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Juan received a call from his father on his 30th birthday. He asked him whether he could come over with a DVD he was bringing from CVS. When he arrived, he handed Juan the disc and said, “Happy Birthday.” Juan figured it was a movie that was probably on sale at the pharmacy. He didn’t expect, when he pressed play, to see images of himself as a child flash across the screen. His dad began to narrate. Here was Juan and his mother walking through the Boston Commons when he was three. Here was Juan walking down Thornley Street in Savin Hill when he was seven. And here were pictures of Juan as an infant being held by his smiling father. For twenty minutes, Juan relived moments from his childhood captured by his dad’s old 8 mm film camera, moments that he never realized his dad had recorded and kept. And for the first time in more than twenty years–twenty very hard years marred by fear, brokenness, anger, resentment, chaos, violence, and poverty–he could finally feel the love of God through his father. And he wept.

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to meet God at the end of your life? I used to think that I would ask him to reveal the answers to all the scientific mysteries of the universe. Demand an account for all the horrible things that have happened in the history of humanity. Maybe even ask him to clarify all the contentious and confusing parts of the Bible. But I think, the question that matters the most to me, that I care most to hear the answer for, is simply, “Were you there?”

tiramisu cheesecake

tiramisu cheesecake

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

John 1: 47-49

tiramisu cheesecake

I always wanted to know, what happened under that fig tree? Why was it so important to Nathanael? I used to wish this story had more details, but now I realize that it wouldn’t make a difference. It doesn’t matter if Jesus had said, “I saw you under the fig tree when you were at the lowest point in your life and couldn’t find another reason to live.” Or whether he had said, “I saw you under the fig tree as you rejoiced the birth of your first child.” It doesn’t matter whether we know the details and circumstances, because we could never understand the significance of any moment in somebody else’s life unless you were walking in their shoes.

What if, when you meet God, instead of a series of questions and answers, you were shown a movie of your life? And in this movie, you saw every instance that you’ve experienced sadness, fear, despair, anger, and embarrassment. What if you relived your life through the eyes of God and realized that he was there to see everything, including the moments that you hoped nobody would see or prayed that somebody would? And what if you knew, that even if nobody else could ever understand what you’ve seen and how you’ve felt, God does, because he had been walking beside you from the beginning?

I can see myself that night, standing under a light drizzle, gazing across the deserted field in front of Doe Memorial library, and felt sadness. I can see myself, braving the wintry streets of Cambridge, gingerly picking my way over the icy brick sidewalks, and felt loneliness. I can see myself, standing behind the bedroom door, listening to the uneasy stillness of the household, and felt helplessness. I can see myself, huddled up in my chair in the solitude of my room, and felt despair.

These are my fig trees.

Tiramisu Cheesecake

Lady Fingers from The Cilantropist and Tiramisu No-Bake Cheesecake from Guilty Kitchen

I baked this cake because I finally passed my qualifying exam. Now that I’m officially a candidate for the PhD (my mom was surprised to find out that I wasn’t a “real” graduate student before the test), I can finally do things for fun again. This called for something really indulgent, like a cheesecake or tiramisu.

Instead of the cookie crust in the cheesecake recipe, I made a lady finger base from The Cilantropist. I also halved the recipe to fit my six inch pan (mostly because I forgot to buy enough mascarpone for a full sized cake). I also used Philz Coffee instead of espresso, since it was pouring rain outside and didn’t feel like leaving the house to get espresso. I’d get the espresso if I wanted a stronger kick.


This week, I moved into my new apartment in Inner Sunset.  So far, I’ve already tried soul food at Farmerbrown, which boasts live music and bottomless mimosas for Sunday brunch.  I’ve enjoyed Ike’s incredibly delectable sandwiches while chilling in Mission Dolores park. And I’ve tasted the Peach Ginger ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery.  Not to mention the many times I’ve dropped in at La Boulange in Cole Valley which is right next to my best friend’s apartment.  This is going to be a good year, I can tell.

