Thursday, December 27, 2012

Un-inventing yourself

If there is any activity that encapsulates the concept of "getting started", it is cooking.  It is a daunting task, it is both science and art, it can carry heavy connotations, and no matter what you do it will never be perfect.  These are among the many reasons I have avoided cooking for the majority of my life.  A few others to add to the list: it makes me feel like a housewife, there are a million steps involved and thus a million opportunities to screw up the entire thing, and I failed the measurement conversion section of Home Ec in high school.  Seriously, I did.

In spite of all of this, I figured that I'm in Hong Kong, I am trying a lot of new things, why not add cooking to the list.  It's the perfect example of something that you can sit around all day worrying that it won't be perfect, but all you need to do is take the first step.  Plus maybe it will be fun.  It's like an art project, but you get to eat it at the end.  That's not so bad, right?

Well, actually, it kind of is that bad.  Let me tell you the reasons why:

  1.  Though I am one of the lucky few in Hong Kong who actually has an oven in the apartment, I am not quite lucky enough to have a fully functioning one.  My oven has only two options, or only two options that I could figure out: broil, and lukewarm.  After hours of inhaling way too much gas and sticking my head in the oven multiple times, I went with broil.  
  2. That failed measurement conversion quiz really came back to bite me in the ass.  I can just picture Ms. Ioli nodding and saying I told ya so, Ms. Baum.  Not only do recipes require conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit  but they don't sell regular measuring cups here.  I was working with 3 options: 100mL, 15mL and 5mL.  There are 250mL in 1 cup, but that's a dry cup not a liquid cup, blah blah blah.  Considering the recipe called for 6+ cups of certain ingredients, this added significant amounts of time to the process. (Yes, I went to Harvard.)
  3. Apparently, they don't sell brown sugar in Hong Kong.  Note that if it looks like brown sugar, smells like brown sugar, and feels like brown sugar it is NOT brown sugar.  Apparently it is called red sugar.  This resulted in me going to 3 different grocery stores and purchasing 3 other brown sugar imposters before I finally figured  it out.
  4. No food processors, or mixing tools.  This meant whipping eggs and grating 6 cups of carrots by hand.  Luckily, it also means that this little project doubled as a workout.

The advantage of being historically outspoken about avoiding cooking like the plague is that when you actually do get around to making something for someone you love, they know you must really love them.  To put it simply in the context of my relationship, if you cook for him then he will know how much torture you're willing to go through to make him happy.  Yes, that's absurd and passive-aggressive and immature, but I did think about it that way.

Unfortunately, my plan of holding my boyfriend emotionally hostage for my voluntary sacrifice to the kitchen gods backfired when, in spite of all the reasons above, I actually enjoyed this ridiculous farce of a process.  It really was like an art project, and I love art projects.  There were so many reasons whatever I cooked would probably suck that I was forced to let go.  I could actually enjoy the moment and relish in the excitement of improvisation.

The fact that this was actually fun was mildly disturbing, and ultimately led me to wonder -- why had I so openly hated on cooking in the past?  Sure, I am impatient, and I am a perfectionist, thus it makes sense that I might not like it.  However, it was much more about what cooking represented and not what I actually thought it would be like.  I had taken "hates cooking" and incorporated it into my identity.  I joked about it, I talked about it, and purposely never did it.  It made me different.  Cooking is a stereotype.  Cooking is something that society expects from women.  I refuse to be defined by society or stereotypes, thus it followed that I must never cook.

The beauty of moving to a new place is you have an excuse to reinvent yourself.  Or, in my case, un-invent yourself.  Reinventing myself would mean declaring that now I am a master chef, putting pictures of food I've cooked on my Facebook profile, changing my favorite hobbies to "Baking", and buying myself an apron that says #1 Housewife on it.  Un-inventing myself means forgetting all of that and just being me.  I am realizing that I don't have to be "Allison that hates/loves to cook" or "Allison who does/doesn't let a man tell her what to do".  In the past, I've allowed these qualifiers to define who I am, what I like to do and what I don't like to do.  Whether or not they all fit into a stereotype, they have still defined me and that's precisely what I have been saying I hate.

So, yes, even though it was a comical nightmare, I enjoyed making dinner the other night.  I did it because I wanted to, not because I had to prove how much I love my boyfriend, not because I wanted to make him feel like he owed me something.  I might not always enjoy it, and I am pretty sure I will never do it every night.  But maybe I will, and that would be okay.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Things are happening...

