Sunday, July 24, 2016

This is not a rehearsal.

The culinary project for which I was hired has been postponed indefinitely; so with me not feeling well anyway, I wanted to talk to my boss about my options (basically, I quit. But i'd be interested in discussing the project If and When it starts back up).  There's really no need for me to be in the kitchen when another chef is on staff (who was there when I started), the menu is so small, and nobody orders much food anyway.  I went in to talk to my boss, and while I was waiting for her I sat down on a bench and leaned my head against the wall.  The GM, an angry little man, stomped over to me, hands on his hips. "So are you feeling better?", he barked down at me, scowling as he hovered.  I knew what he was thinking. He thinks i'm lying about the vertigo. It wouldn't be the first time people haven't believed me.

I've had this condition for 10 years.  It was initially triggered by an ear infection I got after snorkeling off the coast of the Bahamas.  Later, various things triggered it (jumping off a high dock into Lake Lanier 20 feet below; mild concussions brought on by sports activities; and lately, stress). I remember sitting in my supervisor's office 9 years ago showing him a doctor's note saying I shouldn't be driving a car and him looking at me like I was bonkers, saying, "I've never heard of this condition".  Which reminds me of a food writer several years ago who infamously declared on Twitter that writer's block doesn't exist. So - just because you've never experienced it or heard of it, it therefore doesn't exist? He later apologized for the comments after a deluge of backlash.  I had a friend (at the time she was one of my best friends) who thought I was making it all up just so that I wouldn't have to hang out with her.  To say i've had some toxic people in my life is an understatement - but that's another blogpost for another day.

Vertigo is not uncommon. A lot of people experience feelings of uneven equilibrium if they have a head cold or sinus infection.  It feels as though you're on a raft on choppy waters in the ocean.  Sometimes the waves are smooth, sometimes you're in a storm.  I call it the Boat Ride from Hell.  Usually the symptoms are temporary, your body recovers and fights the infection, and normal living is resumed.  Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, which is what I was diagnosed with 9 years ago, is most often caused by microscopic crystals in the inner ear which have dislodged and are floating freely.  There are physical therapy programs designed to help scoot those crystals back into place (Brandt-Deroff and Epley are some).  These exercises have been known to help some patients - they did "cure" mine in the very beginning.  They don't help me anymore.  I've been to specialists, ophthalmologists, ear/nose/throat doctors, had an MRI "just to be safe" as my ENT explained it (and at a whopping out-of-pocket cost of $300 which I could ill afford at the time).  I had one specialist insist that I had a major sinus infection and put me on steroids, which did nothing but keep me awake for 4 days and make me even more stressed out.  The bout I had 2 years ago, brought on by stress, lasted 4 months.  After reviewing the MRI results with my ENT, which showed nothing wrong with my head, I told him that I would be seeking solace in Eastern medicine.  This made him chuckle, adjust his glasses, and mutter, "Whatever you want to waste your money on".  And that's when I bobbed and weaved into an acupuncturist's office.

Did it help? Sure. It wasn't a miracle cure - but then again, none of my incredibly expensive Western medicine and programs worked.  Getting acupuncture and cupping therapy (glass suction cups with heat moved along the skin to help promote blood flow and good ch'i or qi) helped relieve the anxiety and stress brought on by the whole situation, and it did eventually alleviate the symptoms.  My body gets used to the symptoms and I don't feel them again for some time.

My acupuncturist, a lovely American woman from Illinois, has an office in a massive villa which is home to a holistic retreat of sorts located in Saigon's District 2.  D2 is where a lot of Western expats live.  It is reminiscent of Miami.  My Dad grew up in Miami, so I spent a lot of time there as a child.  I don't particularly like Miami - or D2 for that matter.  There are great big groupings of villas in "compounds", and their residents are very insular.  It reminds me of Walden Two, in a way, or that terrible movie The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio.  Everyone seems so artificially happy (I do have friends who live in D2, so I'll probably get a bunch of crap for this).  I live in District 1, in an area which reminds me of Greenwich Village in New York City.  Give me New York any day over Miami.  But I will say this about D2: when i'm at the villa, with pins poking out of me every which way and no audible traffic sounds coming from the dusty streets outside, I do feel a sense of calm.

And perhaps this is what I needed all along, a sense of calm.  We bustle about our everyday lives trying to cram in as much as we can into such a short daily schedule.  We often complain that there is not enough time in the day to do all the things we need to do.  Every single time I get sick, I remind myself to slow down and enjoy things. And every single time I recover, I fall right back into the race.