The only misfortune has been my Ikea delivery, which was supposed to come on Monday, but somehow became a weeklong delay as I waited for them to deliver the last item — my mattress.  So for the past three nights, I have been sleeping on the floor with a sleeping bag.

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Last night, my friend, Vicky, goaded me into trying a free lesson at Quantum Martial Arts.  It’s a small dojo nestled in the Mission district.  Normally, karate is not my thing, but in the spirit of “new home, new experiences,” I decided to take a chance.  Besides, I asked her, it’s not going to be too hard, right?

Oh no, it’s a yoga/martial arts thing, she says.  Throwing the “yoga” in there to entice me.  She adds, and maybe some calisthenics.

What???  You mean push-ups?  I haven’t worked out for half a year.  And even then, the last time I did push-ups was in high school.  I maxed out at 7.

Don’t worry.  You’ll be fine.  Be sure to drink a lot of water.

It better not be like a boot camp.  It’s not, right?


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We arrive at Quantum at 7:30, greeted by a friendly rottweiler and Master Rachel Evans who owns and teaches at the dojo.  She looks like–and I am not joking here–Sarah Connor from Terminator 2.  If she busted out in leather pants and a tank top, with a rifle strapped to her back, and proceeded to do upside down pull-ups, I would not even be surprised.  Because, holy crap, this woman’s got muscles.  I have no doubt that she can — if she fancied to do so–knock both of us out in ten seconds flat.

But despite appearances, Master Evans is incredibly friendly and enthusiastic about what she loves and does best.  She begins to explain the structure of the class; the first hour is “warm-up” which would be a mixture of yoga and heavy push-ups and crunches.  It’s not only important to practice martial arts techniques, but to really strengthen your core strength and engage your spirit.  This might be one of the hardest things that you will have to do, she warns.  I will yell at you, she says, looking straight into my face.  “It will be like boot camp.”

At this point, I could not wait for Master Evans to turn around so that I could shoot glares at Vicky.

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We are led to our mats where she hands us some plastic blocks.  You may need to use them as support when we stretch, quickly demonstrating some sort of wide leg split.  I turn to Vicky with a look of alarm that said, “I’m supposed to do what?!”  Master Evans notices my terror, because she laughs and reassures me that our bodies are designed to do this.  I am somewhat comforted.

But that comfort didn’t last long.  After the initial yoga portion, which Vicky and I were semi-able to do, we completely lost our cool.  First, we did crunches in sets of 30 with our legs held up in the air.  Master Evans kept count with piercing yells that would have scared me more if I weren’t too distracted by the burning pain in my abdomen.  After the third set, I thought with relief that we must’ve been done, but I was wrong.  We went straight into another set, and to my dismay, she goes right past count 30.  40.  50.  Omg, this woman’s really going for a hundred.  60.  70.  I really want to fry that sausage sitting in my fridge right now.   80.  90.  100.

I don’t even have time to breathe before we turn to the push-ups.  Which were not only impossible, for me, but super embarrassing.  Why make push-ups even more painful than they already are?  I think I completed five normal ones, before I tried one where I start with both my elbows sitting on the ground and try to push up with my clasped hands.  I push as hard as I can, I make straining sounds, my body shakes with exertion; it was not happening.  And it did not happen.

Thankfully, the rest of the lesson was much more enjoyable.  When I was younger, I used to watch my brother take his Tae Kwon Do lessons and think to myself that I could do that, easy.  But actually learning the moves, adjusting the angles of my stance, and balancing myself after a kick, were much more difficult than I had anticipated.  Overall, the experience, though physically painful, was awesome.  I really appreciated Master Evan’s energy and obvious love for the art.  I left with a newfound respect for karate, and a really sore body the next morning.

Quantum may not be for me, but I would recommend it to anyone who have thought about martial arts and wanted to test the waters out before committing.  Or, if you want a really good work out.  The first month is free.

Japanese Cotton Soft Cheesecake from Diana’s Recipes.

