Throwback Thursday: Grade 10 Personal Essay

Apparently, my obsession with food and culture began long before I’d realized it was even a “thing”. My love of secondary titles also apparently began at a young age. I found this essay in my archive of assignments from high school, in which young, 14-year-old me attempts to advocate cultural education to my predominantly white high school in the form of dim sum. Excuse the overwhelming lameness of the writing, I was, after all, a mere tween and probably in the middle of reading the Twilight series. Please enjoy.

Welcome to the World of Dim Sum: Leave Your Conscience at the Door


“Har gow! Siu mai!”  It seems as if I am being addressed by a small paper hat peeking out from behind a cart piled high with bamboo steamers.  “Har gow, please,” I say, smiling, to the hat.  Disembodied hands carefully select one of the many bamboo steamers from the large pile.  It is then that I realize the paper hat sits on the head of a tiny, but tough-looking Chinese lady and that the hands are not disembodied at all.  Looking around, I find myself surrounded by the clatter of plastic chopsticks against bowls and plates, along with the incessant chatter and peals of laughter coming from tables filled with elderly Chinese ladies.  I do not feel foreign at all in this chaotic environment; actually, I feel quite comfortable.  For me, it is just another typical Saturday and I have once again entered the wonderful world of dim sum.

I immediately descend upon my favourite dish, “White Cloud Phoenix Claws” or in real terms, vinegar marinated chicken feet.  These delicacies look repulsive with their translucent white and wrinkly skin, but their salty taste and rubber-like texture cannot be found in any other dish.  Since there is no actual meat on the feet, the only way of eating it is to gnaw on the bones and chew on the skin.  Barbarous, I know, but nonetheless satisfying.

My grandmother comments on all the unhealthy and oily foods I have eaten throughout the week. Among the items in her lengthy list are pizza, ice cream, and some chips that I thought had gone unnoticed.  The rest of the extended family looks on as I gape at her in amazement and humiliation.  I do not notice that she had stolen my bowl and vigorously spooned something into it until she sets the almost overflowing bowl back on my plate.  Pointing, she tells me in Chinese, “Eat congee.  Flush out unhealthiness.”  I ignore her command and inquire as to how, despite her age, her memory could be so incredible.  She glares and responds, “Congee.  Good for everything. Now eat.”  Congee, this supposed miracle substance, is essentially rice cooked with too much water, resulting in a thick porridge-like burgoo. The stew is thick and bland, but the meat and greyish eggs give it a pleasantly salty taste, although the meat is really just a small pile of bones with a few tough tendrils stuck to them.

Throughout my lifetime, I have tried congee mixed with many kinds of ingredients; some, I must admit, have been better than others.  I am told by my grandmother, who does not speak English, that the meat in this type of congee is called “field chicken” and the egg-like pieces are “Thousand Year Old Eggs.”  My parents, uncles, and aunts all seem to be giggling about some twisted inside joke.  I demand to know what they are laughing about, and soon regret that decision.  Despite the name, Thousand Year Old Eggs are not a thousand years old.  They are duck eggs preserved in ash and salt for a hundred days, thus explaining the greyness of the egg white.  Worst of all, “field chicken” is not chicken at all; in fact, it is a fancy Chinese name for… frog.  I am suddenly struck by a wave of nausea.

I move onto a dish I am much more familiar with: duck tongue and kidney, marinated in soy sauce and steamed to perfection.  The pile of tongues lies morbidly on a plate, each one about half the size of my index finger.  Like the chicken feet, there is no meat on the tongue so I carefully nibble around the fragile little bone and chew the slimy skin strewn with small pieces of cartilage.  After digging into the mountain of tongue, I come upon a jewel of a kidney.  Duck kidney is about the size of a large grape and three-quarters its thickness.  It is somewhat tough but very chewy.  I smile as I watch my young cousins fight over the last tongue remaining on the plate.  The little munchkins clearly have no idea what they are eating.