Some of my Facebook contacts tend to populate their timelines with so-called inspirational quotes and memes, but fail to actually apply them to their own lives.  They scour Facebook all day long and smugly armchair philosophize on every topic.  I feel badly for those people. Having said that, I did see a quote this morning which rings true:


I've about had it - i've reached my apex.  I'm ready for this boat ride to be over with. I'm going to spend the rest of the year working on my health and wellness, and enjoy my life as much as I can, albeit slowly.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

nothing to lose in translation.

Recurring vertigo is SO much fun.

Me, calling a local clinic: "Hi, do you speak English?"

Girl: "Yes we do, how may I help you?"

Me: "Oh good! My insurance provider suggested I call you. Can you tell me if you offer cupping therapy?"

Girl: "You would have to make an appointment to come in and see the chiropractor, and bring all your insurance paperwork with you.  The cost for the first consultation is 1M VND" (about $44 USD).

Me: "Right.  But can you tell me if you provide cupping therapy? You know, where you put glass cups on your back?". God I feel silly describing this.

Girl: "And make sure you bring your insurance card. Who is your provider?"

Me: "Blue Cross. Pacific Cross. But i'm not going to come in unless you actually provide this service.  Do you provide cupping therapy or not?"

Girl: "Once you come in and fill out the paperwork, you can see the doctor and he can recommend proper treatment".

Me: "This is going nowhere".

Girl: "Thank you for calling! Hope to see you soon".

Me hitting my  head repeatedly on the table. Ow. I Shouldn't have done that. Vertigo worse.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


I've gotten feedback from friends and strangers back in the US.  "What you've done is admirable", a lot of them say. "Packing up and moving halfway across the world! You're an inspiration".

Truth is, i'm not.  I'm not exactly a success story here. Unless you go right into teaching English - of which there are well-paying jobs aplenty and which I don't want to do - expat jobs are a bit difficult to find. And once you get one, you're not guaranteed that it will last.

My first job here, the owner of the company broke my contract twice with no explanation.  My last few weeks I was battling with HR over my apparent lack of email etiquette.  I've been using email for business for over 20 years, sat through business writing seminars, and yet get schooled here because I wrote, "Thanks, Caroline" at the end of an email instead of "Best" or "BR" (for Best Regards).  Seriously, half a day wasted every day going back and forth with HR on such nitpicky things. I was so relieved to stop working there.

I jumped into my second job quite blindly, with no thought, because I was bored at home and wanted something to do.  Well, we all know how fantastically that job turned out.  Since then i've met a multitude of people who've exclaimed, "Why didn't you tell me you were going to work there? I would have told you not to do it!".  The delusional owner is not a bad guy, but has no idea how to run a restaurant, especially one in this country.  It's surprising because he's a businessman, worked in Hong Kong for 16 years; yet when I talked to him about costs and P & L he would give me a strange look.  One time after a lunch rush he exclaimed, "We made 7 million VND at lunch today!", to which I replied, "Yeah, but what were the costs involved? 7 million is not take home". He looked at me like like a little kid whose favorite toy was taken away.  Cold wet washcloth of reality, that's me.  His wife (The Money, his backer) confided in Larry that she doesn't sleep at night from worrying. I do feel sorry for her. I liked her very much.

Whether it's fair or not, expats get paid much, much more than their Vietnamese colleagues.  We also work less hours.  My current contract states I am to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week.  But my Vietnamese kitchen staff rarely, if ever, take a day off. I know this because when I first started I worked 20 days straight before I flipped out and took a day off; during that whole time, the only other person who took a day was the other chef.  The staff come in every single day.  I may be wrong on this but I believe they're bullied into not taking time off ( I know I was those first 20 days).  I don't believe the owner of the company, an absolutely lovely woman who I really like, knows what's going on since she's passed the reigns of all the operations to the GM. My gut instinct tells me not to get involved.

Do I need to work? Not really. I'm fortunate that i've got a little money saved up.  The cost of living here is ridiculously cheap, for an expat with expat money that is.  But I like to work (and i've never understood people who don't; don't you get bored with nothing to do? Don't trophy wives bore themselves silly doing nothing except lunching and getting their nails done? I don't understand them).  I wouldn't have met all the people I am now friends with had I not been working. I wouldn't have met my current boss had I not put on a pop-up restaurant over Christmas and she hadn't come to eat.  Plus I get to meet really wonderful people and see a side of Vietnam I wouldn't have known otherwise.

