Sunday, October 16, 2011

TCK Food Cravings Part 1: ‘Why McDonalds Deserves a Michelin Star’

Lately, I’ve started to think McDonald’s deserves a Michelin star. Now before you think I’ve gone bonkers, let me explain my reasoning. Anyone who has ever had a McDonald’s burger knows that there’s better out there, and even Ray Croc, when addressing business students, famously said that most people can make a better burger than McDonalds. Gordon Ramsay would undoubtedly describe it as reconstituted donkey vomit, and its infamous ‘Dollar Menu’ strongly contributed to my weight ballooning up to 265lbs during my hyper-stressful final year in the United States.

As a once rather frequent customer of the ‘golden arches’, I have ingested Big Macs in 11 countries on 3 continents. And after a while I started to notice something. Whether you eat a Big Mac in Eindhoven, New York City, San Diego, Singapore, Newcastle, Amsterdam, or Atlanta, the damn thing always, always! tastes exactly the same. One way in which ‘Micky D’s’ qualifies for a Michelin star, is its almost superhuman level of consistency.

Earlier this year, I started reading about the special relationship that Third Culture Kids have with fast food. It’s something that we, as a group tend to gravitate toward, and when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. A really long time ago, a famous Greek chap called Heraclitus said: ‘Change is the only constant’. When living abroad, this also holds true. It just happens to occur at a much accelerated pace. Friends in your International school leave as their parents get new assignments. Teachers come and go. Eventually it’s your own time to move on to new cultures and places. Changes, changes, and more changes. In order to find some semblance of stability and things you were used to in your previous country, you tend to go looking for common denominators. The consistency of fast food provides a good one.

Having said that, I have to mention that not all fast food is as consistent as McDonalds... In 1991, during my second visit to India, we had an overnight stop in Delhi. One ‘bright spark’ had mentioned there was a ‘Wimpy Bar’ close to the hotel. The next time I find myself hungry in Delhi, I’m going to stick to butter chicken and other local curries, because that Wimpy meal gave me the second biggest case of the runs in my life. (Incidentally, the first biggest case of the runs in my life, to which I’m devoting a chapter in my book, was the infamous ‘Dhunche apple pie incident’, which happened the following year. It resulted in a helicopter evacuation from Yala Peak base camp, and my inability to tolerate vinegar for the next eighteen years). When in exotic places, if in doubt, stick to local food from reputable sources, which is much tastier and far less likely to kill you!

Having found your ‘common denominator’, sometimes you get desperate for a Big Mac. Very desperate indeed… After finishing up my IB at UWCSEA in 1993, I moved to central Ohio to start college. Along with continuing my education, another lifelong dream was fulfilled. I learned to fly, and got my pilot’s license in 1995. Two years later I also got my driver’s license. I was considering becoming an airline pilot at the time, and eager to build ‘hours’, just about anything became a valid excuse to go flying. This included a good burger. My instructor had mentioned to me that there was a McDonald’s across the road from the executive ramp at Columbus International Airport. One late afternoon when I was studying with my friend Jim (not his real name) who was also a pilot, we got hungry. ‘Do you want to fly to McDonald’s?’ It was a 20 minute flight to Port Columbus, during which we enjoyed a fabulous airborne sunset. After landing, we taxied past several Boeing jets, cast in a copper red evening glow, as they were lining up for departure. It was after nightfall when we took off back to Newark. It was one of those ‘perfect’ moments of eccentricity where you have to look back in complete wonder and gratitude to all the truly amazing things life has granted you so far. I will never forget that evening. The Big Mac tasted extra special that night, with the added aroma of freshly burnt jet fuel. We ended up doing this two or three more times before we graduated. We took various friends along for the ride, both for their pleasant company and to help split the fuel cost!

Every time I eat at McDonald’s now, I think back to those amazing nights. And that’s where my other reasoning for that Michelin star comes in. According to the Michelin guide, (as quoted from Wikipedia) a restaurant with three stars offers: ‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’. The cuisine may not be terribly exceptional, but throughout my years as a Third Culture Kid, the journeys in getting there have, with few exceptions, been very special indeed.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Global Nomad, a Pipe Dream, and a Persimmon Tree

I was planning on writing a blog post about International food cravings this week, but as I was writing, my thoughts got drawn more and more to the period of my life where I lived in Los Angeles (May to December of 2000). A recent Facebook post by my friend Tess, about the incredible scent of fresh rain in LA, and hiking the trails overlooking the city, really got me thinking about that time, and what I took away from it.

