Green Tea

Published on June 1, 2017 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

There is no green tea in this picture. But there’s a hedgehog, so…y’know, same same.

Confession: I’m a tea snob. I turn my nose up at grocery store brands, trumpet the superiority of loose-leaf tea over teabags, and was co-head of Bard College’s High Tea Club for three years. It’s easier to make-do with a subpar black tea, as milk and sugar can be added. But a subpar green tea, which ought to have a delicate aroma and layered body of flavor, is intolerable. Often, the problem is the water. Boiling water (212°F) will actually scorch green tea leaves, diminishing their delicate flavor. According to the master tea blenders at Harney & Sons, the prime temperature at which to steep green teas is between 160°F and 190°F.

I’m not alone in my obsession. Tea has been around for a long while. Estimated to have been discovered in 2700 BC, it is one of the oldest beverages in the world. As legend goes, some tea leaves accidentally blew into Chinese Emperor Shennong’s pot of boiling water and voila! Tea became widely popular throughout North America in the 1600s, but the 1773 Boston Tea Party, a precipitating event of the American Revolution, branded tea drinking as unpatriotic. To this day, coffee remains more popular than tea in the United States. Due to Cold War complications, green tea in particular was difficult to find in the U.S. owing to a ban on trade with China, which was lifted in 1971. Since then, tea has grown in popularity and the American tea market quadrupled between 1993 and 2008, a period when antioxidants entered our common lexicon.

As with most trendy health foods, the benefits of green tea are widely misquoted and often exaggerated. Clinical trials have found the effects of green tea consumption to be inconsistent or nonexistent when it comes to weight loss, inflammation or cancer prevention. However, there are proven health benefits of green tea. A 2015 meta-analysis in the British Journal of Nutrition found that one cup of green tea per day was linked to a 4% lower risk of death from any medical cause, but is especially useful for averting cardiovascular disease.

You may have heard that tea is the number one most consumed beverage in the world (excluding water, of course). This claim was first made back in 1911 by British scientist John McEwan. Surprisingly, it holds true, especially if all varieties of tea are treated as a single beverage. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, China remains the largest tea producing country, accounting for more than 38% of the world’s total, with India in second, followed by Kenya and Sri Lanka. Japan, however, is the second-largest producer of green tea. Global tea consumption has also been steadily rising in recent years. In 2013 alone, China was recorded to have produced 1.9 million tons of tea and have consumed 1.61 million tons. This makes China the largest consumer of tea by far, though Turkey consumes the most tea per person: about 7 pounds per year. While temperate Ireland and the UK are second and third after Turkey, the tea plant itself needs a hot, humid climate to thrive. This geographical limitation means that ideal growing conditions and tea production are at risk from the effects of climate change. Just one more reason to be environmentally-conscious. Living green means being able to continue drinking green.

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In This Part of the World We Call This Small Talk

Published on March 22, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

The long haul from Singapore to New Jersey requires a layover, often in Shanghai, where on one recent pilgrimage home, an older American gentleman boarded and took the seat next to me. True to the American stereotype, he was friendly and outgoing. It wasn’t long before I learned that he had gone to China to teach and, now disillusioned, was returning home for good. His main source of consternation? A Chinese woman he had thought he was becoming romantically involved with, whom he had spent hours chatting with over dinners, who then — out of the blue — gushed that she wanted him to meet her husband. His bewilderment was still on his face. If it weren’t for in-flight entertainment, he likely would have continued to discuss his disbelief for the rest of our 15 hours in the air.

Small talk is confounding: it’s obligatory but must be casual. It’s a frivolous interaction that may or may not be the initial part of a chain reaction that leads to deeper relationships. Too shallow and the reaction is never sparked. Too deep and the conversation is damned as awkward, inappropriate. But where is the line between small talk and genuine conversation? Between friendship and romance? As my seatmate discovered, depending on where you are in the world, that line can be in unexpected places.

When living abroad, your ability at small talk needs to be rebuilt from scratch, along with your knowledge of which topics and comments qualify as casual or intimate. It’s not called an art for nothing.

For instance, in the United States, directly asking a new acquaintance how much they paid for something is akin to a needle scratch (unless you preface the statement with an apology and the excuse that you’re shopping around for the same item). In Ireland, Great Britain and Japan, it’s doubtful that even that qualifier would be enough to stymy the awkwardness. But in China, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries with large Chinese descendent populations, money isn’t tinged with the same shyness. A casual conversation on which neighborhood you live in can readily lead to the question of how much rent you pay. It’s a question I still stumble to answer gracefully.

On the other hand: while politics is considered a potentially treacherous topic in the U.S., discussions and even criticisms of the government’s actions aren’t nearly as uncomfortable as they are for Singaporeans or the Chinese. As far as I can tell though, no matter where you are in the world, sex remains squarely in the taboo category when it comes to casual conversation.

