Good And Bad On Standing Up

I can’t remember who told me this–a person has to stand up or walk around for at least four hours a day. If not, the bones will not be healthy and the body will be in decline. Well, if the decline is impossible to stop, at least the four hour rule will help slow it down. It’s a good advice since for people who have a sedentary life, maintain certain hours of standing up time is common sense.

However I’ve never really thought about this rule before. Some days, I’m probably only in non-sit position for an hour. I can’t have a timer with me to monitor my standup time. That will be strange. Only a very nerdy person will do that, but I am not so nerdy. Without resorting to accurate measurements too eccentric to be deployed, I can only guess how my time is allocated between different postures. My estimate is that I just can’t live up, or stand up, to the four hour rules.

Once I met an old lady who lives in Cranbury, New Jersey and she’s eighty years old, but she walks like a thirty or forty years old, talk without pause or hesitation that people of her age sometimes do, drives her car, and swims every day for an hour or two. When I met her, I thought to myself that I wish I could be like her when I’m eighty. I think she can certainly meet the four hour standard. I mean the one hour swim probably is equal to two hours of standing up already. By the way, I met her because she’s a friend of my then acupuncturist. I helped the acupuncturist get rid of the virus in his computer. The next thing I knew, one of his patients wanted me to help her with her computer. I am no expert on computers. I only know how to read the instruction online and reset the computer to a previous time.

I know I know. People don’t like big mouthed women like me who can’t stop talking about what she knows, but I just can’t help myself. During the medieval time I would be burned as a witch, not for any lofty idea such as the earth circling the sun, but for the fact that I talk too much about things that people don’t want women to talk about. My grandmother, my father, and my brother have all warned me of my tendency to reveal my knowledge and make other people uncomfortable. It’s not that I know a lot. Actually I don’t know much at all, but my relatives know less. Among them, I’m considered too knowledgeable for my own good.

Now back to this advice I received. How can I increase my standing up time after a prolonged period of sedentary life style? Should I get a high desk? I mean a table with long legs so that I can stand up and type? I’ve never seen a desk like that. Then I thought long legs are not enough and they have to be adjustable legs. How do I know how high is comfortable for typing before I even try it?

With no desk with flexible height, I use the bookshelf to anchor the laptop. When standing up and typing, I feel that something is different. I don’t know what but something is definitely differently. The different kind of vibe is vibrating around me and I hope good ideas may start to pour in, which I have always wanted but which has never really happened before.

Backyard Farming

I call them backyard farmers, but they probably don’t agree with me. It’s popular among Asian immigrants in New Jersey to engage in backyard farming every year. I even know a couple who don’t live in a house and don’t have a backyard to grow their produce. What do they do? They rent a plot from Rutgers University for $25 a year to grow half an acre of vegetables from May to October.

It’s an arduous task. The seeds have to be bought and planted. The Asian grocery stores here sell cucumber, loofah, long bean, and even winter melon seeds. The cucumber has to be the kind with little spikes on the dark green skin, not so prickly to bleed your hands, but rather gentle barbs to tickle your fingers. The inside is so crispy that you can hear the crunchy sound when you take a bite. The loofah is the most popular since it is quite expensive and non-fresh from the store. Planting is the first step. What follows are months of labor and vigilance. Fence has to be erected to fend off rabbits and deer; frames to be constructed for tomato vines to climb; fertilizers are bought and deployed. There are also various tools to dig, till, twist, rake the soil for the best planting condition.

Once I was staying in a place in upstate New York. The couple I was staying with had a backyard more than an acre, on which they grow cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, leeks, and several other items as well. The couple invited me to go to the backyard to pick vegetables to make salad for dinner. They are very proud, sort of a back to nature kind of style for them. I had no interest in their backyard farm, but I had to accompany them, offering my compliments and pretending that I envy their food, self sufficiency, organic life etc. I feel myself so fake. Why can’t I just say I have no interest at all in planting, farming, or harvesting?