In May of 2000, about six months after finishing my geology degree at Denison University, I did one of the daftest things I had done in a while. I moved to Los Angeles with the intent of trying to make it as an actor… Driving my rusted-through 1982 VW Rabbit from Ohio to California, I became part of the cliché. One of the countless young people who try to fulfill that hare brained ambition every year… Let’s get a few facts straight. I can play a mean bit of flute, and occasionally write something funny, but when it comes to acting I am completely useless! By the miraculous grace of the Gods, and a very kind voice-over artist named Julie, I found a place to stay during my time there.

As Michael Douglas said in his 1994 interview for the program ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’, you should only go to LA if you have work. Being there with no prospect of an income, is one of the most depressing experiences you can have, and that pretty much summed it up for mine. It didn’t help that my US visa was set to expire and had the added pressure of needing to either get a new one, or leave the country. I got my ass handed to me on a plate, and I completely failed… You could say I was a fool for even trying, but I figured it was quite possibly the last chance I had to have a hare brained adventure, so I took it.

Despite it being a complete professional disaster, it was one of the most memorable times for having my context expanded. During the eight months that I spent in Studio City, I met my share of famous people, including George Clooney, Mena Suvari, Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Burke, and soap actor Quinn Redeker, who over the course of those eight months, bought me to many, many cups of coffee. My long chats with Quinn and with my good friend Stacey were effectively what kept me sane. Those two people gave me the wisdom and sense of mind to realize that continuing my pipe dream was a bad idea. I left for Europe in January of 2001.

One of the more pleasant experiences, and the one that Tess’ post reminded me of, was my unexpected introduction to a new exotic fruit. One afternoon, I noticed Julie’s neighbor on the roof of the apartment complex. Using garden shears, he was cutting branches off a tree in his garden. The branches were full of a strange fruit I had never seen before. After joining him on the roof I asked what kind they were, and he told me they were persimmons. He also told me he hated the things. All they did was fall down into his patio area and make a huge sticky mess that he’d then have to clean up. Supposedly they were an expensive delicacy, though he had never tried any.

Being curious, I picked a large one and took it downstairs into the kitchen. I peeled some of the skin off, and a milky sap oozed from the hard flesh. I cut (more like hacked) out a small piece and stuck it in my mouth. Almost instantly I gagged on the bitter taste, and my tongue became covered in a vile, waxy grime that left an aftertaste for days. Okay! If this was supposed to be a delicacy, it would be reserved only for those with the most ravenous appetite for tannins! Why anyone would fork over $4 a piece for these at the grocery store was beyond me.

About a week later when unclogging the rain gutters on the roof, I noticed an elderly Hispanic lady plucking persimmons off the tree with her granddaughter. Curious again, I climbed to the roof once more, and asked her how you’re supposed to eat them. I mentioned my initial experience and the less than agreeable taste. She laughed (quite hard actually) and said that they are only edible when they are really, really ripe. Ripe to the point that they appear almost rotten and would start attracting fruit flies. She handed me a piece of one that she had picked, which to be fair really did look rotten and extremely gooey. Reluctantly I tasted it, and to my surprise it was unbelievably delicious. Sweet, with just that little ‘something’ that you can never quite pinpoint, and ridiculously good! She told me I should pick the ones that were starting to soften a bit, and let them ripen together in a brown paper bag.

For the next month or two, that steady supply of persimmons was my little secret. By that time I was practically out of money, and could barely afford ramen, let alone tropical fruit. Along with the copy of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’, which Julie had bought me as a present, those persimmons provided me with an escape from the brutal reality of life as an unprepared, wannabe actor in Tinseltown. It was one of the most difficult periods of my life, but I will always look back in gratitude for the wealth of life experience that my LA experience gave me. And for the kindness of a total stranger I bumped into in front of a sushi bar, one balmy evening in West Hollywood.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Social Networking, and Why Mark Zuckerberg is Not a Supervillain.

