Snippets / The G Diaries

[note: this is part of what I wrote a while ago as an attempt to process the 1.75 years I spent at Google]

Of the whole team, we only had one ‘real’ American (M) and he joined the team a year after I did. M went to Dartmouth and rowed crew. He is very tall and very white and very smart. His girlfriend C is in her third year of medical school. We had them over for dinner just after I left Google, and they are a lovely couple. Almost everyone else on the team had originally worked at the Bangalore office, and had moved to the Bay Area in 2014. Initially I was curious about whether my Indian co-workers ever felt lonely or out-of-place. They assured me that they were even more well-connected to people that they grew up with in the Bay than they were back home! In fact, more of their high school friends were in Silicon Valley than not. Perhaps more significantly, they were incredibly adept at keeping their social connections alive, as well as at making new ones. I was constantly hearing about board game nights and drinking nights and birthday surprises and some less legal hobbies that they enjoyed together. My Indian coworkers participated in many facets of American culture — they purchased groupons for paint night, were fascinated by the election, and geeked out over Star Wars. But while they were quite happy to be assimilated into American/Bay Area culture, they didn’t display a strong desire mix with American people outside of a work context — or perhaps they lacked the opportunity to do so.

This is all especially striking to me because of my own background, which is somewhat parallel to theirs.

I grew up (for the most part) in Singapore. My parents are both Singaporean. Until I left for college, I never identified strongly with the notion of being ‘Singaporean’ or ethnically ‘Chinese’, simply because it didn’t occur to me that I could be anything else. All my friends were Singaporean, and most of them were Chinese.

There was a decent amount of ethnical prejudice and ‘othering’ that I was exposed to in Singapore, particularly surrounding immigrant workers and domestic helpers (“maids”), but I was completely oblivious to it while I was in school. Even the foreign scholars from China, Vietnam and other Asian countries in our classrooms were mostly excluded from our social structures, to put it bluntly. We called students from China ‘PRC’ (short for People’s Republic of China) — as in, “he’s a PRC” — and on hindsight, it’s obvious that this peculiarly anthropomorphic verbal gesture was a gross devaluation of both the person as well as their homeland. As if their person could never mean more than their country and their country could never mean more than other. Of course, all this time I was kept busy figuring out my future and developing all the potential that my parents and teachers saw in me.

And it was in fact all those hours of tuition and dollars spent on extracurricular paraphernalia, crucially intersecting with an abundance of opportunity and privilege, affording me access to people and places of so-called socially-constructed ‘prestige’ as well as genuine opportunities for learning and development, that landed me in an Ivy League institution in Philadelphia.

Honestly, I was terrified of white people.

In freshman year, both my hallmates were white girls (and now I know that one of them went to high school with Karl). I didn’t know what to say to them. They were like people from the movies — after all, my sole exposure to American culture was all the Lindsay Lohan movies plus all the Princess Diaries books plus Taylor Swift. They looked different, they spoke different. On my first day at Penn they asked me if I wanted to go out with them that night to a frat party, and I didn’t know what to say. A hundred thousand little negotiations and re-configurations were going on inside my head, and I didn’t know how to articulate any of them. I both accepted and resented the fact that they were treating me — too-kindly and too-self-consciously — as an International Student. I sensed and reinforced the power dynamic that was developing between us, and so I pleaded jet-leg and went to bed that night very homesick indeed.

This past week has been nerve-wrecking and frustrating. I was promised by the USCIS (United States Consulate for Immigration Services) that I would receive my EAD/AP (Employment Authorization Document/Advanced Parole) Combo Card within ninety days of my application for a Green Card, which I applied for on May 3, 2017. It’s been more than a hundred days. Essentially, I’ve applied to become a Permanent Resident here in America, and while they’re processing my request (which takes about one year), I’m not allowed to work or travel outside the country unless I have this Combo Card, which sounds an awful lot like something you would get at McDonalds, except it takes decidedly longer than fast food to prepare.

I asked my Indian co-workers how long it takes for them to get a work-based Green Card in the US.

“Oh, hmm,” they said. “About forty years.”
“What?!”
“Doesn’t matter. You can still stay in the mean time.”

And perhaps that is how we grow accustomed to wearing a status that is pending, that is in-between.

I’m aware that these people have reached what most people would call the pinnacle of the immigrant experience. They live in comfort and luxury, they don’t face overt racism, and they do significant and interesting work. But even for them, it feels like something is missing.