Countless times, friends have asked how I can stand to digest these revolting delicacies.  The simplest answer would be that I have grown up eating these foods; to me, they are as common as steak and potatoes.  Another answer is that I tend not to think of where or what the food came from; I find that this is the easiest way to keep it all down.  Besides, most of these exotic foods taste much better than they look.  So the next time you enter a dim sum restaurant, please leave your conscience at the door.  Once that inner voice has been muted, you will be taken on a subway ride of tastes and textures; each aroma you encounter will be unique and thrilling.  Welcome to the magical world of dim sum.

Venti Half-Sweet Soy Caramel Macchiato

Stopped by Starbucks during lunch break with my work friends today and encountered a pretty hilarious situation.

The older woman waiting for her drink in front of me seemed to be chatting up the young, Asian (and frankly, quite hot) barista. She was short, overweight, white, and basically gave me a bit of a hick vibe. But that’s not what was funny…

The first thing I overheard was, “So, what language are you?”

Really. Because 1. one can actually be the physical embodiment of a language, 2. that is an absolutely appropriate way of asking about someone’s ethnicity, and 3. all Asians are the same and the only differentiating factor is the language we speak.

As someone who fails at office water cooler talk, the barista had a level of social skill that I could only ever dream of, and unflinchingly replied that he was Vietnamese.

“Oh! I love your food. Love it. Your food is so good. Do you like pho? (Pronounced “foe”) I love pho. It’s so good and cheap, I eat it all the time. I love your food.”

Nice try, lady, nice try.

Japan Day 7: Tsukiji, Odaiba & More Shenanigans

Originally planned to make it out to Tsukiji Fish Market by 8 am, but we ended up sleeping in until 11… Still, we made it there for a lunch of delicious, fresh sushi. No pics because I was too busy devouring all of it.

My set lunch included: o-toro (fatty tuna), hirame (olive flounder), chuu-toro (medium-fatty tuna), saba (mackerel), kampachi (yellowtail), maguro (tuna), ebi (shrimp), aji (horse mackerel), hotate (scallop), awabi (abalone), uni (my favourite, sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe), unagi (eel), and tamago (egg).

Hopped on the Yurikamome train and crossed the Rainbow Bridge into Odaiba, a man-made island full of shopping malls and commercial buildings. From the Tokyo side of the bridge, you can spot a huge red ferris wheel and the Fuji TV headquarters with its spherical observation deck. We walked over to DiverCity Tokyo Plaza, a shopping centre that also houses the Gundam theme park, Gundam Front Tokyo. In front of the mall stands a RG 1/1 or “lifesized” model of the RX-78-2 Gundam from the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime. It’s certainly a sight to behold.. We spent a few hours shopping around the mall and buying souvenirs from the GFT gift shop. W and I spent quite a bit at Tokyu Hands buying random skincare and makeup oddities, but I was most pleased with my BB Gundam model of the GFT version RX-78-2 – basically a chibi/cute version of the lifesized model. Got one for A too, since I lost that bet before leaving Seoul. >.<

Rushed over to Nihonbashi to meet up with N and J, who we’d met at the teahouse the day before. We joined them and their friends K and M to see the Art Aquarium exhibition, which showcased a blend of glasswork, lighting, art, and live goldfish. Afterwards, we had an amazing, memorable dinner at an izakaya where we joked around and chatted for a long while. We must have looked like the strangest ethnic mix of people conversing in Japanese, Spanish, and English. The food was delicious, and we even tried horse and whale sashimi – both of which were a little jarring, but an experience nonetheless.

Headed into Shibuya and had to say goodbye to O and M before running off into a labyrinth of a residential area in search of a party. N had been invited by a fellow DJ friend to hear his set at “a trendy hairdressers’ party”, so we tagged along and found ourselves in a dark, underground, and extremely sound-proofed club named Air. I was a little alarmed at first because it was so dark and there weren’t that many people on the dance floor despite it being around midnight already. Of the few people who were there, every single one of them was facing the DJ booth and swaying like some kind of cult-ish zombie gathering. Turns out midnight is still early for Tokyo clubbing…