I've mentioned that learning English is really important here, especially for kids vying to get into hospitality and tourism jobs.  One of the kids I work with (the one to whom I showed the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list) can't afford English lessons, so he teaches himself.  He's got sticky notes all over the place and mutters English phrases under his breath.  His English isn't good, but he's really trying.  He's always asking me about correct American pronunciation.  I glanced over at his notes one day; they're mostly vocabulary words and phonetic spellings of them.  "Sourness", "Bitterness", "Sweet", and, interestingly, "Insipid", a word that even American adults rarely use, probably because they don't know what it means.  When he uses a new vocabulary word on me, I congratulate him.  His 100-watt smile is worth all the money in the world.

Friday, June 17, 2016

saigon stories.

"What do you mean, you don't wear a chef coat? You should provide the example and wear one".

I was having a conversation with an American acquaintance of mine, also a chef, attempting to explain why I don't wear a chef jacket at my current job.  And the reason is because when I arrived on my first day, I noticed my Vietnamese counterpart, the other chef, wasn't wearing one.  The last thing I want to do is intimidate him or make him uncomfortable in his own kitchen; so on that first day my coat stayed in my bag and I promptly brought it home and put it away.

If there's one thing I know how to do well in life it's how to get along with others.  I have vast training in that field, what with growing up with an overbearing French mother and then falling into a few decades worth of some seriously bad personal relationships, both on the romantic and platonic sides.  But through it all, I learned how to play well in the sandbox with the other kiddos.  Moving here I knew I would have a lot to learn. In my workplaces, people would view me as the loud, passionate American and I would need to tone it down a bit (though i 'm not sure how well i'm succeeding on the loud, passionate side).  I am learning about a new (to me) culture, and there are a tremendous amount of differences. I'd like to think that the days of cultural imperialism are over with, but that's not exactly true.  Lots of expats come over here and like to lord it over the locals.  That's not me.  And that's what this other chef wasn't understanding.

From the first moment we met and he found out what I did for a living, he started name dropping.  "Well, I used to work for Donald - you know Donald, don't you?", he said, referring to Donald Link.  That's when my eyes glazed over and I just stared through him.  I may even have sighed out loud.  God I hate that shit.  "Well Donald and I did this. And Donald and I did that. And Donald Donald Donald.  Oh the first time I went to Prune was with Susan Spicer".  Yadda yadda yawn bore.  I'm not pretentious at all, and I dislike pompous chefs who are like that.

He finally toned it down a bit and became more normal when he realized I wasn't impressed with his coterie of Famous Chef Friends, and that I (sometimes) know what i'm talking about when it comes to (some) food.  I may have warmed up a tiny bit to him when we discovered our mutual dislike for Padma Lakshmi (sorry, I know i'm in the minority here but I just can't get over her condescending talk with food in her mouth on Top Chef.  Nothing grosses me out more than seeing people talking with food in their mouths).


The 50 Best Restaurants lists of 2016 were recently released.  I gave a cursory glance to the worldwide one, but my main focus was the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list.  I am pleased to see that a restaurant we frequented back in November was featured.  Number 43, Cuisine Wat Damnak, which I mention in this post.  I'm thrilled to be dining there again tomorrow night when I head back to Cambodia on a visa run.  They have two set menus which change every two weeks, and the food is pretty wonderful, a different and thoughtful approach to Cambodian cuisine.  One of my kitchen staff, a young kid (I say "young kid", he's probably early 20s but i'm betting i'm the same age as his parents) leaned over my shoulder to look at the list.

"What is this?", he said, curious.
"Fifty best restaurants in all of Asia.  See.... Singapore, Hong Kong. Japan. Campuchia", I said, pointing to number 43.  "But no Vietnam. Yet".

He nodded solemnly. "One day, that will be me".

I was instantly overwhelmed with a feeling of pride.  And damned if I didn't start tearing up and getting a lump in my throat.  I had to get up and leave the room for a moment so no one would notice my gushiness.  I don't have kids of my own, so wherever I end up my staff tend to be surrogates.  I don't doubt that this kid will go far.

As I type this, i'm letting him look through my knife kit. m Most of my knives are old, but if you take care of them you'll have them a long time.  I've got an offset handled Shun santoku i've had for years that the kid's been ogling, so I let him use it.  "I like this. Wow! So nice", he says, smiling while chopping a ton of shallots.  So I pulled out a tiny little Global knife, blade retooled several years ago when I quite stupidly dropped it and the tip broke off (it was fixed by a guy named Edges - not making that up - who sharpens knives for all the restaurants in Atlanta).  I think he's in love.

Friday, June 10, 2016

beginning to think all French chefs are the same.

