Kaya on Brioche

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A Year of Daily Walks

This year I keep dreaming about Japan. Because of covid, we canceled a trip a week before take-off almost exactly one year ago, and so my mind keeps returning to my last visit almost six years ago. I remember walking all over Hiroshima; each day I'd leave my hostel and walk for a few hours until I got hungry. I'd stop and eat wherever I happened to be and then I'd keep walking, sometimes resting at a park or going into a shop to cool down from the heat. It seemed like the most cost-effective way to explore the city alone. One of these long walks brought me to The Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, where I bought these little triangle hangers from the gift shop. Those little hangers have been with me in every apartment since.

The weekend my partner and I decided we shouldn’t go see our families for Christmas because of the pandemic, we walked an hour through Brooklyn to pick up a small little Christmas tree. We'd never celebrated the holiday together and we tried to make the most of every single detail and find new traditions together. It felt silly to be sad when we were so fortunate. Our first decoration on the tree was a small photo on one of my little triangle hangers.

After those many miles of walking in Hiroshima years ago, a family opened their home to me because I didn’t know where to stay. The woman gave me a book on Hiroshima and told me that after the city was destroyed, a few ginkgo biloba trees survived. These trees were charred from the bomb, but they were able to grow leaves once again.

Two Soft Boiled Eggs Drowning in Soy Sauce

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My sister, cousin and I recently returned to Singapore to visit relatives. We stayed in Tiong Bahru, and every morning my sister and I would walk the five minutes to the hawker center while my cousin slept in, which was just enough time for our makeup to melt away in the humidity. We'd climb up the stairs, taking in the many foods we'd been dreaming of days before in our cold homes on the other side of the world.

I visited Singapore numerous times when I was young with my sister and mother; our main activities consisted of math workbooks, card games, endless eating, watching a string of Chinese soap operas over cut fruit, and going to Tiong Bahru Market. I'm embarrassed to say I truly hated it whenever my mother dragged my sister and me through the wet, smelly ground floor and up the stairs to the humid food court.

There is much to comment on how and why Singapore has changed so rapidly during my mother's lifetime and during my own lifetime. My Ama and Akong's home, among many other older buildings, has disappeared, and this odd shaped building called Marina Bay Sands has become the main tourist attraction (which my mother has yet to see in person!).

But at least for now, whenever we visit the city where my mother grew up, my sister and I can make our way to Tiong Bahru Market and enjoy an iced kopi, kaya toast with melting butter, and two soft boiled eggs drowning in soy sauce as we sweat through our clothes at nine in the morning.

Illustration by my sister, Lauren Monaco.

A Coffee Shop in Brooklyn

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The first time I went to Burly in Brooklyn, I met my friend for a writing session. I had been in New York for a month and finally no longer needed to spend most of my day applying to jobs. At the time neither of us lived near Burly, but it was equidistant between us. I had come from a coffee date and the date wanted to tag along (this was only the second time I'd met this guy). So the three of us sat at Burly, sipping our drinks and writing away: a screenplay, a short story and stand up between us. My friend and I exchanged smirks across the table intermittently. After he left, we stopped typing and discussed him and our writing in detail. I never saw him again after we later broke up. I still see my friend almost every week.

I moved to Bed-Stuy (or deeper in Bed-Stuy) by the time winter arrived. Despite an underwhelmingly mild winter, New York was hit with one weekend of vicious snow. One of my roommates and I wandered around the apartment in our pajamas, thankful the snow and limited subway service gave us an excuse to avoid people. After getting a little stir crazy, we took out our boots and trudged through the snow up Throop to Burly and read our books over our warm drinks. I was deep into Wild Swans at the time. We fell into a discussion of our relatives' upbringing in different countries and the resilience of the women in our families. We ended the slow day by watching Mad Max in our basement, which seemed fitting.

A few months later as winter turned to spring, I met my closest friend at Burly. We had a thing for meeting at coffee shops when we had something pressing on our minds… which meant we met at coffee shops a lot. We recounted all our racing thoughts, shrugging when we couldn’t find the right words. She hadn’t slept well in a while so we walked back to my apartment where she passed out on my couch with the cat. She ended up leaving for grad school a few months later but certain places in New York still remind me of her.

I’ve been to Burly several other times; it's just a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy with good wifi, friendly baristas and delicious vegan chocolate chip cookies.

It has been a year since I moved to New York, and now I have a little corner of this city to call my own.

Illustration by my sister, Lauren Monaco.

Messy Pasta in Paris

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A few years ago my friend and I arrived in Paris, planning to drop our study abroad bags off with someone before taking a train to Barcelona that night to start a three-week backpacking adventure. However, of course things fell through on the first day when the person who was supposed to pick up our bags did not show up. We were college students and not about to pay for a locker, so in a panic I called the only number I had in France, my father's colleague. He had no warning about my phone call, but he stepped out of his meeting and gave me his address, assuring me his 13 year old son would take care of us.

In a jetlagged haze, my friend and I wandered to the apartment in Neiully-sur-Seine and arrived at the door drenched in sweat with two overstuffed bags. The young boy and his little brother ushered us in. They were on school break and were lazing around in their pajamas. The older brother was a ball of energy, speaking quickly in accented English. He put us at ease, assuring us that we shouldn’t worry about storing our massive bags in the small tasteful Parisian apartment. He exclaimed that we must be hungry and started boiling water for pasta. My dad later learned from his father that this was his first time cooking. I should have guessed since pasta and sauce ended up all over the tiled floor in his frenzy.

