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Amidst the housing crisis I have read many stories about how many immigrant minorities were “duped” into borrowing ridiculous amounts of money for homes that they could not possibly afford.  An example that is often passed around is of     I cannot say that I understand the motivation of this family on buying such an expensive home, but I can speak from my experience as a Chinese immigrant as to why the “American dream” of homeownership could be so alluring and so destructive.

First of all, most Chinese immigrants I know are pretty frugal about everything except for their homes, cars, and their kids’ education.  Amongst the adults in my parents generation I think most do not go on expensive vacations, eat out  a lot, or buy very expensive clothes.  As a result, their idea of home affordability is a lot higher than 38% of their incomes.  Several people have said to me that Chinese people do not really care about spending more than 50% of their incomes on a mortgage, and I have found that to be true in many instances.  As  a result many people buy a lot more than they probably should have.  I have also  heard the same logic from some first generation  Asian Indian coworkers in the past.  Basically, they can afford the expensive house because they save on everything else.  Usually for married couples this is usually fine until one person loses his or her job.

Another cultural dynamic  that skews how affordable a home is for many immigrants is that many adult children , parents, and other family members are expected to pool their money together towards buying a house.  I know many people my age who own homes due to parental contribution, or some are living with their parents and helping to pay for the mortgage.  In the case of the strawberry pickers it seems that several families pooled together to afford the ridiculously high mortgage.  I think this arrangement is a lot less common in non-immigrant Caucasian American families.  Again, this could work if all family members are committed to paying for the debt and they keep their jobs, but otherwise it could be disastrous.

Next, Chinese culture has a big thing with something we call “face” or mianzi.  It essentially means that you have to project how successful you are to others.  In America I guess it is called “keeping up with the Joneses”.  Having a big beautiful house in a nice school district is a big part of having face.  It is something you can take pictures of and send back home to China and it is also something you can show off to friends and family via dinner parties.  Having face also includes having , and sometimes a nice car, too.  The value of face is priceless for a lot of Chinese people, and they are willing to sacrifice financially for what is essentially bragging rights. I remember a friend telling me once that all her parents spends on is their house and their expensive car, and they do not seem to enjoy life at all because they have no money left over to take vacations.  However, having that house and car seems to add to their self worth even though she thinks it is pretty superficial.

Finally, I think homeownership is so ridiculously appealing to all immigrants because it is a form of assimilation.  It is saying to the world that you own a little piece of America and you are part of something bigger.  Most  immigrants I know do work really hard for what they have, and it is pretty sad when they lose it all, but ultimately those who are in foreclosure now are responsible for their own decisions.  There were definitely shady real estate agents and mortgage brokers that targeted immigrant populations in this crisis, but I think many immigrants lost their usual conservatism and frugality when they were mesmerized with the idea of owning a home.  I know many immigrant families are still plodding away by pooling their incomes for huge mortgages these days, and I applaud them for being responsible, but for those who are draining their savings perhaps it is better to walk away and  start over again.

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I have found that I like the LA Times’ reporting a lot more than the SF Chronicle’s.  Today on Sacramento’s plan on how to balance the state budget, and some of it is truly hilarious.  Here is a short summary.

  • State workers’ June paycheck would be paid on July 1st, thus pushing $1.2 billion of expenses into the next fiscal year.  Umm… this saves money how?
  • $1.7 billion of school funding would be delayed until the next fiscal year.  Once again, this is another paper fix
  • Withhold 10% more taxes from every working Californian starting Jan 1st 2010.  This is essentially an attempt to collect almost $2 billion in taxes in advance.  What prevents people from changing their withholdings and owe the state money even with a 10% increase?
  • 3% tax withholding on payments to independent contractors.  This is another gimmick to advance tax payments, but the independent contractors could get the money back if they don’t owe 3%.
  • $1 billion proposed money grab on local gasoline tax revenues.  This is already being fought by the League of California Cities with a lawsuit.
  • $1.50 per pack extra taxes on cigarettes.  When New York imposed a huge hike of taxes on each pack of cigarettes some simply bought cigarettes with lower taxes from other states and imported them to New York and made a profit by selling them at the tax inclusive rate.  I’m guessing some Nevadans or Oregonians will be into this business in California now.
  • Illegal immigrants in prisons are being sent to immigration to be deported.  They really should have done this years ago.  Isn’t this really common sense?