The first day the New French Chef came onto the job, he quickly scanned my outfit from my high top Chuck Taylors (I don't do chef clogs, they hurt my feet) to my black chef's coat with a few patches of flour on the arms from making bread, and said, "I think we should go change before service, don't you think?".

I blinked at him. I was appropriately dressed for that particular kitchen.  He left for a moment and re-emerged wearing a white chef jacket that more resembled a long-sleeved button down collared shirt.  The dishwasher giggled and said something in Vietnamese about the chef's whites.  "In Michelin starred restaurants", he said snottily, "White chef coats are de rigeur.  In fact, you may want to get some. We need to be completely uniform in this kitchen. Black coats are just vulgar". Right.  This is going to go down really well.

"Isn't he great?", beamed the French owner.  "I've been telling all my friends to come because he is going to revolutionize the menu! He comes from Michelin star breeding! He has great ideas!"

"Oh yeah, I"m really looking forward to it", I said flatly.  I was already unenamored with Michelin Star Boy after he asked me to cut shallots for him then immediately barked "NOOOOON!" in my ear because he thought I was trimming them the wrong way.

Though he wasn't volatile like the last French guy, though he didn't throw pots and pans at us from across the room and shout endless insults, he certainly had a way of irking the shit out of me. He immediately changed all the previous chef's recipes because he thought they were crap (and indeed some of them were), but then tried to introduce some serious old school French techniques that I don't think go down well with the type of restaurant this was.  When I asked about that, he would simply say, "Well in Michelin starred restaurants, we do it this way".  "In Michelin starred restaurants, it's perfectly normal to fist fight with other chefs in the kitchen and then go out for drinks together afterwards", he said after I told him about Volatile French Chef.  "In Michelin starred restaurants, chefs do not come out into the dining room, so you need to stay in the kitchen". That last one was after I went out to greet a friend.

"Yeah but in the US, chefs go out into the dining room all of the time", I retorted.  "People want to see the chef.  Some people pay good money for that.  You should get your ass out there and stop by tables and say hi".  I added, "It'll certainly bring up the Trip Advisor results", knowing that this last one is a soft spot for all restaurants in this town.

His eyes got wide. "No! I couldn't do that".

"Oh? But don't you want this place to be Michelin star quality?", I said sarcastically.

"Oh, okay".

Nowadays you can't get him out of the dining room.

For the remaining few weeks I worked there, I got seriously sick and tired of hearing about the way Michelin starred restaurants do things.  One day, determined to get to the bottom of the Michelin mystery, I started asking him questions.  After a lot of hemming and hawing, he finally admitted he'd only worked at one Michelin starred restaurant (he never told me which one it was), and even further probing unveiled that the restaurant had only one-star.  Which isn't too shabby, but the way he carried on you'd think it was a three-star.  Further digging proved that he wasn't the sous chef or chef de cuisine.

"So what'd you do there? Because restaurants, especially French ones, have definite stations".

"Oh... well.. I did a little bit of everything, you know", he said, looking around trying to evade any further questioning.

"But you must have some specialty, no?", I said evilly.  "So were you a line cook?"

"Oh well i did a bit of that, yeah sure we all have to, you know".

"Saucier? Garde-manger? Pastry? Come on, tell me".


I was not giving up.  "But what was your specialty? Where did you park your ass most of the night?"

"Well.... I guess I did the salads".

Mystery solved.  The great chef who came from a Michelin starred restaurant whom my boss was going on and on about to all and sundry last held a salad station.  That's not to say he's not talented - he is. He's a very fine cook.  But he has a problem with playing well with the other kids in the sandbox.  After Volatile French Chef was dismissed, I was able to convince the owner that I could make the ice creams.  And I did, and they were good.  I make a mean green tea ice cream.  The owner asked me to make a chocolate one, and before I could answer, New French Chef cut him off with a, "No, I'll make it. Mine will be better".

"Oh really?", I said, raising my eyebrows.

"Oh yes", he said haughtily.  "It's a Thierry Marx recipe.  It'll be much better than your crap American technique".

I decided to let this slide.

He emailed a buddy of his for the recipe, someone who worked for the tempermental chef. When the recipe came back, I glanced over the ingredients list.  "Are you sure the owner is going to okay this?", I said.  "There's some pretty expensive ingredients in here, including marscapone.  We're in Vietnam, this shit doesn't come cheap here".

"Oh but it'll be so good he won't care", he said, waving me impatiently away. "Ça va etre une tuerie".

The ingredients arrived and he proceeded to measure them out, dump them all into a bowl at once, and mix together.  This alarmed me. I've made gallons and gallons of ice cream and this is no way to respect the ingredients.

