Cultures

The Top 5 Things I Learned at an Indian Wedding

Friendship blessed me with the opportunity to attend a Punjabi Sikh wedding last weekend.  Not only was it my first time in NorCal (San Jose!), but it was also the first Indian wedding I’ve ever attended – which meant days of parties.  I returned home Sunday night, exhausted, full of curry, and armed with new knowledge for next time.

In no particular order, here are the top five things I learned this past weekend:

1. Be prepared to eat.  No, not “eat a meal at the reception.”  We had dinner at the Mehndi ceremony on Thursday and the Sangeet on Friday.  And Saturday, we had breakfast and lunch at the hall (sandwiching the religious ceremony), and then dinner at the reception.  If you don’t like Indian food, this could be a bit challenging, but give it a chance if you’ve never had it.  You just might surprise yourself.

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Image courtesy of purvajcaterers.co.in

I’m fairly certain I ate about 12 pounds of paneer, chicken, lamb, samosas, rice, saag, kebob…I actually decided to change my outfit one night so I could eat more.  Side note – Indian desserts are a bit….different.  Spongy and very sweet.  My advice would be to fill up on the food.

2. Some of the parties may be dry.  In the U.S., “wedding” is usually synonymous with “booze,” but consumption of alcohol is prohibited in Sikhism.  This doesn’t mean that every event will be dry, but we were told, “You do you.”  Which, to many of us, said”be prepared with your own drinks.”
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Punjabi people are known for partying and having a good time, and the first two nights were not dry.  (My new drink invention is chai with spiced rum and a bit of sweetener.)  Out of respect, Saturday’s religious festivities and the reception were, however, so we made do with our own flasks.  Just don’t be too obvious, and take swigs privately.

3. It’s totally appropriate to wear a saree.  Bold and bright colors (no solid black or white), beading, embroidery, you name it.  My saree was an impulse buy between the Saturday morning ceremony and reception from a secondhand boutique that donates proceeds to help abused women.
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There are lots of videos on YouTube to teach you how to wear one, and they’re definitely not bad.  Invest in safety pins, and give it your best shot.  And if you’re still having trouble draping it, an Indian auntie will most certainly help you.

I was in the ladies’ room, trying to fix it, and she came up to me, asked if I needed help, and before I knew it, I was standing there with her hands tucking the fabric into my petticoat (aka skirt worn below your belly button).  It was a bit odd at first, but about 4 seconds in, I was immensely thankful for her help, and before I knew it, she had a line of people needing her expert advice.

4. Bring your dancing shoes.  Not dancing is not an option.  You’re at a wedding where the dance floor will basically turn into an Indian club, with pounding, energetic Indian music and flashing lights.  Plus, you’re there to celebrate.  Get off your butt and dance.
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At the Sangeet, there were choreographed traditional dances, a group dance, and then what seemed like every person trying to show off even more energetic moves.  It was bhangra style, it was American style, and it was totally fun.  It was even better with all the swirling colors.

5. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  Pace yourself.  Indian weddings last for days and have several events.  It’s worth it to take the time to appreciate all the work that went into the coordination, the gorgeous settings and colors, and to celebrate the happy couple.  There are traditions in which you can participate, such as the groom riding in on a white horse, with his friends and family dancing around it (which in our case was a fancy Mercedes), or hoisting the bride up and carrying her while the groom tries to get a garland of flowers around her neck.  Participate in the group dances, try all the food, and make new friends.  Indians are warm and welcoming, and they certainly know how to have a good time.

At heart, weddings all share one common thing:  They are a celebration of joining two families and many friends together, and this was no exception.   I can’t wait for the next one!

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Curiouser and Curiouser: Hong Kong Edition

Whenever I travel, I keep an eye out of the crazy, the unusual, the very odd…because what could possibly be better than a story for later?

Hong Kong was not a disappointment – believe you me.  I saw all sorts of odd things on the streets, in the restaurants, everywhere.  Between the foods and the people, plus my summer in China, I don’t know that there’s anything that would surprise me now.  The two most stand-out stories are below, and I apologize for the blocks of text.  I don’t have photos for either, because, well, I just had no idea what to do about them when they happened.