When I was in high school, we were sent to a village not far away from the big city for two weeks. Our whole class of 50 or so students lived in two separate farm houses, one for boys and one for girls. It’s the harvest season and the rice field is endless. The farmers didn’t really want us there since we didn’t know how to do things. Harvesting rice with a sickle is not as easy as we tend to think. I couldn’t advance even three feet within half an hour. It ended up that I had to give up my sickle–a big curvy knife–to somebody more skilled than I was. The most menial job was assigned to me–to pick up the stalks with grains and yellow hulls that were left in a harvested field.

The farmers worked from dawn to dusk. They didn’t go home for meals. The whole village became a collective unit with only several older women cooking for the whole village. They cooked and delivered the meal to the field. At the end of the day, the villagers were not going home to take a rest. They continued to get the crop husked on whirring machines at a corner of the village. Then the husked rice were laid out on the ground to dry. They worked all night, taking turns to go back home to sleep. The machines never stopped for one minute. This went on for as long as it could last. Rain is the biggest enemy for the harvest season. All stalks that have been cut down need to be husked and dried before the rain come. In the subtropical region it is hard to find a whole week without rain and things need to be organized well and executed efficiently and swiftly.

I really admired these farmers and their hard work, something that I can never do. When we went back to school, I submitted my homework assignment on the backbreaking work of the villagers. My teacher disliked my essay and criticized me for being too negative, which I vehemently denied.

When You Don’t Have An Appetite

I don’t have an appetite today and I don’t know why. Is it because of the melatonin pills I’ve taken these past two weeks for my insomnia? It could be. It is said online that melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in our body and taking a little won’t have any side effect on the body. Probably I just have some rare reaction to it–loss of appetite. I dislike any medicine or chemicals, like a typical Asian. I know many women who refuse even to take pain killer tablets for their menstruation pain. I am not going to such an extreme though.

So what can one eat when one doesn’t have an appetite. I can eat the grass jelly I bought from the store. I can’t remember which Asian grocery store I got it from. Am I losing my mind? I used to be able to remember which store I got which, but not anymore. The grass jelly will be the best if mixed with canned lychee, but I’m out of canned lychee.

I can make a tofu jelly with the agar powder I have, but that’s too complicated. I can’t believe how lazy I’ve become nowadays as far as cooking is concerned. My grandmother was practically living in the kitchen most of her life. Several years ago I went to a party at a friend’s friend house. She’s living with her husband and two sons at Bucks County, right at the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. When we arrived, she just pulled out a tray of baked chicken legs and wings out of the oven. By the way, she’s one of very few among Asian immigrants I know to utilize the oven. Most of us just use it as an extra storage space. Her sons and two or three other kids came over. She insisted that each put food on a paper plate. Minutes later, the tray was almost empty. And the kids ran away. Suddenly the hostess said to us out of blue, “I cook all the time, but still not enough. Look the tray is empty again.” We stared at her and my friend W said, “What do you expect? Your two boys. They can finish everything in sight.” Somehow I sensed that the hostess and W were talking about different things. The hostess was talking about herself. There’s ennui in her tone. Obviously she doesn’t really enjoy cooking but found herself spending so much time on it. W was talking about the healthiness and the activeness of the boys. W’s tone really means she’s trying to praise the boys and hiding her praise behind a faint complaint. However W’s compliment missed the point. Sometimes we lose real chance of communication, just like this one.

I poured a big glass of soy milk and toasted a slice of cinnamon raisin bread. Now I can’t help dreaming of all those delicious things my grandmother cooked–bamboo shoots braised with pork belly, dried fish simmered in a pot of soup with mutton and potatoes. I am going to write a story of an immigrant who’s dying for a childhood dish her mother had cooked, but couldn’t reproduce it.

A Mini Love Story

G is my distant cousin and he is always considered, by my parents and my relatives, to be the most intelligent and most unfortunate among all my cousins. His life started well–a cute kid, indulged by his parents, growing up to be a handsome teenager. He’s half Mongolian, just like me, but he looks more Mongolian than anybody else in my family, the very handsome kind of Mongolian. Actually Mongolians are not as homogeneous as we tend to think. They come from many different tribes scattered among a vast area and people have quite diverse physical features–some are short and some very tall, some with thick black hair and some with soft thin kind. G is the best looking boy. He’s also talkative and gregarious. Everybody loves him. If he’s not my cousin and if he’s my age group, I would have fallen in love with him.

