs our coats and shows us to a table. His voice is as smooth as almond butter, without any smugness. Steph and I are easily the youngest patrons.

To start, instead of bread, we are served pappadums--a thin, crisp, Indian-spiced flat bread. It comes with a mango mint sauce. As soon as I bite into it, everything inside wakes up yet I dreamily close my eyes.
"Oh my god," I drawl. "This is pure nostalgia." Steph, on the other hand, doesn't have the exact same enthusiasm.
"It won't feel the same for you, I know," I rush to explain. I hate getting people's expectations up and then they get disappointed. "But for me, this is my childhood."
She laughs. "It's OK. When Brian asked me why an Indian place, I told him it's because you're Hakka and he was surprised," she says in reference to her boyfriend.
"Really? Why?"
"Because he says you don't look Hakka. But I don't know what that's supposed to mean." And quite frankly, neither do I.

Our waiter comes by to explain Amaya also serves a tasting menu for $50 each, along with its a la carte. I am giddy at the thought. As soon as the waiter walks away, Steph says, "Order whatever you want. It doesn't matter to me."
"Are you serious? Because if you're serious, I'm going to go crazy and insist we both do the tasting menu." (I'm practically foaming at the mouth because I'm so deliriously happy.)
So we order the tasting menu. In the meantime, Steph orders a mango mint mojito that actually disappoints me. I can't really taste mango or that much mint. But it's OK, because I'm here for the food.

For anyone who doesn't know, a "classic" tasting menu is often five to seven small experimental courses where the chef showcases ingredients and plays with different flavour ideas. I'm surprised to hear Amaya offers one because Indian fare is a communal experience. It lends itself to cooking in large quantities. I shouldn't have been surprised when the food turned out to be just that.

A large appetizer course is set down. It looks like a tower of rice, almost risotto-like in its sauce mixture, jewelled with pomegranate seeds. The first bite reveals that the "rice" actually has a texture similar to rice krispies--airy, light and crackly. It's sweet, salty and has a kick of spice to it. Something that quickly becomes a theme for the rest of the meal.

The second appetizer is chicken liver paté served with toasted pita. I fell in love with liver after my first experience with foie gras and milk-fed veal liver at Thuet two winters ago. This paté is sensational. It's dense but spreadable, and the Indian spices tickle my senses. It's making my heart, my soul, my body say, "More, more, more!" And sometimes you get exactly what you wish for. The appetizers are already fairly big. When the mains come, there's hardly any room left on the table.

We first try venison served on a bed of steamed julienned carrots, green string beans, and roasted potatoes in a dark, biryani-like sauce. I eat it with saffron-tinged basmati rice but take the first bite of meat separately. Cooked at perfect medium-rare, it practically melts in my mouth. Steph, who doesn't even know what venison is, relishes in it. I can tell she is starting to fall in love with Indian cooking. Next I try cauliflower curry with naan. Normally I dislike cauliflower so I'm taken aback when I eat it. There is definitely a hot spiciness but it's beautifully juxtaposed with a honey-like sweetness that elevates everything to a flavour dimension I've never experienced before. Even the little bursts of fresh, diced tomatoes add a subtle but distinct cooling feeling. Our final main course is shrimps and scallops in a butter sauce. These too are perfectly cooked. Both are big, plump, tender, moist and juicy. The sauce is velvety but light, and I am more than impressed that this is by far the best Indian food I've ever had. Stephanie is happily surprised as well with how delicious the meal is, but I suspect for reasons different than mine. Equally pleased with the experience, she genuinely oo's, aw's, and yum's at everything. And we have enough food to doggy-bag for a hearty lunch the next day.

Our meal ends with a dessert sampler of a white chocolate shortbread cookie, a dark chocolate truffle with Indian spices, and a caramel brittle with cashews, pistachios and cardamom. I love them all for their varying textures and tastes but the brittle stands out as my favourite. Normally I am a chocolate-fiend but combining nuts and cardamom? That is signature Indian with a spectacular modern twist.

As we head home, I cannot thank Stephanie enough for treating me to such an amazing dinner. The food may have been more original, inventive and even cooked better than anything my dad has ever made, but in its essence, it is the food of my father. The food of my family. Yet at the same time, while the meal was definitely a pleasure, it was the experience of sharing something so close to my heart with someone who is so close to my heart. I consider Steph to be like a sister. Introducing Indian food to her at a place like Amaya... It transforms what it means for me to return home.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

TTC may have "improved" their services, but not their basic cleanliness.