It’s difficult to have a stake in a community when you don’t belong to it.
It’s difficult to talk about change when you can’t vote.
It’s difficult to take an interest in a country’s people when its people don’t take an interest in you.

I ask them if they want to go back to India, and a lot of them say, probably.

My most valuable learning points from Google have nothing to do with technology, computer science or career advancement.

First, I learned how to operate an espresso machine. At Google’s campus, you are never more than a hundred and fifty feet away from one. It is a Rule. I once asked one of the microkitchen staff how much one of the units cost, and she said at least tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, being able to curate a cortado with locally-harvested beans has no immediate relevance to software development (at least, not that I’m aware of), but it seems to be entirely relevant to employee retention rates. Anyway, I learned how to make espresso by first making a blundering fool of myself. While I was fiddling with the attachment, I noticed a man waiting impatiently for me to be done, which only made me more nervous. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually, he spoke up.

“I’m sorry—do you mind? You’re doing it wrong.”
“What?”
“You’re going to spoil the machine.”
“Oh no!”
“I used to be a barista. Here, I can show you.”

And he did. And I practiced every day. Rinse out the metal thingy so you don’t get the staleness from the previous brew. The right amount of coffee, the right pressure when you pack it in. The right degree of tightness when you screw the attachment on. How to make microfoam. How to wash each vessel properly. It was extraordinarily empowering to be able to make au laits and americanos for myself, and to impress visitors with my newfound nonengineering skill.

Karl was my most frequent visitor by far. We decided to make small alterations to his name each time he registered in case some system algorithm caught the fact that someone named Karl Li was visiting the San Francisco Google Office twice a week (and consuming a lot of the cookies). He would wear guest badges that said Kar Li, Karli, Karl Lee, Karol Lee, etc. It was incredibly convenient that he lived a short walk away from my office. At that time he was working from home, and so coming to the office at lunch and working together helped to take the edge off the loneliness a little (for the both of us). During lunch we’d take our food — something like miso-glazed pork loin with power greens, curried cauliflower soup and bread from a local bakery, a salad with squash blossoms — to the Embarcadero, near the famous ferry building, and gaze at the beautiful Bay Bridge as we ate. Did we know that only a year later we’d be happily settled in the East Bay? We probably didn’t have a clue. After lunch I’d offer to make him coffee, but more often than not he’d want tea, or his favorite drink: steamed milk with syrup.

I worked out of the San Francisco office three times a week. In my first year, I commuted every day from the Sunset to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View and back. I would wake up at 6:12am, take a shower, eat some food, dress, and speedwalk for twelve minutes—past the little Asian stores which were just beginning to show signs of life, in the freezing fog—to 19th & Kirkham, which is where I caught the shuttle. The shuttle took about seventy minutes. On the shuttle, I mostly did some combination of: texting Karl, texting my mom, reading, emails, working, listening to Switchfoot/Narnia/the Bible. The shuttle was always nearly full, and nobody ever talked to anyone else on the shuttle. Eighty percent of people were on their laptops, and the rest were asleep. The only time anyone said anything was to tell the driver that the wifi wasn’t working.

The shuttle ride home in the evening took anywhere from ninety minutes and up. I took the earliest bus home (4pm) and usually got home before 6pm. That’s three hours a day, or fifteen hours a week, spent being idle on a bus. No matter how I tried to optimize my hours on the shuttle, it felt like lost time. My eyes were too tired to look at a screen and longer, and so I uttered many desperate and incoherent prayers.

I believe God heard them all.

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Sabbath #1

noun. Old English, from Latin sabbatum, via Greek from Hebrew šabbāṯ, from šāḇaṯ ‘to rest.’

The church community I’m a part of is doing an experiment in the practice of Sabbath. It isn’t very complicated; the experiment is just to try it, and to see how it goes. It can be on any day and for any amount of time, and there aren’t any pre-defined rules about what you can or cannot do. Just rest intentionally. Sounds pretty basic, right?