When he’s about 15 years old, due to political reasons, he was sent to a remote area at the border of China, Russia, and North Korea. Nobody could save him from his fate. He went and stayed there for 20 years. Actually among the same group of young men who were sent to the region, he’s the last to leave. I don’t really know the particulars, but I suspect that G refused to bribe the officials, either on moral ground or economic ground. From my observation, he is rather high minded and also very stingy, both working against him for the purpose of an early return. My parents always insisted that G is too intelligent for his own good. He doesn’t go with the flow as others do, and he ends up making himself conspicuous, usually in a bad way.

When G came back to the big city, he was so unskilled and so uneducated that he couldn’t get a job. His mother had to quit her job so that G could replace her. It’s a low level clerk job, but it is a good job in a convenient location. If G could keep his mouth shut and behave well, promotion was very possible.

Now everybody started to introduce girls to him. His parents–my aunt and uncle–were very anxious to see their only son settle down as soon as possible. They saved for him for decades. He also had his own savings. The only thing lacking was a wife. But he’s difficult. My parents said again he’s just too intelligent and his aim too high. His intelligence obviously works against him again–especially in the marriage market. He’s 35, with no marketable skills. What could he expect? Just like what my parents said, G rejected all the girls people introduced to him.

Then one day he came home with a girl, X, who’s almost as tall as him, almost as old as him. She’s quite nice and elegant, working in a place very close to G. On closer inspection through a deliberately prolonged dinner, my aunt and uncle found that X is actually from a different ethnic group. I won’t name this ethnic group since my relatives have strong prejudice against this group and often criticize this group. Now I realize how prejudiced my relatives were. At the time I followed their example as if that’s the only valid opinion in the world. Everybody was against this marriage. My parents were called upon to denounce this girl and they did.

The wedding eventually happened despite all the objections. I think the reason G likes X is that X loves theater as much as G. They like plays, movies, operas of various kinds. Not that they had so much money to spend on these, but in those days everything was broadcast on TV and they watched everything and discussed it endlessly afterwards. It’s a Mongolian tradition to love theater. I guess everybody living in the far north with long winters would eventually develop a penchant for theater. There’s no entertainment available in winter except watching people dressing up and posing as fictional characters.

Soon after the wedding, their married life became a common topic circulated among the relatives. My parents couldn’t go visit them since they were not welcomed anymore due to their strong objection to the marriage. However, my parents talked with my uncle and my aunt to get all the details. The newly weds were waiting to get their own place, but while waiting, they lived with my uncle and aunt.

First X had a bad eating habit. My uncle and aunt whispered to my father, who related it to my mother at our dinner table. X didn’t eat formal meals, only snacking here and there throughout the whole day. My cousin G didn’t mind this at all since his mother always cooked. G had his meal with his parents while his wife X was either coming home late or finding some excuses to go talk with neighbors. My uncle and aunt considered this as a serious breach of long-held tradition. Also X didn’t cook and had no intention of cooking for the family as a good daughter-in-law should have done. My parents discussed this piece of information and attributed X’s habit and her non-filial attitude to his ethnic background. She’s just not as civilized as us, which was the reason she couldn’t get herself married until she’s 35 when my unfortunate cousin came calling. My parents concluded.

My uncle and aunt wanted to exert their authority and train their daughter-in-law into a “civilized” being. At this time, both my uncle and aunt had retired. They could have an early dinner themselves without having any food left for G, which they thought could force X to cook for G. They devised this plan. One day, when G came back home and found no food on the table. G asked his wife X to cook something. X just came back from work and was having a cookie. She offered him some. G declined and insisted on some cooked food. “Why don’t you go out to the corner restaurant to get a bowl of noodle?” X said. G agreed and went out. This went on for three days and eventually my cousin G threw a tantrum. X treated him as if he’s an incorrigible teenager and brushed him aside. She stepped out to go talk with the neighbors–it’s part of her indispensable entertainment that she talked with neighbors.

My cousin G and his wife X end up having a better relationship than my own parents, or my uncle and aunt. G’s macho outbursts usually have no effect on X, probably because of the cultural difference between the two. I always wanted to tell my parents that I like X, but I never dared.