A lot of these attempts to delay or advance payments really add nothing to the bottom line.  In fact, I think some of them would backfire.  For example, if you usually get a state tax refund now, perhaps it is time to change your withholdings so that you end up owing money at the end of the year because the state is trying to milk more money out of you this year anyway.  Also we all know that the state delayed refund payments for months and months this year so why should they receive your money early?  Chances are this would happen again if they do not change the fundamentals of how they are operating.    If enough people change their withholding strategy then this advance grab of tax dollars would not work at all.  If you calculate your withholdings correctly it is possible to owe just enough to not have to pay a penalty.

I’m kind of annoyed to see that a lot of the original proposed cuts on some social programs are gone and all of these gimmicks are going on.  So they are pushing one month’s salary into the next year, what will they do the next year?  Push the salaries again?  Soon enough state worker’s will be getting their pay budgeted for years into the future.  That’s pretty pointless.

I really do not mind paying taxes if it is being used responsibly, but it does not seem like the government knows how to manage money properly.  Add that to the fact that Californians themselves control the law making proposition system you just get a complete mess.   Of course noone wants to cut education, healthcare, and freebies, and of course noone wants to increase taxes.  So what you have left over is a very dysfunctional state and another reason to hate California.

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After I attended Kapiolani Community College for a year, I started thinking about getting a job that is related to my major of accounting.   As I have mentioned before, American employers always want to employ someone with experience, so it is especially tough to find that first job related to your field.  This is the reason why many people want to go to the most famous colleges because students from these schools have an easier time finding the first job.  However, after you have worked at a job and collected experience, employers would look at what you have done and what you can do for them instead of where you graduated.  So now when friends in China ask me which American school their kids should attend, I would tell them that if they have the money and skills they should go to the most prestigious schools.  However, if they can’t get into the best, they shouldn’t be discouraged, because college lasts for only four years, and the road of life is very very long, and a college degree will not determine their entire destiny in life.

After I learned some accounting basics in America, I was determined to find a job related to accounting.  Since I didn’t have any experience, I emphasized that I had a 4.0 GPA, but this first off campus job was still very difficult to find.  After trying for a while, I found a job as a cashier at a store in the famous Ala Moana Shopping Center.  The store was owned by a Japanese American woman and I worked there for about four months.  However, I have to honestly say that these four months were the darkest and most unfair days I have ever experienced in America.  These days made me truly experience the ugly side of capitalism that was taught in China’s Marxism classes.  This capitalist that hired me forced me to work very heavy labor, overtime, and refused to pay.

“Where there is oppression, there will be resistance.”  I think this Japanese American woman underestimated international students from China.  She thought that we were uneducated, and that she could easily control immigrants from China, Vietnam, and other “third world nations” because none of us spoke English well.   She didn’t think that Chinese students my age were educated with the message of revolution since we experienced the Cultural Revolution.  She didn’t know that we were taught the message of, “there is endless fun in fighting with the sky, there is endless fun in fighting with the ground, and there is endless fun in fighting with class enemies”.  The most important thing is that in China I have had some education in law, and I knew that what she did was not only unfair and cruel but also broke the law.  Even though my English was horrible at that time and I couldn’t express myself well, I managed to team up with another student she hired and fought with her in court.  Even though this happened more than a decade ago, I still get angry when I think about it.  Recently I went back to China and heard on the news that a foreign capitalist was beating Chinese workers, and that also made me very angry.  I thought that this type of abuse rarely happens in a capitalist country like America, but now how could a socialist nation like China let it happen?  This chapter will detail my story of fighting against oppression.

To be continued!

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In Hawaii, I was able to procure green onion, salt, vegetable oil, and I also got some Chinese cooking wine from Honolulu’s Chinatown.  Additionally, I added Morri’s favorite sauce from Hong Kong called the “Lee Kum Kee Panda Brand Oyster Flavored Sauce”.

