Friendship-Mending Orecchiette

Boundaries.

What a concept huh? For those of you who grew up in collectivist cultures as I did, lived with siblings, or in multi-generational homes (or even had roommates,) you know how important yet difficult it is to set personal boundaries with others. Not only can it be awkward and frustrating to set them without being passive-aggressive, but it can hurt feelings and offend others if not done with a ninja-level of discretion and finesse (depending on how chill your friends and family are on being told that they’re overstepping).

I have spent the last few years offline and in graduate school, learning the art of couples and family therapy, as well as discovering that boundary-setting is a place in my own life that I am oftentimes lacking. Growing up in a Singaporean-Chinese-British home, and abiding by said cultures’ rules, I have learned to lean on extremely polite etiquette while initially interacting with others, as walls or at the very least, decorum, are almost inherent in these cultures so one knows what NOT to do at an early age lest one receives a thorough caning. The problem with having been brought up to expect this level of decorum is that it leaves one very unsure as to what to do when it is broken.

Whilst living in America these past 10 years, my eyes have been opened to a whole new experience of friendliness, and in my opinion, lowered general expectations of boundaries/decorum. For example, when you go to the grocery store, the checker will often ask you about your day or yourself, which is kind of nice albeit a bit meaningless because you assume they don’t actually care, it’s just customer service. But customer service doesn’t really exist where I am from, in fact you would be lucky if the cashier makes eye-contact with you before grabbing your dollars and shoving them in the till. So the whole verbal interaction thing is kind of sweet as you are reminded that you are both human beings, and they are not just some faceless staff at some store who are just there to take your money and check to see if you stole anything.

It has been a wonderful as well as awkward experience for me, as I have been lucky enough to have made many diverse friends more easily here and in more random settings than I did while living in Singapore because of the West Coast’s culture of friendliness. But at the same time, navigating what feels comfortable to me in these friendships has been a little more challenging. I have a hard time speaking up for myself and defending myself when it comes to little friendship infractions that leave a bitter taste in my mouth but are not “deal-breakers”. You know, the times when you have to pause to ask yourself if it is actually you who is being petty, or if this is a worthy thing to address in a friendship. Sometimes I think that these infractions wouldn’t happen as often back home as people generally know not to “go there” as it is “common sense”.

The thing about common sense though, is that it is very much cultural and is thus socially constructed according to who and where you are. It varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, region to region, country to country, religion to religion, and family to family. In my family, I was taught to brush nasty interactions aside and to do my best to strive forward and move on from them. This worked pretty well for most of the challenging scenarios in my life, except for friendships.

Sometimes, a friend may have the tendency to overstep but you don’t necessarily want to dump them, you just want to create space and boundaries between yourselves so you can breathe. This is the hardest thing for me to do because it involves confrontation regarding something that clearly isn’t obviously offensive to the offending party…very awkward…

In my most recent experiences, I have encountered this scenario with people who are perfectly lovely most of the time but are incredibly emotionally needy in a selfish way. In their defense, I don’t think they realize how much attachment they require and how it impacts others as they are primarily emotional “takers” and not “givers”. But how do you say that to a friend without things getting weird?

I have not found an easy answer to that yet, but as with most things, honest conversation over dinner is usually the best solution. Perhaps either (or both!) of you will get tipsy enough on that Chianti that the truth will roll out and nobody will take offense. If they’re prickly the next day, you can always blame it on the wine!

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Sausage Mushroom Orecchiette 

1.5 Cups Orecchiette Pasta (uncooked)
1 lb Cremini Mushrooms, sliced
1/4 Cup Onion, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon Garlic, minced
2 Teaspoons Rosemary, finely chopped
1 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Pepper
1 Cup Heavy Cream
1 Cup Milk
3/4 Cup Parmesan, grated
2-3 Sweet Italian Sausages
Olive Oil
White Wine

Steps:
– Boil pasta until al dente according to box directions.
– In a deep pan with a lid, fry sausages in olive oil until cooked through. Remove and set aside; slice into coins.
– Deglaze pan with a splash of white wine. Add onions and garlic; fry until fragrant. Add rosemary, salt and pepper, and mushrooms, and fry until soft.
– Add cream and milk. Bring to boil, then simmer until thickened and liquid has reduced.
– Add parmesan and stir in until melted and smooth. Add cooked orecchiette,  and toss in sausages.