Man Eats Leftover Soup, Jenna Lives to Tell About It:  The backstory to this is that in Hong Kong, should one need a seat in a casual eatery, one does not necessarily need to find an empty table.  Should there be a seat open, one is welcome to sit, and then leave the tray and leftovers to be cleaned up by housekeeping.

I ended up eating lunch at quite possibly the most elaborate food court I will ever be at in my entire life.  No joke, the food courts are worth it.  It was a bit crowded, so at my table, seated across from me, was another couple, and next to me was a single woman.  When the woman was done, she got up and left her half-eaten soup.  I was preoccupied with taking advantage of the free WiFi and trying to figure out where to go next, when I realized someone was still sitting next to me – eating.  I figured it was someone else taking the woman’s spot, but when I glanced over, I noticed the soup and drink were the exact same fullness – even the napkin was crumpled in the same way.  That’s when it hit me: this person was eating the woman’s leftover lunch!  It took about thirty seconds to process it, and then I was completely disgusted.  Needless to say, I got out of there as soon as I could.

Woman Eats Cup-O-Noodles from Airport Bathroom, Jenna is Both Horrified and Intrigued: This part was still technically Hong Kong, but I was on the plane, heading home.  I was lucky enough to get a seat sort of near the bathrooms, which on a 14-hour flight, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Especially because if you DO have to pee, you can easily see when the bathrooms are open.

I had to pee (it was a long flight, with free booze!), and had to wait my turn.  A few minutes prior, a woman went into the bathroom just before me.  Okay, fine.  But when she reemerged, she had a Cup-O-Noodles in her hand, and was carrying it precariously, as if it were hot and/or cooking.  Whaaaaaaaaaat?  First of all, the water isn’t hot enough to cook the noodles.  Second of all, GROSS!  There are signs all over the bathrooms that say “This water is not for drinking!”  It blew my mind.

Bonus:  The Worst Sign Ever:

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The Top Three Things I Brought to Hong Kong

In the last ten years, I’ve traveled all over the country, and that means I had to pack a lot of suitcases.  I used to never pack enough.  Then, I started autocrossing, and packed too much.

Of course, when you’re driving across the country, you can stop at a Target if you forgot your deodorant.  Hong Kong was going to be quite the experiment in packing, because while I had lived in China, it is also a major metropolis colonized by the British, and far more advanced than Hangzhou.  That being said, it’s still technically China, so I figured my previous experience wouldn’t be rendered totally useless.

In anticipation of this trip, I went to Target and diligently bought everything I thought I’d need.  I was adamant about packing certain things, and I miiiight have overshopped those items, but I am happy to say I was not wrong (on some of it, at least).  In the end, however, I was very happy I brought some of the things I had learned about back in 2006.

For anyone that would travel to Hong Kong, my top three things to bring from the States are:

1) Wet Ones

Image from hunt4freebies.com

Image from hunt4freebies.com

When you are out and about, surrounded by meat hanging out all day in 85* September humidity and thousands of people, you want to be able to wash your hands and face at a moment’s notice.  Or perhaps you want to clean the seat on which you will sit, or the utensils by which you will feed yourself.  A travel-sized packet of Wet Ones to the rescue!  I went through about 40 sheets in eight days, and while nothing is a true substitute for washing your hands with soap and water, they’re a great in a pinch.

2) Hydrocortisone

Image from walgreens.com

Image from walgreens.com

I remembered this from China:  The bugs are assholes.  They’re different out there – not necessarily bigger, but vicious and aggressive, like a starving mother trying to get the last crust of bread to feed her children.  Or in my case, starving, invisible gnats that chew the hell out of my legs and leave me bruised, itchy, and miserable.  (By the way, it’s been two weeks since I’ve been back in the States, and I’m still itchy).

A short vignette:  I lived in China with a group of students from URI, including my friend Linda. The first night there, I went to bed, and was awakened very early the next morning by someone screaming my name, running down the hallway.  Linda had been bitten by a gnat on her eyelid as she slept, and it had swelled so much, she couldn’t open it.  It was itchy, painful, and bruising.  After a full day of nursing her, and commandeering a Chinese friend to speak for her at the infirmary, the swelling subsided with the appropriate meds – after another day or so.