"You aren't going to temper the eggs first to make the custard?"

"No", he looked at me baffled. "Why should I? it'll be perfect.  Now just dump it all in the ice cream maker".

"Hey, this is your baby. You do it".  I did not want responsibility of this pending disaster.

So he dumped the contents of the bowl into the maker, and after 45 minutes realized it hadn't taken.

"Hmm", he said. "Maybe I should have chilled the ingredients first. Okay i'll chill them now and start over tomorrow".

The next day, same results.

"The texture is off", he said, looking at me accusingly.  "What did you do to it?

"What did I do to it? Hey, this one is your project".

"Well you're the so-called ice cream expert here. You tell me".

"I resent that. And you should have tempered the eggs first and slowly introduced the other ingredients, because that's how i've done countless times and mine have never failed. Ever".

"Well you figure out how to fix it then", he said, throwing his hands up in the air and walking away.

One day during break, we were shooting the shit about regular things, American politics, reality TV, etc, when we started talking about religion and Buddhism.  I said something about Judaism, and he blurted out, "God, I fucking hate the Jews".

My jaw dropped.  "What? What did you just say?"

"I fucking hate the Jews.  They're such pieces of shit.  The Jews in France are insufferable".

I took a deep breath.  "Do you realize what you are saying to me?"

"Yeah. That I fucking hate the Jews. Oh, i've some Jewish friends, and they're okay with it".

"You know people who are Jewish who know that you hate Jews and yet they still call you a friend? I call bullshit".

"You don't understand.  Jews in France are different than Jews elsewhere".

"This conversation is making me ill", I said, getting up and walking away.

I ran into one of the servers recently, who said things weren't good.  "People have complained about the food", she said. "And the bread is not the same" (off topic, i've had an issue with bread making lately, and it's due to the incredibly high humidity in our kitchen, though nobody here believes me). "And chef has become very lazy".

I really can't express how happy I am not to work there anymore.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Something strange is afoot at the Circle K.

Circle K's are everywhere in District 1. Sometimes there are two or three per block. They sell pretty much the same kind of crap that the ones in the US sell except swapping American garbage foods with a variety of Asian garbage foods, including but not limited to my favorite Korean kimchi-flavored seaweed snack and, most importantly, 750 ml bottles of Gordon's gin.

Walking home from work the other night, I swung in to the closest Circle K for a couple of cans of tonic water.  Two young American hippie-looking kids with pasty skin, eyeballs as big as saucers, and arms full of junk food were staring at one particular cookie display. The boy catches a glimpse of me out of the corner of his eye and his face perks up. That's when I went into defense mode, making a beeline for the back of the store where the cold beverages are kept, my goal to not make eye contact again with them. Plan backfires.

"Hey!", says the boy to me (I say 'boy' but he's probably about 25). "Hey! can you tell me where I can buy a muffin?".

I glance over at him wearily. "A muffin?"

"Yeah we just landed here and i'm REALLY JONESIN' for a muffin. I'd even take a blueberry one. Where can I buy a muffin here?"

Right, cos blueberries, not to mention muffins, are aplenty here. Does this kid know he's in Southeast Asia, I wonder. "Well, there's a Starbucks nearby".

"Great!". He and his girlfriend, who is just as spaced out as him, practically jump for joy and nearly drop their armloads of crap. "We'll head there!".

"Yeah, so hang a left out of here and it's about a block and a half down....".

"Wait, what? a block and a half away? Man, that's waaaaay too far". Boy looks crestfallen.

"Uh, too far? It's a block and a half dude".

"Nah, i'll just have to make do with these weird cookies I guess".

I start walking towards the cashier, ready to get the hell out of neon lit pasty face land.

"Hey, one more question! Hey so... is it legal to smoke pot here?".

I stop and turn to him. "WHAT?!?".

"Yeah, well you know, I've seen people smoking weed in public so I wasn't sure if that's a thing. I mean, can I buy it? And where can I buy it? Can I just light up anywhere like the locals do?".

In retrospect, there's so much I could have said and probably should have, but it had been a crap week and all I wanted was a fucking gin and tonic and a half dozen limes at that point. And I probably sounded like the oldest bat in the world when I responded with a, "Sorry dude, that's not my lifestyle".

"Oh.. okay, just thought i'd try. Thanks!"

He and the girl turned back towards the cookie display, the tip of his tongue sticking out from his mouth as if to really concentrate on the task at hand.

Bless his heart.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The French chef.

