March 31, 2010

An act of bravery…

Posted in Between Us column, Health, Spirituality at 11:10 pm by dinaheng

I am astonished by the angry demonstration of some people’s responses to the initial passage of health care reform.

Everyone seems to agree that our current health care system doesn’t work well, unless you’re an insurance company that continually raises rates on individual policy holders and denies coverage to anyone with a pre-existing condition.

Yet the minute any move is made to improve on status quo, people howl, “Foul!” Sure, none of us like having to pay more for anything. But we either pay for improvements through increased taxes, or we suffer the consequences… consequences that range from continued premium increases to the tragedies that happen when those who can’t afford to pay rise up in anger and start killing others for not caring about them. Literally.

The reason no health care system is perfect is because we all tend to look out for our own interests above that of others. If we truly saw each other’s needs as being equally important to ours, we wouldn’t jockey to pay less than our fair share. We’d be happy to pay our fair share so that everyone would have access to health care.

Instead, we debate numbers and talk about “values” without acknowledging that what we’re really talking about is our fear… Fear that we will lose and that others will “unfairly” gain something at our expense.

There is no logical way to debate fear. You can say it’s terrible that people are throwing bricks through windows and making threatening phone calls. But you’ll never stop such behavior through reason because fear is not reasonable.

No health care reform bill will ever be as good, or as bad, as people imagine it to be.

“The same thing happened when Congress enacted Social Security,” a friend recently observed. “People protested that it would bankrupt the system, and that people should be able to take care of their own retirement without government intervention. And look at how we view Social Security today.”

Today, we see Social Security as a right for all who have paid into the system. We fear that there won’t be enough for everyone when they retire, and seniors fight like crazy to protect those monthly benefits, as they should.

The point is, we are better off because we established a safety net for people who didn’t save as much as they should have for retirement. In a democracy, it’s up to us to figure out how to maintain an acceptable quality of life for all, rather than leaving it to a dictator.

Throwing rocks and condemning others doesn’t do anything except reveal how afraid we are of taking responsibility for our own lives.

I may not like every provision in the reform bill, but I applaud those who voted to enact it. Now that was a real act of bravery.

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March 25, 2010

Census counts more than numbers

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity at 2:20 pm by dinaheng

The 2010 Census form arrived at my parents’ house, urging everyone living there to fill it out and be counted.

In a modern-day democracy, I rather like the image of paper documents still going out to every household. One day, I’m sure, the Census will be taken by computer chips embedded in our homes, if not in our bodies.

Each time we survey the nation’s residents, we come closer to understanding how different we are, and how much we have in common. Hopefully, that means a greater acceptance of who each of are, as well.

Last weekend, the family gathered for dim sum — a Chinese equivalent of weekend brunch — and the discussion turned to racial identity.

One brother-in-law joked about how people often ask Asians, “Where are you from?”

“I tell the ones who are just curious that I’m Chinese,” he said. “The ones who keep digging, thinking you’re just a recent immigrant, I have a little fun with. I tell them my dad served during the Korean War in the U.S. Army.”

“Yeah,” said another brother-in-law, who’s Korean American. “I tell them, I’m from Seattle. And when they ask where are your parents from, I say they’re from Seattle, too.”

It’s interesting how racial identity has changed over time. Years ago, anyone with an Asian heritage would have checked “Other” on government forms that recognized mainly Caucasians and African Americans. Moving forward, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander entered the lexicon. Now, Asian has broken out into different ethnicities — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.

Being American no longer means just being part of a melting pot of nationalities. Today, people of different nationalities and races are inter-marrying, and their multi-racial children may have numerous racial backgrounds in their ancestry.

What hasn’t yet changed enough, though, is the psychological angst of figuring out “who am I” among bi-racial individuals whose parents grew up identifying with different racial identities. Not long ago, I held a friend who is half Asian and half Caucasian as she cried, telling me that she’s never come to terms with who she really is.

“Outside, everyone thinks I’m white, but inside, I’m Chinese,” she said, relating to the cultural values that her mother embedded in her. “I never feel like I fit in anywhere.”