Ghost Arriving Before Halloween

I am talking with two friends in a cafe. One of them asks me to look at a picture on his laptop. I lean over and stare at the screen. Minutes later, when our attentions come back to the hot tea arriving at our table, we notice the other friend’s absence. At first we think he goes to the restroom. After a while, when he’s not coming back, we check everywhere, including the restroom, and can’t find him. We call his cell phone, and hear the ringing tone on our table from behind the canister with sugar packets. He disappears without taking his phone. That’s so unlike him. He brings his phone everywhere. If he intentionally goes away, he will surely take his phone with him.

I wake up and this is just a dream–a ghost dream, arriving right before Halloween. I ponder on this dream and wonder if there’s anything ominous in it. This disappearing friend is someone I know. Should I text this friend to see if he is OK? What should I say in the text? I certainly cannot tell the truth that I dream of him disappearing. He will no doubt laugh at my silliness. This friend is also a very conservative one. Any sign of women behaving differently than men will be considered as the indication of female weakness in his eyes. Nothing seems weaker than having an irrational dream or treating such a dream seriously. I certainly don’t want to appear weak. So I won’t relate this dream after all.

The Asian immigrant community in America is more conservative than other Asians, probably because of the insecurity, the lack of connections and social safety net, being minority etc. I have to say the very limited percentage of people working in arts and literary field is also the major reason for the conservative leaning. Most Asians here are engineers, scientists, and businessmen who desire stability more than anything else.

Actually being minority and being colored are the real shining points of this community because it makes us align with sympathetic ideas and social changes. When such an alignment takes the primary position, the conservative part is obscured and overshadowed. Without these shining points, what will become of us? I can’t and don’t want to imagine.

The Thrill And Peril Of Imitation

Living in the Asian community in New Jersey, one can’t help learning stories about engineers and scientists. One of these widely circulated stories is this: A newcomer in one of the research institutions, where people are madly nerdy and competitive, finds that everybody in the department is sharpening their pencils with a knife. Everybody has a holder full of pencils and everybody sharpens his or her pencils now and then throughout the day. He is a little mystified. The modern technical advancement has made pencils quite obsolete in scientific research; even if pencils are still useful in this particular department, he can’t understand why people don’t use a pencil sharpener. After a round of inquiries, he learns that a Nobel Laureate from this department likes to sharpen his pencils with a knife when he thinks and he uses pencils to sketch out his ideas–he grew up in the pre-iPad pre-Internet dark age. Suddenly pencils become a good luck symbol and everybody starts to imitate. This is how a custom is born.

I can just imagine 500 years later, all scientists sharpen their pencils while legendary stories of 10 varieties circulate to explain the phenomenon.

When I first heard this story, I really laughed. I would never be so silly, I thought to myself, of thinking that I could have the same kind of good luck by imitating a peculiarity.

Here I am with Evelyn Waugh’s complete stories and Complete Saki and Carver’s short stories opening up in front of me. Am I sharpening the pencil with a knife here? What’s really bothering me is one don’t know which way to choose, how to best improve, if one has talent. A jungle of questions but no jungle dealing skills. Suddenly I understand why people sharpen the useless pencils. They don’t know what they should do and have no clue how to learn from this award winning colleague. So they pick up the most obvious eccentricity of his and imitate, wishing that they have done the right thing. It’s more of a human psychology thing than a real emulation.

Things I Want To Do But Can’t

Such a beautiful day today that one just wants to go out and walk about, but instead one’s stuck here staring at the computer screen. Sunny, a few clouds floating decoratively, 72 degrees, humidity not too high to mess up the hair and not too low to dry up the skin. There are only ten to twenty days each year in New Jersey that the weather resembles that of the California coast. Today is the day. It’s a day that makes one hate to be sedentary; it’s a day that makes one understand why some people would rather be homeless in California than toilers in New Jersey. I’ve only been to California several times and each time stayed for a short period. However I can say I don’t really like Santa Monica beach that much–too clean and too orderly as if I could smell the sanitizing detergent. Venice beach is much more lively and diverse, with a whiff of danger in the air. Pitch a tent on Venice beach and watch the crashing waves and reckless surfers all day long.

