The Omnipresent Poverty



Desserts Sampling

I have this bloating sensation these days. Thanks to my dear colleagues who love baking goodies, I got fed too frequently. From cheese cakes, walnut cookies to Chinese stuffed buns, I tasted them all.

For a long time, I’ve been wondering why Americans like taking all the trouble in the kitchen to make the desserts. When I was living by myself in American grad school, the oven was always the cleanest as I didn’t know how to use it. Neither was I interested in giving a go. To me a city girl from China, I could get whatever dessert I craved in the bakeries. Why bother to get my hands dirty and my time wasted?

But if you have this idea in America, it’s poisonous. I’ve encountered quite a few Americans who enjoy baking with their home ovens. Sharing their baking products is somewhat like a demonstration of personal glory. Two bakers I know are Chinese by birth. I can’t image how they lived without an oven before they came to America. One of them told me he had to bake everything from scratch. He’s an amazing cook considering he’s a single young man in his mid-twenties.

Traditionally, few Chinese men can cook, let alone doing it well in the field of making desserts. My colleague told me he bought flour, yeast, baking molds and many other ingredients that to me, they were like indecipherable science. He then followed his recipe, step by step, and prepared whatever he was about to make.

He also has immense patience that I can’t compare. To bake a cheese cake, he spends a good 90 minutes waiting by the oven. To make Chinese buns, he can spend easily a whole evening. Unless you’re enjoying, I guess he must be, I find it hard to be at a kitchen for even half an hour. (Note: Cleaning is an exception, haha!)

Well, it doesn’t mean I don’t like cooking. I do. And I do the Cantonese cooking the best. That usually doesn’t take up much of time. Food is served when it’s still steamy hot. I like chop-chop efficiency and coordination in the kitchen rather than patiently waiting for the food to be done. Perhaps that’s why I’m still far from mastering baking goodies with the oven.

If only I were determined to be on a strict diet, I’d have refused the sweet offer of sampling the desserts. But the thing is I’d usually regret after my stomach committed a satiable sin. Now all those calories are happily staying put inside me. It’s too late to cry over spilled milk, isn’t it?

I like dessert but I can’t consume any more. My dear colleagues, please spare me from your delicious sweets, will you?

Food Vans

In Cantonese, we call people who sell food on the streets “food hawkers” or “walking-ghosts,” as their booths aren’t permanent and they have to flash in disappearance from cops like ghosts. Their unlicensed hawking is usually considered unhygienic. They cook on a shabby metal pushcart with cooking wares full of grease and grime. Gray smoke wafted through miles away. If you enjoy the food they are preparing–kabobs of all kinds of meat, stinky tofu, barbeque wings, meatballs, you name it–the odor will entice you right away. If not, you can’t wait to run away from the scene like a ghost, too.

Perhaps I’ve grown up with a negative impression about street food. Wherever I travel in China or across the globe, I walk past the street food vendors as soon as I can. Even vendors who sell fresh fruits and bottled water, I regard their wares somewhat contaminated. So you bet, the hollers and touting at a ballpark or on a sidewalk in America only drive me away.

There’s a culture here in the capital of United States that whenever the clock strikes 12 at noon, office workers and tourists will line up in front of various colorful vans that parked along the streets. These vans are painted or hung with signs in bright colors, selling food of different cultures, from Mexico to India and from Africa to Cajun. I notice the vans that advertise Tacos attract a longer queue of patrons.

Ah, these are the notorious DC food vans. It turns out American food hawkers are one step ahead–they sell food on an automobile, a true manifesto of the U.S. that this is a nation which lives on four wheels. Image, if a food hawker with violations has to dash away before the arrival of law enforcement officers, is driving a van quicker or pushing a shabby metal food cart quicker?

The answer is obvious. I believe the food vans on DC streets are strictly licensed, though. Without being exposed to the direct sun or possible air pollutants, the food sold by a food van seems to be safely processed. (God knows what’s behind and under the onboard stove.)  On average, you have to spend 7 dollars on an order. That’s not cheap by my standard. (That’s why I seldom go out for lunch during the workweek.)