"Here's the thing: you're not a chef. You’re not a good cook. You're not even a cook. You lack all the basic French culinary skills. You don't know how to use a knife. I'm afraid when I see you holding a knife because I just know your fingers will come flying off and then I'll be forced to call an ambulance and get saddled with babysitting you at the hospital all night. You absolutely suck as a person. You're a terrible manager. Whomever trained you ought to be ashamed of themselves because they failed miserably. The Viets are not used to being treated with respect. If you respect them, they walk all over you. They need to be treated with fear. They are not your friends. They are there for you to abuse and they expect that. So quit being nice to the staff. It's unbecoming. And quit saying thank you whenever someone does something for you. Chefs don't act that way. TRANG, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? Who told you that you can sit down? FUCK THIS SHIT. Fucking animals. See what I mean, Caroline? In order to succeed in Vietnam you have to treat people like complete shit".

I sat there throughout this monologue, speechless. I thought it best to keep my mouth shut anyway. He had spent the entire lunch service hollering at me, loudly enough for customers in the restaurant to hear. He yelled; he threw pots and pans across the room into the sink, contents flying everywhere; he kicked the garbage can; he hollered that I had shit for talent. “ARRETE DE M’ENGUELER”, I finally shouted back at him. He looked at me with surprise and clamped his mouth shut. That's when the owner came into the kitchen, smiling, looked directly at me, and said, “Caroline, can you keep it down? The clients can hear you”. He was so used to the French chef's antics that he tuned them out completely (though various reviews on Trip Advisor mention how volatile and condescending the chef is to staff and customers). And all the owner heard was my voice.

You know it's bad when you dread going into work because you don't know what kind of mood the French chef will be in. I found out through a friend (who had the misfortune of dating him for two dire weeks) that he was bi-polar and refused treatment. He would destroy things in the kitchen then scream at us to clean it all up. He abused everyone, not just me. When he wasn’t pointedly avoiding the owner’s Vietnamese wife, he would yell obscenities at her. He made my favorite hardworking girl in the kitchen cry every day.  She pays 6 million VND for English classes every afternoon (about $270 USD – an absolute fortune here where minimum wage is about $100 to $150 per month), and he would purposely detain her or prevent her from going by saddling extra work on to her shoulders.  Every time the server would come up to the pass to take food to a table, he'd say to her, "Try not to drop it, you fucking ugly bitch". Every. Single. Time. The last few weeks he stopped coming into the kitchen during service, except to yell some obscenity or another at us. He would sit at the first table in the dining room where he could observe us in the kitchen and occasionally bellow out an insult for all and sundry to hear. He told many regular customers, "Your food is going to suck today because I didn't make it". On my third day, he told me I was on my own from now on. "You need to fail. You need to fall on your ass and screw up orders so badly. I WANT you to fail".  The only person who seemed at ease with him was the French owner, who had become very Vietnamese, adopting a non-confrontational attitude by turning a blind eye and ear to everything.  When I finally sat the owner down to complain, he said, “Well what do you want me to do about it?”

When the server took two days off, the French chef was upset. "Can you believe he gave her two days off?”, he said, pointing to the owner. “That fucking server doesn't even fucking work! She doesn't deserve it. She needs to be kicked in the ass. I should kick her ass". Two days later, he called in sick, claiming indigestion. The next day, he said he was taking himself to the hospital. Day three: no call, no show. The owner, out shopping, ran into an acquaintance who happened to mention she'd seen his chef out drinking that morning and acting belligerent while playing pétanque.  And this, finally, made the owner snap. He unceremoniously fired the chef via text, but I knew this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear from him. He came storming in one day last week to collect his final pay. “I WILL DESTROY YOU”, he shouted to the owner and his wife. “I WILL FUCKING DESTROY YOU AND YOUR FAMILY AND YOUR BUSINESS. ON THE HEAD OF MY MOTHER, I PROMISE YOU THAT I WILL FUCKING MAKE SURE YOU FAIL”. On and on and on, he finally clambered down the steps to the ground floor, attempted to break the front door and part of the front window. Reeling from the shock of it all, we were all shaking.

I endured 5 weeks of this and it seemed like a lifetime. 6 days a week, at least 10 hours a day. I’m mentally worn out.

I'm not naive; I know the old school French chefs have a habit of hollering at their staff. Perhaps this breaking down of someone's soul works when you're a young trainee of 17, but once you hit your mid-forties the routine is a bit stale.  I wasn't hired to be a line cook; I was reeled in to help change things (menu, atmosphere, etc). I was to work not only back of the house but also front of the house, with server training and assistance with wine. They knew of my qualifications before hiring me. They knew I was self-taught and was a catering and event chef and chef instructor before moving to Vietnam. I was honest about everything.