People complain about the ‘evils’ of social networking all the time. Not a week goes by where some television reporter talks about yet another way in which Facebook is invading your privacy, and why nobody needs to know about the fact that you’re eating 100 year old eggs, that your kid puked into your fish tank, or that your dinner tasted off, and you are heading to bed.

Twenty years ago, you had to be a super geek to have access to a primitive form of what we now know as email. If mere mortals wanted to communicate with people, you had two options. Write a letter, mail it, and wait a few years until you got a reply, or you picked up the phone and waited for your astronomical phone bill to arrive in the mail.

As a global nomad, one of the few certainties in life is saying goodbye to people, often for a very, very, long time, and possibly forever. People’s lives change. They move onto other things, other countries, marry and have kids. Some fade into oblivion, others become famous. Occasionally, someone ends up in jail.

Finding old friends became practical in the mid-1990s. You could do an Alta Vista search (the Google Guys were still getting their PhDs), and occasionally you’d have success. Along came ‘chat platforms’, which really shrank the Earth and made real-time ‘chatting’ from Granville, Ohio with your colleagues on Antarctica a reality. It was some time in 2007 when I started hearing the name ‘Facebook’ mentioned. I created my account in 2008 if my memory serves me right, and it pretty much took off from there.

At the time of writing, I have 464 Facebook friends and counting. Some people like to nag about that, and say that it’s a waste of time, and things like: ‘you only need about one or two good friends in your life’, and having online friends takes away from the face-to-face experience, and how much time I must be wasting keeping in touch with all these ‘friends’ of mine. Whoa! Time out here people! And before you ask, yes I do consider all of them friends to varying degrees. The vast majority, I have met in person. Those who I yet have to have a cup of coffee with are mostly friends of relatives, or ‘friends of friends’. Using this networking, I’ve gotten to know some truly astonishingly interesting people.

One of the first things I do in the morning when de-zombifying over a cup of coffee, is read over the previous night’s Facebook updates. Reading people’s updates is like reading the morning paper, with the big exception that every single ‘article’ is about people that you’re actually interested in. And since I have friends in virtually every time zone, my feed is getting updated 24/7. Even if it’s as simple as ‘I just bought such & such’, ‘twisted my ankle :- (’, or ‘is having coffee’, I enjoy reading it.

Some people find this stupid, but for the instant that I read that little update, I think of that person, and more often than not, some little memory of that person comes flooding back, and therein really lies the magic. These people are hundreds, or even thousands of miles away, and you don’t know when, if ever you’ll see them again, but in that instant, for those brief moments, they are a part of your life again. And I think that’s pretty damned cool.

One of the more intriguing aspects of my Facebook experience has been coming across people I didn’t get on with so well in school. The bullies and other dodgy characters that used to make my school life hell from time to time, also entered the information age... Out of curiosity I started ‘adding’ some of them. This is where it gets interesting. In many cases, individuals that were less than nice, have ended up becoming some pretty cool people. It is an eye opener to the fact that people do change, and everyone has their individual life path to lead. They had their own challenges and insecurities to deal with, and it led to growth.

I recently got back in touch with a girl (you know who you are) from high school, who was and still is one of my best friends, even though the last time I saw her in person was at graduation in 1993. We’re both rather eccentric individuals with a wide range of interests. We both volunteered in the Singapore Zoo on Sundays. Her passion was the big cats, and I was a reptile man through and through. About a week ago I had a long chat with her, and we discussed this teasing issue. Being yourself can come at a heavy price during those image-conscious high school days. As it turns out she ended up coming to the same conclusions, and her ‘friends’ list contains some former tormentors.

This is a fine example of how social networking breaks down barriers. Twenty years ago we would have been left with grudges and bad memories. Now, we can strip away layer after layer of assumptions and wrong conclusions. For me it has really helped letting go of issues from the past. You process the past, cherish the good experiences, work through the BS, and move forward.

People can complain about you and your company Mr. Zuckerberg. Or they can moan about other social networking sites like MySpace, Google +, and Twitter, but I will always appreciate what you and your peers have done and continue to do. Even if Facebook decides to start charging a nominal fee in the future, you’ll still be cool with me and I will gladly pay it. Thanks to you and your colleagues, I am able to reconnect with long lost friends and strengthen those bonds further. And that, to me is priceless.