Tips:
– If you would like a more decadent dish, use 2 cups of cream instead of cream & milk.
– Use any kind of unflavored milk and/or coconut cream to make this vegetarian friendly (obviously, replace sausages with a vegetarian option).
– Rosemary can be switched out. Thyme works well, and I imagine pretty much any other aromatic herb would be just as good.
– Serve the sausages whole or in coins. Use any kinds of sausage you like.

Dulce de Leche Brownies (Eggless)

I have discovered in the past couple of years that I have an egg allergy.

Due to a dear friend’s advice, I omitted eggs from my diet after she relayed her sister’s story of skin sensitivity due to an intolerance of eggs to me. Willing to try anything in the quest for better skin, I too decided to cut eggs completely from my diet and my skin miraculously began clearing up. My cursed life-long plague of acne was no more (or at the very least, noticeably reduced) in less than a month. It was freaking magic! I found myself caught up in a whirlwind of emotions – relief, gratitude, joy, confidence…yet also sadness and disappointment, for not having known sooner and potentially saving myself many years of insecurities.

Since becoming egg-free, baking has been a challenge – not to mention, dining out, trying many different recipes, learning the hard way that dipping sauces have egg too, etc. I know…total #firstworldproblems but it truly does suck. It is especially sad since so many of my favorite foods from Singapore have egg in them in some variation or other. So goodbye luscious oyster omelettes, crispy white-carrot cake, cloud-like (alien green) pandan chiffon cake, and the culinary orgasm that is chili crab. FML.

Oh well. What can I do, my body hates me? Sigh. At least I can take comfort in occasional baking successes, such as this eggless Dulce de Leche Brownie from blogger, Tomato Blues. It’s fabulous!! Fudgy and decadent, it is made even better with homemade dulce de leche, if possible. Mine was gifted to me from another dear friend, Kelsey, who makes it from condensed milk.

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NOTE: I tweaked Tomato Blues’ recipe a little bit, plus converted it to the Standard measurement scale. I have also included some of the brands of products I used in case you’re curious.

Eggless Dulce de Leche Brownies

Ingredients:
1 Cup All Purpose Flour (King Arthur Brand)
1/2 Cup Butter, Unsalted
1 Cup & 2 Tbsp Caster Sugar (Superfine sugar)
3/4 Cup Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips (Guittard)
1/4 Cup Cocoa Powder (Ghirardelli)
1/4 Tsp Salt
3/4 Tsp Baking Powder
1/2 Cup Greek Yogurt/Sour Cream (Tillamook sour cream)
3/4 Cup Dulce de Leche
1 Tsp Vanilla extract (Nielsen-Massey)
[Optional: 1 Tbsp Espresso or Kahlua/Tia Maria]

Steps:
– Preheat the oven to 350 F. Prepare a brownie pan to your liking – I used a round glass Pyrex tart pan and spritzed it with PAM butter/flour baking spray.
– In a small pot, melt butter on low heat. Add chocolate chips and whisk until smooth and melted.
– Whisk together dry ingredients: flour, salt, cocoa powder, baking powder.
– In a different bowl or stand mixer, cream together the yogurt/sour cream and vanilla extract; add sugar and mix well. Pour in melted chocolate mixture and whip the batter for 3 minutes on medium high.
– Add flour mixture in 3-4 batches, scraping the sides of the bowl down in between each addition. Beat for about 2 minutes total.
– Pour the brownie batter into the pan and smooth the top. Spoon generous gobs of dulce de leche all over the batter, then marble it with a knife or skewer/chopstick.
– Drop the pan lightly onto the counter a couple of times, then pop it in the oven for 30-45 minutes (until a wooden skewer comes out almost clean – a few crumbs are ok).
– Cool completely before cutting. (Life Hack: Cut with a plastic knife for minimal sticking!)

