“Chinese? Indian? Nope. Chindian”

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I am flipping through a menu in a restaurant in Jakarta when the ‘Chindian’ fare on offer catches my eye: you know, that blend of Indian and Chinese cuisine that is usually so spicy that it would make even the most uppity and audacious Chinese hacker run for cover (no offence to Chinese hackers, seriously).In my mind’s eye, the most quintessential Chindian dish that comes to mind is Szchewan paneer. As I dig through a plateful of chicken hakka noodles, certain Chindian memories come to mind.

When I was growing up in my hometown Guwahati, a favorite treat from parents if and when I did well on exams was to take me to “China Town”, a little ‘Chinese’ joint in town.I would feel a certain thrill running through my spine at my first experience of ‘global’ cuisine. The rumor that the owners had actually emigrated from China a couple of generations ago added to the authenticity of my experience, though I did remember being puzzled as to why a Chinese restaurant should be serving American Chopsuey. But such was my dedication to ‘Chinese’ food that I even learnt how to spell ‘Szchewan’. A highpoint in teenage life was when i discovered’momos’, those delectable dumplings stuffed with minced meat and served with a freshly ground, dangerously spicychilli sauce, a combination that could inspire poetry as well as copious tears. I fell in love with the momos at a ‘Chinese’ restaurant called Abba in Shillong. Teenage was a mix of crushes, momos, birthday parties, chopsuey, best friends and chilli chicken – all fused in the recesses of my memory in a distant, happy blur.

A few years ago,I left for America armed with my extensive knowledge of ‘Chinese cuisine’.The Goddess-Who-Clears-False-Notions paired me with a Chinese room-mate. Did reality hit hard! What I had known and grown to love as Chinese food was NOT Chinese food. The way my roommate cooked was to boil a big cauldron of water and throw in noodles, fish balls, leeks, soup powder and other suspicious-looking ingredients which she would buy from the Yu-Yu Chinese store. When this concoction was about ready, she would break an egg in it and let it boil some more. That’s it.The first time I saw this, I was horrifed. What?!? No soya sauce? No capsicum? (Green bell-peppers as we indians call it).To make sure that this wasn’t some terrible misunderstanding, I decided to make my version of Chinese Hakka noodles for her. I shredded cabbage, fried chicken strips and tossed the noodles around with soy sauce, chilli sauce and vinegar most lovingly. Just as I had seen it made in ‘Reboti’, that fantastic streetfood corner in Guwahati where I would often sneak in between classes to have egg chowmein. My Chinese room-mate tried my noodles as I watched nervously. Then she delivered her verdict: it was the most delicious noodles she had ever tasted, but she had never eaten anything like that in China.

Ouch!Have you ever experienced that feeling when your deepest beliefs come crashing down? That blow in the stomach when everything you ever thought you knew turned out to be false. I felt cheated, but by whom? To add insult o injury, I also discovered that momos were actually central to Tibetan cuisine. I know China took over Tibet, but “Beijing, you need to leave momos alone already.” In brief, I had spent my teenage years being in love with a Tibetan dish that was being passed off as Chinese, in a Chinese restaurant which was actually not a real Chinese restaraunt. Now, that is messed up. I recovered from all these blows very slowly, just like one recovers from heatbreak. I was finally able to make peace with the ghosts of the past when I discovered the term ‘Chindian cuisine’ in a menu in an Indian restauarant. That seemed like a more authentic and appropriate description of the food I had grown to love.Finally, finally had a genre into which I could classify my beloved chilli chicken. Other discoveries gave me comfort too.I went to a couple of a ‘Chinese’ restaurants in America and I came to the conclusion that Chimerican food cant hold a candle to Chindian food (well, except maybe the eggplant chicken at P.F. Chang’s). At least India was doing a better job at distorting Chinese food than America was.

But the thought that gives most comfort is that I am going home in a few weeks.I will be able to order a misconception-free Chinese Chopsuey from China Town.

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“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is way great spiritual giants are produced.” ~ Swami Vivekananda

This is a rather paradoxical quote to post on a blog that thrives on its randomness. I have changed careers, countries and what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life ideas. At the end of much dabbling and wandering, I have realized that it makes sense to really delve deep into one field, make that your focus, live it, breathe it and give your best to it. People who are successful are usually successful in one field..unless of course, you are Leonardo Da Vinci!The struggle with most of us who have not identified our passions is that we wait to give our jobs the best shot and keep whining that we are yet to find our one enduring passion till life just passes us by. For those like us, I found something that Carly Fiorina the, ex CEO of HP said very helpful: she said that she just focuses on giving the current job at hand all you have got. That itself will lead to new opportunities. Along the way, we might find our enduring passion, but even if we don’t, we can at least look back at life and credit ourselves with a job well done.

