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Archive for November, 2009

Thanksgiving Day

November has been extremely wet, with sudden showers and even heavy rains.  In the beginning of the month I thought that maybe Charleston even had a monsoon.  After bringing it up at work, a coworker reminded me I’m in a sub-tropical climate and that this is the rain season.  Besides the rain and grey skies though, the leaves are starting to change color and fall to the ground, and the air is comfortably cool at night.  Yes, autumn is *finally* upon us.

So I woke up around 10 AM on Thursday, feeling somewhat rested after a short yet busy week at work.  I knew I had to be back in the office on Friday, so I wanted to make the best of the day and enjoy it however possible.  The skies were blue and the morning air was pleasantly brisk and it felt like grand autumn day.  What a beautiful day for Thanksgiving!  By noon, however, it was up to 20 degrees while I was on the balcony staining my desk and I caught myself stumbling into a fowl mood.  I decided that I really just needed to take a walk and get a break from all of chores and what not.  So the three of us headed out for a walk around the area.  I brought my camera this time!

Presenting…the bog!

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Now that the weather is cool in the mornings, we get a lot of fog.  I must make a real effort to get out and walk around the trails in the fog.  How eerily beautiful it must be!

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Trees, tropical flora, Spanish moss, and the marsh grass–I really love the Spanish moss on the trees, it adds so much to the environment.

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Out of the forest now and the sun light is now visible, though rapidly fading to the west

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The marsh grasses, saltgrass or sweetgrass, I have no idea which, probably the former.  Wouldn’t want to venture out into it though.  Not only would you sink waist-deep and perhaps get stuck, you might also come across the fiendish cottonmouth or the nearly identical but non-venomous brown water snake.

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Towards the end of the trail is the tennis club.  Lessons start at $60 and hour, and the optional membership is $700 for the individual. There are a few tournaments here during the year, and the pros even come through from time to time on the circuit.  I can dream about a membership and private lessons, right?

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Nobody plays on Thanksgiving.  I guess they’re glued to the football games on TV or busy preparing for the big feast…so tempting to just climb the fence!

Speaking of the big feast, due to having to work the next day we stayed in town and I tried to cook a small Thanksgiving dinner.  A traditional dinner would consist of turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes or yams, green beans, and of course pumpkin pie.  With just two of us though, I wasn’t going to bother with something like that.  I picked up a Long Island-style duckling at the super market, and I also found a nicely-sized butternut squash.  It’s close enough to a pumpkin, eh?

So our menu was roast duck with an orange-peach glaze, butternut squash bisque, sweet potato wedges, and a plain ol’ salad.  Not very traditional, but still very “autumn.”  If you’ve never tried butternut squash bisque, I highly recommend it.  It takes about two hours to prep but its well worth it.

    Ingredients (for 5~6):

  • 2 lb. butternut squash
  • a pint or more of soup stock (I used chicken stock)
  • a cup of heavy cream
  • a small onion
  • olive oil
  • peppercorns, salt, and any other spices you like

The first step is to separate the butternut squash “meat” from the skin.  To do this, split the squash in two, clean out the insides, and place the halves face up in an oven pan with about a centimeter of water in the bottom at 175 degrees C for an hour.  Add more water if the level starts to get low as the water evaporates.

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After about an hour, take the squash out of the oven and let it cool for a few minutes.  The skin should peel easily from the flesh of the squash with the help of a decent knife.  After you got the flesh out, cut it into small pieces so that when we boil them down it doesn’t take too long.  While you’re at it, dice the small onion finely and set it aside.

In a deep enough pot (4 qt.), add some olive oil and the diced onions and let the water seep out of the onions in the pot.  Add your chopped up butternut squash, and add enough soup stock to cover the butternut squash completely.  Cover, and let it come to a boil on medium-high.  Stir occasionally, smashing up big chunks of the squash if you have the opportunity.  As time goes buy the squash will break down and the any lumps will be small enough to become “character” in the soup.  You may need to add more stock depending on how thin you like your soup and how well broken down the squash is.  Don’t add too much though as we still need to add the cream near the end.  When you’ve gotten the soup to a texture that you like, turn the heat to a very low setting and continue stirring.  Add any spices, salt, peppercorns or what not now so that it can be absorbed by the soup.  I like to leave it at this stage for about an hour, stirring occasionally.

When you’re ready to serve, add the cream and stir it into the soup.  Stir occasionally for a few minutes, and then serve.  A 2 lb. butternut squash should produce enough bisque to feed at least six, and you can always save it and heat it up later.

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The final product–a taste of autumn with a sprinkle of crushed rainbow peppercorns on top

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The duck came out well too, though the appearance was not as nice as I’d hoped for.  I followed The Hungry Mouse’s recipe, but I made my own glaze with Shoyu, Mirin, and peach jam rather than honey and molasses.

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Not too shabby for our first Thanksgiving in the USA.

The sweet potato wedges were great too.  I first tried them back in September on a job interview in Connecticut.  The sweetness of the sweet potato combined with a bit of salt and pepper is a great combination.

To all of those celebrating Thanksgiving, hope you had a good one!