One of my biggest fears in life is that I am 'all talk'.  This may seem strange to some people since every job description I have ever had is execution oriented, I am a list person, and generally have a 'can do' attitude.  However, what most people don't know is that there is a statistically significant percentage of things on my lists that never get accomplished.  I will even secretly delete these things from my lists so that I don't feel like a failure every time I look at my To Do's.

The thing is, getting things done is simple when they are finite tasks.  If I already know what it takes and there are tangible tasks to be completed, then no problem.  It's when there is larger, strategic thinking to be done that it gets hairy.  You see, I have this mildly ridiculous notion that I want to change the world.  By putting myself up to such a gigantic and nebulous task, I am no doubt setting myself up for failure.  And in the interest of not being a failure, it is easy to get sidetracked on a simple path -- climbing the ladder to get to the top so you don't have to look around you and see the magnificent and terrifying canyon that surrounds you.  So, sometimes, if I get a glimpse of this Grand Canyon, I put something on the list that will take me in a different, promising, but unknown direction.

These lofty ideas are often the byproduct of the high of a great brainstorming session, or a random moment of inspiration.  They are also often fueled by alcohol and other uncontrolled substances.  A few things I have aimed to do and haven't done:

  • Plan a worldwide PR campaign for micro-lending
  • Start a promotional educational food truck
  • Move to Kenya to work with one of the most inspiring women I know 
  • Surprise friends in various cities by flying in one random weekend
  • Build a curriculum for teaching the kids in Ghana how to write business plans (yes, I'm going to hell)
  • Various sentimental photo album concepts
  • Birthday gifts
  • Christmas gifts
  • You get the picture

I can easily rationalize away these unaccomplished goals by saying 'Oh, I have to prioritize' and 'Don't be so hard on yourself, Allison, you can't do everything' and 'Who do you think you are, you can't possibly get that done!'  But do I really believe that?  If I really cared, wouldn't I just do it?  Or am I just afraid of failing?

Now, I don't mean to sell myself short here.  Even if there is a twinge of surprise, some of these larger things do get accomplished.  I did write a business proposal for bringing GA to Hong Kong.  I did e-mail the Head of the Securities Division at Goldman Sachs (multiple times) because I wanted an internship.  I did make my brother a kick-ass custom cookbook for his birthday one year.  But I feel I'm at a strange inflection point where I am entering such uncharted territory that every time something big gets accomplished, I surprise myself a little bit.  But maybe that's a good thing -- nobody likes those pompous assholes who think they're the shit and walk around promising the world to anyone and everyone.

I came out here aiming to bring GA classes and workshops to Hong Kong.  I basically started selling the dream of being an entrepreneur, of empowering oneself through education from Day One.  It's easy to do that, but now I actually have to follow through.  Tomorrow night is the first GA event in Hong Kong.  It is sold out with a long wait list, and the calendar for January and February classes is filling up quickly.  I'm finding instructors, the webpages are going up, and we are selling tickets.  It's happening.  Now I just have to follow through on my promises.  I have to make it an inspiring and amazing experience -- or at least a seamless one -- for everyone involved.  Could this really work?  I think I can do it, I do.  But I still won't believe it until I see it.  Is that a bad thing?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The gifting debate

Let me share my thought process around the holidays, because there is no denying 'tis the season in Hong Kong.  Given that 85% of the city is actually a shopping mall, there is no shortage of reminders of your holiday duties -- namely that you must buy gifts for your loved ones.  You should not neglect this duty, because no matter your race, religion, whatever, not giving presents makes you an asshole.  

I know this is a very pessimistic way of looking at it, and of course I know and appreciate all the other meaningful and spiritual aspects of the holidays.  Which leads me to the other way I know what time of year it is -- my inner romantic and my inner cynic begin to make a lot of noise as they become deeply embroiled in a raging annual debate.  