“Take up one i…

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“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.” – Gilda Radner

Much anxiety comes from not being able to live with what is uncertain. As human beings, it is perhaps natural to want to know the answers for certain: “did I score the A grade”, “will my lab tests be positive”, “does she love me?” When the quest for certainty drives our existence, we seek desperately to seize and retain control. This might mean never venturing out to try a new career because I cant give up the financial cushiness my current job offers. It might mean staying stuck in a miserable relationship because I don’t want to face the uncertainty of being alone or being able to find a new partner. When we hold on so tightly to certainty, we lose out the opportunities to break new ground. The more we try to  control, the more it takes away from our peace of mind. Being able to live with uncertainty, being able to walk through each day with serenity when we are dealing with unsolved problems each day is what allows the universe to hold our hands and walk us to our answers. Maybe not to the perfect answers, but to a more peaceful life.

“I wanted a per…

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After my marriage, I have spent more time in a hotel in Jakarta than I have in my home. Sometimes, I break into cold sweat at the thought that I have become the stereotypical expat wife that I always read about in glossy magazines. The sitting-by-the-hotel-swimming-pool-drinking-juice types. I have also realized that though it is luxurious, when done often enough, it can lead to a certain amount of mental atrophy. There is only so much window shopping a sane human being can indulge in. You know that things are going downhill when you can reel off all the items on the menu from memory. Gradually, when the novelty wears off, a certain amount of loneliness also sets in because you are in a foreign country where you don’t really have too many friends and inevitably, the husband is often very busy. That is when I started looking for people to talk to.

The most immediate people available to listen to you are the hotel staff. But its a challenge to communicate with them since not all of them understand or speak English very well. For instance, the masseuse who worked on my painful knee today. Sometimes she doesnt understand a word of what I say, but she ALWAYS smiles and NODS whenever I say something. I started learning a few words of Bahasa (local language in Indonesia) so that I could make myself understood. I have been practising it on the waitresses, the bell-boys, the room-service staff and anybody who will listen. Whenever I ask them “saya adalah bahasa yang baik?” (“Is my Bahasa good?”) , they LAUGH! And I laugh too.

Somehow, my efforts seem to be connecting with them. The lady who makes the bed told me, in broken English, how her husband beats her and she is only waiting for her children to grow up. She told me about her faith in God and how she keeps working hard everyday so that her children can go to school. Another young girl from housekeeping said that her dad worked as a chauffeur for the owner of the hotel. Her dream is to become a receptionist in the hotel but she doesn’t know if she will ever make enough money to get the training she needs.  I am often taken by surprise and humbled when they share these personal stories with me. My husband often asks, “How come they tell you these things?” I don’t have an answer to that. Maybe because when they come to the room, I talk to them..ask them their names, about their families, etc.To them, I am a safe listener. They know that tomorrow I will probably never come back to the hotel and their stories will just travel with me safely. But I know these apparently ordinary people have taught me a thing or two about resilience.

The Hotel Staff in Indonesia

A mini visit to ‘Mini Indonesia’

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A mini visit to ‘Mini Indonesia’

“Stranded in Jakarta.” That is what comes to mind every time my husband and I have to spend a weekend in the capital city of Indonesia. To beat the boredom, we decided to venture out to see ‘Taman Mini Indonesia’, a sprawling culture-based recreational area, spanning 250 acres that brings to life all the twenty seven provinces of Indonesia. Conceived by the Tien Suharto, wife of the late President Suharto, and built in 1975, the park recreates  the architecture, food, dress and handicrafts of every island on separate pavilions. It was a visual delight to see the dazzling delights of one thousand islands captured beautifully in one place. A wobbly cable car ride gives a bird’s eye view of the park which also has a lake that is a miniature recreation of the Indonesian archipelago. There is an aviary housing the 160 indigenous species of Indonesia’s rare birds and a reptile museum housed in a building that resembles a dinosaur. In case you are not a culture-vulture, a water park, an imax theater and a collection of museums ranging from telecom to transport make this definitely one of the must-visit places in Indonesia.The fun part is getting around the sprawling acreage on these eccentric two-wheelers which are designed to make the pillion rider feel way shorter than the driver!

What was shocking though was the incredible tourist-unfriendliness of the place. All the signages are in Bahasa, there was no one at the Information centers and there was not one person we came across that understood even very basic English to give us directions. As though shying away from all things global, the tiny restaurants that dot the park serve only local soft drinks. No coke or pepsi? Dude, seriously! The  refreshingly sweet coconut water saved the day.

Taman Mini is Indonesia’s best kept secret. A little sprucing up, a little more tourist-friendliness and Taman Mini could perfectly showcase to the world what a fascinating place Indonesia is.