A new chef has been hired, and after a strange "getting to know you" kind of week, I have to admit that I like him. He's a talented youth, also French, but much less volatile. And though the atmosphere has changed for the better, I’m looking for different work.  The damage has been done. I’m over it.

But the best part about all of this is that the French chef left Saigon. Mutual friends ran into him and he said he was moving away because he was sick of it all (it's probably because he has such a bad reputation that no one will hire him). But as of yesterday, he is gone from this town, and the air has cleared. Good riddance, volatile asshole.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The story of Ri

My Facebook timeline shows a constant stream of locals posting about having found stray or ailing dogs, kittens, cats, etc, and wondering what to do about them. Unfortunately, this is pretty common here, as people (including the High and Mighty Expats) discard pets frequently without much thought. It's a different culture, and coming from a country where we are passionate about spaying, neutering, and saving every animal, I've had to develop a blind eye to a lot of things. I saw dog meat at a butcher shop in Go Vap (a northern, poorer district in Saigon) and had to develop a stone heart instantaneously.

And then you meet someone like my friend Trang. She lives in the Vietnamese part of District 7 but hails from Hoi An in the central part of the country. She finds the stray, the broken, the bleeding animals and nurses them back to health before sending them to live on her parents farm just outside of Hoi An. Recently she saw a man tossing a small bird into the road. When she asked him why he did that, he said the bird was too scrawny to eat so he might as well throw it out. Trang scooped up the sad animal and saw that it was a baby owl, probably minutes from death. She brought it home, named it Ri (pronounced Ree), nursed it, and now it flies around her room when she comes home from work, hooting happily. 

She can't save every discarded animal in Saigon (though she sure as hell is trying, what with her little menagerie in Hoi An); but it's little stories like this which restore my faith in humanity. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Sitting in a café overlooking a park filled with tall trees planted by the French during colonial times. Traffic bustles by. At first glance, it could be any cosmopolitan city: one feels as though this little corner could be New York or Paris, or even Buenos Aires. It's not until a motorbike slowly passes, the loudspeaker taped to its handlebars a warped voice belting out offers of ice cream or some other treat, when you come back to earth and realize you're in Saigon.

While walking through the park on my way to work these past few days I've noticed fallen tree limbs everywhere. The workers are trimming off the bottom limbs in order for the tree to remain slender and grow even taller. If you tilt your head back and look up, you  can see one of the workers, a hundred or so feet off the ground, climbing around with great dexterity from branch to branch with a chainsaw in hand. I wonder how they choose which worker gets to go up the tree or if they take turns. The idea of this makes my own recurring vertigo swim around and I'm forced to turn my head back towards the ground.

The tourist wearing a flaming orange bikini under a white see-through cover up taking a duck-faced selfie. The xe om (motorbike for hire) driver calling out "Madame, xe om Madame?". The shops blaring music way too loudly in an attempt to attract customers. The old woman in conical hat and pajamas waving lottery tickets for sale at passing cars. The motorbike driver who crashes into the back of a bus because he was too busy texting to notice where he was going. The young woman holding a giant umbrella over her head to shield her from the sun's rays lest God forbid she get any color on her skin. The thousands of people wearing surgical masks all day every day because they fear pollution. This is life in Saigon. Sometimes I long for some quiet, maybe a getaway to the beach, but in the meantime this will do.

Saturday, February 27, 2016


I was seething in anger yesterday when I read about Cheryl Tiegs' dig at Ashley Graham's Sports Illustrated cover.  Though I think Tiegs ought to keep her mouth shut, I understand her point of view. And it has to do with my mother and her generation.

Note that I say "understand" and not "agree with".

My mom has been on a diet my entire life, and probably all of her adult life.  I can't remember a time when she wasn't watching her weight.  Her generation is the generation that poured money into SlimFast shakes and Dexatrim. I even remember my parents doing a short stint of HerbaLife because my aunt sold the supplements.  My mom constantly talks about weight (hers and other people's).  In every email and letter, every phone call I've ever received from her, she always brings up weight.  It affected my mental health and it affected my sister even more. My sister's weight skyrocketed and she became morbidly obese, though there wasn't any family history of obesity.  She underwent gastric bypass in 2004, but she's not a success story.  Though the operation helped her lose a considerable amount of weight (100 lbs during that first year), she didn't and still doesn't practice good nutrition and makes poor choices involving food and alcohol.  None of us in the family have ever said as much, but my mom's constant nagging and negativity towards food was the catalyst to my sister's health issues.