Variations:
– Instead of dulce de leche, use melted peanut butter/caramel/Nutella/nut butter
– Add chopped nuts (e.g. walnuts)/chopped up candy/chocolate chips/fruit (if you’re weird like that)
– For richer brownie: Increase chocolate chips to 1 cup and cocoa powder to 1/2 cup

Procrastibaking: Drunken Banana Marble Cake

Today, I find myself in my second year of grad school and on the cusp of starting my big scary internship. This terrifies me – thoughts of “How did I get here?” and “I’m so not qualified for this!” have been running through my mind since school started back up in September. On top of all that, I have 20 pages to write this weekend and no motivation to do it. Oh well, there’s only one thing to do about these nerves…keep calm and bake. Or, procrastibake if we’re being honest.

drunken banana marble cake

Drunken Banana Marble Cake

3-4 Ripe Bananas (mashed)
1/3 Cup Unsalted Butter (melted)
3/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Egg
1 Tsp Vanilla Extract
1 Tsp Spiced Rum
1 Tsp Baking Soda
1.5 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Bittersweet Chocolate (melted)
Pinch of Salt

Steps:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F
2. Mix melted butter and mashed bananas until combined
3. Mix in sugar, egg, and vanilla extract until combined
4. Sprinkle baking soda and salt over mixture, mix lightly
5. Add flour in small batches, fold into batter – do not over mix
6. Pour into greased/papered loaf pan then swirl melted chocolate into batter (a clean chopstick works well for this)
7. Bake 60 minutes until a skewer comes out clean
8. Let cool before removing from pan and slicing

Apple Berry Friendship Crumble

Have you ever had one of those friendships where you never really realized what the person was like until you spent a significant amount of time with them? All of a sudden, things become clearer – complaints about their personality and neediness/clinginess become all too apparent and you finally GET why others have ditched the party…then you realize you’re now the only one standing at the punch bowl.

Well, crap.

It ain’t fun but I suppose everyone goes through this at some point in their lives right? Having to filter out their real-life “friends list”. The question then becomes whether it is ethical to ditch a bankrupt friendship or if it is better to just smile and bear it since the other person hasn’t really done anything wrong (except get on your nerves by being themselves).

I don’t know if there’s a right answer to this…but I guess that’s how the apple berry crumbles! *smug*

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Discipline In The Classroom

Oh that awkward moment when you realize you have to discipline a child in front of their mother!
What could be more delightful? …pulling teeth…stubbing your toe…food poisoning…

As I am a volunteer English teacher to ESL students of different ages (mostly kids) – some who are mother/children, some who are siblings, and all of whom are at different levels of language competency, I have found that the most difficult thing is establishing positive discipline and mutual respect within the classroom.

Perhaps it is because the classes do not go towards school credit and/or I am not a “real” teacher. But one thing is certain – I have quickly learned that in this classroom setting, personal relationship hierarchy goes out the door, and for an hour and a half every Friday evening, everyone is my responsibility whether or not they happen to be parents, children, strangers, or neighbors. Mothers of disruptive and/or disrespectful children passively leave it to me to be the disciplinarian, as they take on the silent role of  the student.

The question at hand then becomes: How does one discipline a child in front of a passive parent?
Will the child  obey me if they see that their parent is non-responsive to their misbehavior?

This is something that I am struggling with at the moment. I realize that I need to implement classroom rules and consequences, but it is much different in theory than in practice. It is especially more so when the children see that their usual disciplinarians are not taking action when action is due, as this sends the signal that their behavior is acceptable, which then nullifies or trivializes my role.