The Toronto Star's TTC Fixer had a 6-part series on the general cleanliness and maintenance of the subway stations. I logged my complaint and it was published on the Star's online site:
When you walk down on to the first level of the Finch subway station to get to the trains from the bus platforms, there has been a "DANGER - DO NOT ENTER" sign around about a one square metre area that seems to be leaking (or dripping) dirty water. I don't even really know because I'm too scared to peer over the sign and see how really disgusting it is. I swear this sign has been around for months. And instead of it being cleared away, the gated area has been EXTENDED all the way to the wall. So now instead of two narrow pathways around the damn thing, pedestrian traffic is forced to flow to only one side of the walkway. I know everyone who uses this station on a regular basis is probably just as annoyed and frustrated as I am on seeing this thing day after day, slowing down my way to get to the trains and buses.

Monday, February 18, 2008

With love, we have to get creative.

Sushil is a co-worker who gets younger each passing day. I tell stories about him to friends and people imagine I'm hanging out with a 20-year-old. Little do they know, he's twice my age, married with a 9-year-old son. Life surprises you with the people who show up in it.

"When I was in university, I was so broke," Sushil starts to tell me. He is a big spender these days but back in the day, he was notorious at scams and for being broke. He tells me a story about Sangita, his now-wife, when they first met in university.

"For some reason, Sangita really wanted milk but I had NO MONEY. Not even a penny!" he exclaims. "I kept asking her, 'Are you sure you don't want water?' But she kept insisting, 'No. I need milk. I want milk.' We were in the caf. So I took a bunch of the milkettes and started pouring them into a cup."

I immediately started dying at this image of 5'6 Sushil with dorky glasses and a very drab, faded wardrobe, carefully opening a million little milkettes and pouring out 5 mL at a time into a Styrofoam cup. These days, Sushil wears $4,000 watches, Lacoste shoes and sports a trendy set of Dolce&Gabbana rectangular frames.

"The worst part is," he says while giggling (yes, he giggles!), "Sangita SAW me doing this."

"So it was love at first sight, eh?" I laugh.

A couple of weeks later, I meet Sangita. This is probably my favourite Sushil story of all time and I can't get it out of my head. I ask her what her memory of the story was.

"I was horrified. I thought, 'I pray none of my friends see him doing this,' otherwise it would have been double embarrassment," she says.

But to me, this is one of my favourite love stories. How some people can get so creative in desperate times in the name of love. Today, Sushil and Sangita are as happy and in love as they were in university. Only now, Sushil can actually afford to buy her some milk.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

How much and how little we've grown.

Museums and galleries have always fascinated me. I love how they can be a place of history, beauty, delicate intricacies, fantastic spaces and an adventure of my choosing. I don't think I've realized it until this moment but the Royal Ontario Museum holds many special memories for me. And a light, bubbly, happy one was created Saturday night.

"You look so hot! You are my hot girl!" squeals my friend Annette as she rushes over to us in the lounge of C5, the new restaurant atop the Crystal addition of the ROM that opened in July 2007. Annette is referring to our friend Jamie who I'm with. We went ahead early to make sure we kept our reservation, while Annette picked up Wina and Camille. It's a bit of a high school reunion. I'm closer with Jamie and Annette than I am with Wina and Camille. But we all used to hang out in the same, much larger group of friends so every once in awhile there's always an overlap. Lives diverge and come together again, and I find myself in situations that are familiar and comfortable yet awkward and distant.

For the record, Jamie does look hot. So do the rest of them, I might add. I don't think I've ever felt "hot" myself when I'm around them. But it's no insult to me. It's just a feeling I have. But I am quite happy to be friends with such beautiful girls. More so, I am lucky to be friends with such beautifully-minded people.

We are seated and we are definitely like silly schoolgirls around one another. I'm a touch too loud for public. Annette is in her infectiously giggly mood. Jamie is calm and serene while making faces. Wina is angelic. Camille has a matured but beaten air to her. Of all the girls, it's Camille who I'm most unfamiliar with.

"I am so tired from working all day. I'm supposed to go to a club after and I didn't bring a change of clothes for dinner or partying. These are my work clothes," she remarks. Nonetheless she is stylish and stunning in vintage jewellery and a Posh Spice-esque messy haircut. Throughout the night, I have these wonderful moments where I see women who have learned to be so aware of the world that surrounds them. At the same time, I see girls who love to indulge in laughter, food and talk, and fall into a self-created bubble.