The conversation goes something like this:
  • I am so excited!  I am going to find each person the most creative, most unique, most thoughtful Christmas present possible so I can let them know how much they mean to me.
  • Great, you should probably get started shopping then.
  • But where should I go?  Where do they sell said perfect gifts?  I don't have time to walk around the city stopping in every shop to look for special knick knacks and chotchkes (spelling?).  
  • You could find time, but you just don't want to because you're an asshole.
  • Fine, I should just compromise and get them a candle or an ornament or something.  It's the thought that counts right?
  • No, it is not the thought that counts.  That's stupid, Allison, nobody wants another personalized shiny ball to throw on the tree that they'll only see for 4% of the year.  
  • Okay, well, what about …. a shirt?  
  • Good luck figuring out their size.  You go too small, you make them feel bad about themselves.  Too large, you're an asshole for thinking they're that big.
  • Hmm... Some music?  I could put together a mix!
  • Seriously? How cliche, Allison, I expected better from you.  What makes you think you have better taste in music than anyone else?
At this point, the gift has gone from an opportunity to express love and appreciation to an opportunity for disappointment and shame.   A misstep could make you the butt of the annual family holiday joke, resulting in a waste of money and hurt feelings since you don't know your loved ones well enough to get them something perfect and fabulous.  By now, I have probably procrastinated so long that it's almost Christmas and it would probably be better not to get them anything at all than have something pathetic arriving late.  That would be hurtful, not to mention an expensive mistake.  
  • So maybe I should just send a card?  I could just use my words to tell them how much I care!
  • Now you're just taking the easy road, you're being totally lazy and selfish! 
  • Repeat the above from "I am going to find each person …." 

So this year, in the theme of getting started, I decided there would be no bullshit.  I am going to send something to my family because I miss them and even if it's a silly gift, well... at least they can get a small glimpse of how much I love them and wish I could be there.  Living far away makes me realize that you can't wait for the perfect gift, or the perfect moment to call someone in order to catch up.  If you do, it will never come, and you won't call.  And then, your presence in their life will wane and wane until you're barely there at all anymore.  Partially because you become irrelevant (in the true sense of the word), and partially because they really do forget about you.  But ultimately, on some level, I think it is because they know that if you really cared, you would just do it.  You would send a text, you would let them know you're thinking of them (if and when you are, that is, otherwise we're back to the bullshitting problem).  Otherwise, to quote a wise band that loves body paint, you just become 'somebody that they used to know.'  That scares me more than anything...

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Genuinely faking it

I'm finding that one of the biggest opportunity costs of moving to Hong Kong is good concerts.  I wasn't at shows every weekend in New York City or anything like that, but I certainly took for granted the quality, variety, and frequency of talented musicians.  There were always big names rolling through - Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen - as well as your smaller, indie, more intimate experiences - Passion Pit, Deathcab, Temper Trap, whatever.  From what I can tell, this does not happen in Hong Kong.  Perhaps this is why I got a calendar request from my boyfriend several weeks ago inviting me to see Elton John at 7pm on a Tuesday.

The entire experience was incredibly ... orderly.  Because this is the only show I've ever seen in Hong Kong, I admit that this could be just the nature of the crowd at Elton John, but it's worth reporting nonetheless.

  • Intoxication is not only discouraged, it's pretty much impossible.  There is no alcohol served in the general vicinity of the concert hall.  The only bar is literally multiple escalator rides away and you cannot bring any drinks inside with you.  
  • Finding your seat is a highly curated process which requires you only walking a few steps at a time before there is another uniformed person checking your ticket and guiding you in the right direction.
  • There are cloth covers on all of the chairs, on the back of which is a very clear message, "Do not stand on chairs."  I guess people take this very seriously.
  • Not only does nobody stand on chairs, nobody stands at all.  Everyone is politely seated observing the musical act, only a few quite visible rebels had the audacity to clap and wave their hands in the air. 
I guess it's a question of the chicken or the egg, but the lack of energy in the crowd seemed to be reflected on stage.  Hearing 'Tiny Dancer' and 'Your Song' was still pretty magical, but my mind still wandered and I wondered what Elton John was thinking up there.  He must have sung these songs millions and millions of times, but he still appears pretty into it as he leans his head back, squeezes his eyes closed behind those little blue spectacles, and belts it out.  But there's something missing... it feels a little stale. Does he really want that tiny dancer to hold him closer? Is life really that wonderful now that I'm in the world?

It doesn't seem realistic to expect him to keep his feelings on call, to experience true pain, joy, or anguish every single time he performs. Would it really possible for him to convey the same level of genuine emotion every time he sings the song?  Maybe it would be, maybe he goes back to where he was when he first wrote it and relives the experience every time he's on stage.  But it's not likely.  So then, is he faking it?  