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Pretzels!

Over the summer my brother showed me how to make soft pretzels, and I finally gave it a go myself.  I love working with dough, kneading and working it.  Pretzels are just as fun as a loaf of bread, and a lot less work too.  It took about 15 minutes of prep time, followed by about thirty minutes for the rise time, and finally about ten minutes per try to cook in the oven.  The result:

Preztels!

The one on the right is for Liam, without salt of course.  The little man surprised me by taking to croissants a little while back, so I thought I’d make him a small pretzel and see if he’d like it.  Life father like son!  He ate about three-quarters of it, believe it or not, and he might have had at the whole thing except that pretzels being pretzels, they get harder once they cool down.

I am really enjoying having an oven.  I’ve cooked up pizzas just like I did in Hachioji, but I think due to the size of the oven and the amount of heat , the crust comes out so much better than what I could do with the small range oven in Hachioji.  I need to start working on a few bread loaves sooner or later.

Professional Sleeping

After warm pretzels, some play time, and a warm bath, any one would sleep like this.

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The Fall of the Wall and Zeiss

This week the world is remembering and once again celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. The BBC World Service has been broadcasting various reports over the week, and last night there was a wonderful piece about Carl Zeiss AG.  The BBC has made the podcast available so download and give it a listen!

Carl Zeiss is one of the premier lens makers in the world.  One can find Carl Zeiss lenses almost anywhere, even in modern Nokia mobile phones.  The audio report covers the history of the company, how it became a global name in optics, and how the company was split into two because of the iron curtain.  It was interesting to learn that the American and Russians, in their push to capture Germany, were strategically planning which towns they wanted to take based on the companies located there and their technologies.

The most interesting part, in my opinion, is the interview with a former Zeiss president who was in change when the wall came down.  While he was happy that Germany would be reunited, he realized the challenges of trying to unify the company once again.  After meetings with the Jena Zeiss, the company in Eastern Germany, he realized that Jena Zeiss had the following problems:

  • low productivity
  • 60,0000 vs. 18,000 workers, yet with the same turnover
  • no knowledge of balance sheets or PNL (profit and loss)
  • no knowledge of marketing and selling products
  • no business strategies

While it must have been hard to reunite the company, can you imagine how the leaders of Jena Zeiss and its workers must have felt?  They were from a world where the government gave them orders on what and how much to produce.  They were then thrown into a world that they had no clue about, and their skills were not needed by a capitalist organization trying to compete in the beginning of the global economy.

It is hard to believe just twenty years ago Germany was still split in two.  The challenge of reuniting not only the country at the governmental level, but also in the marketplace, must have been extremely challenging and trying.  Someday the challenge may surface again in Korea, and hopefully the Germans will be able to share what they learned in the reunification process.

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Dimensional analysis

I decided to start using the mini-gym in the company building.  I ran on the treadmill for thirty minutes today, and I had planned to take it easy and set the speed to 5.0.  After warming up and breaking into a run, after just ninety-second my legs were tightening and I was started to feel a little beat.  “I’m incredibly out of shape,” I thought to myself.  I did not realize until later that I had set the speed to 5.0 without thinking of the units.  5.0 km/h is a brisk walk or comfortable jogging pace.  5 mph, or 8.0 km/h, while a good workout rate for jogging, is not the best idea to start off with when you haven’t run in almost a year.

I can just hear my my electromagnetics professor spouting off on units and dimensional analysis in his thick Nairobi accent.  I foresee sore legs tomorrow…

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The Best Pho in Southeast Virginia

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The works: beef pho with tripe, brisket and flank

Though chicken pho, Pho Ga, is very tasty and delicious, my favorite is beef pho.  I’ve tried pho in various parts of the mid-Atlantic, but my favorite shop is Pho 79 in Virginia Beach.  For around $7.00 you get a regular-sized bowl of pho, as pictured above, and for a dollar or two more you can get the larger size, which seems to be quite popular with growing teenage boys.  There are other Vietnamese foods on menu, such as spring rolls, rice vermicelli dishes, and seafood dishes.  They have a fabulous peanut brown sauce for dipping spring rolls.  I wish I knew the Vietnamese name of the sauce!

The atmosphere is very simple–tables and chairs in a large open area, TV in the corner with a news station, and the owners sitting towards the back trimming vegetables and preparing springs rolls and what not.  The walls have some simple art with Chinese floating-world paintings of the bucolic Vietnamese countryside, as well as maps of Vietnam.  All in all it is a nice relaxing atmosphere to enjoy a simple meal like a bowl of pho.

Pho 79
4816 Virginia Beach Blvd.
Virginia Beach, VA 23462

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We’ve been in Charleston about seven weeks now and I’ve been working for six weeks.  I suppose one might say we have settled in now.  It has been five months since we left Japan, yet it feels like it was another lifetime.  I have my pictures of the daily scenes from that life, but it all seems so distant and removed.  I’ve read in the blogs of other expatriates that returning to one’s home country is a difficult experience.  I agree.  The expatriate has a life-changing experience, but it is one that he cannot share.  As cliché as it sounds, it is largely an internal experience. But life moves along.