I have no idea why Tacos are popular among office people, or perhaps the general public in America. But the funny thing is, on that rare day I went out for lunch, inside one of the vans that advertised Tacos stood an Asian female vendor. (She looked just like me. Can’t miss her ethnicity!) Is this cultural crossover? Asians sell Tacos, as do Italians run a Chinese-theme restaurant chain P.F. Chang?

America certainly has gone wild.


I laugh at myself when I am writing this post because I never believe I will bump into the same stranger several months later. This stranger is a passenger I remember who sat across from me on the same Metro car several months ago. Rarely do I remember the faces on the bus or on the Metro if I hadn’t taken the same ride at the same time over and over again–yes, just like the movie “Groundhog Day.” And this stranger falls exactly into this hypothesis.

Several months ago, he sat at the seat on the same Metro car at the same time every morning for a good several weeks. Of course, as a commuter, I also have my “favorite spot.” So for those several weeks, or perhaps for those couple of months,  there was such a stranger–dark-skinned, bald-headed guy, aged between late 30s and early 40s, often  in short jean pants up to his knees and black sneakers–sitting on the first row of chair by the door.

I did once ask myself how long would this guy taking the same ride in the same car with me. Maybe a couple of weeks, I thought. But in fact, it lasted longer than that. So as time went by, I took for granted that I would bump into the same guy on the same car. Subconsciously, I even thought I shall reserve that seat for him–just in case he would show up. And he never “let me down.” Haha. Until one day, he no longer appeared. Then the next day, the day following next, the fourth, the fifth . . . a week passed, and weeks turned into months, I still hadn’t seen him on the same Metro car when I was on my way to work. I said to myself I would never see him again.

Fine, no big deal. It actually happens with several other strangers I bumped into on my daily commute to and from work. I saw them for a few weeks then they disappeared. Today, when I looked around the crowded Metro car, I spotted him! At first, I didn’t recognize him. After all, it was several months ago when I saw him last. This time, his bald head look shinier like a greased ball. He may have lost some weight. Instead of wearing causal short pants, he was in a pair of khaki long pants and shiny leather shoes. But no matter how he has changed, his dark skin and face are easy to be recognized.

What a coincidence! I thought it was nearly impossible to come across the same stranger after we had lost each other. Is this serendipity? Or it means the Metro service is back to be “punctual” which allows either I or all the strangers who used to take the same ride with me to “reunite” once more, despite the fact that we still don’t know each other by names.

Empty Desks

I saw a news report today, saying “the county official said attendance was 64 percent on Monday in the county’s high schools and dropped to 62 percent on Tuesday, meaning more than 20,000 teens didn’t com to school each day.” You probably will ask why. Let me give you some background. We had a harsh winter early this year, so the local public schools require students to make up the school days that they missed on those Snow Days. As a result, the current semester runs a bit longer than usual. Students won’t enjoy their summer vacation until sometime in June or even in early July. Poor kids!

As the news title writes “Empty Desk as School Dragged On and On,” I sympathize for the kids to have a relatively longer semester but on the other hand, I was surprised by their way of protest. If this happens in China that a school is running with empty desks and chairs, I’d immediately associate with the kids living in the poverty-stricken rural areas. They love going to school but they cannot afford tuition and in the end, they drop out. This is the fate for a poor Chinese kid. They have to exchange their education opportunity for the family’s livelihood. They work under legal age in the daylight or behind closed door. My heart is always bitter at hearing such news.

Now in America, I see children as young as they were born declare their rights of freedom. The choice of not going to school, in this case because the semester extends, can be seen as their natural birthright, at least in the eyes of the truants. How dare are the American students to quit schools? After all, this is a reasonable solution to the missing school days. In my eyes, they are indeed very fortunate. They’ve never lived in a situation that making a living becomes a burden at a young age, that the dream of going to school is too far to reach. They’d never understand how that feel to attend classes in clay houses or makeshift tents, no a/c, no heat or even no labs in the school. They’d never comprehend what sort of a journey  it is that the poor children in China have to walk bare foot for miles from home to school several hours every single trip .

The world is unfair. Those who want to go to school cannot, while those can, instead, choose not to. I feel sad that I, as a taxpayer in America, has been supporting education in my community, as yet, my contribution becomes a waste. This is how these “Empty Desks” upsets me.