Doing some research after the fact, we discovered that Air is a popular Tokyo club where part of the club scene in Lost in Translation was filmed, and that the headlining DJ that night was Yasutaka Nakata of the group Capsule who has produced albums for Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. We, however, were there to meet DJ Kouichi Hirose, who had some amazing sounds in his house/techno set; he had a unique vibe that was a huge contrast from some of the other DJs that night. We had a ton of fun dancing up a storm and being hypemen/girls for him. The crowd seemed quite young and a little wary of the random bunch of foreigners in their midst, but a few people came and joined our dancing circle! The club really started to fill up around 2 am and we found ourselves slowly pushed to the back. My knees were killing me after only 2.5 hours, and I’m not sure if it was because I was wearing Birks (ha! clubbing in sandals, can you imagine?!) or going hard on the dance floor. W and I were pleasantly surprised when two Japanese guys, who we thought were approaching us for not-so-savory reasons, came by just to say that they had fun dancing with us. It was nice to see that the crowd was more about enjoying the music and having fun than about picking up potential partners. Our night was proof to the party animals that sober and innocent clubbing is still freaking amazing (sorry if I sound lame : P).

Japan Day 6: Kangaroo Court Decision & Other Shenanigans

Met up with our new friend G who we met at Mickey House. G’s been working in Japan for a year and had friends visiting from HK and London so he invited us along for a tour!

While waiting for his friends to arrive, we climbed up the stairs of nearby Atago Shrine to feed the koi fish. These koi fish were way bigger than any koi I’d seen before and they all crammed at the edge of their pond, sucking at air, and fighting for any food that went their way. After much pleading with the staff, G took us up to the roof of his building. Magnificent view of the city, nearby Tokyo Tower, Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Skytree, and a glimpse of the Imperial Palace.

Tokyo Tower view from the roof of G's building

Tokyo Tower view from the roof of G’s building

Walked over to Hamarikyu Garden and enjoyed the traditional Japanese garden in the middle of the city. Sweltered under the hot sun and threw some stones in the ocean while talking about life and work. Interesting that even though Tokyo is such a densely populated city, many people still feel lonely. Eventually, caved and went to the garden’s teahouse for a cup of iced matcha and a traditional Japanese sweet. G’s friends finally arrived and while we were having tea, we made friends with the tourists who were sitting across from us. Exchanged details using J and N’s handy portable Wi-Fi so we could meet up with them later.

Lunch was an adventure at Maidreamin, a maid cafe in Akihabara. A little weird, but fun at the same time! I ordered a cute dish dubbed “Floating bear in the curry pool”, O couldn’t bear to eat his riceball head. (hohoho, punny) One of the maids performed a song and dance, while the other maids (and some other guys who we thought were just patrons) clapped and danced along with glowsticks. One maid went absolutely crazy with her glowsticks like she was at a rave even though the song was super cheerful and bubbly. LOL

As the sun went down, we walked around Yoyogi Park in Harajuku where locals go to hang out and practice their hobbies on Sunday. Saw a tap dancer, a couple of glowstringers, a man making giant bubbles, a man playing Indian drums, etc. Sat down by the pond, had a couple of drinks from the convenience store, and chatted with our new friends. It was fun discussing and comparing our lives in Toronto, Tokyo, London, and Hong Kong. They were intrigued that I went to school in London, Ontario because apparently it always comes up before the real London in Google Maps searches.

At Harajuku station, our group took on another member, S, who was also from London and had been teaching English in Japan for 2 years. The others were planning to have dinner at the robot restaurant in Shinjuku, but they had to make it there earlier before showtime to make sure they got seats, We made a mad dash to the restaurant from the station through the streets of Kabukicho, which was exhilarating and hilarious. I felt like I was in an action movie chase scene trying to catch up to the person in front of me, while avoiding all the bewildered tourists and locals on the busy street.