In my own case, I was never overweight but my mom made me feel as large as a house.  She has a way of getting in my head and pushing all the right buttons, all the self-worth and confidence ones. It's a power play on her part.  I remember one Christmas going to visit my folks in San Francisco; I took the Marin Airporter and my mom picked me up at the bus stop.  A look of horror spread across her face as I stepped off the bus. "What happened to you?", she gasped.  "You are SO FAT". The bus driver almost dropped my suitcase that he'd been hauling out for me and looked at her wide-eyed.  "I cannot BELIEVE you let yourself go like that. What is the matter with you? We have FAMILY coming tomorrow! I am SO EMBARRASSED". She went on and on, in the car on the way to the house, for the rest of that week, in front of family and friends.  She wouldn't shut up about how "grossly overweight" I was. I kept my mouth shut tightly and tried not to let it bother me, but she was relentless.  She would come into my room as I was falling asleep to sit on the edge of my bed and lecture me, giving me "guidance" as she calls it, about how I absolutely must lose weight immediately.    I was a nervous wreck by the end of that week and burst out crying on the airplane as it was taking off out of SFO.  I am 5'4", and when I got off the bus that night? I was a size 8.

Another time when I flew back home for a cousin's baby shower, mom told me she was too embarrassed to stand anywhere near me because of how fat I was.  "Fat people shouldn't wear beige", she informed me matter-of-factly, as I emerged from my room wearing khakis and a fucking twinset (I used to keep a whole separate wardrobe of ridiculously conservative clothing solely to wear around my mom.  Not that I have questionable taste in fashion, but as she doesn't approve of anything I wear to begin with, no need to give her a heart attack by donning my black leather Chucks).  At the baby shower, an extended family member whom I hadn't seen in a few decades was gushing about me to my mom, who promptly shut her up with a "Caroline makes bad life choices. She's so immature. I told her not to wear beige, look at how much fatter she looks in beige!".

When I turned 40, I took some holistic nutrition classes.  That's around the time when I decided I couldn't let the shitty comments get to me anymore.  Though I go through serious bouts of exercise (I do love all of Tony Horton's P90X series), I'm not always in top shape, but I'm okay with that.  I don't eat fast food. I do indulge in occasional bits of chocolate - anyone familiar with the Marou brand made in Vietnam will know what I'm talking about.  I drink alcohol; perhaps not every night but hey, I drink.  But I also eat an enormous variety of fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, and shellfish. Interestingly, since moving to SE Asia, I've actually put on a little weight even though I walk everywhere.  But I don't feel unhealthy.  Tony Horton himself explains that we shouldn't be slaves to the number on the scale; after all, muscle weights much more than fat.  I've tried explaining this to my mom, but she's so set in her ways that it falls on deaf ears.  "But how much do you weigh?". she asked after I told her muscle weighs more than fat.  I told her it was none of her business. Surprisingly, she took it well.

Cheryl Tiegs has the same mentality as my mom.  She was at the height of her popularity in the late 70s/early 80s, when women thought it was okay to skip a meal or two in order to get into a dress the next day. Thin was in.  She still has that mindset.  If I showed my mom the SI cover, I bet you she would say the same thing that Tiegs did.  I"m not trying to excuse her, just trying to crack open her brain and peer in to understand.  People like Tiegs and my mom won't change; they just won't get it. There's a woman I absolutely admire named Jessamyn Stanley.  She is a yoga instructor who has a cult following on Instagram (@mynameisjessamyn -  you can also find out more about her here:  She's strong, she's beautiful, and she's by no means thin as a rail. And she's okay with it.  She moves easily into the most difficult of yoga poses.  She has a self-confidence that many more women need, including myself.  And i'm positive that my mom would think up some horrible remarks about her.

Tiegs made a follow up comment on Twitter yesterday, but later deleted it and issued the following:

Is it half-assed? No, because it's not an apology or retraction for what she actually said.  She, like my mom, won't change her mind about what she thinks is right, that women should look thin, and that is that.  And I feel sorry for her.

There's no great big secret here: the key to health and well-being is diet and exercise.  And by "diet", I don't mean the negative connotation that we often associate the word with; I mean good nutrition.  I've never had better skin than I do now in my 40s.  Could I use more muscle tone in my upper arms? Sure. Would I like to get back into some of my size 6 clothes that I brought with me when I moved here, now that i'm a size 8 (and sometimes 10)? Absolutely.  But i'm not going to kill myself over it, and nobody else should either.