Knowing where we belong — that we belong — is at the core of defining who we are. Regardless of our race, whether we were adopted, or whether we know our biological heritage, we all seek a sense of family in life.

One day, if we’re lucky, we’ll no longer struggle with which box to check on a Census form. We’ll just accept that we all belong to one race — the human race.

March 17, 2010

Let us eat chocolate…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity at 6:14 pm by dinaheng

It all started with mini-chocolate chips.

I had breakfast with a friend one morning, and we split a chocolate chip cherry scone. The mini-chocolate chips tasted so good, I decided I’d put some in a loaf of banana bread that I was going to bake that evening for another friend.

I went to three grocery stores, looking for mini-chocolate chips, and couldn’t find any, so went online to look. There, I found Choclatique (www.choclatique.com), a high-end chocolate and confection maker in Los Angeles. When I called to ask where their store was located, I discovered that Choclatique was not a retail store, and that I had reached their corporate headquarters.

I told the man who answered the phone that I really wanted some mini-chocolate chips to bake with that evening. Taking pity on me, he offered to sell me a couple of bags from their inventory if I wanted to drive over.  So I did.

Walking into the Choclatique office, I was greeted by none other than the co-founder and president, Ed Engoron, who offered me a sample of their signature chocolate. Call me easy, but any man who gives me chocolate has got my attention.

Sitting down for a chat, I discovered that Engoron actually grew up in Asia as a child. His father, a businessman who imported consumer goods into Japan after World War II, moved the family to Japan in 1947 when Engoron was nearly one years old.

“There was no racism in my family,” Engoron says. “You react to the stimulus around you. I didn’t notice any differences. They were just the people where I was living.”

His family stayed in Japan until the 1950s, then moved to Hong Kong, which Engoron’s father felt would become a business gateway to China in the future, before relocating to Los Angeles.

“I really love and embrace Asian culture,” says Engoron, who later studied to become a Cordon Bleu chef in Paris, and now travels the world as a food consultant. “Traveling in Asia and speaking to people in their language has made it a second home for me. I think it’s made me more tolerant of differences than most Americans are. I saw the good and the bad of the different cultures.”

Engoron has been to 131 countries, and speaks several languages, a skill that he says has made him a better listener. Listening to different perspectives has encouraged him to step back and take a longer-term view of things. After owning restaurants and running a consulting company, he started Choclatique, a dream he’d long held to create his own chocolate enterprise.

In today’s economy, luxury chocolate has become a treat that many consumers are giving themselves, he says. For those who have lost jobs, indulging in a piece of chocolate is less expensive than a meal on the town. For those still employed, who have taken on additional responsibilities with fewer staff, a taste of chocolate is an affordable reward as well.

For Engoron, being able to create chocolate confections brings together his love of the culinary arts and design. He waxes eloquently about controlling the temperature of chocolate as it melts, painting designs on individual candy pieces with 24 karat gold, and the joy of smelling chocolate in the air.

His creations incorporate uniquely American flavors — Boston cream pie, chocolate chip cookies, Key West lime pie and the like — and have won 11 international awards.

Lucky for me, Choclatique also manufacturers mini-chocolate chips, so I was able to make the banana bread I had in mind.

Best of all, my treasure hunt for mini-chips led me to an even better find — a new friend with a chocolate lover’s soul.

March 11, 2010

Popping back into childhood’s joy…

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Relationships at 4:32 am by dinaheng

I’ve always loved Mary Poppins.

As a kid, I enjoyed reading some of the children series by P.L. Travers, which formed the basis for the movie that starred Julie Andrews as the magical nanny, blown by the wind, to 17 Cherry Tree Lane to take care of the Banks children.

Set in the Edwardian era, Mary Poppins was the wise and mysterious woman who brought order, peace and renewed love to a family whose middle name would have been supercalifragilisticexpi-dysfunctional.

So it was great fun to go to a matinee of the musical “Mary Poppins” on Broadway, and watch all the kids sharing the joy of the story with their parents and grandparents.

As it turned out, I ended up sitting next to a dad who was separated from the rest of his family at the show.

“There are seven of us, and we couldn’t get all the seats together, so Dad got to sit by himself,” he said, smiling.