After dropping off half of our group at the robot restaurant, G brought O, W, and I to Shinjuku Golden Gai, a historical red light district that was preserved by locals and converted to a drinking area comprised of narrow alleyways and short buildings that house tiny bars that can seat a maximum of 5 people. We went to G’s regular haunt, a tiny bar named Kangaroo Court Decision. So amazing, I cannot get enough of that name. We had a round of shochu grapefruits and a great chat with the bartender, which gave G and W a chance to practice their Japanese. Our bartender was really friendly and interested in chatting with foreigner to practice his English skills, so we suggested that he visit Mickey House.

Quick dinner at a great tempura restaurant that offered different salts and sauces to go on our tempura. Tried eel, fish, lotus root, egg yolk, pepper and shrimp, and ice cream tempura too! Met back up with G’s friends at the bar in the Park Hyatt Hotel from Lost in Translation (which I finally watched). Amazing night view of the blinking red building lights of Shinjuku. While the others planned to continue their barhopping, O, W, and I were exhausted so we decided to call it a night.

View from the Park Hyatt Hotel bar

View from the Park Hyatt Hotel bar

Japan Day 5: Tokyo Girls Collection A/W 2013

Ventured out to Saitama Super Arena for the Tokyo Girls Collection Autumn/Winter 2013 Fashion Show. Thought the show would run about 2 hours, but it turned out to be 8… Actual fashion show content was probably around 2 hours, and the rest were sponsor stages, ads, and lots of talking. Sponsors had booths set up around the arena where they had photobooths and free samples. W and I almost got interviewed by a reporter but when he realized we couldn’t speak much Japanese, he backed away… : ( At least that means we looked oshare.

Not too familiar with local Japanese brands, but saw collections from a few I know like moussy, CECIL McBEE, and jouetie. Live performances by HKT48, Nishino Kana, Shota Shimizu, and others. Recognized a few models like Anna Tsuchiya, Yamada Yu, and Lena Fujii, Lola, Sara Marie, Elli Rose, and Reina Triendl from Vivi. Really excited I got to see Reina up close, as she’s my favourite from Vivi : )

Also, special guests that were exciting included Yamamoto Yusuke (ghost boy from Hana Kimi), Haruna Ai (famous tranny), Masuwaka Tsubasa (creator of the Dolly Wink makeup line), and a finale performance by Akanishi Jin (formerly of KAT-TUN)!

Japan Day 4: Shibuya

Not much to say about today except that W and I spent a whole lot of money at Shibuya 109 – the trendiest department store in Tokyo for gyaru fashion. We found a lot of local Japanese brands like moussy, Liz Lisa, Cecil McBee, Emoda, Luxe Rose, Egoist… The shop attendants are pretty nice, but kept talking to us in Japanese even when they know we barely understand. They all wear 5-6 inch heels, full makeup, perfectly styled hair, and coordinated outfits from their store. We saw one girl getting ready and curling her hair with an iron at the cafe where we were eating lunch…

Tried to get pedicures but were refused by all salons because we were wearing closed toe shoes and they want the polish to be able to dry for 3 – 4 hours. Next level customer service – maybe they’d rather refuse business than do a botched job.

Met up with O before heading home to drop off our shopping. Back to Shinjuku to try and look for an “authentic” izakaya, but our idea of an izakaya is probably a bit skewed by those we have back home. Ended up in a fancy, expensive one where we struggled to order from their picture-less, only- Japanese menu. Different waiters cycled in and out of our table to try and communicate with us in Japanese, Mandarin, and a little English. Was stressful at the time, but such an interesting experience to have to use a limited amount of three languages to order a meal… Luckily, the kitchen closed before we could throw more money at tiny, expensive dishes. Grabbed a Mos Burger to bring back home. Still good…

Japan Day 3: Ikebukuro, J-World Tokyo & Shinjuku

Started off the late morning with intentions to go straight to J-World Tokyo in Ikebukuro, but got sidetracked when we saw the Animate store.

Animate - 9 floors of manga and anime goods

Animate – 9 floors of manga and anime goods

There was a small Shingeki no Kyojin, or Attack on Titan, exhibit on the 8th floor. O and I went into a minor otaku mode and fancrazed over everything. They displayed some original sketches from the manga, sold tons of goods, and had a section where you could vote for your favourite character. Interesting to see that Jean and Captain Levi were winning the poll. I voted for the potato girl Sasha, mostly because she reminds me of myself. HA.