Even the eternally neutral topic of the weather can let you down. Small talk in Singapore only occasionally references it, as the equator doesn’t offer much diversity, while it’s almost the de rigeur conversation starter in the changeable climates of the U.S. and Europe. Understanding the local varieties and nuances of small talk will make adapting to life in another country smoother, but it can be a challenge to shake the conversational parameters one was raised with.

The British, Irish and Australians have a history of laughing at themselves and teasing others, even in ‘serious’ business scenarios, which can be startling for cultures who value ‘saving face’. In the USA, we view chatty sales people as slippery. We appreciate a clear demarcation between casual conversation and shop talk, that moment when we ‘get down to business’. Here’s the sales pitch, separate from us enjoying each other’s company. However, my potential clients in Singapore would be disconcerted if I implemented such an obvious tone shift; I would appear to be sweeping our budding friendship off the table to make room for money. In Chinese culture, non-business talk is integral. Without it, the growth of a business relationship can be sluggish regardless of the efficacy of the collaboration. Several corporate dinners can go by before business particulars are even mentioned.

At its core, small talk is about meeting new people and planting the seed for new relationships. The challenge is to recognize when an acquaintance or colleague has become a friend. The topics you discuss with that person may be intensely personal for you but everyday conversation fodder for them. The mistake the gentleman on my flight made wasn’t presuming romance where there was only friendship, but assuming that his style and expectations of communication were universal.

“Pomegranate Soup” & Gush-e Fil

Recently posted over at PAPER/PLATES is my review of Marsha Mehran’s short novel Pomegranate Soup.

Here’s a snippet of my piece:

While this is a well-told story, it’s not a very well-shown one (to paraphrase Mark Twain). The prose isn’t very elegant and occasionally the food-based metaphors veer dangerously close to overwrought. There are, nonetheless, a few gems. Like when the youngest sister Layla’s exotic allure captivates Benny, the town’s baker, and reminds him of the youth “he had forgotten in all these years of kneading the unsavory rolls of both his profession and the body of his cold wife.”

You can read the rest of my article HERE and explore my variation on the recipe for gush-e fil (or elephant ears) featured in Pomegranate Soup. Hint: I added chocolate-whiskey sauce.

PAPER/PLATES is an awesome blog run by my friend Amina Elahi and features insightful literary reviews, interviews with food bloggers, and (the best part) recipes inspired by books. So make sure to check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it!

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Tips for Settling Into a New Job

Written in February 2014 for Aureus Consulting:

For recent graduates fresh to the professional world, you may be comforted (or disappointed) to learn that starting a new job is rather similar to the first day of school. You’re eager to appear intelligent yet likeable. You wonder who you will eat lunch with. You worry about how you will handle the workload. In the beginning, you will need to learn everything: where the bathrooms are, how to submit expenses, whose toes not to step on, and so forth. During my first decade post-graduation, I worked at a non-profit organization, a high powered New York City law firm, an Irish software company and an Australian one, and at an English school for Japanese expats in Singapore. Every single time I moved into a new role, I encountered a fresh set of lessons to learn, difficulties to overcome, and-in some cases-cultural norms to adjust to. Since many young professionals come to Aureus Consulting seeking guidance on how to move their careers forward, I thought it would be helpful to compile a few of the tips, tricks, and suggestions that I’ve picked up along the way.

Ask questions. It’s tempting to try and impress your new boss with how sharp you are, but no one expects you to know the ins and outs of the company in your first few weeks. It’s important to ask questions if you don’t know something. If you’re too busy pretending to appear competent, you won’t actually learn how to be. This is something even more experienced professionals can struggle with. You might worry that if you require help, people might think you’re stupid. Or worse, that by asking for advice, you might somehow cause people to dislike you. Recent studies have discovered that that line of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Wharton professor Adam Grant, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, and persuasion specialist Robert Cialdini are among the large number of experts who now consider seeking advice to be one of the most effective strategies for encouraging others to warm up to us. So, ask away!

Accept that you will make mistakes. It will happen. It will be embarrassing. It’s okay. Mistakes can be forgiven and forgotten. However, one thing your superiors will not forget is if you try to cover up a mistake. Let me give you an example. Back when I was working as a paralegal in that New York City law firm (my first paying job after college), I once accidentally moved an important file from my team’s shared network drive to my desktop. When I attempted to return the file to its original location, I found that it would take over two hours. Instead of informing my superiors of the problem, I just prayed that no one would notice the discrepancy. Of course, they did and I was reprimanded harshly, not for accidentally moving the file but for failing to own up to my mistake. The error was a minor one but my poor handling of the situation caused me to lose the trust of my team, which took far longer to repair. If you do make a blunder, the best course of action is to admit it, apologize, and ask how you can avoid repeating it in the future.