Watching the show was a reminder of how hard traditional fatherhood values can be. George Banks (played by Karl Kenzler) saw his role as the breadwinner for the family, and nothing else. Everything pertaining to the children and household fell under his wife Winifred’s domain (played by Megan Osterhaus).

But when George is suspended from work for a potential costly mistake at the bank, he starts to examine his values.

In today’s economy, where many are suffering from unemployment or the fear of losing their jobs, a lot of us are probably examining our values. Are we happy with our jobs? Are we happy with our relationships? Are we happy with the direction of our lives?

While some of us have been impacted more than others, I don’t know of anyone who isn’t affected by the uncertainty of the times. And when uncertainty strikes, the first place we usually turn is to family.

As children, if we’re lucky, we spend our time at play, learning about the world around us, and discovering the passions that will define our lives. We usually don’t give much thought to the adults around us, assuming that they will always be there to take care of us.

In a poignant moment on stage, when the children start complaining about their father, Mary Poppins (played by Laura Michelle Kelly) asks them, who’s supposed to take care of the father when things go wrong?

As adults, we learn that there are times when we truly have no control over the problems that come our way, but we can control how we react to those problems. We don’t have to give up our dreams and hopes, but we can look at the blessings in our lives, and appreciate what we have — like childhood memories, the children around us, and the child still within us.

For as Mary Poppins would say, “Anything can happen… if you let it.”

And as the dad sitting next to me said, “Now if I can just get out of here without the kids wanting to buy every souvenir they see.”

Where is that nanny when you need her?

March 4, 2010

Love is the reason…

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships, Spirituality at 4:58 am by dinaheng

My friend sat at the bar, talking about reaching the next milestone year of his life.

“I’m going to be 60, and I don’t know why I’m still here,” he says. “I guess my spirit guides want me alive for a reason, but I don’t know what it is.”

It’s never easy figuring out what our purpose in life is, but as long as we’re alive, our soul clearly hasn’t fulfilled its mission in this realm. We’re each born for a reason, yet regardless of our individual talents, I believe we’re all here for one reason only… to experience love and to share love.

Loving someone sounds like such an easy skill to learn, but it isn’t. We put all kinds of price tags on our love, asking others to prove that their hearts really belong to us. The problem, of course, is that a heart can’t be owned. It can’t even be given away, for if we give the core of ourselves to someone else, who we are doesn’t really exist anymore.

So the heart can only be shared. And that’s the greatest fear we face. For if we truly share our emotions, our thoughts, and our fears, there’s nothing left to hide behind.

You can’t fool the people who have seen into your soul, and accept you for who you are.

“I give to people all the time,” says my friend, who is generous in sharing things with others. “But I’m not that good at receiving. Whenever someone gives me something, I feel obligated to give something in return.”

I know what he means. It’s important to maintain an equal sense of giving in relationships, but love is not a tit-for-tat kind of balance. If you get hung up on who gave last, or who gave more, all you’re really doing is keeping score, not sharing love.

It’s not easy to believe that love will always be there for us, especially if we’ve not found the love of our lives. Loneliness has a way of creeping into our hearts, whispering that maybe we’re not really meant to find love. Don’t believe it.

Every moment in life is an act of faith. Whether we fill that moment with longing and despair, boredom, or trust in the unseen side of life — the choice is always ours. We have the power to create magic, and as Paulo Coelho, one of my favorite authors, wrote, “I have to be my own Teacher, and that isn’t what I was expecting!”

No one can imbue our lives with meaning, except ourselves. Sure, it’s nice to have someone next to you, cheering you up when you’re depressed, and warming the bed on a cold winter’s night. But unless we know in the center of our being that we really are worth loving, all the outside comforts we can imagine will be just that — outside of ourselves.

Most people measure life’s milestones in years. I prefer to measure them by love. If we’re doing it right, each passing year brings more and more love into our lives. Our capacity for friendship grows. Our ability to love unconditionally grows. Our fear of losing love lessens.

Love is the gift that waits for us to give it life. Whether we’re six, 16 or 60, its presence is always around us. All we have to do is open our hearts, and let it be.