It's around 9:30 p.m. when our orders are taken and bread arrives. We were half an hour late for our 8:45 reservation and it takes some time for giggly girls to calm down. The bread is soft and wonderful. I try so hard to pinpoint the exact flavours. While they stir the senses of my tongue, my memory can't seem to be jiggled enough. Plus I'm starved. I haven't eaten since noon so I can't be bothered to pay too much attention. It's enough that the bread is delicious. The butter is perfectly spreadable and adds a sweetness.

"Why are you such a bread Nazi?" Annette calls over.

The CN Tower is to the left of me, framed by the jagged open shapes of the building. Toronto's cityscape always gives me great pleasure. I marvel at the ingenuity of man-made structures.

I love thick, creamy, hearty soups. It's Winterlicious. This is why we can (sort of) afford C5 tonight. I debate between a salad and a soup. When I hear the butternut squash bisque is made with lobster stalk, I am sold. It arrives as a lovely orange square pool of steaming aromas. The first sip is intoxicating. A perky, Indian-like spice tantalizes my tongue while the undertones of hearty lobster and squash fill the rest of my mouth. "Jamie, you have to be my date tonight. Try this," I say to her as I offer her a spoonful. I demand that more than one person recognizes the amazement of this bisque. Her eyes stare straight ahead and as she pristinely slurps, her wide eyes go wider in delight. "Oh my god. That is sooooo good," she sincerely comments. I take a bite of her deconstructed salad. The textures are interesting and play together nicely. Creamy avocado with grainy black olive-infused couscous and tiny pieces of slippery, tender calamari.

Because I love when my food has a theme, for main, fish is the obvious choice. A butter-poached grouper in a spicy tomato shitake sauce blows me away. The grouper is meaty and flaky and tender and smoky all at once. The sauce is punchy and tangy and fruity and warm all at once. It's garnished with pea shoots. Delicate yet filled with an amazing amount of fresh, zippy flavour to contrast the heartiness of the dish. I couldn't be more pleased. I try a bit of Wina's 72-hour sous vide beef short ribs. The chef of C5 is supposed to be notorious for his sous vide preparations. The beef is outstanding. It's a fall-apart-in-your-mouth experience and the richness of the beef is so well-rounded.

For dessert, I veer off course. The chocolate bread pudding isn't exactly a pudding. It's more like a slightly less dense brownie. The more exquisite part is probably the orange and vanilla foams that are airy and light yet surprisingly intense. I find the pecorina cheesecake much more innovative and yummy. The sweet cream cheese and the salty percorina are brilliant together. Sugar crystals crackle happily in the mouth against the smoothness of the cake, and a raspberry sauce melds all the flavours.

"Food makes me happy," I exclaim.

The night starts to wind down after we've engaged one another in definitive stories about the men of our lives and share strong opinions on the debate about black-focused schools. We snap some photos and gather our jackets. Off the elevator, our banter echoes out into the emptiness of the museum. "Jamie lost her shoe in the holes in the vent and didn't even notice!" I burst, and we all burst into giggles.

As we part ways and shiver in the cold, I'm exhausted but sad to see the night end. It's been almost three years since high school has passed. It feels like a long time ago. I've always had a tendency to leave the past in the past but I've learned to savour these moments. These are friends who've known me since early teenagehood. To be able to venture out into the world on your own and return to simpler, sweeter days is an unexpectedly precious gift. Often, I feel like I have to protect and shield myself from reality's harms. It can be a difficult challenge to take on your own.

I realize later on that despite everything, when friends come together and create their own world, no one but ourselves could ever possibly burst the bubble.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Too bad for you because we're taking over the world.

I'll tell you a little story about me today.

I'm at Yonge and St. Clair and I go into the subway station through some revolving doors. No one else is around. No one that I notice at least. All of a sudden I hear a woman's voice mumble quite casually: "I don't like Chinese or Indian people." I am so confused. I'm not sure why this is said because I haven't done anything. I didn't even see this person coming but there she is. Some random lady insulting me because of my appearance. Not because of my actions or behaviour or words because I haven't acted, done or said anything. I feel doubly insulted actually. She doesn't know this, but my parents were born in India so I have a special connection to the Indian culture. I turn around to see who it is. She looks at me and stops. She moves to the other revolving doors. I suppose she wants to avoid me. I don't think she expected me to turn around. But I'm not going to let her off the hook so easily. I meet her at the other entrance.

