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.