This weekend marks my first round of graduate school interviews.  As excited as I am about these campus visits, I’m already exhausted by the withering pressure to socialize, mingle, and “schmooze.”  I can’t imagine how much more draining the next few are going to be.

Surprisingly, what I found most difficult weren’t the one-on-one interviews with professors, but the receptions and dinners that required a level of social interaction and networking skills that I, frankly, just plain suck at.  Perhaps it’s the introversion or the Asian upbringing that teaches you to not speak unless spoken to—maybe the two are related, I don’t know.  But too often I find myself the only person on the side, blending into the background and outshone by others more charming and adept at navigating group dynamics.

Ok, I’m not saying that I’m a complete loser.  I’ve got humor, and a pleasant smile.  And I can hold myself in a private conversation most of the time.  But throw me into a group of more than four people I’m unfamiliar with, and I’ll feel less inclined to put myself out there; my attention wanders and I let myself retreat.  I figure, I’ll let the extroverts do their jobs.  Once I get into that quiet mode, it’s harder to break out.  And a whole dinner will go by before I realized that I was the only person who spoke fewer than two sentences through the whole affair.  It’s awful.

(Who else thinks this picture looks like pac-man on the left?)

My only hope is that age will bring self-assurance.  If not that, then at least better conversation starters than “Awful weather today, huh?”  Maybe someday, I can speak with someone in a conversation devoid of awkward silences and filled more with comfortable pauses.

I know I made Pumpkin Cheesecake awhile back, but I found this recipe to be much more flavorful than the other one; even though the pumpkin flavor is still quite subtle.  And personally, I prefer the spongey-ness here than the creamy/silky texture of the previous cake.  Sure, there’s a huge gaping crack in the middle, but I think it makes it more rustic, no?  Personally, I don’t really think a water bath is all that necessary to bake a cheesecake, unless you mind the cracks.  And most people don’t.

I think I’m cheesecaked out for awhile.

Pumpkin Mascarpone Cheesecake from Slice of Feist

This morning I stumbled on a cache of old “love” letters, if you will, from high school.  Reading them wasn’t so much nostalgic as it was amusing (and somewhat cringe-worthy).  They are filled with corny endearments, from “honey bunny” to “smoochie wookums,” with a healthy smattering of “darlings” thrown in.  This is only made funnier by the fact that my “ex” and I are currently great friends, and I can no longer imagine him uttering the phrase “dearest Joanne” unless it was dripping with sarcasm and followed by some cheeky insult.  Yet I have, in my possession, a reminder of his “whipped-ness,” once upon a time.

But on a sentimental note, the letters chronicle our adolescent angst and fears during a transformative period where both of us were navigating our transition into college while trying to cling onto each other.  So eager to leave our suburban childhood and yet wholly unprepared to give up on this relationship.  Funny how life seemed so much more simple and dramatic, at the same time, when you’re only 17.  By golly, that was six years ago!  To think that I was a nerdy, naive college freshman, walking around campus with my dorm key hanging on a lanyard around my neck (oh God, how did I ever think that was COOL?)  Religiously attending every 8 AM lecture and fantasizing about marrying my high school sweetheart.  Can you imagine?

There is not a drop of regret or wistfulness when I read those letters from the “yonder days of youth” (oh gawd, I crack myself up).  I still remember the sense of freedom and peace when I realized that we had come to the end of our story, but not of our friendship.  A revelation that was tinged with satisfaction and not resignation; gratitude, not bitterness.  I could not have asked for a better person to share in the excitement of adolescent romance.  And it was with excitement that I greeted our new friendship, which I can say with the utmost certainty, would last for a lifetime.

These days I make a point to catch up with him every few weeks.  Occasionally he picks up the phone to my mournful wailing.  You know, the usual “My life is in shambles!” call.  But I think we have been truly blessed to watch each other over the years, as we find our callings, pursue our passions, and slowly grow into the kind of person we always wanted to be.  And D—, if you’re reading this, you can be sure that “honey bunny” is forever eliminated from my vocabulary.  I doubt it would ever make its appearance again in my future relationships.  Because seriously, wtf were we smoking?