"What did you say?" I ask her.
"I said, I don't like Chinese or Indian people," she replies. She doesn't seem angry or upset. Maybe slightly embarrassed now because I'm confronting her, but for the most part, she says her words very matter-of-factly.

I'm appalled. Completely and utterly appalled. I start following her and talking out loud. My voice is steady. "OK. I'm not really sure why you would say that. It seems like a really bad, mean generalization to make but I guess if that's how you feel I can't really do anything about it. But wow. I was just walking along, minding my own business and you have to say something like that to me. I don't know. I guess you can say what you like but wow." We walk through the TTC turnstile. I go first. She again moves to the other turnstile. I wait to hold the next set of doors for her. I'm not trying to be nice. I'm waiting for her because I feel like something more needs to be said. I'm starting to feel desperate. I need to know why this woman feels this way. I need to expose her to the fact that she shouldn't feel this way. Most of all, I need to gently stalk and berate this woman because I feel like she just gently berated me.

"Don't hold the door for me," she says. I do anyway. She walks through (because there's no other option) and I continue with my even-toned rant.
"I just don't know why you would insult me like that when it is so clear that I'm Chinese," I remark.
"Well, that's too bad," she replies.
"Yeah. Too bad for you," I rebut.

I follow her down the stairs. I want to get on the train with her. In my head, I have this image of me pointing at her to other people and saying, "Do you know this lady just told me she doesn't like Chinese or Indian people?" But then I realize I'm on the southbound platform and I need to go north. Silently I'm upset she's not heading in the same direction as me. I need more time. But I finally give up. I decide it's not worth it anymore so I go back upstairs and across to the northbound platform.

This incident kills me for a few reasons. I have many thoughts swirling around, trying to make sense of the situation as I ride home. First, she's a black woman in about her mid-30s and fairly well-dressed. I take this as a sign of middle-class education and prosperity. I figure, OK, white supremacists not able to handle racial diversity, yeah. Not that it excuses a white person to say the same thing. Or someone who is poor and therefore poorly educated - I get that too. But a black person?... Someone who probably has at least an elementary education? I guess I expect more from a black person considering how much discrimination and exploitation blacks faced in history and still face today. The second thing that kills me is I really want to talk about this to someone as I'm on the subway, because it's fresh and raw and is searing through my blood and bones, my entire being. I really need to hear someone else say, Hey, this lady is crazy and close-minded. Don't listen to her. But I start to worry. I think, Here's this woman living in one of the most diverse cities in the world and she is willing to completely disregard 1/3 of the entire global population based on what exactly? But before I decide I need to create a forum of racial discussion on the subway, a fear sparks inside, What if I talk about this to a random stranger and that person agrees with her? What if this is the day where all of people's subtle prejudices come out and I end up bearing the grunt of it? I can't deal with that. I can't possibly deal with someone agreeing with her, or making an excuse for her, or simply not caring. Instead of being numb, I would be in a blind rage if something like that happens. And the other thing that kills me is it's not actually true what I said. I'm only clearly Chinese to me. Some people say they can easily tell the difference between Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other Asians but I know I can't; so what if I wasn't Chinese? Would she tell me she doesn't like any Asians in general then? Thereby disregarding 2/3 of the entire global population?

I know I'm very lucky to live in Toronto. I haven't experienced racism to the degree I hear about in the United States or some European countries but this type of subtle, matter-of-fact racism still kills me inside. It's been over two-and-a-half-years of my university education and I feel extremely grateful for the type of post-secondary schooling I've received so far. I definitely feel like a more enlightened person when it comes to how society has been formed and why these cultural tensions exist. But if there is one thing I was taught in my elementary education that I've carried throughout my life is the basic idea of not to generalize.

Could I have possibly enlightened this woman from the time it took us to walk from the street entrance of the subway station to the train doors? Could I have given this woman a 60-second education on why as human beings we need to be respectful of one another and unlearn the discriminatory practices that seem to be embedded in our minds?

I don't think I could have. It may not have been the most clever or eye-opening retort, but that's probably why the only thing I could leave her with was, Yeah. Too bad for you.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Everything feels like it's moving fast, slow and standing still all at the same time.

I want to catch my breath. But it seems locked inside my lungs. Breathing. It's something so natural that we forget it's even there until it's gone.