Lovely Linda and me, post-bug bite, at a tea house, circa 2006

Lovely Linda and me, post-bug bite, at a tea house – circa 2006

Let me tell you.  Those fucking bugs – they’re tiny and black, and you don’t even notice they’ve bitten you.  You brush them off absentmindedly, and it’s only later, when your are so itchy and swollen you can’t walk ten feet without stopping to scratch, that you realize you’ve been attacked.  It looked like I had someone put out cigarettes on my body.

It was HORRIBL.  Twenty-two bites in two days.

It was HORRIBLE. Twenty-two bites in two days.

3) Phone with removable SIM card capabilities (4G CDMA or GSM phones)

Image from global.rakuten.com

Image from global.rakuten.com

I’m normally one for being cut off from the world (unless there’s WiFi somewhere or something) when on vacation.  I’m exactly where I want to be, with exactly everyone I want to be with – I don’t need to talk to the real world. So while the idea of buying a SIM card in Hong Kong seemed a bit foreign to me, I’m glad I did.  For $118 HKD (~$15.25 USD), you can buy a SIM card that will give you 5gb of data that’s good for 8 days.  It was incredibly useful for checking maps, figuring out times for the ferry to Macau on the fly, and finding decent restaurants within the vicinity.  You can also download an app that will scan Chinese text and give you an approximate translation.  I’m all for roughing it, I’m all for being in a completely unfamiliar environment, but sometimes, you really do just need a bit of help from the Internet (plus, you’ll probably have a decent camera on your phone – two birds with one stone!)

4) Honorable mention:  Debit card with no ATM fees:  You’ll get a much better exchange rate at any of the city-wide ATMs than you will in the airport, hotel, or any bank.  If your debit card has fees (like one of mine does – $11 USD per transaction!) but you want the better rate anyway, take out a good amount of money to make the fee worth it.

I realize these are not mind-blowing.  I realize anyone with a bit of common sense could figure out the last two.  These were the things I was most thankful to have, and going back, I’d not be caught without these things.  What are your travel must-haves?

Yes Is Be My Answer

As the old joke goes, someone who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, a speaker of three languages is trilingual, someone with two languages is bilingual, and someone who knows only one language is an American.  To continue, there’s a stereotype that Americans don’t need to learn another language because everyone speaks English – and if they don’t, they should.

While I am an American (but I’m bilingual so don’t shoot me!), I don’t necessarily believe everyone should speak English.  In fact, Engrish has provided me with some of my fondest travel memories.  The signs posted on my dorm in Hangzhou were a bit rough, but they were good for a chuckle, and sometimes our Chinese friends wore shirts that left us either doubled over in laughter, or scratching our heads trying to make sense of the phrase.

Because Hong Kong was under British rule for so long, I figured there wouldn’t be too much Engrish around – but I was pleasantly mistaken.  The translations on signs and menus were fine (albeit a bit formal), but fashion….oh, the fashion.  There was plenty of Engrish to go around, and what was even better were the shirts with incredibly random lists and graphics.  They might have been grammatically correct, but they were so odd to me…

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Yes, that says New Hauen. With a “U” instead of a “V.” Can’t win ’em all.

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While the sartorial purchases I made were tame and (gasp) normal (a New England Patriots long sleeve shirt, and two scarves – one with lobsters and one with seahorses), I had to talk myself out of buying some of the others.  Just for the looks I’d get at home if I wore it out.  Like I said, one of the best reasons to go to Hong Kong is for the shopping.

My Top Three Reasons to Go to Hong Kong

I really wanted to go visit Anna.  The Russian government, however, had other ideas for US citizens trying to visit Moscow, and the trip was put on the back burner due to the fact that getting a visa was really, really frustrating and expensive.  While this was a huge and disappointing setback, I still wanted to travel internationally this year, and a lucky glance at a discount airfare site and a leftover gift card meant I was going to Hong Kong – for 8 days, for less than a pair of Louboutins – USED Louboutins.

Louboutin

Yeah…airfare was less than that. I shit you not. Image from ebay.com. These also have the potential to live in my closet.