Yours truly,

“Honey bunny”

Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust from Cook & Be Merry

Two weeks ago I presented a Nature paper in my lab’s journal club that relates to butterfly research.  It was incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring work in a discipline that is small and often overshadowed by the glitziness of immunology, cancer, and other biomedical research.  And even though this type of “fringe” science doesn’t directly benefit medicine, the coolest research—in my opinion—is the type that delves into nature’s biggest curiosities.  In this case, this paper is about magentoreception (or the ability to sense magnetism) in butterflies, and its possible role in directing the migration of this insect and other animals that exhibit migratory behavior.

Every year during the fall, thousands of butterflies fly from US and Canada down to Mexico to spend winter at the exact same fir grove.  How spectacular would it be to actually witness this sight in person?  Thousands of orange, fluttering leaves that litter the sky, cover the ground, and land on trunks of trees.  The mysterious thing is that this behavior isn’t taught; it is innate.  Some wiring in their brains allows them to pinpoint the correct direction, through disparate weather and rough terrains, to find their way to safe haven.

About two years ago, the same guy who published the paper I presented, also discovered that the butterfly “compass” is time and sun sensitive.  Say, for example, at 10 AM, the butterflies know to steer to the right of the sun in order to fly southwest.  But at 4 PM, they fly straight toward the sun so that they can maintain the same trajectory.  This means that the butterflies have linked the ability to sense the position of the sun in the sky to their circadian rhythm.  If you take butterflies with a skewed day cycle (ie. wake up at 1 PM instead of 7 AM), they would fly to the right of the sun at 4 PM as if they thought it were 10 AM.  And here’s the kicker: the butterflies require their antennae in order to do this.  This led to the discovery of a separate circadian center in the antennae that is also similar to the circadian clock found in their brains.

Besides from the “time compensated sun compass,” the butterflies also possess two Cryptochrome proteins that are known to be magnetosensitive in other animals; however, to my knowledge, it has not been shown whether butterflies use the earth’s magnetic poles in migration.  In the paper that I presented, the scientists use fruit flies, which also possess their own Cry proteins and exhibits avoidance of magnetic fields, to study butterfly Cry proteins.  First, they expressed butterfly Cry in mutant fruit flies that are unable to generate normal Cry proteins on their own.  Amazingly, they proved that butterfly Cry was enough to rescue the magnetic sensitive behavior in these mutant flies even though they are completely different species!  Second, they show that this effect of the Cry proteins is dependent on UV light.  Finally, they also show that the Cry proteins work through a mechanisms different from the one that has been the convention of thought for a long time.

I can’t wait until they finally find how magnetoreception factors in butterfly behavior and how the Cry proteins are involved at a molecular level.  But even as we are closer to revealing the mechanism of magnetoreception, we are still far from understanding all the factors that combine to initiate the butterflies’ southward journey.  What I love about natural phenomenons like this—which seems so astoundingly complex and beyond understanding—is that they may actually have a strong genetic component that is in itself simple yet sophisticated.  This simple yet intricate nature of such natural mysteries is what drives scientists to come up with unique and creative experiments to explore these questions.  Even if you aren’t a scientist, I hope you share my enthusiasm for such outstanding science as this.

Cheesecake Brownies from Smitten Kitchen

This Saturday I stayed home to recover from a cold.  To satiate my chocolate craving, I made cheesecake brownies.  When they’re fresh out of the oven, the brownie part has a more cake-like texture, which I generally prefer.  If you like your brownies chewy, then just cool them in the fridge for a few hours.  But overall, these were yummy.  Especially since it has cheesecake in it, and cream cheese makes everything taste better.  I wanted there to be a clear separation of cheesecake topping and brownie so I tried not to mix the two layers too much while I was marbling them.  I’d eat it warm with a cup of milk. By the way, I love how Smitten Kitchen always has easy-to-make recipes that usually require no more than two bowls to make!