It’s been 112 days since I quit my full-time job, and one of the most striking things about this time is how little I have rested. Two days after I quit, I jumped into a month-long intensive yoga teacher training program. Then, I started a granola business, signed up for all the volunteer things I could find, enrolled in an online Psych class for credit, did graphic design, traveled, researched grad schools, and meal-planned til I was blue. It’s surprising how the whole day can get totally lost in grocery shopping, dish washing, budgeting, laundry, emails, errands, library books, etc…and we don’t even have wifi at home! From the moment I’m up at (~7a), I’ve noticed that I’m constantly and compulsively doing stuff: packing Karl’s lunch, making granola, buying airplane tickets. I still believe all (or most) of those things need to get done, but my total inability to stop and take a break, much less plan some sort of small recreation for myself, has been a little alarming.

Most of my afternoons are occupied with nannying/babysitting jobs, but I have Fridays off. In light of this experiment our church is doing — as well as how difficult it’s been to just stop — I’m deciding to take Fridays as my ‘rest’ day. Well, today was my first Friday sabbath! Here’s what I did:

  • 6:45a – wake #1. feel determined to ‘sleep in’ because it’s sabbath. lie in bed.
  • 7:20a – wake #2. give up on sleeping in, decide just not in my DNA; get up, make tea, have breakfast, clear dishes, plan day.
  • 8a – force karl out of bed. pack his food, get dressed.
  • 8:30a – bike to coffee shop to use wifi, end up researching real estate. treat self to expensive almond latte.
  • 10a – meet friend & her sweet daughter at playground for hangout.
  • 11:15a – bike home, make granola for order i need to deliver on sunday and don’t have any other time to make.
  • 12:15p – heat leftovers for lunch.
  • 12:30p – decide i haven’t really done much resting.. read book in bed with big cup of tea.
  • 1:30p – walk to temescal pool, swim there for the first time.
  • 2:30p – take a long walk home.
  • 3:30p – write a letter, bike to post office, get bike brake repaired (for free!!), call mom.
  • 7p – dinner with friend in sf.
  • 10:30p – catch up with karl over white tea.
  • 11:30p – bed.

Notably, I (intentionally) didn’t do any grocery shopping or cooking, which is rare. I think having the day for rest encouraged me to do things I have wanted to do for a while but that never quite made it to the top of the ‘urgent+important’ list in my head, like going swimming and writing that letter. Swimming was extremely enjoyable; hopefully that’ll become a weekly thing (or more). At the end of the day, I did feel well-rested and generally grateful for life.

Saturday note: Woke up the next day with extremely painful sore throat and cough.. so not sure what to make of Sabbath on hindsight. All in all, still worth repeating :p

vancouver bc

Horseshoe Bay

Today was overcast, but in a way, the gloom felt appropriate and perhaps even beautiful.

I’m currently in my homeland, living in a big house tucked away in the north shore—the family home I’ve known since I was an infant. If people have summer homes, I suppose this was our winter home. As you may or may not know, Singaporean students study very industriously all throughout the summer, and so the word ‘summer’ has little or no meaning to us; we do, however, enjoy a six-week break at the end of the calendar year. And it was during this break that we’d find ourselves back here in West Vancouver BC, our annual reprieve from the relentless monsoon humidity and population density of southeast asia. We’d relish the winter freeze and the stoic mountains. Once we’d gotten over the jetlag, Christmasing in Vancouver was a little bit of magic.

Several things are different now. The last time I stayed in this house was over three years ago. The floors have been re-done; I’m a married woman; people have moved in and out of rooms with the ebb and flow of time, like they do in a game of Cluedo or musical chairs. My baby room—which had glow-in-the-dark fixtures lovingly stickered to the walls—is now a makeshift pantry. Some things we are learning for the first time: somehow we’ve managed to never notice the wild blackberry brambles in our own backyard, and indeed, all over the neighborhood. And then there are some things that are comfortingly constant, such as prices at safeway that will make you balk (avocados are on sale for $2.49?!), and those mountains.

Today we went to our favorite pho place and then took a drive around some scenic spots in the north shore, like horseshoe bay and caulfeild cove. Our family of four is reunited for the first time in nine months. I’m certainly in a different place, but I also feel as if I’m running on a different time.