I never had a burning desire to go to to Hong Kong; lots of friends have been/have family there, but I don’t know that I’d have ever said, “YES, THIS IS MY #1 DESTINATION OF CHOICE!”  But it was uncharted international territory, two of my “adventure” criteria, and I was all for it.

After the eight days there (which is just about the right amount of time for a first foray), I now have my top three reasons to visit – for which I’d gladly go back.

  1. The Mix 
    It’s a vibrant, bustling city that has Louis Vuitton, Dior, and YSL on one corner, and cheap eats and chintzy fun stores across the street.  There are hundreds of expats (waaaaaaay more white faces than I’d expected), so it’s not like you’d stand out like the Great White Hope as a visitor from the United States.  According to today’s Google search, it ranks #3 for “Top Financial Centers in the World.”  There’s a rapidly growing, ever-modernizing city, there are quiet mountain tops with panoramic views for hiking (and believe me, it’s a steep elevation change, and not the easiest hike), there’s varied cuisine, there are beaches…

    Those sweeping panoramic views I was talking about.

    Those sweeping panoramic views I was talking about.

    There is literally something to do for every type of traveler.  If you want to be active and explore, there are twisting streets and steep hills.  If you want to relax on the beach, there’s that, too.  There are plenty of bars with actually useful happy hour hours (more on that later), if you want to get your drink on.  Most of the younger generation understands at least a little English, so you aren’t totally lost.  And as a major metropolis, you aren’t cut off from technology, civilization, or (most importantly) indoor plumbing – unless you want to be.
    IMG_20150912_094633908Hong Kong, like the other cities I’ve visited in Asia, is the perfect blend of first and third world, and it’s a great destination for anyone that wants to experience something new, while not being too far away from the west – at least in spirit.

  2. The Shopping
    Ok, ok.  I’m not a shopaholic.  Definitely not.  Aside from the appreciation of the beautiful fashion, I could not relate to this movie at all.  Cher and Dionne would be so disappointed in me – I suffer from buyer’s remorse more often than I actually buy things.

    Image from movieposters.com

    Image from movieposters.com

    That being said, there’s a shopping culture in Hong Kong that will excite even the most reluctant of marketgoers.  Everything you see on Ebay, the super cheap electronics, phone cases, flash drives – it’s all there.  Clothes, trinkets, combs, souvenirs.  Jewelry, scarves, tea sets, journals.  You name it, it’s there.  In some districts, it’s like Madison Avenue on steroids.

    Image from lightuptheholidays.org

    Hong Kong had more designers in a concentrated space than this – it honestly blew my mind.  Image from lightuptheholidays.org

    When you’ve got every major designer in the world, along with four and five carat diamond rings and incredibly opulent jewelry, staring you in the face, it’s hard to not get swept into the shopping culture. I’m telling, you – even Fred Leighton and Harry Winston would have had runs for their money.  And it was everywhere.  The jewels, pearls, jade, gold – it was magnificent. 
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    A small vignette: I was waiting outside a jewelry store, looking through the windows, and a few minutes later, I somehow found myself seated at a counter, trying on diamond rings.  When lovely 1.5ct brilliant cut solitaire with a pavé band was placed on my finger, I told the sales person it was beautiful.  “You like?” he asked, probably hoping to make a sale.  “Yes, it’s gorgeous,” I told him.  “$60,000,” he said.  “Sixty.  Thousand.  Dollars,” I repeated slowly.  “Hong Kong dollars?”  “No,” he said, quickly.  “US.”  I could not take that ring off fast enough. 

    The first time you step foot in the shopping districts on the Kowloon side, it’s overwhelming, but after walking past a few stands, you get the hang of bargaining, arguing with the shopkeepers and walking away when you don’t get a good price. It’s like a game, a battle of wits (which you should never go in against a Sicilian, when death is on the line).  And when you walk away, and they chase you shouting “Okay, okay, your price, okay!” the feeling can only be described as triumph.