Be aware of your own limits. You might be tempted to say yes to everything during the first few months on a job. It’s easy to understand why: you want to demonstrate that you were worth the chance the company took when they hired you. And while you should absolutely be tackling your new role with gusto, taking on more than you can handle can backfire, since the quality of your work is likely to decline. A growing body of research shows that people are at their most productive when they are allowed take short breaks during the workday and when they obtain six to nine hours of sleep every night. To quote Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything: “Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.” So when your supervisor asks if you can take on another project when you already have ten on your plate, don’t be afraid to (politely) say that you won’t be able to at this time.

Be willing to adjust to a new office culture. Culture shock can happen to even the most prepared individuals. After all, it’s impossible to know quite how you will fit into a new environment until you’re smack in the middle of it. Whether you’ve relocated to another country or simply to a company with a different work ethic, I highly recommend you take note of the business habits of your colleagues. Are important decisions reached in a weekly meeting or through casual email dialogues? What is considered an appropriate manner of communication within the office? What are the leadership styles of your superiors? Does everyone attend the annual company baseball game even if they’re not required to? While you shouldn’t have to completely alter your work style or personality upon entering a new position, being aware of your company’s socio-cultural norms can only help you.

Find a mentor (or two). Who are the people at your company you wish you could be like? Ask them for advice on your projects and offer to help them with theirs. By actively getting involved in certain tasks, you’ll not only improve your knowledge base but you’ll likely gain a reputation as a supportive coworker. This isn’t just smart networking; this will also create a congenial work atmosphere that you can grow in. There is, however, a fine line between being helpful and being a brown-noser. If you’re not genuinely interested in emulating your boss, she or he will catch on sooner or later.

Don’t get discouraged. The honeymoon phase will wear off and you may realize your new job isn’t perfect. No job is fun every hour of every day. At some point, you may even feel like quitting. If you get to that point, take a few deep breaths. On tough days, remind yourself of why you took this job in the first place and what your long-term career goals are. Even if you do decide that this role isn’t the right one for you, it always behooves you to base such a choice upon rational consideration rather than your emotions of the moment.

The learning curve of any job is hard to predict from the outset. And much like the first few weeks of school, the amount you need to learn can sometimes seem overwhelming. The most important thing you can do is be open to absorbing new information, even if it’s as inconsequential as where the bathrooms are or what the trick is to getting the printer to work.

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Five Mistakes Not to Make: Ireland

Kinsale, County Cork

I might be a little biased, being from Ireland and all, but it is one of the most amazing places on the planet. Certainly we have our problems (economic recession, political squabbles, a tendency towards alcoholism, not to mention a lot of rainy days) but none of them have quenched the Irish people’s love of a good time with friends old and new. So here are a few mistakes you should absolutely avoid:

#1 Do not believe weather forecasts, especially in summer. For days before my wedding in Kinsale, my mother checked AccuWeather every hour and every hour it predicted something totally different. Torrential downpours covered the county that day and we ended up with blue skies and fluffy white clouds. Your best bet is to cover your bases. No matter what the month, bring jeans, a sweater, and always (ALWAYS) bring a raincoat. And no, an umbrella alone will not suffice. Ireland is an island at the mercy of the winds of the Atlantic and horizontal rain is a de facto national treasure. Also, don’t be surprised if you feel sunshine and rain on your face at the same time — it’s where we get all those rainbows from.

#2 Don’t get all your food and pub recommendations from the guidebooks or them internets. Most Irish people like to talk and you’d be amazed at how enthusiastically they’ll suggest where to go and what to eat and who to talk to.

#3 Give yourself enough time. There’s a lot to see in Ireland but it’s not a country that lends itself to rushing. Keep in mind this is a nation where herds of sheep still cause traffic delays. Some international destinations are more enjoyable when you have a set plan to follow but Ireland lends itself to a more flexible game plan. If you’re here to tick off castles and landmarks on a list of Must See Things, then you will inevitably miss out on the casual, spontaneous atmosphere of the country. So in addition to budgeting time to leisurely stroll around, I suggest you also…

#4 Be willing to get lost, particularly around the countryside. The motorways were updated splendidly a few years ago and my annual 4-hour drive from Tipperary to Dublin has been reduced to 2 hours, which is phenomenal when you’re a local. However, visitors miss out because it used to be that any trip between major cities would lead you through a myriad of small, brightly painted towns. While Dublin and Cork and Limerick have their dodgy alleyways same as any other big city, the countryside is laden with hidden gems. So go exploring. Get lost. Ask directions. Meet some people.

#5 Lastly, skip the beaches. Some countries are known for their warm turquoise waters and soft white sand; Ireland is not one of them. Unless you’re into (and sufficiently skilled at) sailing or surfing, I would suggest you instead visit the breathtaking cliffs that line the coasts.

After visiting Ireland, it’s not really hard to see why it tops so many lists of places to visit. From the fresh, delicious food to the famously hospitable people to the lush rolling landscape to the music and literature to the aeons of history and architecture, there is literally something for everyone. Except maybe people intent on getting a tan.