All in all, I’m grateful (to put it mildly) that I get to be here in this season. I could be working and unable to travel. My travel authorization could have failed to arrive…indeed, that is a saga deserves its own post. But I’m here, with my family and with the mountains, about to make pajeon & bulgogi, and extremely proud to be canadian 😛

thoughts from a second-time climber

Seattle Bouldering Project

Post middle-school, my sportiness quotient plummeted from a solid 6.0 to approximately 0.5 (out of 10). In college, I made use of the free gym exactly once (not counting the time I used one of the gym lockers to stash my ‘interview outfit’ in between classes and on-campus recruiting). I tried several times to pick up running, which was especially convenient when I lived half a block from the Golden Gate Park, but it never stuck — I had migraines, my hands were freezing, my feet were sweaty, etc. So I resigned myself to a lifestyle of immobility. Two-minute walk from my home to the shuttle stop + two-minute walk from the shuttle stop to my desk = four minutes of walking a day. I exaggerate, but that is generally accurate. Yay software engineering! And as everyone knows, the more you don’t do something, the harder it is to start doing it again.

I am still not sporty or outdoorsy, but I do feel much more optimistic about exercise in general, i.e. more excited and curious than insecure and dread-full. The turning point for me was doing yoga and barre (thanks Google for the free classes). Anyway, my point is that in the past year or so, my attitude towards physical activity has changed dramatically, and I want to prioritize living a non-sedentary lifestyle as long I am able to.

This past summer Karl & I participated in a book study on Ephesians with a bunch of 10.0 sportiness folks, and on our last day of the study, they brought us outdoor climbing at Indian Rock, Berkeley. I was completely surprised by how much I enjoyed it! Adrenaline rush + shaking forearms + nature. Who knew? Unfortunately, climbing proved to be an expensive hobby, especially in the Bay Area. Most gyms have a $125/month membership fee, which is cash that I’d rather save. Oh well.

But since we’re in Seattle for a week, I decided to look up bouldering gyms. I found the Seattle Bouldering Project, a gorgeous indoor space near Little Saigon. I was fully prepared to pay all of $16 for a day pass + free shoe rentals, but they let me qualify for the student price (I told the guy I’m taking a class online, which is true. “Good enough for me,” he said. By the way, this also was apparently good enough for Spotify Premium), so I got a full day of bouldering for 12 bucks.

I went by myself, and overall it was very enjoyable and a good workout. There was a great variety of routes and difficulties, two floors of climbing walls, and a ton of fitness equipment, including an intense-looking tread-wall (a climbing wall that MOVES). This was a Wednesday morning, and the area was relatively empty, although there was some kind of elementary school camp activity going on in the kids’ area (not that I minded). They had a cute cafe (my weakness) with wifi so I called my mom while my forearms recovered. Re: climbing, it was striking how much of a difference it made when I looked up vs when I looked down. Also, repeating the mantra “keep stepping up” in my head was extremely helpful because I kept wanting to use my arms instead of my legs. The biggest obstacle to my climbing was probably not knowing at what height I could safely fall from, and also not really knowing how to fall. I erred on the side of caution, because I am risk-averse, and also because I recently caught up with a dear friend who broke her leg while falling. If I had the confidence to fall better, I think I would have been able to challenge myself more. Not that it wasn’t already challenging, but you know, growth mindset.

All in all, I wish climbing were more affordable in the east bay, because I love the intellectual component (you have to think very hard!). In the mean time, I highly recommend SBP and enthusiastically welcome any tips for climbing noobs.

granola lessons

In July, I decided to start a granola business. I’d been making granola for a few months, and have always felt strongly that granola as a food product is terribly overpriced and oversweetened. Needless to say, the entire process was far more involved, exhausting, and discouraging than I could have imagined — and I’m a pessimist to begin with. But I’m still going at it, and I thought it would be helpful for me to distill all the granola-making lessons I have learned along the way.

The whole process has felt like a (sometimes poorly-planned) science experiment — I keep a notebook where I scribble all my recipe tweaks and notes, and have a huge spreadsheet where I track ingredient costs and weights and suppliers. Karl has had to put up with our house feeling like the tropics and smelling like cookies almost every single day. The worst bit is probably all the food wastage that feels unnecessary but is a sadly necessary part of the whole process. Still, there’s something feverishly exhilarating about the whole process. I know I’m just making granola, but sometimes I feel like a mad scientist.

SO, here is my base recipe, and probably more than you ever wanted to know about the process of making granola.

rachel’s granola recipe base

makes ~8 servings, or just over 2 cups of granola

Dry ingredients

  • 150g / 1½ cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 40g / ⅓ cup oat flour (or plain flour, or more oats; flour helps with clustering)
  • ¼ tsp Morton sea salt
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 70g / ½ cup mix of chopped nuts, seeds, and unsweetened coconut flakes

Wet ingredients

  • 54g / ¼ cup olive oil
  • 60g / 3 tbsp maple syrup

Preheat oven to 300 F.

Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl. Combine olive oil and maple syrup well, and pour into dry ingredients. Mix, mix, mix! Make sure everything is well-coated with liquid.

Spread evenly onto a baking sheet, and pat down gently with a spatula.

Bake for 30-40 mins (depending on your oven). I recommend checking and stirring after 15 minutes; if it looks like the granola is browning rapidly, you can turn the oven down to 250 F to be safe. The granola will not be fully crisp when you take it out, but it will be once it has cooled.

the lessons i have learned

oven temperature

Most recipes recommend an oven temperature from 300 – 350 F. In my personal experience, anything over 300 F is way too hot; granola burns easily and is too crunchy/hard. I’ve found that for recipes sweetened with maple syrup and without coconut flakes, 300 F for ~40 minutes is safe. For recipes with honey (which seems to burn more easily than maple syrup) and coconut flakes (which also burn more easily than nuts, especially if they’re really thin), I prefer to go with 250 F for ~60 minutes, stirring every 20 minutes.

A huge factor in how fast your granola bakes is how thick your layer of granola ends up being on the sheet pan, and the volume of granola you are baking. The recipe amount stated above works well with a quarter sheet pan (9″ x 13″). Also, if the recipe does not contain enough liquid — say, if you decrease the sweetener or oil, or replace some with brown sugar — it will burn faster.

salty:sweet

I started out making this granola with 80g of maple syrup, and received a lot of feedback that it was too sweet. However, when I dialed back on the syrup, I failed to adjust the amount of salt accordingly, which messed up the salt:sugar ratio — the granola was way too salty. So if you do end up increasing/decreasing the amount of syrup, I would recommend adjusting the salt level accordingly.

The level of sweetness in this recipe is just about right for me — about 5g of sugar per serving — but sometimes I do want it even less sweet. It depends what you want to eat your granola with: I typically have mine with plain, unsweetened yogurt, which is pretty tangy, but if you’re having it with milk, you might be happy with a granola that is less sweet. If you’re going to cut back on the maple syrup, I would suggest replacing it volume-wise with applesauce (which is much less sugar-dense), so that there’s still enough liquid to keep the granola tender.

mix, mix, mix

In my haste, I sometimes didn’t mix enough — the dry ingredients, the wet ingredients (you want it to emulsify as much as possible), and the dry-wet together. The worst that can happen is unpleasant clumps of overly-salty granola.

kitchen tools

Don’t underestimate the importance of the kitchen implements that you use. I’ve found that the best tool for patting and stirring granola is a thin metal spatula (something like this). For scooping baked granola into containers, I like large metal scoops. For mixing, big rubber spatulas are great.

cooling and packing

It’s really important to cool the granola *fully* before attempting to add in heat-sensitive ingredients like chocolate chips or attempting to store the granola. Good test: feel the bottom of the sheet pan — it should be room temperature. It takes about 30 minutes for me with the pan on a cooling rack. If you’re in a pinch, you can stick the whole pan in the freezer. Store in an airtight container. My preference is to keep granola refrigerated in mason jars; it seems to keep well this way for at least a month.

future research

I want to experiment with infused olive oils, because I love the flavor from citrus zest but don’t love the effort it takes to zest oranges/lemons. I think zest/powdered spices also impart a slightly powdery texture to the granola. It would also be cool to try different types of salt.

Good luck with your granola-making!

book review: the bone people

51zmdryxehlI picked up this novel from the Oakland Temescal library. I’d never heard of Keri Hulme before, but the backcover said it was a work of “unfettered wordplay and mesmerizing emotional complexity”, which sounded promising, kinda. Also, I didn’t know much about Maori language or culture, so I was curious.

This was not an easy book to read. Hulme has a Joycean way of joining words together so that they hit you with fresh intensity. Much of the dialog is not in English. The fabric of the novel is uneven and unfamiliar—but somehow brilliant, and very beautiful. The book was also difficult to read because of its pathos. Hulme writes compellingly and honestly about family relationships that are dangerously dysfunctional but still show hopeful glimpses of love and loyalty. That’s all of us, no?

I learned a lot from this book. Many thumbs up and highly recommend!