  3. The Food
    Hong Kong food isn’t “Chinese” in the sense that there’s a chicken dish named after the mysterious General Tso, and you’d be hard pressed to find an egg roll in the sense that we’re used to.  Instead, there’s amazing claypot rice, dim sum, and congee.
    IMG_20150909_214454320For those of you who are gastronomically adventurous, and for those of you that would prefer the comforts of home (in the form of burgers, pasta, pizza, and the like), Hong Kong has just about everything.  And if you are just a tiny bit adventurous, and you want multicultural meals every night of the week, Hong Kong has that, too.  Korean, Japanese, Indian, Mexican, Nepalese, American, Thai, Italian…you name it, Hong Kong has it.  It’s not as diverse as New York City, in the sense that you have ubiquitous options on EVERY corner – in Hong Kong, it’s only on MOST corners.
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    I’m not ashamed to say I needed a burger fix –  fried onion straws, bacon, pulled pork, and cheese. And a side of thrice-fried duck fat fries.

    There are cured meat stands, fresh fruit stands, food carts, teeny shop fronts with Peking duck and steamed crabs hanging out front.  There are live fish markets, restaurants where you can pick your protein and they will cook it for you, and if you’re looking for something fast, there’s portable dim sum and meat on a stick.
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    IMG_20150912_142726927_HDRWhile I did get my fill of Chinese food (please, God, no more grease), the variety made eating more than bearable.  I actually did eat Indian, Korean, and Italian/Asian fusion dinners, and it was all delicious, and a welcome change.  By day 3, bananas, tangerines, and giant peaches were in my hotel fridge, along with oatmeal, dried berries, and walnuts for breakfast.  Yeah.  Just in case you need a bit of digestive help, there’s Quaker Oats there, too.

What began as a “last resort” vacation turned out to be one of the most interesting, most culture-surprising, and rewarding trips I’ve taken in a long time.  Yes, my epic road trip was, in a word, epic, but this is in a league all its own, and it has convinced me that Hong Kong is truly a place to find an adventure around every turn.

Easter Sunday Funday

Easter is my favorite holiday.  The food, the extended family, the (usually) nice weather…

This year, despite falling asleep and uncontrollably snickering at the priest with the lisp during the Easter Vigil, it was not as traditional as usual, due to MIA family members and a cooler-than-usual temp.  That didn’t stop us from eating, because if nothing else, Italians know how to eat.

IMG_20150406_082801Ham, meat fritatta, Allie’s Donuts, homemade calzones and pizzas, fruit salad, ricotta pie, bread, macaroni and cheese, green beans, lamb, roasted potatoes, more fritatta, Easter bread…and this doesn’t even show the deviled eggs, Portuguese massa bread, rice pie, or chocolate breakfast sweets and gallons of coffee milk.

I realize it’s only one day post-Easter, but I’m already looking forward to next year.

Conveniently Korean

Sometimes, I feel the pull of the Motherland.  No, not that one.  The actual one, not the one I identify with.   Yeah, that one.

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When this happens to me, I go into SuperAsian mode.  I visit the two tiny Korean bodegas right near my apartment, and I buy all manner of groceries with which to make Korean delicacies.  My favorite one is gimbap, which if I weren’t so lazy, would be incredibly time consuming.  It’s generally a picnic appetizer, a finger food, and it’s pretty and delicious – kind of like Korean maki rolls.

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It’s a LOT of ingredients.  Rice, pickled Daikon radish, Korean-BBQ-marinated beef, spinach, carrots, shredded pork, egg, seaweed…and that’s even leaving out the kimchi, cucumber, and sesame seeds…and sometimes it’s not beef, it’s tofu, or imitation crab, or smoked tuna…

As I’m only Asian when it’s convenient, I do not have a bamboo rolling thingy.  (For a long time, I didn’t even own soy sauce.)  Instead, I roll them with my hands.  They are not round, they don’t always stay together for the kids, but they’re still fun.

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Even when I feel my Korean roots firmly grounding me, the Italian side takes over and I always, always make too much.  Good for my friends, bad for me, as I generally will eat a whole roll before I’ve used up all the ingredients, and then proceed to eat several more rolls for dinner.  They also do not keep well – I’ve still not figured out how to preserve sticky rice so it doesn’t get all hard and inedible.

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Occasionally, when I’m feeling REALLY ambitious, I’ll make a full LazyKorean spread, with bulgogi and kimchi.  While I could do the beef better, I’m just really lazy and pressed for time and space to marinate the meat.  So….who’s coming for dinner?

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