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Yes, we do get alligators up this way, thought not in the numbers that one might find in Florida.

I have noticed a very interesting cultural trait of the people of North and South Carolina, and even perhaps Georgia…or maybe the entire Southeast.  Everywhere you go people are wearing bright-orange shirts with a tiger footprint on the shirt, the logo for Clemson University, or something similar for their favorite institution of higher learning.  On the rear window of cars there are various stickers, ranging from the animal footprint in orange, to bold text spanning the length of the window stating “UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA” or “FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY”.  Automobile license plates are available at extra cost from the state governments with a university’s logo beside the license number.  There are vehicles with small flags attached to the side of the cars with a university’s colors and logo.   It would seem that this need to promote one’s institution of higher learning is the ultimate form of pride.  Were those four years in college so good?  It is fascinating to me.  For a region that has a strong individualist culture, the desire to be recognized as part of an in-group is still very strong.

So the weather here in coastal South Carolina is…schizophrenic.  One day it will be sixteen degrees and you’ll be fooled into believing that autumn has arrived.  Yesterday it was twenty-eight degrees and feeling like late summer, minus the humidity though.  Having spent all of my life in regions with very distinct seasons, I find myself missing the yellow leaves lying on the sidewalks of Hachioji or Nerima, the dried-up and post-harvest rice paddies in Sakado, the yards blanketed in fallen leaves and the crisp aroma of the autumn air in coastal Virginia…these are the images that spring to my memory when I think of Autumn.  I sometimes find myself looking at pictures of Montréal and rural Massachusetts and I’m struck by the beauty of the season.  I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have grown up in Singapore or Port au Prince, or Chennai, where there is no season like Autumn.  The only way I can tell it is autumn here in Charleston is that the tips of the palm trees are fading from green to yellow.

I do miss public transportation in some ways.  Oh how I despised riding Tokyo metro from Nerima ward to Kasumigaseki!  With the trains packed to the door, the heaters blasting hot air, and the stench of one hundred men in their winter coats and dark suits sweating all at the same time with that dead tired look in their eyes…I don’t know how they tolerate it for 40+ years.  Yet I loved the Tobu Tojo line ride from Kawagoe to Sakado, watching the small urban area slowly transform to a rural setting with a clear view of Mt. Fuji during autumn and winter.  I did not mind the bus journey from Keio Hachioji station to my former company’s location in the middle of the Hachioji suburbs, watching the seasons from the window of the bus and enjoying the feel of a part of Tokyo still left in the 1960s.  And I read so much on my commutes here and there!

Moving to the automobile lifestyle is quite an adjustment.  My commute is a short, sweet twenty minutes, so I mostly listen to the radio.  Since I’m not so into music, I try to catch the world news. Charleston is so removed from the global world, and has a completely different feeling from Washington DC or Tokyo.  If you don’t follow the news or read foreign papers, you might even forget there is a world outside of South Carolina. I currently have a 90-day trial for XM satellite radio which I am enjoying, but I don’t think I’ll go with the service for the $10 monthly charge.  I enjoy the BBC World News Service, but I can listen to the BBC world report or NPR on the Internet when I get home, or I can try to catch public radio news when the local channel isn’t broadcasting audio books or classical music.

Speaking of automobiles, we had to purchase one after moving out of my parent’s place.  We shopped around looking at Kia, Hyundai, Toyota, Honda and even some American makes on the Internet only.  Though I wanted something like a sporty-looking sedan, we realized that with Liam we needed something bigger so we can haul around his stroller and still have room for luggage and what not.  In the end we went with Toyota’s entry-level sport utility vehicle, the RAV4.  It is simple, like with most Japanese vehicles, but we particularly liked how user-friendly the vehicle is.  The height of the vehicle is just right for loading a baby in the car; it is not on a truck axle like most SUVs.  It also has a smaller gasoline tank and is more fuel efficient than many other makes we looked at.  That was a big factor for me because after taking into account the monthly payment and auto insurance, I didn’t want a a huge monthly gasoline bill.

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Our dear investment and my first major “life” purchase

We just have one car right now so Chie has to drive me to work and pick me up in the evenings.  I’ve looked up the bus routes and there is no bus servicing the area I live in unfortunately.  Next year I hope we can add a second vehicle, hopefully a used vehicle that I can use for mostly commuting.  I never really thought about it, but immigrating to the USA is really a challenging task for those not financially well off with a lot of money in the bank already.  *Most* middle-class people in the USA often get assistance from their parents in arranging their first vehicle, or while they’re young they work and save their money and purchase a car while living with their parents (i.e. no rent).  My point is that by the time two people decide to move in together and start a family, they both have two vehicles already and are usually in a stable position.  Imagine being an fresh-off-the-boat emigrant from India or Brazil, and having to start from scratch with a family to support yet having nothing but a rental contract for an apartment.  It is easy to see why big cities with public transport are attractive, even if the taxes and cost of living are higher.  I have a new found respect for immigrants who move to a new place and try to start over.

Well, I hope that autumn arrives with the brisk air soon…

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