After I prepared all the materials, I started making the authentic Yangzhou Chowfan.   After classes ended that day, I went to the cafeteria filled with excitement.  I saw that Craig was writing the day’s menu on a blackboard.  Morri saw me walk in and greeted me with a smile, “Today, you are the chef!  We will be your helpers.”

I said, “No way, you guys are still my bosses”.

As I talked to Morri, I saw what Craig wrote on the blackboard.  Hah!  He already wrote “Original Yangzhou Fried Rice”, and to emphasize the authenticity he added the line, “cooked by a chef from Yangzhou, China” on the bottom.

After I saw this advertisement I felt that I had a tremendous responsibility to create the best fried rice today to showcase  the culinary arts of my hometown and country.

I immediately jumped into the  hectic cooking process.  First, the main ingredient of rice must be prepared correctly.  Yangzhou Fried Rice isn’t exactly one single dish, but it is a dish mixed with the staple food of rice.  In China the best kind of rice to use for this is called Yangshan Rice.  It is a long grained rice that is not sticky after being cooked, and that is the best type of rice for frying.  Hawaii didn’t have this type of rice so I used Thai Jasmine Rice.  The Thai rice grains are rounder and smaller and gave off a pleasing scent after being cooked.   The most important thing about making the rice is putting in the correct amount of water.  If too much water was used then the rice would be soggy and not suitable for frying.  However, if there is too little water then the rice would be raw and uncooked.  At that time, we had a giant rice cooker and put in about ten pounds of rice.  Then, I put in water that rose about 5 to 6 centimeters above the rice, and started cooking.

While the rice was cooking, I started to prepare the other materials.  First I chopped the chicken leg meat and lean pork into tiny squares, and then I chopped up the shrimp.  Hawaii didn’t have the small river shrimps we usually used in China, but they had giant prawns from the ocean.  In order to make these ingredients tender in the rice, I added some cornstarch and a little bit of salt and cooking wine.  In China, we would also add some MSG, but in America MSG is considered bad for health.  Even though you could buy the best Japanese manufactured MSG for very little money, many restaurants in America would post a message in their menus that say, “No MSG”.  So I also followed the local customs and stopped using MSG in our cooking.  Now we haven’t purchased MSG for over ten years.

After all the materials were chopped and mixed, I asked Morri to light the kitchen’s large furnace.  The cafeteria has a gas furnace that made a loud ping when it was lighted.  I used a small frying pan first and put in some oil and fried the chicken,pork, prawns, and snow peas for about three minutes and then took them out.  Since these materials will go back in the pot with the rice later they do not need to be cooked completely.  If they are cooked completely and then cooked again they would not be as tender and would not taste as good.

Now the rice was cooked, so I told Morri to take all the rice out and put it in a large flat pan to cool a little bit.  Also, I asked her to break the large clumps into smaller pieces so the grains could dry a little bit and be better for frying.

Five minutes later, I put a very large wok on the  furnace and added vegetable oil.  Then I poured in the scrambled egg mix with some chopped green onion.  The eggs sizzled and jumped in the wok and many white and yellow bubbles started to pop with oil.  The sizzling paired with the howling of the fans and sounded like a kitchen orchestra.

The rice must be put into the pot not long after the eggs are in.  This is so that the eggs can be cooked and mixed evenly with the rice.  Then the other materials can be added with a little bit of oyster sauce and sesame oil.  It would be ready after a few more minutes of mixing.  This fried rice contains the yellow of the eggs, green of the onions, red of the various meats, and the white of the rice.  Additionally, the sweet smell of the jasmine rice and the flavor of the oyster sauce made it a perfect dish full of color, scent, and flavor.  Morri immediately ate two bowls and said that it was delicious.  She also bought some additional bowls for her family.

That day lines were forming before I even finished cooking my rice.  Since it was a student cafeteria, the price couldn’t be very high so they decided that they would sell my dish for $4.00 per bowl.  After I was done cooking, Morri and another student helper scooped the rice into plastic bowls and passed them to students to teachers as Jane and I collected the cash.  The ten pounds of rice were sold extremely quickly and by popular demand I cooked another batch, and similarly it was sold quickly.