This is something I think about often.  Unfortunately, it tends to be when I'm in the middle of conversations and I am hearing myself tell a story I've told many times before.  I can observe the regular inflections in my voice, I hear how I get excited at certain parts, how I try to authentically convey my desired message even though I've said it before and generally understand what type of reaction it will elicit.  In a way, I do relive it every time I tell it, but I can't help but think, am I faking it?  This is particularly relevant when you're starting a company --- you have to explain what it is your business does, why it matters, and why people need it.  And you have to be convincing.  But even if it's the millionth time you've explained it, you can still really believe what you're saying.  So then, are you faking it?  Is it only possible to be truly genuine if you are being spontaneous?  Am I sabotaging my own authenticity by even contemplating this?

I hope not.  I really do believe that General Assembly belongs in Hong Kong, and that entrepreneurship is liberating, and that education is empowerment.  I know, I know it sounds like a bunch of lines.  And I guess it is, because I've talked about it in infinite permutations.  But I hope that doesn't make it any less true, or make me fake.  I want to believe that authentic thoughts and emotions don't have expiration dates.  Tiny Dancer is still a really great song, no matter how many times it has been sung before, right?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Possession Regression

If materialism is a disease, I've had a relapse.  In the process of moving to a new apartment, hosting our first visitor in Hong Kong, and partying in Lan Kwai Fong for the first time, I have lost years of emotional maturity and quite possibly actual years of my life given the amount of second hand smoke I inhaled in clubs this weekend.  In my best effort of self diagnosis, I can trace this regression back to the official 'Moving Day' when we were finally relocating to the new apartment in Sheung Wan.

By now, the concept of moving to a place that I will be calling "home" seems quite foreign.  Though I moved out of the house I grew up in when I was eighteen, I still considered it my real "home" and permanent address until this August, when my parents decided to sell it and move on.  When I lived in New York, I moved apartments pretty much every year.  I avoided the hassle of finding, furnishing, and decorating a place of my own by finding friends who had another roommate moving out and were looking for a new one.  As a result, I never needed to do much outside of organize my bedroom, and I didn't really own or have a say in any other part of the places I lived.  This was fine by me, as I didn't have an urge to settle into one place and had resigned myself to a state of perpetual transition.  Maybe part of me knew that l was just a visitor in the lifestyle that a job in finance afforded me - the great views, boutique shopping, frequent weekend trips, and deliciously expensive dinners.  I don't mean to say I was above it all -- I enjoyed every second of it -- but no part of my life in New York ever felt like it was really mine, if that makes sense.

So, as you may or may not be able to imagine, sorting through all this emotional shit surrounding moving is a much more daunting task than packing and unpacking my actual belongings.  On one hand, I feel eager to embrace a new home as this is where I will be staying for the foreseeable future, and the first place that I will actually endeavor to make my own.  I will be able to choose which drawers contain what utensils, the centerpiece for the kitchen table, and the color of the walls.  On the other hand, moving in with a significant other means pretty much giving up the concept of mine and converting it to the concept of ours.  Literally and figuratively, you must submit to sharing everything:  space, belongings, money, food, habits, schedules, secrets.  This concept is both very romantic and very terrifying, and in a last moment of resistance it sent me clamoring for something, anything, to be only mine.  I felt myself regressing, and I was compelled to scramble for the best drawer and closet space.  I felt irrationally competitive, violated, irritated, sad, and suffocated.  Tears and minor hyperventilation ensued.

After recovering from this initial shock, I have mostly come to terms with the idea of sharing these things with my boyfriend.  However, I know that I am lingering in this regressed emotional state as I have now found myself obsessing over our things.  I want the apartment to look, to smell, to be perfect.    As you can imagine, this is a lot of pressure.  The trip to IKEA was not just a casual Saturday activity.  No, these are serious decisions that must be made with care.  We need to have beautiful, yet simple plates, silverware, and tupperware.  Selecting the right hand towels is not a task to be taken lightly.  I feel obsessed with optimal organization, and I have a disturbing desire to decorate.  Yes, a nice orchid plant would look phenomenal right there.  Oh, I have a great idea, how about I put this candle in this bowl and I fill it with potpourri!  Oh wouldn't that be just lovely?!

WHO AM I?!  When will I snap out of this?  Intellectually, I know that this apartment does not dictate who I am or how good I am.  Yes, it is my "home", but it is also just a place where I happen to sleep.  And shower, and eat.  If it is messy, that doesn't mean I am a slob.  Well, it could mean that, but it doesn't automatically mean that.  So then why do I have the compulsive desire to clean it?  I feel ashamed of and disappointed by my relapse into materialism and perfectionism.  I have so many other exciting and meaningful things to be focusing on.  Hopefully, I will recover from this soon.  It just isn't comfortable when your head and your heart aren't in the same place.