I suppose I will take this challenge as a social experiment, and as my mother says, practice for when I become a family therapist (or parent) one day. If I have learned anything thus far, it is that manners and discipline ought to start at home, for they are the fundamental building blocks to a person’s attentiveness and potential success in life.

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Diets, Disneyland & Skinny Jeans

My birthday resolution for myself this year was to take a stab at being healthy.
Not that I’ve been supremely unhealthy in the past, but leaving home at 19 and fending for my own dinners resulted in many Lean Cuisines and bowls of cereal on the nights that I was either too tired or too lazy to cook. The thing is, I can cook. I’m not afraid of a spatula, but the kitchen can seem awfully far away when you’ve spent all day and night pouring your energy into assignments, exams, and research papers amirite?

So as the years went on, my size fluctuated, and now that I am 27 and I actually have a little time to myself, I figure…why the heck not? Let’s do this! So here I am, a fan of food, a lover of salt and sugar, a distant acquaintance to exercise, and an insomniac (they say sleep affects one’s weight and health). Fabulous! I have my work cut out for me. :/

As with almost every woman, I’ve spent years of my life toying with various diets, attempting a couple of bottles of slimming pills here and there, going to the gym then giving up, and hating myself in the end. But this time, I’ve got money on the line. Maybe that will be a bit more of a motivator than just the usual wanting to be healthier and wanting to fit into my old jeans. I made a bet with a girlfriend that if we both lose XX lbs, we’d go to Disneyland as a reward. Now, I don’t know about you…but that’s a bet I want to win. Not only that, but I’d like to confidently wear a crop top once in my life (before I’m 30)!

We’ll see how this goes…

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Educators Of The World

…I salute you.

Really though. Have you ever attempted to be a teacher? It doesn’t matter what the subject matter, it’s not an easy task no matter how you cut it.
I’ve always known teaching to be one of the more challenging professions out there, but I never fully appreciated it until today. So to all you educators out there, whether you are professional teachers/professors/tutors, parents, mentors, older siblings…BRAVO!!

I have recently volunteered my Friday evenings to teaching English at a women’s shelter, and in all my years of doing service learning and volunteer work, I must say that this has been the single most challenging duty I have encountered. From start to finish, syllabi planning to carrying out the deed, it’s hard and oftentimes thankless work. I now realize how much planning and dedication must go into being a teacher, because it’s not always a breeze to fill an hour constructively, nor is it easy to concentrate when you have pupils of all ages and personalities distracting each other (or you).

Because of the classroom situation I have going on, it is a mixture of adults and children – some of whom speak no English at all, which makes it all the more challenging. So if anyone else out there has encountered a similar group dynamic, I am begging you to share your secrets with me PLEASE!

Now, excuse me while I write thank you (and apology) notes to all my former educators!

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Haters Gonna Hate

In Chinese, we have an expression – “xiao ren”; it’s the same in Malay – “orang kecil”. What this translates to is “small person”, referring to the negative people in one’s life who tend to be around just to cause trouble (i.e., Haters). We have all been there right? The bitchy coworker who is particularly gossipy about you for no reason, the classic mean girls at school who live to make your life miserable, the jealous sibling of a significant other who hates that (s)he isn’t the center of attention anymore, or what have you…the list goes on.

People like these are inevitable, it seems that no matter what we do, we always run into at least one or two of them and they delight in making our lives just that much more complicated for their own sick pleasure. I suppose it adds a bit of spice to life to have some drama, but if you ask me, pfft…I ain’t got time for that. In Singapore, we have a ritual to banish people like these, it’s called “da xiao ren”, or beating of the small people. One makes burnt offerings and prayers to the gods, creates an inanimate likeness of the person, then proceeds to literally beat the shit out of it while cussing it out. I’m sure it’s nothing more than a means for catharsis and psychological release, but it’s often made out to be a form of spiritual vengeance. Basically, the idea is to prevent the small person from causing you further turmoil, and serve them their karmic just desserts.