I bought a replica of Eren’s key necklace. ^^ There were also some weird goods… like body pillows of Captain Levi and Eren in sexy poses…

Posing with Captain Levi, Eren, and Mikasa

Posing with Captain Levi, Eren, and Mikasa

Poll for favourite Attack on Titan character

Poll for favourite Attack on Titan character

Finally made it to J-World and had some lunch – Naruto’s favourite Ichiraku ramen! The J-World cafeteria also serves other Shonen Jump anime-themed food, like buns in the shape of Majin Buu from Dragonball Z and soup with a bun in the shape of Luffy from One Piece’s hat. As we were eating lunch, Naruto, Goku, and Luffy came out to interact and take photos with the guests! Super giddy after doing the Kamehameha move with Goku, eating meat with Luffy, and making jutsu hand seals with Naruto. They have some interesting rides at the theme park, but they’re quite expensive at about 800 yen per ride. We chose to go on the One Piece Soldier Dock Adventure, but it was quite short and all you do is sit in a cart and point flashlights at things… but fun nonetheless! There are designated areas for the 3 most popular Shonen Jump series: One Piece, Dragonball, and Naruto, but there is also a large Heroes Arena area where you play games at booths for other Shonen Jump anime like Bleach, Hunter X Hunter, and Prince of Tennis. We spent quite a while taking silly pose photos and buying capsule toys. Where did all our money go..?

Had a little tea break in the station at Ikebukuro before heading to Shinjuku for some basics shopping at Uniqlo. Walked around Shinjuku and stumbled across Kabukicho, the red light district, while it was still early and not so sleazy. Weren’t really sure what else there was the look at, and our feet were sore from all the walking. Relief flooded through me when we found a Mos Burger where I enjoyed one of the best burgers I’ve ever had in my life. The chili balanced perfectly with the cheese and tender patties in my burger. Soooo yummy!

Didn’t have much else to do in Shinjuku, so we made our way home for a break before going to Mickey House – a language cafe run by the owner of our guesthouse. He invited us in for a free drink and introduced us to the customers at the cafe. The concept of his language cafe is to give people an opportunity to practice having conversations in different languages, so naturally it draws in many foreigners living in Japan. We got there pretty late, most of the local Japanese had gone home for the night. Nevertheless, we met and spoke with many friendly foreigners and traded stories about life in Japan and our home countries. I’m not usually one to jump at a chance to talk to strangers, but it was actually extremely fun! “Please enjoy.” XD

Japan Day 2: Kyoto

Before leaving Osaka, we had brunch at the Kuromon Ichiba, a local fish and produce market. Many of the vendors sold sashimi or sushi bentos that were cheap, but very fresh. We also came across tempura, yakitori, croquette, and mochi vendors. The local market was a nice contrast from the tourist trap areas that we visited previously.

Reached Kyoto in 15 minutes by shinkansen, checked our luggage at the storage counter, and took a local city bus to Higashiyama-dori, the street full of souvenir shops that leads up to Kiyomizu-dera. Interesting to see how nothing had changed since my last visit four years ago. Even the two shops where my mom and I ate soft ice cream looked the same.

We visited Jishu-jinja, the Shinto shrine for love and matchmaking that is adjacent to Kiyomizu-dera, which is a Buddhist temple. Too bad it was too crowded to try and walk between the love stones. Pretty interesting how the Japanese believe in two religions, although it seems to be more like a superstition thing than worshipping gods.

W and I drank from the Otowa-no-taki, the waterfall with three streams representing health, longevity, and success in studies. Also drank from this waterfall last time, so hopefully I picked a different stream this time. Supposedly, it is considered greedy to drink from all three streams at once.

Unfortunately, the facade of the main temple building was under renovation, but the stage was still open. Luckily, I still have tons of photos from my previous visit. I would have enjoyed walking around the beautiful temple grounds, but my feet were being tortured by my sandals. Super unfortunate because I really love scenic walks! : (