I have mood shifts. Different places, different circumstances make me act a certain way, think a certain way, feel a certain way. I've often felt like my head is full of truthful contradictory thoughts. I'm on my way to school like any normal day. I've parred down my travelling time now to exactly the length necessary for me to walk outside of my front door to arrive in my seat in class. But I still hurry along. I still beat past people in a whirlwind. Eyes, my walking, even my breathing seems focused at the task at hand. I relax myself on the bus or the subway. I try not to check my watch because on a bus or the subway train, I cannot control the speed. I cannot control the direction. But walking. I'm in control when I'm walking. So I walk fast.

From the bus to the subway cart, I weave and dodge through the crowd. I quicken my pace accordingly and I sometimes feel like I'm jumping ahead, skipping ahead. I sometimes catch the eye of a stranger walking toward me but for the most part, I couldn't possibly care less. I'm only concerned about my destination, about what I'm in control of - getting to that subway cart.

"Shit," I say with disdain. I squeeze through the doors past a meandering young woman just as the bell chimes. I swear a lot these days. I'm trying to cut down but it's so easy to lapse into profanities when my mind seems to be racing and no one seems to notice how intense everything is inside. I stalk through the cart to the end and plop down in a seat. I'm ready to relax, read my Chatelaine and forget the world. But my eyes flicker up. Even if I want to forget the world, it still exists so I scan it anyway. And a shock goes through me. Actually, it's more like a sudden pinch. Quick and stinging but innocent and playful. It's my cheeky friend Mike. Mike is definitely like a pinch.

He's sitting across the aisle from me. I realize it's him in a second but it feels so sudden and unexpected, like I've tumbled into a fairy tale. I get up and plop myself into the seat next to him.
"What's wrong?" he sincerely asks. I exhale loudly, take off my hat and tousle my hair.
"I guess it's just one of those days where everything's wrong," he answers his own question.
"No! No, that's not it. I'm just...Nothing's wrong," I rush to reply. I don't like it when people make up my thoughts in their head. At least, not when the thoughts are wrong. I think I want to say exasperated but words aren't exactly forming in my mind. I'm still trying to catch my breath.
"Actually, you know what, it does feel like things have been going wrong this morning. I completely wiped out on my stairs," I explain. My voice is coming alive. I feel my lungs expanding. "I need to leave my house at 9:15 the latest to get to class in time and it was 9:11 when I was coming down the stairs. I was rushing and I just completely wiped out. And now I think I have a bruise on my arm that will go along perfectly with the huge bruise I have on my knee when I wiped out on Friday night in a parking lot because I was tipsy and wearing 3-inch-heels."
"Ohh. That sucks. That really sucks. I can't remember the last time I wiped out but I think girls do more than guys because girls are just generally more clumsy," Mike responds casually. I know he means nothing by it but I feel the need to defend women against this callous generalization. Instead I shift the focus back to me.
"I don't know about most girls, but I know I'm really, really clumsy."

We arrive at Dundas station and I glance at my watch. It's 10:07 a.m. Ryerson standard time is every class starts 10 minutes after the hour. "I should have known I was going to be slightly late because you're always slightly late and if I'm with you then I'm going to be slightly late," I comment to Mike as we walk out of the darkness of the subway and up into the snowy darkness of downtown Toronto.
"And you're going to be even more late because I bet you walk fast and I walk slow," he retorts. We round the corner of the stairs on to the street and I'm at least already eight paces ahead of him. I glance back, grab him by the arm and drag him across the street.
"It's almost a yellow light! You're not on the pedestrian walk! Ah! And you're going the other way!" he yells at me. "I'm serious about the last one, you know? Don't you think this way takes longer?"

I'm breathing quickly again. I'm in control of my walk again and I refuse to let Mike slow me down.

There is something about breathing that seems so mysterious to me, particularly during the times when my breath is escaping me. Not when I'm exhaling. No; it's when I'm gasping, panting, trying to arrive somewhere, be somewhere, go to a place to feel settled.

"See? We're not late," Mike remarks as we walk through the classroom doors.

I'm still at a loss. I'm still feeling out of control because I'm unsure where I'm supposed to sit. Where do I anchor myself? I realize I should sit with Mike even though we both know enough people in the class of all 3rd-year journalism students. I find a few empty seats, tell Mike to sit with me but still, I'm scattered. I may seem like an extroverted character. I chat fairly easily with most people. I love to laugh. I'm good with names and I try my best to be cordial to everyone I meet. I have a few good friends in journalism who I really get along with but journalism students are funny. We all seem to run in overlapping circles. And sometimes you fit in and sometimes you don't, and sometimes all it takes is one additional person to be thrown into the mix for you to feel thrown out. I inhale and exhale but everything still feels slightly out of place. Something is missing and I know exactly what it is.