Later, Jane did a bit of a cost/profit analysis and found that authentic Yangzhou Fried Rice may not be very profitable.  Even though the main ingredients are not very expensive, a lot of man hours were put into chopping up and preparing the dish.  Nevertheless, I brought the dish to the student cafeteria for one day, and Morri called me “chef” since then.

To be continued!

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In the previous chapter I mentioned that I really wanted to bring the authentic Yangzhou Fried Rice to the school cafeteria. The reason for this is that in America Yangzhou Fried Rice is a dish in almost every Chinese restaurant. I tasted a couple and it seems that none of them are authentic.

One day at work I told Morri that I am from Yangzhou and I knew how to make authentic “Yangzhou Fried Rice”.  I said to her, “If you try my Yangzhou Fried Rice, then you would know how good the real Yangzhou Fried Rice is.”

Morri listened to what I said and sounded a bit doubtful,   “Are you sure?” She said to me.  I confidently told her that there is no doubt that I could make it.  I asked her to agree to one term, which is that I get to pick the ingredients I want and she needs to get all the ingredients for me.  Morri couldn’t agree to that so she brought the proposal to the head chef Craig.  Craig is also a Hawaiian.  He is sturdily built, not very tall, and sported a thick mustache.  He spoke pidgin and was a graduate of a famous culinary academy in New York.  He chose Kapiolani Community College after he graduated because the college has a very strong culinary program.  Craig is not only the chef of the cafeteria but also did demonstrations for culinary students.  When I was working there I often saw Craig work with a gaggle of students wearing chef hats and aprons.  Craig and another professor named Kent often had a myriad of sauces and containers and did various lessons.  At that time, I admired those classes quite a bit.  I thought to myself, if I were 15 to 20 years younger, I should also major in cooking and maybe I could have gone back to China and opened a restaurant featuring western cuisine.  Perhaps my restaurant could have been quite popular.  Recently, I received an alumni magazine from the University of Hawaii and there was an article about the Chinese Ministry of Education visiting Kapiolani’s Culinary Arts department.  The goal was to speak about educating more Chinese people in western cuisine.

Part 6

Morri told Craig that I wanted to bring Yangzhou Fried Rice to the students and staff of Kapiolani.  Craig is a person who is very open to new ideas and suggestions.  He loves to cook food from different countries such as France, Italy, and Korea.  One particular dish I thought was quite interesting was a Hawaiian dish called Laulau.  Craig would take some  ti leaf and wrap pork in it, and then the package is roasted until the pork is so cooked that it falls apart.  After it is cooked the leaves would be removed and its aroma would flood the room.  Honestly, I thought that it tasted pretty good, but the presentation was quite ghastly.

Craig heard that I want to make some Yangzhou fried rice and he agreed heartily.  He told me to make a list of the ingredients and I thought about the things my neighbor taught me about Yangzhou Fried Rice.

Yangzhou Fried Rice is also called Yangzhou Egg Fried Rice, and legend has it that it is the favorite dish of  Yang Su of the Sui Dynasty.  It was called “Broken Gold Rice”.  When the emperor of Sui was touring Yangzhou, he brought the dish to the city, and it was further enhanced by chefs of many generations.  The Huaiyang cooking school has an emphasis on “seriousness in choosing ingredients, expertise and care in preparation, exactness in portion and color, and preservation of original taste and juices”.  Eventually, Yangzhou fried rice became one of the most famous dishes of  Huaiyang cuisine.

Authentic Yangzhou fried rice has the following main ingredients: Chinese rice and eggs from grass fed hens.  Side ingredients include sea cucumber, grass fed chicken meat, Chinese sausage, scallop, fresh water shrimp, mushrooms, fresh cooked bamboo shoots, and snow peas.  Additionally you would add diced green onions, salt, cooking wine, chicken broth, and vegetable oil.

At that time in Hawaii we didn’t have so many Chinese ingredients.So we used Thai jasmine rice and cooked it with a bit less water than usual.  That makes the rice stiff and better for frying.  We also didn’t have eggs from grass fed hens because all eggs in America were produced in large scale chicken farms and shipped in cartons.  This worked just fine and I also added chicken meat, lean pork, shrimp, and snow peas.

To be continued!

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