We sat in the kitchen over our overflowing bowls of pasta. The windows were wide open leading to a balcony crammed with juice bottles. I sat there in awe, overwhelmed by being in a foreign country for the first time without my parents. He told us of his school trip to the US and how much he loved New York. He asked us if we watched The Big Bang Theory (we didn’t), and they insisted we watch it with them because we were American. We watched two episodes after the meal. While the brothers laughed energetically, my friend and I tried to figure out how someone could be so kind to two sweaty foreign strangers.

When the older brother was about to start the third episode, we told him we had to leave for the train. He understood and walked us to the station, helped us buy tickets, and waited until we had passed through the turnstiles, waving goodbye with a huge smile.

He was in school when we returned for our bags, so we never saw him again. This was our first Parisian crush. And who says the French aren’t warm and welcoming.

Illustration by my sister, Lauren Monaco.

Winter in Review

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I moved into a great apartment in Brooklyn (with a laundry machine and stairs!!) and survived winter by reading a lot. I also learned that if a subway car is empty, it is empty for a reason. Can I call myself a New Yorker now?

1st row: curry puffs with Lauren // blizzard in Bed-Stuy // Dim Sum in Chinatown
2nd row: Black Gold Records in Carroll Gardens // the Guggenheim Museum // a warm day in Chelsea
3rd row: winter escape to Dallas // my roommate's cat, Freddy // The Greene Grape in Fort Greene

Riding the Shinkansen in Japan

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My sister is not the best seat buddie on the Shinkansen. Last year we travelled together in Japan and rode the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. I envisioned a quiet, reflective time; I would read Murakami while catching glimpses of Mt Fuji from the window. I was able to do this when I returned alone a few months later, but with my sister I could hardly concentrate. Every five seconds I felt another nudge on my spine. She would not sit still, another picture had to be taken, another video had to be shot. I think she spent the majority of the three hour ride looking through her phone camera.

I have used both the 7 day and 28 day pass, and if you’re traveling a lot, you absolutely must buy one. It is quite a bit of money up front (purchased at a travel agency in cash) and you can only trade it in and book train seats once you arrive in Japan. This caused me a lot of stress on my second trip as I arrived in Tokyo at 9 am and needed to be in Hiroshima by nightfall. However, thankfully it is not at all hard to get a seat reservation, and even if you don’t, you can simply hop on the unreserved cars (often cars 1-3). The attendants at the ticket booth in the Narita JR office were extremely helpful and efficient. They don’t allow luggage into the office however. When I was traveling alone I left my luggage (my whole life as I was moving countries) outside the office and prayed it would still be there after the transaction. Because I was in Japan nothing was stolen (don’t try that elsewhere!).

The pass also works in JR trains within Tokyo! It is great if you need more flexibility because you can hop on any shinkansen or JR Tokyo train. When all my travel plans fell through the third day on my solo trip, I lost no money on transportation. If I had booked specific trains, I would have been out at least $600. Instead, with my pass, if I woke up and felt like going to Osaka, I went to Osaka and paid nothing. I looked up exact times on hyperdia under wifi, screen shot them, then followed the signs to the appropriate train and unreserved car carriages. The announcements were in English and Japanese with lettering above the door in case I didn’t catch them. There was also a luggage lock area between the cars.

Not always, but most of the time the expensive fare of the train pass will work in your favor. Even the trip to and from Kyoto in one week with my sister was worth it. Of course if you want other options, there are cheaper (and longer) ways to travel within Japan. But honestly you can’t beat that view or the experience… even if you have your sister badgering you the whole way.

Illustration by my sister, Lauren Monaco.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

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Last year in Singapore my sister and I were able to partake in some of the family Chinese New Year traditions. I had two days off from work, and my sister and I attended reunion dinner with our relatives. We received ang pows (red packets enclosed with money) and ate everything. We also partook in the recent Singapore tradition of yusheng (twice!); everyone stands around a dish of shredded vegetables and raw fish and tosses it with chopsticks at the same time. It is messy and loud and meant to symbolize wishes for prosperity. My sister illustrated the ingredients below. Traditionally (and still done), all relatives gather for a huge reunion dinner the night before and then visit older or more distant relatives during the following days, bringing oranges, snacks, ang pows and good wishes.

One of the best Singaporean desserts is onde-onde, which is a ball of coconut, pandan and gula melaka (sugar from a coconut tree). It tastes like everything good bursting in your mouth at once. I’m not sure if it is a traditional CNY dessert, but my aunt made some from scratch for our reunion dinner. Pictured above is my sister’s rendition of my aunt’s amazing onde-onde. Other common Chinese Year treats are pineapple tarts, love letters, egg custard tarts, almond cookies and kuih bahulu, among countless others. I am still on the lookout for Singaporean (preferably Peranakan) dessert places in New York (so please tell me!).

Having grown up in a mixed family far away from my ethnically Chinese relatives, my understanding of Chinese New Year is a bit fragmentary. However I have experienced it as a time of giving, eating, honoring older relatives and spending time with close family. It also doesn’t hurt that my parents give me an ang pow every year - one of the benefits of being young and unmarried!

All illustrations by my sister, Lauren Monaco.