I have never attempted this ritual, although I was mighty tempted to recently, having had my own bout of xiao ren problems. But I didn’t, as I am one of those people who straddle the line between investing in the scientific and the spiritual. Perhaps this is due to growing up in Singapore, where a strong belief in the supernatural exists in daily life as a cultural norm. Every child grows up knowing local taboos such as not stepping on the offerings to the spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival, or not letting cats near a funeral, not relieving oneself behind a tree unless they have asked for permission from the spirits, and never to respond to someone calling your name in a deserted place. These may sound ridiculous and superstitious to those who live in more westernized cultures, but I assure you, people take these things pretty seriously in Asia.

What my point boils down to is that if you are experiencing people like these in your life, you are not alone. There are entire rituals dedicated to exorcising human trash from your happy technicolor existence. Whether you believe in “da xiao ren”, voodoo dolls,  journaling, ranting to your friends, confiding in your therapist, or just plain old fashioned letting karma do it’s thing, you don’t have to suffer through it alone. A good friend once told me that the best thing to do is just to ignore these people, as they have put so much effort into making you miserable, the most annoying thing to them would be for you to not be affected. I think this is very sage advice. Heck, take it as a compliment that you have your very own troll! It takes a lot of time and energy for someone to be that much of a dick to you, so just enjoy your fabulousness and let them gag on it.

As George Herbert says, living well is the best revenge.

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Perceptions of Gender

I read a brilliant article today on the idea of female “purity” and society’s perception thereof. I agree with many of the things the author, Lindy West, mentioned and was especially struck by her analysis of patriarchal ideologies behind judgements against women. The article mainly focused on her perspective of masculine placement of blame upon women for supposed promiscuity and/or sluttiness, but I think this piece can be used in a much greater context. Many societies still do have backward or conservative views on femininity, female sexuality and power (which afflict both men and women in accepting stereotypes and gender roles), which I think is incredibly damaging as the outcome of these perspectives result in shame, confusion, sexism, and so many other complexes. It not only hinders the movement toward gender equality, it also scars young minds and results in bullying in various forms.

For example, today I was told to “act like a lady” when I did not conform to someone’s idea of gender roles. Apparently I am too aggressive because I am assertive in making decisions when no one else will, and I am not afraid to defend myself when I am attacked. Although I know that in itself, this statement demand might seem harmless enough, but it is not. At least, not to me. To me, this tells me that the person asking this of me expects me to behave in a certain way to please them and to make them feel more comfortable and/or better about themselves because they are uncomfortable with strong women women who are stronger than them.

Am I supposed to apologize for being a strong woman? For knowing what I want, standing for something, and take a leadership role when necessary? I don’t think these are things anyone should apologize for. Had I been born a man, these would have been incredibly desirable traits (to both men and women), but because of my gender, I am basically told to sit down and shut up. I do not think this is right or remotely OK.

It is sad that in a modernizing world, unwarranted (and unwanted!) concepts of gender roles and gender norms/stereotypes are still shoved down one’s throat and it’s thought of as socially acceptable advice to slap people with. Because that’s what it feels like to me – a judgement pie in the face. The fact that people feel it’s alright to place their own anxieties upon us because we are women, is incredibly offensive and quite frankly, none of our business. On days like these, I feel tired and jaded, for I have fought this fight many a time – with my father, with men in the school/workplace, with romantic partners, with friends, and with complete strangers. It hurts the most when it comes from someone dear to you though, because if you’re anything like me, you hope that having been so close to you, some of that feminist mindset would have rubbed off. But I guess not.

Well, what can I say, but…

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I leave you with this quote from Lindy West, on her reasoning behind sexist male judgements from a projected male POV:

“…I struggle with the same powerlessness and insecurity that all human beings do, so as a coping mechanism I take advantage of our culture’s patriarchal power structure and exorcize my feelings of worthlessness by perpetuating shame-based proprietary attitudes over women’s bodies. Basically I’m obsessed with controlling women’s lives because I can’t control my own.”