I want to finish this book today, but I know I can’t. The name of the book I don’t want to mention even if the author has died several years ago. I hate myself when I’m being too critical. I will feel much better if I just give up, but my habit of finishing everything I’ve started forces me to continue. So I continue, but not without bitter resentment. The book is killing me. I feel like being constricted by a python slowly and mercilessly without the hope of escape. Yes, the book is as long as a ruthless python–almost 400 pages and I still have 100 pages to go. To a slow reader like me, 100 pages take an agonizing eternity of time to read. The plot and the characters are made deliberately depressing. Pages after pages of depressing descriptions without respite. I have to say the life of this main character Lung is really not that bad at all and I don’t understand his antagonism against everything and everybody in his life. Why? His parents are unlovable. Somehow they fit in every Asian stereotype I’ve ever heard–they are bigots; they want to fix a wife on him; they treat son and daughter differently; their English very limited; their concept of milk restricted to powdered coffee creamer; their idea of food oily and even unclean. His wife foists a child on him and forces him to marry. His employer–the ladies in an up-scale club of some sort–treat him with benevolence mixed with racial prejudice. After describing his father as such an unlovable, uneducated, stubborn laundryman without taste bud for food and without skills to deal with people, the author suddenly starts to talk about his father’s beautiful dancing steps and his love affair with a local woman. Doesn’t he know that most readers are women who want to read love affairs of likable and lovable people? I admire his independence of will. He doesn’t wish to cater to his audience.

Event Before Election

“Have you registered to vote?” The lady behind the thick plate of glass asked.
“No.” I answered.
“Why do you answer for her? I am asking her?” The lady said, pointing to my friend W.
I translated for W and W shook her head. So I said “No” across the glass barrier again.
“Do you want to register to vote?” The lady asked. People could register right here at the DMV when they renew their license.
I translated for W and W shook her head.
“No, she doesn’t want to.” I replied. The lady looked at me and then looked at W, and didn’t say anything, but I could feel her thinly veiled contempt. I felt really hurt. I would feel better if she yelled at W that she’s being irresponsible and it’s her duty to vote. Seriously. I would feel more comfortable if she yelled.
“It’s on Tuesday. She has to work to pay bills. Also New Jersey is not a swing state.” I said, trying in vain to spin this to W’s advantage. The lady wanted to say something, but she stopped herself. Somehow I felt she’s accusing W of something–moral ineptitude or dereliction of duty–in a polite way, and in a righteous way, and I was guilty by association.

Holding her newly renewed license, W smiled happily. For months, DMV was swarmed by endless queues and unimaginable large number of people, which had prevented W getting her renew. She was so worried. If she’s stopped by the police on the highway, she won’t be able to explain her expired license. With her limited English, it’s impossible. Finally, she doesn’t need to worry about it anymore.

“How can I vote? I don’t even know English.” W said to me as we were walking out of the one story building. There are three burly guys wearing jacket with “SECURITY” printed on the back and they were talking about the presidential election. North Jersey, South Jersey and the northwestern part of Jersey can be republican territories, but in our area, the Central Jersey, it’s solid democrat stronghold for as long as anybody can remember.

“You are right. There should be multi-lingual voting booth in New Jersey.” I said. W agreed. We know that’s not going to happen, but it feels good to say it. Now I think of it, it is almost impossible for immigrants to vote if they know limited English. Just think of the ballot, with all the questions and all the candidates. W would have trouble to understand the ballot. She needs to take a class and be tutored before she can exercise her rights and fulfill her duty. I don’t know if there are such classes in those swing states, for example Pennsylvania, but I do believe that there won’t be such classes in a non-swing state like New Jersey.

Probably people would say W should learn English. However that’s not going to happen. She works six days a week from 10AM to 10PM. The one day off is used to run all kinds of errands. When is she ever going to find the time to study English? Well, probably not having time is just a convenient excuse. W is not interested in study. She’s interested in earning money and paying bills and chasing after her dreams. Even if she has time, a very big if that is, she won’t use it on studying.