My best friend Jessica walks through the door. As Jessica smiles and sits in the empty seat next to me, I finally catch my breath.

Friday, January 18, 2008

There's a bitter sharp taste in my mouth.

My tongue keeps pushing through my teeth. The bottom right side of my lip is swollen and the stinging is constantly there.

It's New Year's Eve and I'm at my friend Andy's house for a potluck. We've all decided to get dressed up even though we're just staying in because we need to make this night different from every other night of our lives. There's eight of us, five guys and three girls, and we're in the kitchen. Some off to the side where the table is set up. Others are coming in and out of the fringes from the living room, chatting, laughing, twirling around in silence in our own heads and thoughts. The smell of salmon being fried perfumes the air. I say perfumes because it's not quite making me hungry nor is it causing me to lose my appetite. It's acting as the scent of the night hanging above us and around us and beneath us. In these last hours of another year gone by, we are all tied together. The pan sizzles, crackles and hisses, and Elvis serenades us with Christmas tunes.

I don't remember how it happened but it happened. "Shit. I bit my lip," I yelp and cry with the pain of a whining child. This becomes a theme for the next hour. A dark Hungarian wine has put me under a spell. All my senses seem to be giggling. Every part of me is creeping up and trying to burst out but I'm trying to stifle it all back. I try to resist the urge to spin on my toes. I try to resist the urge of the corners of my mouth turning up without a reason. I try to remember not to bite my lip but my senses are in a state of runaway glee. My mind doesn't have the faintest idea that my lip has already begun to swell so it's inevitable I bite it again. And again. And again. And at least five more times after that all with the same exclamatory point: "Shit. I bit my lip again!"

A kiss means many different things to different people. In it's most basic definition, a kiss is the act of two people putting their lips against each other's. But who are we kidding. Most of the time, a kiss is more than just a physical act. It represents something. Sometimes a kiss can represent the whole world. Or a celebratory moment like when the clock strikes midnight on new year's day. Or a reminder of the love and affection you hold for another person. And other times a kiss is like that first taste of cool water on those days where you run around for who knows how long without a drop of liquid in your mouth. You're hurrying past strangers on the sidewalk. You stop to chat inanely to routine people about what you did last night. You're rushing to class. Or to work. You're panting to catch a bus. You're in a room with no windows. You can't breathe. The air is dry and stale. You need something clear and crisp. You need water. And when you finally get it... Sometimes a kiss is like that.

Days have passed since new year's. The bite on my lip left a cut and the cut has developed into a canker sore. Actually, it's developed into four canker sores. Two enormous ones that eventually meld together and two smaller ones right underneath, all hanging out on my lip like one of those annoying dishevelled-looking families in the mall that don't know how to keep their kids or themselves in order. I feel like I'm tripping over the simplest sentences. I'm not quite drooling but I do feel like I have a facial disfigurement even though it's hardly noticeable to the people around me. "Oh yeah. I can kind of see it. Your lip is a little red," says my cheeky friend Mike in the first class of the new semester.

Ten days of the new year have passed and the canker sores are still there. Still rubbing themselves against my teeth. Uncontrollably of course because they're right there and I can't possibly spend the whole of my days with my bottom lip constantly hanging out. I have to have self-control when it comes to complaining about the pain because the pain is always there. Even something as simple as brushing my teeth has become a new experience. I have to hold my lip down so I can actually get to the teeth that the sore is rubbing against. Trickles of red stream out of my mouth along with the dissolved toothpaste. Throughout the day, blood, germs, complete infestation is manifesting itself against absolutely everything all from this sore.

It started with a small bite. And then I got drunk. So it got worse. I didn't think anything of it until it became a constant pain that I had to deal with. Rinsing it out with salt water didn't help. The salt numbs the pain for a bit, provides temporary relief, but all I really want to do is fall asleep. And at the back of my mind, for some reason, I'm still thinking of a kiss. How could anyone want to kiss me with a disgusting infection on my lip? More importantly, how could I possibly want to kiss anyone with this pain throbbing? No one can see this pain until I show it to them. Expose the open wounds. Explain a situation of drunk merriment where the hurt I've caused myself is unintentional but it hurts anyway. And even when I expose it, how silly do I feel to make such a big deal out of such a small matter.

My lip doesn't sting anymore. But the room still feels dry.